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date: 09 July 2020

The African Presence in Central American History

Summary and Keywords

Far from monolithic, the seven Central American countries—Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama—each have unique cultural traditions and historical trajectories. Their different geographies, while not deterministic in any facile manner, influenced their development in ways that continue to shape their national characteristics. The cataclysmic 16th-century Spanish Conquest introduced new peoples and cultural traditions to the region. African slaves, primarily from the sub-Saharan region, accompanied the first Spanish ventures, and, later, as the colonies consolidated and grew, peoples of African descent, both enslaved and free, became a part of the area’s economic and cultural landscape. Starting in the late 18th century, African peoples from the Caribbean—whether forcefully exiled or as a result of searching for economic opportunities—traveled to Central America. Despite a contemporary collective historical amnesia that imagines Africans isolated in specific regions, namely the Caribbean coast, peoples of African descent can be found throughout the Central American nations.

Rather than addressing each country, a thematic approach that focuses on the Spanish Conquest, slavery, emancipation, the ethnogenesis of African connected cultures, the historical erasure of Africans, and the contributions of peoples of African descent helps to understand the complex ways that peoples of African descent have impacted the history of modern Central America. For far from isolated to small populations along the Caribbean, the African presence can be discerned throughout the region, even in places often perceived as entirely devoid of its influence.

Keywords: Africans, African slavery, Blacks, blackness, Black Carib, Central America, emancipation, Garifuna, West Indian, race

First Arrivals

The popularity of shows such as “Ancient Aliens” has exacerbated the belief in theories that argue for an ancient contact between indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica and West Africa.1 Pointing to the colossal Olmec carved stone heads, and fixating on stereotyped “African” features of lips and noses of a particular shape, as well as an alleged similarity between so-called “Central American” glyphs and West African written representations, in the 1970s and 1990s writers such as Ivan Van Sertima and Paul Alfred Barton popularized the notion of an African–Mesoamerican connection that predates the arrival of Europeans by centuries.2 The historical evidence, however, contradicts these claims, and instead demonstrates that the first Africans arrived in the company of Spaniards roughly around 1523 in the case of Guatemala, and likely El Salvador as well, but in some areas Africans arrived even earlier. A cabin boy known as Diego el Negro arrived in Puerto Limón, Costa Rica in 1502 aboard the Capitana, one of four ships in Christopher Columbus’s final voyage to the Americas.3

In the case of Central America, the first Africans were male slaves who fit into an Iberian pattern where slaves served as trusted auxiliaries, on occasion fighting alongside Spaniards during the Conquest. Spanish chroniclers such as Bernal Díaz del Castillo either consciously remained silent or deemed the participation of Africans as ineffectual in the Conquest. Díaz del Castillo mocks an African trained as an artillery aide as being so fearful during combat that he trembled and lit the cannon fuse at the wrong time, and in so doing caused the injury of three Spaniards.4 The cruel derision notwithstanding, Africans such as Juan Bardales fought alongside Spaniards and proved so indispensable that, in the case of Bardales, he was awarded his freedom and a pension for his service during the conquest of Honduras and Panama.

Unlike the Spanish chroniclers, indigenous peoples viewed the participation of Africans in a very different light. Early native sources that depict the Spanish Conquest such as the Codex Azcatitlán portray Africans in ways that equate their importance with that of Spaniards.5 The Codex Quauhquechollan, as Florine Asselbergs’s work demonstrates, perhaps the single most detailed indigenous account of the Spanish Conquest of Central America found to date, depicts an African male dressed in a red tunic, and armed with a short and a long spear and shield, in the manner of West African warriors.6 While his name remains lost to history, if he survived the Conquest the African warrior depicted in the Codex Quauhquechollan would have likely solicited a reward for his service, much like Juan Bardales. Africans, then, in the company of Spaniards, either as servants or in some cases as armed combatants, arrived in Central America in the early 16th century, at first in small numbers, but later, if profitable enterprises existed, in larger numbers.

African Slavery

Until its general abolition in 1824 by the United Provinces of Central America, the political entity that declared independence from Spain, African slavery arguably defined the possibilities and limitations under which Africans and their descendants lived.7 It remains unknown precisely when large numbers of Africans first arrived in Central America. Throughout the early years of the Spanish colony transactions such as sales involving enslaved African tended to include one or two slaves. The high cost of African slaves, the lack of a profitable commodity to exploit, and the ready availability of exploited indigenous laborers through mechanisms such as encomienda (royal patent to collect tribute from indigenous communities in kind and in labor) made large-scale importation of Africans unfeasible. By 1570, however, sales involving several African slaves begin to appear in the archival documentation. For reasons that remain vague, during the 17th century Central America saw an expansion of the transatlantic African slave trade. Paul Lokken has identified at least eighteen merchants who imported Africans identified as coming from the Kingdom of Angola active in Santiago de Guatemala, then Central America’s political and economic hub.8 Entering through the Honduran port of Trujillo, African slaves worked in Guatemala and El Salvador, in the profitable indigo haciendas (akin to a plantation but much smaller in size and scope than the industrial plantations that came to characterize African slavery in places such as the United States and Brazil). Africans also worked on sugar haciendas and in sugar mills, sometimes owned by ecclesiastical orders, namely the Dominicans who operated two sugar mills in 17th-century Guatemala. Where present, African labor played a critical role in all manner of economic activities.

Africans who were brought to Central America originated primarily from West Africa, although in the early years they weren’t imported directly; rather, they were brought from other colonial areas such as the Caribbean, and, in some instances, from Spain. Thus, the enslaved Africans brought to Central America in the very early years had a familiarity with Spanish customs and with the brutality and coercive service expected of them as slaves. As elsewhere, in Central America slavers used hispanized pronunciations of what they envisioned as the particular ethnic group, and thus place of origin, of African slaves. The phrase “tierra de” (land of) served to identify places such as “Biafara” (the Biafada ethnic group from Guinea-Bissau, Senegal, and Gambia) and “Mandinga” (the Mandinka ethnic group that presently covers a vast geographic area that encompasses Sierra Leone, the Ivory Coast, and other countries). Unless given by enslaved peoples themselves, these labels are notoriously unreliable as they could refer to the place of capture, the port of embarkation, or the place where Africans were collected before embarkation.9 The concept of broad ethnic categories didn’t exist at the time; instead, Africans saw themselves as members of families, lineages, religious affiliations, or homelands.10

To assess their value, slavers categorized Africans by their familiarity with Spanish and/or Portuguese cultural norms as bozal (recently captured), ladino (fluent in Spanish or Portuguese), and criollo (born outside of Africa, and therefore acculturation into Iberian norms was taken as given). Additionally, sex (men were considered more valuable than women), level of training, age, health, and even alleged vices all impacted the prices determined by slavers. Over time a large population of peoples of mixed African descent that included miscegenation of Spanish and African and indigenous and African, collectively known as mulatos, grew throughout Central America. In some regions mulato slaves outnumbered other African slaves. Slave owners preferred mulato slaves for reasons deeply intertwined with questions of race, and because in some cases they perceived a closer affinity between themselves and mulatos than they did with Africans of unmixed descent. Regardless of their lineage, African slaves in Central America could be found on haciendas, as well as laboring in cities as skilled artisans such as barber-surgeons and bakers, domestic workers, nannies, and wet-nurses, to name but a few of the different types of work they undertook.

No restrictions against training African slaves existed during this time. Indeed, some African slaves had a tremendous amount of freedom of movement. African slaves who worked as muleteers supervising mule trains traveled vast distances from port cities such as Trujillo to Santiago, and sometimes even further, from Santiago to Mexico City. The slave muleteer Pedro Jolofe, active in the late 16th century, was empowered by his owner to operate mule trains without supervision. Such was his level of autonomy that Jolofe even collected large freight payments from merchants who contracted his services. Jolofe, as his name suggests, was likely a descendant of the West African Wolof peoples. Other African slaves supervised agricultural enterprises where they occupied a middling position between native laborers and Spanish owners. In these cases, as with slave muleteers, Africans operated with relative independence from the prying eyes of Spaniards.11

Resistance to African Slavery

The relative independence with which some African slaves operated immediately raises the question of why Africans didn’t simply runaway if they had the opportunity to do so, and, in some cases, abscond with large sums of money. Resistance was endemic to slavery, to be sure, but flight carried with it great risk, and in the early colonial period Africans in Central America had few options of where they could flee. This, of course, doesn’t mean that all African slaves decided to stay, but it does imply a complex cost–benefit analysis undertaken by African slaves, an analysis that sometimes resulted in fleeing to join palenques (communities of runaway African slaves). As early as 1531 the municipal council of Nombre de Dios, Panama, authorized the creation of a militia to track down Africans labeled as cimarrones (maroons, runaways in resistance).12 Originally used to describe feral animals, the term cimmarón clearly demonstrates the close connection that existed in the minds of slave owners between domesticated animals and human beings held in bondage. The ladino slave Felipillo of Panama led a group of maroons defeated by a militia such as that authorized by the municipal council of Gracias a Dios. Felipillo successfully led a group of runaways for two years until his capture in 1551.

Panama experienced some of the largest and most active maroon communities in Central America. Due to its economic importance as a point of transshipment for valuable commodities such as pearls and silver, Spaniards feared an alliance of maroons and pirates that would successfully undermine Spanish colonial authority. Such fears weren’t entirely groundless: Francis Drake worked closely with a group of maroons who provided indispensable knowledge of the geography and the presence of Spanish military forces. In 1575 a band of fifty pirates and ten maroons attacked the Pearl Islands, located in the Gulf of Panama; the pirates took a treasure of pearls and jewels, and the maroons freed seventy Africans, among them women, men, and youths.13 The freeing of enslaved Africans, whether to strengthen their numbers or out of a genuine commitment to liberate those in bondage, was a common tactic used by maroons. This, then, represented the more profound fear among Spaniards: it was one thing for maroons to economically attack Spanish settlements, but another entirely for them to strike against the institution of slavery itself.

In addition to establishing maroon communities, Africans resisted slavery in other, at times more subtle, ways that nonetheless reveal a consciousness of resistance. In 17th-century Guatemala enslaved African men consciously sought unions with indigenous women to ensure that their children would be born free. Since Spanish law dictated that children born of a slave mother were themselves slaves, this particular strategy of ensuring that their children were born free was unavailable to enslaved African women.14 This doesn’t mean that African slave women passively accepted the enslavement of their children. In some cases, enslaved women negotiated for manumission of their children by paying slave owners for their freedom. The strategy of marrying free women and purchasing the freedom of children demonstrates that Africans quickly became familiar with Spanish law. Indeed, Africans used access to the Spanish legal system to assert their rights and demand better treatment from owners and overseers. In early 19th-century Guatemala a group of roughly twenty African slaves traveled from the San Jerónimo hacienda to the capital, Guatemala City, to request that the courts redress their grievances, which included poor diet, overwork, and abuse by a group of free Africans who worked as overseers on the hacienda.15 The manager of San Jerónimo, a hacienda located in Guatemala and owned by the Dominican Order, denied the allegations, but the African slaves succeeded and the courts ordered the Dominicans to provide better treatment that included a lessened workload and, importantly, a promise that punishment would only be administrated by the hacienda’s manager, a Dominican friar. Likely emboldened by their success, slaves from San Jerónimo later sued for an injunction against their sale, a radical attempt at limiting the power of slave owners over enslaved Africans.16

Over time, African slavery helped fuel the process of racialization that began with Spanish notions of limpieza de sangre (typically translated as purity of blood, but more akin to a notion of cleanliness of blood). Spaniards came to fear Africans not only because of their physical potential for rebellion, among them maroons and the use of the courts, but more profoundly, they came to fear what they perceived as the very essence of Africans, their blood. African blood was imbued with all manner of imagined dangers, not least of which was a hypersexualized vision that perceived African men as threats to Spanish colonial domination. Occasionally, these fears manifested in violence and brutality against Africans, such as the 1612 hanging of thirty-five Africans and mulatos in Mexico City.17 In a related process, Africans came to be associated with demonic rituals, sorcery, and all manner of other types of activities that fell into a vast realm of frightening possibilities. Black women, especially, were seen as masters of witchcraft that included knowledge of dangerous poisons.18 This connects to broader trends that sought to use accusations of sorcery as a means to control women’s labor, but the specific racialized element links to Spanish notions of cleanliness of blood, as Spanish women didn’t face the automatic connection between their bodies and evildoing.19 Positioning Africans as inherently malevolent, and envisioning blackness as something profoundly grotesque and inferior, would have profound consequences for the status of Africans and peoples of mixed African descent not only during the period of African slavery but, worse yet, well into the contemporary era.


For the majority of Central American nations, independence from Spain brought about important political and economic changes within a framework of continued dominance by the traditional elites. While the question of slavery within the broader discussions of reasons to seek independence from Spain has received relatively little scholarly analysis, the creoles (individuals of primarily Spanish descent who wielded economic and political power in the region) predominantly argued for freedom from Spain’s controlling economic policies. The creoles wanted independence without revolution, that is to say, change within a structure that would allow them to hold onto their power, and not a revolution that would bring about a complete change of structure.20 How that manner of thinking influenced the decision to abolish slavery remains unclear, and yet decisions related to abolition were connected to the growing unsustainability of slavery in Central America. The smaller number of African slaves in Central America, largely living on the sugar haciendas owned by the Dominicans in Guatemala, and on haciendas in areas such as Omoa, Honduras, and Cartago, Costa Rica, with smaller numbers concentrated in urban areas such as Guatemala City, made abolition far less contentious in the majority of Central American countries than in areas of massive slaveholdings such as Cuba and Brazil. The fact that slaves, as demonstrated by the case of San Jerónimo, had learned how to skillfully navigate and use the Spanish legal system also made the sustainability of the institution difficult. And while the total number of slaves in Central America was comparatively small, the influence of broader revolutionary trends, especially the Haitian Revolution, which caused immense consternation and fear throughout the slaveholding colonies and nations, cannot be ignored.21 Perhaps fears of slave insurrections, a not unheard-of concern given the prevalence of maroons, and commitment to Enlightenment ideologies contributed to a growing sense that the time had come for slavery to be abolished.

Panama, as part of Gran Colombia at the time, experienced abolition in a very different way than the other Central American countries. For Simón Bolívar, famously known as The Liberator, the abolition of slavery was key to transforming the colony of Gran Colombia into a new nation. Such was Bolívar’s understanding of the importance of “racial harmony” for the new nations, that he argued that miscegenation of the different “races” was essential to Colombia, for without such harmony, inevitably a race war would take place. At the 1821 Constitutional Congress in Cúcuta, Colombia, the issue of abolition became central to the understanding of what a modern Colombia, which also included Panama, would look like; modern nations simply didn’t include slavery. Yet, as Marixa Lasso argues, the question wasn’t whether abolition would take place, but rather how the process would unfold. Delegates at the congress agreed that henceforth children of slave mothers would be freed at the age of eighteen, and manumission boards would be established to review cases and accelerate the process of abolition.22 Manumission would include recognition of former slaves as citizens and inclusion in the to-be-established education system.23 Panama, as a result of forming part of Colombia, underwent a process of abolition far different than the other Central American nations, where abolition seems to have been much less discussed and planned. At the 1823 National Assembly for the United Provinces of Central America, the delegates argued along similar lines as they did in Colombia: slavery wasn’t concomitant with a modern nation. Yet whereas slave owners in Colombia demanded reparations for the loss of “their property,” slave owners at the Central American National Assembly didn’t pursue the issue. Questions of citizenship and integration into national life for former slaves seem to have been largely ignored, however.

Abolition brought with it changes in the status of individuals, regardless of the actual number of those who took advantage of the process of registering as freed, which at least in Guatemala was rather small. Catherine Komisaruk has found that in the aftermath of the 1824 abolition, fifty adults and eighteen children registered as free in Guatemala City.24 The rather small number may have resulted from several factors, including the difficulty and expense of traveling to the capital city and/or the realization that such legal formalities were unnecessary in a society where the freed could mix into a larger population of peoples of African descent. This contrasts sharply with areas such as French colonies and the United States where freed slaves did their utmost to immediately safeguard their freedom through legal mechanisms.25 For the most part, precisely how the lives of manumitted Africans in Central America developed in the years after abolition remains unknown, however.

Garinagu and West Indians

Over the centuries, Central America received a substantial number of African peoples from the Caribbean. Among the earliest group from the Caribbean were the Black Caribs of St. Vincent, an island located in the Lesser Antilles. As a result of their fierce resistance to British colonial rule, the Black Caribs of St. Vincent, descendants of the indigenous inhabitants and Africans who fled to the island, endured brutal treatment. The British starved the Black Caribs until only some 2000 men, women, and children survived.26 In an attempt to erase all traces of Black Caribs from St. Vincent, the survivors were exiled to British-controlled Roatán, Honduras, in 1797.27 British influence extended throughout the Caribbean Coast to areas such as Bluefields, Nicaragua, where they brought Africans to work in sugarcane and indigo haciendas. Within a few years of their arrival, perhaps due to their navigational skills and the necessity of survival, and in other cases as a result of being forced out of areas where they had established themselves, the Black Caribs migrated along the Caribbean coast of Central America to the areas now encompassed by the nations of Belize, Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. While the majority of the population of Black Caribs was concentrated in coastal areas, some moved inland and integrated with other communities of African descent.28 Over time the term Black Carib fell into disuse and was replaced with Garifuna (plural, Garinagu).29 Starting in the mid-19th and extending into the early 20th century, workers of African descent from Jamaica and other English-speaking Caribbean islands, typically known as West Indians, migrated to the Central American Caribbean coast. Many West Indians worked in the construction of railroads and the Panama Canal, but others migrated to Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Honduras. Migrants of African descent also came from the US South, primarily Louisiana, where recruiters made promises of ready jobs and rich land where they could cultivate profitable commodities such as bananas.30 In some cases the newer arrivals blended with the existing Garifuna population, while in other regions, namely Panama, West Indian immigrants have held fast to their particular national identity.31 In areas where a greater mixing occurred, contemporary Garinagu result from two waves of Caribbean migration that took place over three centuries: exiled Black Caribs from St. Vincent in the late 18th century, and later migrants of African descent. The Garinagu navigate a complex identity that oscillates between indigeneity and proclaiming an African-based identity. In so doing, Garinagu demonstrate the ways that blackness can be both denied and reaffirmed, depending on the political necessities of a given time period.32

The racist structures that place Africa and blackness in subjugated positions results in the language of the Garinagu being classified as a dialect and not an actual language. In Central America the term dialecto implies a devalued status for indigenous languages and Garifuna. Seen as incapable of standing alone, a dialecto allegedly lacks proper grammar and supposedly suffers from an inability to be properly written. Thus, the label of dialecto serves to diminish the linguistic and cultural importance of Garifuna. In countries such as Guatemala, some members of the Garifuna community replicate this notion, and thus consider Garifuna as a language for quotidian life, but not for any sort of more formalized interaction.33 This doesn’t mean that Garinagu aren’t proud of their blackness, but it does imply that systemic discrimination has had a corrosive effect on self-perceptions of language. Remarkably, especially given the discriminatory structures in which they live, and despite the passage of over two centuries since their exile from St. Vincent, Garinagu have successfully held onto their language and culture. This is due in no small to a spirit of resistance that serves to create a sense of community and belonging not just to the nation but to the larger diasporic Garifuna group.

Like the Garinagu, West Indian migrants traveled throughout Central America, even to countries that operate under national myths that exclude an African presence. In Costa Rica, a country that has long operated under the myth of successful mestizaje (racial mixing of the type that Simón Bolívar envisioned), such was the number of West Indians who migrated that in the 1930s and 1940s, the country supported the establishment of schools intended to provide an English-language education to the migrants. As with all state-sponsored schools, an added benefit would have been the integration of West Indians into the Costa Rican nation. Starting in 1872, West Indians, primarily from Jamaica, began arriving to work on the railroad from Puerto Limón to Costa Rica’s interior. Initially the West Indian laborers intended to return to their home countries, but once that idea no longer seemed tenable, the Costa Rican government saw the schools as a way to inculcate patriotic notions and a sense of belonging. Whether the schools succeeded remains a matter of debate, but the second generation of West Indians identified as fully Costa Rican.34

During the early 20th century, perhaps as a result of a sense of belonging to a wider community of African peoples combined with the necessity to engage politically, especially in areas of exclusionary policies, West Indians and Garinagu became active in the Pan-Africanist movement led by Marcus Garvey. Participation in the movement spread rapidly, and within a few years of its introduction, chapters of the Garvey-founded Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) had branches throughout Central America. In Costa Rica, the UNIA had twenty-three branches in the Province of Limón alone, and they operated a newspaper, the Limón Searchlight. The UNIA was the focal point for West Indian organization. Critically, the UNIA provided West Indians in Costa Rica, as it did elsewhere, an intense sense of pride and redemption, and was instrumental in forging an Afro-Costa Rican identity.35 The UNIA was less successful in Honduras, however. The reasons for the lack of West Indian participation included pride in possessing British citizenship, as well as class differences, as West Indians tended to be middle class and thus saw themselves as very different from the Garinagu, who tended to be of lower classes. Additionally, concerns about a potential backlash from white employers, and an apparent disinterest in, if not outright animosity toward, the UNIA’s stated goals of creating solidarity among Africans against the power and authority of whites, all led to the lack of West Indian participation.36 Thus, while the UNIA succeeded in recruiting large numbers of West Indians, and consequently becoming the focus of community interaction in areas such as Costa Rica, it met with significant impediments in Honduras.

The UNIA also met with limited success among Central America’s Garifuna communities. In Honduras, participation seems to have been especially minimal. For those who did participate, the memory of having been a part of the UNIA was shared from one generation to the next. A Garifuna whose mother had worked in the UNIA office in La Ceiba, Honduras, told of how as a young man he had followed the news of Haile Selassie’s struggle against the Italian invasion in the 1930s.37 Ethiopia played an important role in the UNIA’s philosophy; indeed, the organization’s highest honor was known as the Distinguished Service Order of Ethiopia, and the UNIA’s anthem was entitled “Ethiopia, Thou Land of Our Fathers.”38 It may well have been this sense of Pan-Africanism and activism that led the social activist Thomas Vincent Ramos, a participant in the Belize UNIA, to found Carib Settlement Day in 1941. Just a year later observance of the occasion spread to five towns, and from there it grew into one of the most important commemorative holidays celebrated by Garinagu in Belize.39 Thus, while the actual numbers of UNIA participants may have been small among Garinagu, its influence on wider community trends seems to have been profound.

Assessing the Legacy

Throughout Central America, willful national forgetting and misidentification, much of it born from the racist ideologies and worldview created by the violent process of colonization, dominates how non-Afro Central Americans view those of African descent. A non-Afro Honduran quoted by Jose Isaac Lara captures this sentiment: “Here in Olancho there are no Blacks. We are part Indian and there are no Blacks in Honduras. Well, the Blacks are located on the Coast. They are the Garífuna who have strange customs.”40 I encountered the same sentiments in Guatemala, where non-Afro people questioned would respond that in Guatemala there were no Blacks, except in Livingston and Belize, both places of Garifuna population.41 The sentiment reveals two things: the conscious erasure of the role played by Africans throughout the history of the Central American nations, and a systemic marginalization of peoples of African descent to Caribbean regions. This occurs even in places where Caribbean regions have a relatively small number of African peoples. In Nicaragua, the Caribbean coast is regarded as a place of blackness despite Africans making up a minority of the population.42

In the modern era, despite the collective forgetting and the constant diminishing of the important contributions of Africans, Central America evidences profound connections with Africa. Peoples of African descent have made indelible marks on music, sports, food, and religion, to name but a handful of areas that Africans have influenced. The marimba, a xylophone made of wood and natural rubber, exemplifies the contentious nature of African contributions. The evidence strongly argues for West African origins for the marimba, yet despite lacking any evidence, many Central Americans claim that the ancient Maya invented the instrument.43 African infused and inspired rhythms have long been popular throughout Central America. Grupo Rana, a band formed in Tecpán, Guatemala, had a major hit with their song “Socarengue,” a mixture of the Caribbean Soca and Merengue, while Panama’s Edgardo Armando Franco, better known as El General, has established himself as ever popular for his unique Dancehall Reggae songs. Initially made popular by bands consisting mostly of musicians of non-African descent such as the Gatos Bravos and Banda Blanca, with hits including “El Sambunango” and “Sopa de Caracol,” respectively, Punta, a genre that originated among the Garinagu, has been transformed into a vehicle for Black pride. “Negro naci” by Kazzabe boasts of the beauty of blackness and the richness of Garifuna culture. The Belizean musician Andy Palacios and his band, the Garifuna Collective, played a pivotal role in making Punta Rock, a popular derivation of Punta with a stronger R&B element, an internationally recognized genre.44 Like Kazzabe, Palacios, a musician unapologetically proud of his Garifuna roots, forcefully confronts the racist ideologies that cast Garifuna culture as inferior to Western norms.

In the realm of athletics, the Honduran soccer player turned coach David Suazo stands among the most successful Central American athletes of international recognition. Recognized Garifuna foods such as tapado (seafood stew), rice and beans, and pan de coco (coconut bread) are popular throughout Central America, with different regions claiming to make the best version of each dish.

Africans have also had a profound impact on Central American religious beliefs. The shrine of the Black Christ of Esquipulas, located in Guatemala, represents perhaps the best known Central American religious icon connected with Africans. The roots of the Black Christ lie in an amalgamation of indigenous and Spanish religious practices, yet the image’s hue connects to contesting perceptions of blackness that can, in isolated circumstances, come to acquire a powerful positive religious connotation. The Black Christ counters the dominant narratives of whiteness as representative of beauty, and it provides peoples of African descent a direct connection to an otherwise nearly entirely white pantheon of saints and icons.45 In Costa Rica, a country typically conceptualized as white and devoid of an African presence, La Negrita is considered by many as the nation’s patron saint. Initially the patron of free people of color, over time devotion to the saint spread throughout Costa Rica.46 Similar to the Black Christ of Esquipulas, La Negrita contests dominant interpretations of a white Christian pantheon and interjects blackness, invariably connected to Africans and their descendants, into sacred spaces from which they are typically excluded.

The African roots of Central America run deep, and peoples of African descent, despite any claims to the contrary, have made tremendous contributions to the region’s historical development. Far from passive, Africans have resisted enslavement, marginalization, and attempts to erase their important contributions from historical memory.

Discussion of the Literature

Mostly ignored by the Spanish chroniclers, the formal writing of Central American history largely excluded Africans until the 1970s. Two works from that era, one based on a massive primary source base and the other with a smaller base of archival sources, but nonetheless still of critical importance, reoriented the field: Murdo J. MacLeod’s Spanish Central America (1973) and Severo Martínez Peláez’s La Patria del criollo (1970).47 In the vein of the sort of longue durée narratives pioneered by Fernand Braudel, MacLeod and Martínez Peláez provide overarching yet detailed discussion of the cataclysmic changes brought on by European colonization and colonial rule.48 While MacLeod integrates discussions of Africans into his work, and Martínez Peláez allocates a brief section to African slavery, neither primarily focuses on the topic. Santiago Valencia Chala’s El negro en Centroamérica, published in 1986, while mostly synthetic, represents one of the first works to integrate the history of Africans in the different Central American countries.49 Taking a country by country approach that begins in the colonial period and extends to the contemporary era, Valencia Chala explicitly connects the experiences of Africans in the region with West African traditions.

The systematic research and writing of Africans in Central America has grown phenomenally since the 1990s. O. Nigel Bolland’s 1994 article “Colonization and Slavery in Central America” was among the first works to investigate the importation of Africans to Belize by the British.50 Christopher H. Lutz’s Santiago de Guatemala, published that same year, took a demographic approach to analyzing not only the presence of Africans in the Central American colonial capital, but also how Africans mixed with other groups and thus helped fuel the rise of what eventually formed the majority mixed-descent population.51 Published a few years later, Rina Cáceres’s Negros, mulatos, esclavos y libertos provides an in-depth analysis of Africans in colonial Costa Rica; her work was among the first to conclusively challenge the notion that Africans played a negligible role in the country’s history.52

The 2010s saw a large number of significant works that present both the possibilities and limitations of writing the history of Africans. Lowell Gudmunson and Justin Wolfe’s 2010 anthology Black & Blackness brings together leading scholars who cover such diverse topics as interactions between Natives, peoples of mixed descent, and Africans in colonial Guatemala, African slaves in Honduras, and peoples of African descent in Costa Rica and Honduras.53 Focusing on colonial Guatemala, namely Guatemala City and its environs, and looking at mechanisms of resistance to slavery and other forms of coerced labor, Catherine Komisaruk’s Labor and Love, published in 2013, stands as a model of exhaustive archival research and documentary analysis.54 Published a year later, Russell Lohse’s Africans into Creoles presents a theoretically sophisticated and deeply researched study of West African cultural continuities in 17th- and 18th-century Costa Rica.55 While scholars have long known that Africans have been purposely excluded from historical narratives, how that process developed and functioned remained poorly understood until Marixa Laso’s formidable Erased, published in 2019.56 Laso meticulously narrates the ways in which the Panama Canal Zone came to be seen as a wilderness awaiting civilization, when in fact thousands of people of African descent lived in towns that were systematically and purposefully destroyed, not out of technical necessity as has been argued, but rather as a result of a deliberate plan to whiten the area.

While a longue durée work focused on Africans and peoples of African descent that ties together the different Central American regions has yet to be written, the current research demonstrates that Africans were neither an insignificant nor an unimportant population; rather, they have been obliterated from the historical narrative for reasons tied to the deeply racist social, economic, and political structures brought on by colonization.

Primary Sources

The writings of early chroniclers such as Christopher Columbus (extracts from his journal), Bernal Díaz del Castillo (Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España), and Bartolomé de las Casas (Brevísima relación de la destruición de las Indias), while often problematic in that they replicate existing stereotypes, even in the case of Las Casas who argued against the brutality of colonization, nonetheless shed light on the roles and positions of Africans in the earliest years of Spanish colonization of Central America.

Finding evidence of Africans in the colonial period requires painstaking work with different genres of documents such as testaments, civil suits, criminal trials, bills of sales, and marriage and work contracts. Work with archival documents requires meticulous care as even seemingly unrelated documents such as land sales may mention an African landowner or an African tasked with supervising an agricultural enterprise. The archives also hold documents that extend from the 19th century to the contemporary era. Important archives for the history of Africans in Central America include the National Archives of Belize (NAB) and the National Archives (NAE), England; the Archivo Nacional de Costa Rica (ANCR) and the Archivo de la Curia Metropolitana de San José, Costa Rica; the Archivo General de la Nación (AGN) and the Archivo Histórico-Arzobispado, El Salvador; the Archivo General de Centro América (AGCA) and the Archivo Histórico Arquidiocesano “Francisco de Paula García Peláez” (AHA), Guatemala; the Archivo Nacional de Honduras (ANH), Honduras; the Archivo General De La Nación, Nicaragua; the Archivo General de Panamá, Panama; and the Archivo General de Nación, Colombia.

International archives also hold critical documents, as during the colonial period documents from Central America were forwarded to administrative centers in places such as Mexico and Spain. Furthermore, travelers to the colonies often left a documentary trail that began in Spain. Thus, the Archivo General de la Nación, Mexico, and the Archivo General de Indias, Spain, hold collections important for the history of Africans and peoples of African descent. The forced exile of the Garifuna and the migration of West Indians adds another rich layer of archival possibilities. The British Library and archives in the different Caribbean countries such as the Barbados National Archives can prove essential.

National and regional newspapers and organizational newspapers can also prove a rich source of information on governmental perceptions of Africans, cultural events such as celebrations and sports competitions, and, in the case of organizational newspapers, they can reveal the growth and spread of ideologies. In some countries newspapers and ephemera are housed in specialized collections such as the Hemeroteca Nacional de Guatemala, while in other cases these types of sources form part of larger libraries such as the Biblioteca Nacional de El Salvador. Organizational newspapers such as the Limón Searchlight can be found in places such as the Biblioteca Nacional de Costa Rica. International collections are also essential; the main UNIA newspaper, Negro World, is housed at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York.

Fiction often captures sentiments, memories, and ways of being that elude codified document formats such as those typically found in archives. Melva Lowe de Goodin’s play “De Barbados a Panamá” narrates the discrimination and hardships faced by West Indians and Chinese laborers during the construction of the Panama Canal. The Costa Rican author Quince Duncan revolutionized Central American literature with his short stories and novels that feature Afro-characters. Los cuatro espejos (1973) boldly criticizes Costa Rica’s national narrative of a white nation, and confronts how myths of whiteness have effectively erased West Indians from the country’s official history. Contesting the notion of Garifuna as a lesser language, the poet Xiomara Mercedes Cacho Caballero’s anthology Tumálali Nanígi/La voz del Corazón/The voice of the heart (1998) consists of twenty-four poems, eight in each of the languages she navigates, Garifuna, Spanish, and English.57 Her work captures Garifuna quotidian life in Honduras, and she addresses the importance of maintaining Garifuna ways and cultural practices.

Further Reading

Cáceres, Rina. “Indígenas y africanos en las redes de la esclavitud en Centroamérica.” In Rutas de la esclavitud en Africa y América Latina, edited by Rina Cáceres, 83–100. San José, Costa Rica: Editorial de la Universidad de Costa Rica, 2001.Find this resource:

Chambers, Glenn. Race, Nation, and West Indian immigration to Honduras, 1890–1940. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Goett, Jennifer. Black Autonomy: Race, Gender, and Afro-Nicaraguan Activism. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2016.Find this resource:

Gonzalez, Nancie L.Sojourners of the Caribbean: Ethnogenesis and Ethnohistory of the Garifuna. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.Find this resource:

Gordon, Edmund T.Disparate Diasporas: Identity Politics in an Afro-Nicaraguan Community. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998.Find this resource:

Gudmunson, Lowell. “Africanos y afrodescendientes en Centroamérica: fuentes y estrategias recientes para su estudio.” Débats 18 (December 2009).Find this resource:

Harpelle, Ronald N.The West Indians of Costa Rica: Race, Class, and the Integration of an Ethnic Minority. Quebec and Kingston, Canada: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Lobo, Tatiana, and Mauricio Meléndez Obando. Negros y blancos: Todos mezclados. San José, Costa Rica: Editorial de la Universidad de Costa Rica, 1997.Find this resource:

Watson, Sonja Stephenson. The Politics of Race in Panama: Afro-Hispanic and West Indian Literary Discourses of Contention. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2014.Find this resource:

Wolfe, Justin. The Everyday Nation-State: Community and Ethnicity in Nineteenth-Century Nicaragua. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007.Find this resource:


(1.) “Ancient Aliens” premiered on The History Channel in 2009, and continued to air new episodes into 2019.

(2.) Ivan Van Sertima, They Came Before Columbus: The African Presence in Ancient America (New York: Random House, 1976), 83–85. See also Paul Alfred Barton, A History of the African-Olmecs: Black Civilizations of America from Prehistoric Times to the Present Era (Bloomington, IN: First Books Library, 1998).

(3.) Russell Lohse, Africans into Creoles: Slavery, Ethnicity, and Identity in Colonial Costa Rica (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2014).

(4.) Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España, edición, estudio y notas de Guillermo Serés (Madrid: Real Academia Española and Barcelona: Galaxia Gutenberg-Círculo de Lectores, 2011), 707.

(5.) Elena FitzPatrick Sifford, “Mexican Manuscripts and the First Images of Africans in the Americas,” Ethnohistory 66, no. 2 (April 2019): 223–248, 236.

(6.) Florine Asselbergs, Conquered Conquistadors: The Lienzo de Quauhquechollan, A Nahua Vision of the Conquest of Guatemala (Boulder: University of Colorado Press, 2008), 95–98.

(7.) For comparison see Greg Grandin, The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004); and Rebecca J. Scott and Jean M. Hébrard, Freedom Papers: An Atlantic Odyssey in the Age of Emancipation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012).

(8.) Paul Lokken, “From the ‘Kingdoms of Angola’ to Santiago de Guatemala,” Hispanic American Historical Review 93, no. 2 (January 2013): 171–203, 174.

(9.) David Wheat, Atlantic Africa and the Spanish Caribbean, 1570–1640 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 21.

(10.) Lohse, Africans into Creoles.

(11.) For a discussion of African–Native relations, see Juan Pablo Peña Vicenteño, “Relaciones entre africanos e indígenas en Chiapas y Guatemala,” Estudios de Cultura Maya 34, no. 180 (2009): 167–180.

(12.) Jean-Pierre Tardieu, Cimarrones de Panamá, La Forja de Una Identidad En El Siglo XVI (Madrid: Iberoamericana and Franfurt am Main: Vervuert, 2009), 55.

(13.) Tardieu, Cimarrones de Panamá, 141.

(14.) Paul Lokken, “Marriage as Slave Emancipation in Seventeenth-Century Rural Guatemala,” The Americas 58, no. 2 (October 2001): 175–200, 179.

(15.) Catherine Komisaruk, Labor and Love in Guatemala: The Eve of Independence (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013), 73–74.

(16.) Komisaruk, Labor and Love in Guatemala, 75–78.

(17.) See María Elena Martínez, “The Black Blood of New Spain: Limpieza de Sangre, Racial Violence, and Gendered Power in Early Colonial Mexico,” William and Mary Quarterly 61, no. 3 (July 2004): 479–520.

(18.) Martha Few, Women Who Live Evil Lives: Gender, Religion, and the Politics of Power in Colonial Guatemala (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002), 75.

(19.) Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation (New York: Autonomedia, 2004), 200.

(20.) Severo Martínez Peláez, La patria del criollo: Ensayo de interpretación de la realidad colonial guatemalteca, 11th edition (Guatemala City: Editorial Universitaria, 1990), 321. I am well aware of the criticisms made of Martínez Peláez’s work, but as an overview of the changes undergone by Guatemala from colony to nation, it remains unparalleled.

(21.) David Geggus, “The Sounds and Echoes of Freedom: The Impact of the Haitian Revolution on Latin America,” in Beyond Slavery: The Multilayered Legacy of Africans in Latin America and the Caribbean, ed. Darién J. Davis (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, Jaguar Books on Latin America, 2007), 19–36.

(22.) Marixa Lasso, “Race War and Nation in Caribbean Gran Colombia, Cartagena, 1810–1832,” American Historical Review 111, no. 2 (2006): 336–361, 347–348.

(23.) Lasso, “Race War,” 352.

(24.) Catherine Komisaruk, “Slave Emancipation and Mestizaje in Colonial Guatemala,” in Blacks and Blackness in Central America: Between Race and Place, eds. Lowell Gudmunson and Justin Wolfe (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 50–174, 170.

(25.) Sue Peabody, “Freedom Papers Hidden in His Shoe: Navigating Emancipation across Imperial Boundaries,” French Politics, Culture & Society 33, no. 1, Special Issue, The Politics of Empire in Post-Revolutionary France (Spring 2015): 11–32, 14 and 20. For primary source examples from the United States, see “Free at Last? Slavery in Pittsburgh in the 18th and 19th Centuries,” University of Pittsburgh.

(26.) Michael Craton, “From Caribs to Black Caribs: The Amerindian Roots of Servile Resistance in the Caribbean,” in In Resistance: Studies in African, Caribbean, and Afro-American History, ed. Gary Y. Okihiro (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1986), 96–116.

(27.) Brooke N. Newman, “Identity Articulated: British Settlers, Black Caribs, and the Politics of Indigeneity on St. Vincent, 1763–1797,” in Native Diasporas: Indigenous Identities and Settler Colonialism in the Americas, eds. Gregory D. Smithers and Brooke N. Newman (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014), 109–149, 141; and Christopher Taylor, The Black Carib Wars: Freedom, Survival, and the Making of the Garifuna (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2012), 13.

(28.) Komisaruk, Labor and Love in Guatemala, 73–74.

(29.) There are at least two possible etymological explanations for the term Garifuna: the first places its roots within the Island Carib word Karina, while the second argues for a genesis resulting from an Africanized pronunciation of the Carib words kariguna and kalinago. See Oliver N. Greene, “Ethnicity, Modernity, and Retention in the Garifuna Punta,” Black Music Research Journal 22, no. 2 (Autumn 2002): 189–216, 189 n. 1.

(30.) Frederick Douglass Opie, Black Labor Migration in Caribbean Guatemala, 1882–1923 (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2009), 18–21.

(31.) Kofi Boukman Barima, “Caribbean Migrants in Panama and Cuba, 1851–1927: The Struggles, Opposition and Resistance of Jamaicans of African Ancestry,” Journal of Pan African Studies 5, no. 9 (March 2013): 43–62, 45.

(32.) Mark Anderson, “The Significance of Blackness: Representations of Garifuna in St. Vincent and Central America, 1700–1900,” Transforming Anthropology 6, nos. 1–2 (1997): 22–35.

(33.) Michelle Ann Forbes, “Garífuna: The Birth and Rise of an Identity through Contact Language and Contact Culture” (PhD diss., University of Missouri, 2011), 178 and 184.

(34.) Deyanira Castillo-Serrano, “Afro-Caribbean Schools in Costa Rica, 1934–1948” (PhD diss., University of Texas at Austin, 1998), 1–2.

(35.) Asia Leeds, “Representations of Race, Entanglements of Power: Whiteness, Garveyism, and Redemptive Geographies in Costa Rica, 1921–1950” (PhD diss., University of California, Berkeley, 2010), VII and X.

(36.) Glenn Anthony Chambers Jr., “Foreign Labor and the Struggle for a Honduran Identity: West Indian Workers and Community Formation in the Republic of Honduras, 1876–1954” (PhD diss., Howard University, 2011), 160–167.

(37.) Mark Anderson, Black and Indigenous: Garifuna Activism and Consumer Culture in Honduras (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), 77 n. 10.

(38.) Marcus Garvey, author, Robert Abraham Hill and Barbara Blair, eds, Black Moses: The Story of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 64 and 183–184.

(39.) Belize History Association, “T. V. Ramos Biography,” September 9, 2019.

(40.) Jose Isaac Lara, “In Search of Identity: The Place of Space, (Proto)Race and Ideology in Colonial and Post-Colonial Honduras” (PhD diss., Georgetown University, 2012), 2.

(41.) Author’s fieldnotes.

(42.) Juliet Hooker, “The Mosquito Coast and the Place of Blackness and Indigeneity in Nicaragua,” in Blacks and Blackness in Central America: Between Race and Place, eds. Lowell Gudmunson and Justin Wolfe (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 246–277, 267–270.

(43.) Lester Homero Godínez Orantes, La marimba: La marimba: Un estudio histórico, organológico y cultural (Ciudad de México: FCE—Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2002, 2015, Primera edición electrónica, 2018), 26.

(44.) Tom Pryor, “Andy Palacio and the Garifuna Collective: Reviving the Music of Central America’s West African Diaspora,” Sing Out! 51 (Autumn 2007): 43–49.

(45.) Douglass Sullivan-Gonzalez, The Black Christ of Esquipulas: Religion and Identity in Guatemala (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016), 13–14.

(46.) Russell Lohse, “‘La Negrita’ Queen of the Ticos: The Black Roots of Costa Rica’s Patron Saint,” The Americas 69, no. 3 (January 2013): 323–355, 325.

(47.) Murdo J. MacLeod, Spanish Central America: A Socioeconomic History, 1520–1720, 2nd edition (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007); and Martínez Peláez, La Patria del criollo.

(48.) Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Vols. 1 and 2 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996). See also Jo Guldi and David Armitage, The History Manifesto (Cambridge, UK: University of Cambridge Press, 2014).

(49.) Santiago Valencia Chala, El negro en Centroamérica: Panamá, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, Belice (Quito, Ecuador: Centro Cultural Afro-Ecuatoriano: Ed. Abya-Yala, 1986).

(50.) O. Nigel Bolland, “Colonization and Slavery in Central America,” Slavery & Abolition 15, no. 2 (August 1994): 11–25.

(51.) Christopher H. Lutz, Santiago de Guatemala, 1541–1773: City, Caste, and the Colonial Experience (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994).

(52.) Rina Cáceres, Negros, mulatos, esclavos y libertos en la Costa Rica del siglo XVII (Mexico City: Instituto Panamericano de Geografía e Historia, 2000). See also Cáceres, “El trabajo esclavo en Costa Rica,” Revista de Historia 39 (January 1999): 27–49.

(53.) Lowell Gudmunson and Justin Wolfe, eds., Blacks and Blackness in Central America: Between Race and Place (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).

(54.) Komisaruk, Labor and Love in Guatemala.

(55.) Lohse, Africans into Creoles.

(56.) Marixa Laso, Erased: The Untold Story of the Panama Canal (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019).

(57.) Consuelo Meza Márquez, “Discurso literario de las poetas garífunas del Caribe centroamericano: Honduras, Nicaragua y Guatemala,” Latinoamérica. Revista de estudios Latinoamericanos 55 (December 2012): 245–278.