There are African descended population of the countries of Central America, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama, all part of the Western Caribbean Zone. One group was delivered largely in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to work in mines on the Pacific site of the area, and most lost their specific African identity over time and through custom. Their present day descendants speak Spanish. The other group had more diverse origins, but often had connections with England. One group arrived with a shipwrecked slave ship in the seventeenth century, the Miskito Sambu, another group were brought by English settlers on the Mosquito Coast and in Belize, a third group arrived from the island of St Vincent, deported by the English in 1797, the Garifuna, and another came in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries from Jamaica, the Bay Islands, Cayman Islands and occasionally other English Caribbean colonies through labor schemes of the large American transportation and fruit growing concerns.
Origins and History
Afro-Central Americans were initially formed by the trans-Atlantic slave trade that brought African workers to the mines of the "Kingdom of Guatemala" as the Spanish called their main Central American colony. In addition, the Spanish brought many slaves to Panamá to assist in transporting silver from the mines at Potosí from the Pacific to the Atlantic side of the isthmus. In addition to providing a good portion of the inhabitants of the towns of Panama and Portobello, many ran away to the nearby mountains which were outside Spanish control to form cimarron communities. Some of these Africans also transported metals from mines in Guatemala to the Atlantic coast ports of Trujillo or Puerto de Caballos in modern day Honduras. Some of the slaves from these regions also ran away and formed their own communities as well.
In the 1640s slaves on a Portuguese vessel revolted, captured the ship and ran it aground at Cape Gracias a Dios. They were received by the indigenous Miskito people and intermarried with them, creating the Miskitu-Sambu. This mixed race element, in turn, eventually came to dominate the Mosquito Kingdom (as the Miskito region was called), controlling the office of king and several subordinate positions. In the eighteenth century, they became feared raiders who captured slaves and sold them, often to English merchants.
The English alliance, which had been pioneered by Miskito kings as early as 1640, continued under Zambo leadership, eventually allowing the English to settle on the coast in the 1740s. Many of the English settlers, concentrated around Black River and Bluefields, brought slaves with them to work in wood cutting and transport, though creating a new African-descended element in the population. Though the Spanish eventually forced the evacuation of the coast, the Miskito remained in possession and the English continued to have an important role to play. Many of the English and their slaves left the Mosquito Coast in the 1780s following the treating giving the areas back to Spain and relocated in British Honduras.
English Slaves in the Bay of Honduras and Mosquito Coast
As the British were trading with and settling in the lands of the Mosquito Coast, they were also cutting wood in the Yucatan Peninsula. In the early eighteenth century they founded a settlement around the Belize River which would become the colony of British Honduras (Belize). After 1720 they began importing slaves in fair numbers, largely from Jamaica,or occasionally directly from Africa. Most of these slaves worked in logging, others in domestic service.
English settlers in the Miskito Kingdom following the Anglo-Misito treaty of 1740 began importing African slaves in fair numbers. Their estates were especially concentrated in the Black River (Rio Tinto) in today's Honduras, and around Bluefields in modern Nicaragua. These slaves were employed in cutting timber, and in small scale agricultural enterprises growing subsistence crops or export crops like sarsaparilla. Some sugar was grown, and English planners sometimes spoke of expanding this sector, but in the end sugar never took off and a sugar complex like that of Jamaica or other Caribbean islands never developed. In 1786, following the London Conference, the English agreed to vacate the Miskito Kingdom of its English residents and their slaves, and several thousands left, bound for Belize.
However, a fairly large number of the slaves took advantage of the situation to flee, or to remain where they were. Others were free but did not heed the order to depart. Most of those who remained took to subsistence farming, fishing and trading on a small scale on the coast, and a few became locally prominent, especially the former slaves of Robert Hodgson, once the Superintendent of the Mosquito Shore, who had abandoned the coast in 1790.
In 1797 the English introduced a new element onto the coast of Central America, which was the introduction of the Garifuna, people of mixed African and Carib descent who were deported from the Island of St Vincent for supporting France during the wars of the French Revolution in the Caribbean. Garifuna soon defected to the Spanish and many settled around Trujillo, while others accepted land grants in the Miskito Kingdom. Others still settled in British Honduras after 1802, especially in the Stanns Creek area.
The Anglo-Caribbean Migrants
Following the end of slavery in the British Empire in 1838 a fairly large number of former slaves, disappointed with the limited opportunities available in post-slavery society, decided to leave the islands for destinations elsewhere in the Caribbean, such as the Cayman Islands, or the Bay Islands of Honduras. Many of them found the Miskito Kingdom to be a good destination, especially those from Jamaica which had long ties with the coast, not only through diplomatic contact but also informal activities such as Miskito turtle fishing.
In the 1830s the kingdom was completely independent, had no master class, and relaxed concepts of race and authority. As a result many of the ex-slaves founded or joined settlements at the major rivers, or sites of previous plantations whose masters had abandoned them when the British evacuated the Mosquito Coast in 1786. The existence of a free former slave population there, who spoke English primarily made the coast particularly attractive. By the 1860s they formed prosperous communities and were willing to cooperate with English designs to protect the region from outside interference, while also welcoming the special relationship they enjoyed with English officials who came with the Protectorate, founded in 1844.
The willingness of Miskito king George Augustus Frederic to allow a special council to govern in his behalf, in 1846 led to the domination of the council by the African descended population, both those drawn from the slaves of the previous English residents and the more recently arrived mostly Jamaicans led to an increase in their power and influence. As a result the region, and particularly Bluefields, the capital of the Miskito Kingdom since 1844, became a magnet for a wide range of Afro-Caribbean people seeking freedom, opportunity and even self-government.
The two distinct Afro-Caribbean groups gradually merged to create the Creoles, as they are known locally, and they gained even more power as Britain abandoned its claims to Protectorate status in 1860 and Nicaragua proved unable to step in and take over the government of the area. It was only in 1894 that Nicaraguan forces stopped the actual autonomy of the Miskito Kingdom, and real Nicaraguan authority really began only in the early twentieth century.
Beginning in the late nineteenth century a number of United States based firms, notably the United Fruit and Standard Fruit brought many workers from the English speaking Caribbean to work on their infrastructure (mostly railroad) projects and the banana plantations that they developed all along the coast of Central America. Others came as a result of the construction of the Panama Canal.
The American companies, exploiting timber and tropical fruit, especially bananas, created valuable resources on the Atlantic side of all the Central American countries and increased both their interest and their capacity to occupy the regions effectively. As they did so, the Afro-Caribbean influence was eclipsed.
- Coniff, Michael L. (1983). Black Labor on a White Canal: West Indians in Panama, 1904-1980. Abuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
- Davidson, William V (1980). "The Garifuna of Pearl Lagoon: Ethnohistory of an African American Enclave in Nicaragua," Ethnohistory 27 (1): 31-47.
- Floyd, Troy (1967). The Anglo-Spanish Struggle for Mosquitia Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
- Gabbert, Wolfgang (1992). Creoles—Afro-Amerikaner im karibischen Tiefland von Nicaragua. Münster: Lit.
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- Gudmunson, Lowell and Justin Wolfe, eds (2010). Blacks and Blackness in Central America: Between Race and Place Chapel Hill: Duke University Press.
- Gonzalez, Nancie (1998). Sojourners of the Caribbean: Ethnogenesis and Ethnohistory of the Garifuna Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.