THE THIRD ROOT
Heritage of Central America
By Kent C. Williams
©2001 - Kent C. Williams, Santa Rosa, California
The influence and role played
by persons of African descent in
the history of Central America is rooted in great antiquity. The contribution
that has been made by Africans to the “blood lines” of the peoples of
Central America are an integral part of the cultures of these nations. The role played by these countries
in Diaspora history is now only starting to come to light.
A series of
“migrations waves” into Central America by persons of African origin
took place over several centuries.
Evidence suggests that Africans played a role in the ancient pre-Columbian
cultures of Central America. Among the Olmec, Toltec and the Maya of Guatemala, El
Salvador, Honduras and Belize there appears to have been an African influence.
In addition, the presence of African tribes in Panama at the time of the Spanish
conquest suggest that an earlier trans-Atlantic African crossing could have
taken place during the 14th or 15th century.
During the age of European exploration and Spanish conquest persons of African heritage were also present. Diego Mendez was with Columbus in Honduras 1502. The nobleman Nuflo de Olano was with Balboa in Panama in 1513. Both examples show us that free blacks played a role in the discovery of the “New World”. Others of African heritage undoubtedly sailed with the Conquistadors but were not noted as being of African descent. A good number of the Spanish and Portuguese soldiers, sailors and colonists themselves were in fact partially of African descent. The African Diaspora scholar A.J. Rogers estimated that over the centuries close to four million Africans arrived in Spain and Portugal between the third century under Hannibal until the abolition of slavery in Portugal in 1773. The regions of southern Spain and southern Portugal (those closest to the African continent) show the strongest influences of the large numbers of persons from Africa who settled or were forcibly brought to these areas of the Iberian peninsula. The Conquistadors thus brought some African ancestry with them to Central America as the racially mixed descendants of Arabic, Germanic, African, Semitic and Celtic peoples who had mingled together over many centuries in the southern parts of Spain and Portugal.
The great liberator of five South American nations, General Simon Bolivar, said the following “We must face the fact that our race is not European; it is rather a composite of Africa and America more than an emanation of Europe. For Spain itself ceased to be European by its African blood; its institutions and character”. Bolivar had lived in Spain at one time and evidently came to his own conclusions regarding the ancestry of some of his forefathers.
The first African slaves brought to Central America arrived in 1513 with Balboa in Panama. Others arrived in 1524 with Alvarado during his invasion of Guatemala and De Avila during his landing on the Honduran coast. The colonial years (1513-1821) make up the “second wave” of African peoples to arrive in Central America. This was a forced migration, brutal in its destruction of human life. For a period of over 300 years we find persons of African descent held in bondage under the rule of the Spanish. Africans were brought to all the countries of Central America and through their labor contributed to the wealth of the Spanish land owners. This labor was initially used in mining but latter was shifted to the ranches as well as indigo and cacao plantations of the region.
A result of colonial slavery in Central America was the great amount of mixing between the races that took place over the course of three centuries. Few European women came to the region and as a result miscegenation became the rule. Among the Africans who were brought to Central America during the colonial era we find few today who are not mixed with some European or native American ancestry. From this racial intermixing the Central American mestizo became the majority of the population in Central America. I am of the opinion that the “typical” Central American mestizo is approximately one-eighth to one-quarter African, with the native American (and in some cases European) strain predominating. Some have little or no African ancestry, but the majority of mestizos can claim at least some remote African ancestry. This mixing over a period of 15 to 20 generations was so widespread that three racial streams became one.
In Luis Quintanilla’s book A Latin American Speaks (1943) he writes “The more I study Latin-American life the more I become aware of the tremendous influence of the Negro in Latin-American development and culture. His influence there seems to have been greater than even in the United States”. He goes on to mention that most writers in the United States have made little mention of the important contributions made by black people to Latin-America saying that most do not admit that the majority of Latin-Americans are “a colored people: mestizos, Indians and Negroes”.
The mixing between these three races in Central America produced a population that no longer had an identity as “black”, “white” or “native”. The colonial Anglo-Saxon dictum that “one-drop of black blood” made an individual “black” is not found in Latin-America and consequently persons of mixed racial ancestry found their own identities as mestizos, or perhaps more accurately afromestizos. This afro-mestizo population is also found throughout Mexico with a concentration in southern Mexico along both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of that country. The mixing of blacks and native-Americans was common here, with the offspring of such unions being born free.
Perhaps the final story of the “second wave” of Africans to arrive in Central America is that ultimately as a people they were largely “absorbed” racially into the native and European populations. Because most of the Africans that were brought to Central America arrived between 1540 and 1620 by the end of the 18th century the process of racial assimilation was nearly complete.
The American ambassador to Mexico during the 1820’s (Poinsett) commented on the offspring of native Americans and Africans “It is, I think difficult to distinguish the African blood after two crosses with the Indians. They (the afromestizos) lose entirely the Negro features and the mestizos have straight black hair like the Indians”. Persons of native American, African and European ancestry were called pardos or triquenitos by the Spanish.
During the 18th century a “third wave” of persons of predominantly mixed African and native American ancestry came into being. During the late 17th and early 18th centuries escaped and shipwrecked African slaves arrived on the Caribbean coasts of Honduras and Nicaragua (Mosquito Coast). Here the mixing of these two races produced a “native American” tribe known as Miskito. At the same time, on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent another group of shipwrecked and escaped Africans were mixing with the Carib Indians to form the tribe called the “Black Caribs” or Garifuna. The 18th century ends with the deportation of the Garifuna to the Bay Islands off the coast of Honduras and the 19th century begins with their subsequent movement into several communities along the Caribbean coast of Central America. These two tribes of mixed African and native American ancestry form the “third wave” of migration of African descended peoples into isthmus.
The final migration of black people to Central America took place during the 19th century. This “fourth wave” was made up of Creole English speaking blacks from Jamaica, Barbados and other islands of the former British West Indies. Starting in the 1850’s and continuing into the mid 20th century, this was an economic migration of laborers who worked to build the Panama Railroad and Canal, as well as to do back breaking agricultural labor on North American owned banana plantations stretching along the Caribbean coast from Guatemala to Panama. In a series of immigration movements, Afro-Antillean immigration to Central America included sustained periods of migration to Panama (1880-1930), Costa Rica (1870-1890) and Honduras (1900-1930) as well as to Nicaragua, Guatemala and Belize. These groups, known collectively as Afro-Antilleans, attempted to maintain their Afro-British traditions in their adopted countries. This sometimes led to resentment among Spanish speaking mestizos who have historically seen the Afro-Antilleans as their economic competitors.
Closely related to the Afro-Antilleans of Spanish speaking Central America are the Belizean Creoles. Their history and culture is set apart from the rest of Central America through their close historical ties to Great Britain. Belize is the only nation in Central America that was not a Spanish colony and the Creoles here see themselves and their country as culturally a part of the English speaking Caribbean (with close ties to Jamaica). African slaves brought to Belize during the 18th and 19th centuries were latter joined by Afro-Antilleans during the late 19th and 20th centuries and developed a culture showing strong African rooted traditions in music, food, language and religion. While the colonial slaves of Spanish Central America were racially absorbed into the mainstream of the population, African descended Creoles in Belize adopted, but did not completely amalgamate with, the culture of their English and Scottish “masters”. Belize Creoles make up the “fifth” segment of African culture in Central America.
The contributions of Africans to the development of Central America can be found not only in the achievements of individuals of African descent, but also in the impact that Africans have had over the centuries on the economic and cultural development of Central America. The labor and hard work (of both enslaved and free persons) in the building of railroads and the Panama Canal, as well as the centuries of laboring in the agricultural sector, contributed significantly to the building of the economies that incorporated Central America into the global economy. The cultural impact of Afro-Central Americans on the arts (particularly in music and dance) is strikingly evident to anyone who visits the region. At a social level, the desire of Africans to obtain and retain their freedom and liberty played a role in the Central American movements for independence. As soldiers and statesmen, Afro-Central Americans contributed over the generations to the continued efforts of the peoples of the isthmus to free themselves from an exploitative oligarchy that consists of less then 10% of the population.
We find today five important “groupings” of African descended peoples living in Central America; among the native Americans of ancient times and their mixed descendants, as slaves during the Spanish colonial era, as newly formed Afro-Amerindian tribes along the Caribbean coast, as 19th and 20th century West Indian laborers, and as slaves and free men living and working in the former British colony of Belize. Each group has its own history, identity and traditions. Through the many thousands of Africans who came to this part of the world either by force or in freedom, the life and times of one of the most diverse corners of the world has forever been changed by the sons and daughters of Africa.
Kent C. Williams
3343 Industrial Dr. #1
Santa Rosa, CA 95403
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