Regional Office for Culture in Latin America and the Caribbean

Portal of Culture of Latin America and the Caribbean

The contribution of Africans and people of African descent to the colonial society in Costa Rica are issues that deserve more awareness. Despite knowing that in the Central American region it was the largest group in numbers after the indigenous population, the silence about their existence in the official history is common throughout the region. Although evidences point out the historical and cultural importance that this group of persons had in the building of the nation-states, these populations suffered and continue to suffer social and political exclusion.

During the colonial period there were several forms of control of the workforce such as the encomienda, the repartimiento and slavery. The latter included many persons of African origin and others of mixed origin (African, Spanish and natives) who were born in the region. The history of these persons is one of struggle and survival, but also of using the mechanisms of social advancement and making great economic and cultural contributions.

The first Africans to set foot on Costa Rican territory were brought by the Spanish during the conquest of the territories, and the establishment of new settlements. The Conquest and the arrival of Europeans in Costa Rica was a late process when compared to other countries of Central America, and therefore, when the first Spanish arrived in the territory, the transatlantic trade of Africans had already been established. Colonial chronicles indicate that Hernan Sanchez de Badajoz led an expedition into Costa Rica on 1540 accompanied by nine enslaved Africans; four years later some Africans died during the resistance of native Indians in which Diego Gutierrez died; and towards 1561 when Juan de Cavallon attempts to colonize the Central Valley he came with ninety Spanish and an undetermined number of Africans.

The colonial economic structure allowed Africans and their descendants to work in the cocoa plantations in Matina, the small farms of the Central Valley and in the cattle ranches of the eastern part of the Gulf of Nicoya, in Costa Rica. During the colonial period the population of African descent was predominantly mulatto, descending from European and African.

Since the beginning of the Conquest we find people of African descent who are both free or slaves, the former larger in numbers. The enslaved Africans were of different origin, however, evidences indicate that on the 17th century the Congos and Angolas of Bantu origin predominated; while during the 18th century there was an increase in the forced migration of Mina groups.

The main populations at the beginning of the colonial period were the port of Espíritu Santo de Esparza, on the Pacific, and the capital city of Cartago, in the interior, and in both there was a large number of people of African descent, some free, some slaves.

Cartago was the main city, made up by a little more than 20 quadrants, in which the first official segregation of free people of African descent was established in the so called la Puebla de los Pardos. The establishment of la Puebla allowed the colonial government to guarantee workforce and militia, while facilitating fiscal control policies.

Cocoa Growing in the Caribbean

The valleys of the Caribbean coast were important for the province of Costa Rica because a large part of the cocoa was grown there and it became the main product during the 17th and the 18th centuries. The families of the elite in Cartago were able to survive the depression of the 17th century with cocoa production and by sending the Africans and their descendants to work and supervise the plantations, in such a way that towards 1700 the Africans became a majority of the population and of the labour force in the Matina valley.

The relative absence of Spanish population in this region and the less demanding work compared to other regions of Central America allowed enslaved Africans and their descendants in Matina certain autonomy to grow their own cocoa plantations, apart from supervising all the stages of the crop, the processing, and even the sale of cocoa. Likewise, the use of cocoa as a legal tender during colonial times generated personal Independence and allowed them to purchase products imported by British smugglers and the Miskito Indians who frequented the Caribbean coast. The relative absence of Spanish population, moreover, facilitated pirate and Misquito attacks, which became frequent in the region. Therefore, the building of the San Fernando Fort started on the right bank of the Matina River on 1741. The Fort was built in an attempt to prevent illegal trade, but did not stop the pillaging of cocoa haciendas, to which the pirates gained access through the Moin and Suerre rivers.

The vulnerability of the region made the Spanish keep the enslaved women in the Central Valley and they would only send men to tend to the cocoa crops, in such a way that many enslaved men from Matina married free women. Through negotiation or by growing cocoa on their own, many of these men bought their freedom, since the conditions in Matina permitted and promoted the social advancement of the African population and their descendants in the Caribbean region of Costa Rica.

The Militias of Free Blacks, mulattos and pardos

As of the 17th century the security of the province relied increasingly on the militias of mulattoes. It was Governor Juan Fernandez de Salinas y de la Cerda who appointed Diego de Zúñiga, as captain and superintendent of the Black and mulatto militias of the city of Cartago, and then he appointed Lucas de Contreras as infantry captain of the free mulattos of Esparza. These were the first appointments of free persons of African descent to official military posts.

The militias of free Blacks, pardos and mulattoes played an essential role in the defence against the attacks of French and English pirates, the protection of the ports and the building of military structures. Their services were paid with a monthly salary and the exoneration from paying tributes.

However, on several occasions the militias of pardos and mulattoes had to submit complaints before the Spanish authorities claiming their pay and exoneration from the naborío tribute, which had been imposed by the Spanish Crown on 1573. One of these incidents took place on 1662, when Governor Andrés Arias Maldonado called upon the mulattoes of la Puebla de los Pardos to subdue the Talamanca Amerindians. However, when payment was not made, the militia chiefs submitted a complaint before the higher authorities in Guatemala, in which they reaffirmed their condition as free persons. Later on, on 1672, Captain Lucas Sanchez de Contreras, on behalf of the company of free mulattoes and Blacks of the city of Esparza, requested before the Audience of Guatemala the exoneration from the naborío tribute because of their full time military service without receiving any allowance. Thanks to their struggles, the militia chiefs achieved not only military authority, but also the right to protect the interests of the group against the conditions imposed by the colonial regime.

The militias were organized to confront indigenous resistance, and the defence of the territory, especially after the war between Spain and France broke out on 1673, and the need to protect the borders against the attacks of the French, the English and the Dutch. The fortification and defence of ports and cities was carried out thanks to many of the afro-mestizo militias, which existed for more than 150 years in colonial Costa Rica and were led by mulatto captains and lieutenants. During the 18th century, the Afro-Costa Rican militias were privileged by the military charter, as a result of Bourbon reforms.

Thus, La Puebla became a site for the vindication of the rights of the people of African descent, pursued by the shadow of slavery because of their remote African ancestry.


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