Regional Office for Culture in Latin America and the Caribbean

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The presence of enslaved Africans during the colonial period in El Salvador and the cultural and genetic influence of the people of African descent in this country are issues that have been recently retaken and made visible. As in a large part of the Central American Isthmus the building of the national states was based on the ideas of a racial mix that only included the indigenous and the European populations, making the African component indiscernible. However, pilot Andres Niño was accompanied by Africans since the first expedition into El Salvador in 1522. In 1524, Pedro de Alvarado was also accompanied by Africans in his first conquest campaign of the current Salvadoran territory. Towards the second half of the 16th century, Africans trusted by their masters could be found selling sweets, cheese and beef in the region of Izalcos, working in the haciendas of the San Miguel mines, and in the livestock haciendas of San Salvador, Zacatecoluca and Usulután. Towards the 18th century, they could also be found in other sectors, such as the indigo blue camps of San Miguel and San Vicente and the iron foundries of Metapan.

The uprisings of enslaved Africans were part of this colonial period and represented a fight for survival and freedom. One of the largest rebellions in the history of Central America took place on December 1624, on the banks of the Lempa River in El Marquesado. The enslaved persons of the Zacatecoluca and Apasteque haciendas and camps fled from their masters for a period of five years, forming groups of up to one hundred persons called “juntas” (boards), in which the new arrivals fought actively against slavery. This uprising was stifled on the Holy Week of 1625 with the help of an armed militia. Another important uprising took place on 1729 in the area of La Vega, to the south of the city of San Salvador, when at least two hundred mulattos and Blacks protested and refused to pay the royal tribute, or Naborío imposed by the Spanish Crown. This uprising took place at a moment in which the San Salvadoran population was impoverished, in the aftermath of the earthquake of 1719.

The enslaved population decreased in numbers with the passage of time, while the free population grew, as a result of manumission, free birth and racial mixing. Many of the free mulattos, and people of native and African descent even became the owners of indigo blue haciendas, stores and had learned trades during the 17th and the 18th centuries. Likewise, neighbourhoods of mulattos and pardos (persons of European and Indigenous descent) started to emerge, as was the case of the town of San Francisco Tacuzcalco, and the neighbourhood of El Ángel in the city of La Trinidad de Sonsonate. The slave system, which was already in decline towards the 18th century, ended definitively on April 17th, 1824, after the abolitionist initiative led by Jose Simeon Cañas since December, 1823.

Indigo Blue Production

The decline of profits in the production of cocoa in Los Izalcos brought about the development of xiquilite plantations to extract the indigo dye. During the 17th and up to the 19th century indigo blue became the economic base of the Salvadoran elite, since it became the main export product with high value during colonial times, up to the point that it was known as “blue gold”. Tens of indigo blue camps were established in the current territory of El Salvador between 1580 and 1620, especially in the haciendas property of the Town Hall of San Salvador and in the jurisdictions of San Miguel and San Vicente. As of that moment, a large part of the African population that arrived in San Salvador was allotted to the indigo blue haciendas. The concentration and increase of the number of Africans in the camps was due, on one part, to the decline of the indigenous population, and on the other part, to the increased supply of enslaved persons resulting from the permits granted by the Spanish Crown to several important Portuguese merchants as of 1595.

Evidence of the importance of African labour in the production of xiquilite dye may be found in a royal writ from 1563, with the proposal that the Blacks would work in such activity, instead of the indigenous population. Towards 1620, there were more than two hundred sites for the production of indigo blue in the vicinity of the province of San Salvador. On 1622, the alferez mayor of the city of San Salvador, highest ranking officer Juan Ibandez, was the owner of haciendas “San Andrés” and “Talcualoya”, dedicated to the extraction of indigo blue, on which he had twenty-five enslaved workers of African descent. Twelve of the fourteen men in the registry had been brought from Africa: seven Angolas, one Congo, three Biafras and one Casanga. Later on, Don Agustin Ponce de Leon, Attorney General of the City of Guatemala and its provinces, requested in a letter to the Town Council of the city of Guatemala, that on date 23 September 1664, the vessels transporting enslaved persons should extend their route to the outpost in Honduras, since at least two thousand slaves were needed to work in the haciendas.

The prices of indigo blue soared towards 1750, and this product became the main economic activity of the Kingdom of Guatemala, largely dependent on the African labour force. San Salvador had at least six hundred sites for the production of indigo blue towards the mid 18th century.

Militias of mulattos

The training of free Black and Mulatto militias were fundamental in San Salvador and Sonsonate, both to pacify the rebellions of enslaved persons and for the defence against possible pirate attacks. Both on 1579 and on 1587 a militia was formed in La Trinidad de Sonsonate to safeguard the port of Acajutla from the attacks of pirates Drake and Cavendish. This also happened on 1615 to defend the port of Amapala in the Gulf of Fonseca, when one hundred and fifty Blacks, mulattos and persons of other racial mix integrated the militia led by mayor Juan Garcia Serrano. Towards 1673, the province of San Salvador had two infantry companies and cavalry units made up by pardos (brown people) in Sonsonate. The militia of San Salvador had twenty nine companies of mulattos between 1767 and 1769, while those in Sonsonate were made up by mulattos only.

Living Culture: The Cult of Saint Benedict of Palermo

Legacies of African heritage in El Salvador survive through cultural and religious practices, such as the veneration of Saint Ephigenia and Saint Benedict of Palermo. The towns in which the cult to these saints is predominant, such as the village of the Santísima Trinidad in Sonsonate and the municipality of Ereguayquin, had a large presence of Africans and mulattos, persons of African descent, during colonial times. Black and mulatto populations identified with Saint Ephigenia in the area of Sonsonate during the 18th century, and they established several brotherhoods and several girls were baptized Ephigenia. The cult to Saint Benedict of Palermo spread to the present El Salvador due to the catechization of the Franciscan Order, whose monastery in San Salvador established the first brotherhood on 1651. Twenty years later another brotherhood was established in Zacatecoluca. The references to the brotherhood in Ereguayquin date back to the 18th century, however, the cult to Saint Benedict of Palermo survives there to the present and is strongly rooted in religious celebrations.


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