Regional Office for Culture in Latin America and the Caribbean

Portal of Culture of Latin America and the Caribbean

In Guatemala, like in the rest of the Central American countries, the presence of Africans and people of African descent has been pushed into oblivion since colonial times. National and racial ideologies of the 19th and 20th centuries contributed to erase such memory even more, generating racism and exclusion even for the new Afro-Antillean migrants. However, the memory persists in various forms: the sound of the marimba and the lyrics of the Hymn of de San Geronimo de Baja Verapaz which recalls racial mix and alliances between the indigenous peoples and the Africans who were enslaved in past times.

The traffic of enslaved Africans to Guatemala dates back to the beginning of colonial times, and it was important in the development of the sugar industry during the 16th and the 17th centuries. The first Africans to arrive in Guatemala probably did so with Pedro de Alvarado on 1524. His early incursion is mentioned in the minutes of the Town Council of Santiago de Almalonga on 1530, a settlement that was destroyed by the Volcán de Agua on 1541. So far, the first ship transporting Africans into Guatemala was registered on 1543, transferring 150 Africans from Santo Domingo to Guatemala´s Caribbean coast. Later on, a customs inspector of the Territorial Audience of Guatemala reported ninety seven men and boys and thirty nine women and girls travelling on board a ship from Angola to the Port of Santo Tomas de Castilla on 1631. These “Angolese” were destined to the sugar mills, substantial in the surroundings of Amatitlan Lake.

From 1595 to 1640, during the union of the Spanish and Portuguese Crowns, there was an increase of forced migration of Africans towards the Spanish colonies, reaching an estimate figure of two hundred seventy thousand persons. At that time the Spanish Crown signed “asientos” or contracts with Portuguese merchants, who were involved in wars in Angola. As a result, a large number of persons, victims of the wars, fell prey to the conflicts, were trapped and sent on the transatlantic voyage to the Americas. This explains, partially, the large number of persons coming from the eastern central region of Africa in those years. Towards 1640, the migration of Africans to Guatemala decreased significantly, due to the abeyance of the system of contracts and the change of relations between Spain and Portugal. The packing lists of the slave dealers allow determining that most of the Africans came from three main areas: Senegambia, Sierra Leone and Guinea; from the so-called Gold Coast, bight of Benin; Ouidah, from Congo, Angola, and from Mozambique.

Santiago de los Caballeros, today known as ciudad de Antigua, was the capital city of the Kingdom of Guatemala, as the territory comprised between Chiapas and Costa Rica was known back then. Hence it was the political and economic centre of Spanish Central America for nearly three centuries. Santiago de los Caballeros also became the main slave market, in such a way that from 1544 to 1587, two hundred and forty nine Africans were brought and sold in the city. Already on 1570 a public space had been established destined to the sale of persons. With the permits granted and the involvement of Portuguese merchants in the transatlantic trade, the number of Africans enslaved and sent to America increased. Around 1620, Santiago emerged as a market, although minor, for the sale of enslaved persons, in such a way that they sold Africans travelling in ships that “accidentally” arrived in Trujillo or in Santo Tomas de Castilla. In the capital city, from 1610 to 1628, fifteen slave merchants were reported dealing in persons who were later on sent to the territories of Guatemala and El Salvador.

Towards the beginning of the 17th century Santiago could have lodged more persons of African origin than all the sugar mills and treadmills combined. At least five generations of the Porres family, Afro-mestizo masons, participated in the construction of important buildings in the capital, such as the Cathedral of Santiago de Guatemala, the Episcopal Palace, the San Francisco Convent, the Chapel of San Antonio de Padua, and the church of Santa Teresa, among others. Other Africans worked in rural households, indigo and corn plantations, or in cattle ranches to the east of Santiago, along the Pacific coast, or around the Maya settlements such as Quetzaltenango. During the second half of the 18th century, the Dominican Order concentrated most of the Africans and persons of African descent both in the areas devoted to agriculture as in the convent in the capital city, which at that moment was located in the present city of Guatemala. After the Dominican Order the Spanish Crown was the main owner of enslaved workforce, allotted to urban administrative tasks.

In the 16th century and during the first decades of the 17th, the enslaved Blacks, many born in Africa, were more numerous than enslaved mulattos. The mulattos became a majority in the urban areas with the passage of time during the 18th century. Towards the mid 16th century there are records of the first free Blacks in Santiago, reaching the largest number in the decade of 1670. The village of Santiago de la Gomera, on the Guatemalan Pacific coast, represents one of the singular cases in which people of African descent, with African and Indigenous roots, founded a settlement for people of African descent around 1612. The inhabitants of La Gomera had, furthermore, certain privileges like the control of the salt works along the sandbanks of Coyolate and Sicapate.

The enslaved populations decreased progressively, as a result of the prohibition to import enslaved persons in “lots”, the decrease of the population due to smallpox outbreaks between 1690 and 1710, and because mixing probably allowed the possibility of procreating free children, as the result of the union of enslaved men and free mothers. Towards the end of the 18th century, slavery was practically unsustainable in Guatemala. Family links and social networks supported emancipation in Guatemala and made it sustainable, also supported by colonial legal structures.

Sugar Production

The manufacture of sugar in Guatemala depended directly on the forced migrant workforce, on enslaved Africans. The property of Juan González Donis called Nuestra Señora de la Encarnación, but better known as Ingenio de Anís, was one of the largest sugar manufacturers towards the end of the 16th century and the largest of several sugar treadmills during the first decades of the 17th century. An inventory made on 1630 indicates that one hundred and ninety one enslaved persons, between men and women of all ages, lived in this plantation. Among them, one hundred and thirty seven were at least eighteen years of age and two thirds of them had been born in Africa (forty eight were identified as Angolas and sixteen as Anchico or Congo).

Towards the 17th century the Dominican Order was developing sugar mills, in charge of supplying sugar to the capital city for sweets and making eau de vie. As of 1660 the Dominican Order controlled three of the largest sugar treadmills in the area of Amatitlan Lake: San Geronimo, the ingenio de Anis, and Nuestra Señora del Rosario. They also purchased four smaller treadmills in the area of Escuintepeque. Towards 1679 the Ingenio de Anis had one hundred and nineteen enslaved persons and Rosario had one hundred and eleven. San Geronimo turned into the largest sugar mill of all Central America and was home to hundreds of Africans of different nations. The only sugar mill that was not property of a religious order was that of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, property of the Arrivillaga family. The latter was the most important sugar mill of the region of Amatitlan, with more than one hundred and twenty enslaved persons. The rest of the haciendas in Amatitlan were smaller treadmills with less significant numbers of enslaved Africans.

Among the many rural and urban properties of the Dominicans, four were singularly important for the production of sugar in Guatemala: the sugar haciendas of San Geronimo, San Juan Amatitlan and Palencia, together with the Convento Viejo (Old Convent) in the capital city, where they prepared the final product and distributed it to the markets. The Africans and their descendants assigned to sugar production resided permanently in the plantations and devoted themselves to all the stages of sugar planting and production, as well as the packing of sugar and its by-products.


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