Regional Office for Culture in Latin America and the Caribbean
Portal of Culture of Latin America and the Caribbean
The African heritage in Honduras, a result of migrations during the colonial period, has been silenced to a certain extent due to the use of the term “ladino”, which neutralized all racial categories that ended up by being distorted with the official construction of “mestizaje” (racial mix) during the 1920´s.
In colonial America, the Ladinos were identified as non-white and non-native groups who spoke Spanish, namely, Blacks and mulattos. During the 17th century, Spanish reports distinguished between Spanish, mestizos, mulattos and Blacks, however, towards the 18th century, the last three groups were classified as Ladinos. This grouping into a single category ended up by erasing the heterogeneity of the population and marginalizing the African diaspora in Honduras before the arrival of the Garifunas in the 18th century.
The ideas of a racial mix that would only make the Indian and the Spanish ancestry visible were imposed in the official discourse of the 20th century, and this ended up by excluding the Honduran population of African ancestry and by denying the African colonial heritage. However, the African presence in Honduras dates back to the first incursions of the Conquest during the 16th century, when enslaved Africans were part of the personal entourage of the Spanish Conquistadors. Soon after, the discovery of silver mines and the shortage of indigenous workforce generated frequent demands by the miners for authorization from the Crown for the introduction of enslaved workforce in larger amounts, and with “payment facilities”. The ports of Trujillo and Puerto Cabezas, on the Honduran Caribbean coast, were initially the ports of entry of ships transporting groups of captive Africans, among other merchandize.
During the 17th and the 18th centuries, an important number of Afro-mestizos were living in the municipal area of Tegucigalpa, where the trade of enslaved persons was important throughout the colonial period. At this point in time, most of the persons sold had been born in the region. Before the free womb law or law of free birth, the slave system reproduced itself given that the children of enslaved mothers would be born slaves, and therefore, the descendants of women were important for the Spanish. Such situation allowed them to increase their capital, guaranteeing slave labour in their homes and elsewhere, as well as paying for economic and judicial expenses, causing separation of the enslaved families and exerting violence against the women. During the 18th century, Honduras was a province with a majority of mulatto and mestizo population. Data from the village of Tegucigalpa indicate that on 1777 the mulattos were an 88% of the population, followed by a 90% on 1783, and an 86% on 1815. Barrio Abajo in Tegucigalpa had a strong presence of people of African ancestry, in such a way that in the facade of the church of the Virgen de los Dolores there is an inscription “Finalizada por los Vecinos Pardos” (Construction finalized by the pardo neighbours).
Between 1750 and 1770 a large number of enslaved Caravalíes and Mondongos were taken to Honduras to work in the construction of the military fortress of San Fernando de Omoa, one of the most important in the Central American region. The military threats against Spain also encouraged the integration of mulattos in the militias, who were transferred to strategic sites such as Omoa, Trujillo, Río Tinto and the island of Roatan. Finally, towards the 19th century, the Spanish authorities acknowledged the role played by the Honduran Afro-mestizos, mulattos and pardos in the pro-independence movements on 1812 in Tegucigalpa.
The first areas in which mining for gold and silver was carried out were Olancho and the Guayape River. Since there was a shortage of native workforce, enslaved Africans took over this occupation. They rebelled on 1542 and expelled the Spanish temporarily. Despite these incidents, towards the 1540´s the mines of Olancho were the most important for the Audience of Guatemala, generating large outputs of gold for the Spanish Crown. It is estimated that only during 1553, the mines sent the equivalent of 26400 gold pesos to Spain. In Guayape-Olacho most of the work was carried out by Africans, who towards 1545 were more than one thousand five hundred persons. This mine started to decline on 1560 due to the lack of labour force and the depletion of the resources.
Towards the second half of the 16th century one hundred and eighty two enslaved Africans and eighty native Indians were working in four haciendas in the Guazucaran mines and other seven haciendas in the mines of Tegucigalpa. Towards 1580 there were more than thirty active silver mines in the area whose capital was invested in purchasing more enslaved Africans, who were brought to Tegucigalpa in large amounts. The enslaved persons not only worked in the extraction of minerals, but they also joined the Spanish in missions to control the indigenous population, and they worked in agriculture, in cattle haciendas, in domestic chores, and even in trusted positions such as foremen. After 1584 mining started to decline in Honduras, due to the primitive technology used by the Spanish, the high water mantle in Tegucigalpa and the lack of capital to invest in technology and labour force.
The Honduran Caribbean
The Central American Caribbean was not only an important site for the arrival and distribution of enslaved persons during colonial times, but it was also one of the places of intersection and confrontation between the Spanish Empire and the British Empire. The history of the Mosquito Coast, in Honduras´s Caribbean, was witness to part of these conflicts and relations that had an influence over the political and social situation of the region. Moreover, in the Mosquitia coast, people were not identified following racial concepts, but according to language, religion, occupation, and allegiance to the Spanish or the British Crowns.
The Mosquitia region stretched from Cape Cameron to Cape Gracias a Dios and to the south, up to Punta Gorda. Towards the 17th century there are reports of people of African descent in the cape Gracias a Dios, probably resulting from a Spanish shipwreck. The Africans also arrived in the Mosquitia towards 1629, when the British settled in the island of Providencia, to which they took a large number of enslaved Africans to an extent previously unheard of in the British colonies of that time. On 1641 a Spanish fleet took the island from the British, capturing three hundred and fifty English subjects and three hundred and eighty one enslaved Africans.
British population, wealth and influence concentrated along the Brus lagoon and up to Cameron River, specially anchored in the settlement of Black River or Rio Tinto, which was founded on 1730. Black River provided the English safe passage for logging in the Bay of Honduras. The proximity of the Mosquitia region to the Spanish settlements and forts implied a constant state of threat mainly from Omoa, forcing the British to depend on enslaved Africans and the Miskitos for their protection. Towards 1757, three hundred free British subjects resided in the Mosquitia, of them 80% lived in Black River and half of them were mulattos or mestizos. During that same year, those free British had in their service eight hundred enslaved persons, 20% of which were native Indians. The enslaved population of the region worked in logging, loading ships, haulage of goods and in plantations. The demographic ratio mentioned previously lasted up to 1787, when the Spanish forced the evacuation of six hundred free persons and one thousand eight hundred enslaved persons.
Cáceres Gómez, Rina
2008. Los silencios de nuestra historia. In: Del olvido a la memoria: africanos y afromestizos en la historia colonial de Centroamérica, editado por Rina Cáceres Gómez, pp. 9-15. San José: Oficina regional de la UNESCO, Costa Rica.
2008. Omoa: Cruce de Identidades. Yaxkin, XXIV(1): 113-128.