Regional Office for Culture in Latin America and the Caribbean
Portal of Culture of Latin America and the Caribbean
Like in many other countries in Central America, the idea that the African presence is exclusive of the Caribbean has become established in the Nicaraguan imagery, while the rest of the country is characterized by the mix of the indigenous population with the Europeans. Such a discourse promoting racial and cultural homogeneity in the different territories of the Caribbean not only effaces the indigenous peoples who vindicate their culture, but also ignores the African presence from the very first decades of the colonial period. It is undeniable that the cultural roots that gave origin to the Central American contemporary population are strongly rooted in the African, indigenous and European groups.
The first to be enslaved in the Americas were the natives and during the first decades of the colonial period, Nicaragua was configured as one of the most important suppliers of enslaved natives to Panama and Peru. In the period between 1536 and 1540 more than twenty ships are reported to have been trafficking periodically between Realejo, Nicoya, Panama and Peru, with cargoes of at least four hundred natives subjected to slavery. When the Spanish Crown decided to put an end to this practice, there were only between ten and fifty thousand natives left in Nicaragua. As of this moment the transatlantic traffic was used to supply the labour force required. Since 1540 reports indicate traffic of African men and women to the gold and silver mines, including Segovia, where the natives were still offering resistance and had rebelled against the Spanish rule.
The first Africans who arrived in Nicaragua were part of the service retinue of civil and ecclesiastical officials, and although they continued arriving throughout the years, towards the 17th century already most of enslaved people had been born in Nicaragua and they were termed mulatto, black and pardos (persons of mixed African, European, and Indian ancestry), all of African ancestry. During the 17th century, the Spaniards developed a system by means of which free blacks and mulattoes were granted lands in the areas bordering those of the Spaniards, in the Caribbean coast. Towards the third quarter of the 18th century the number of people of African descent had increased up to a time in which they became the majority of the population, surpassing the indigenous population numerically. They lived in the towns of the natives, in the cities and in the villages of the Spaniards, as house servants or working as carpenters, bricklayers, merchants or porters. Toward the end of colonial times many of these families scattered in the valleys, or stayed in the cities exercising their occupations, like the case of the pardo painter José Vásquez, born in Rivas, or the afro-mestizo Gabriel de Mejia, the only silversmith of Masaya.
In 1651 the Governor of the Province of Nicaragua, Captain Don Andrés Mendez de Arbieto y Ozaeta founded four mestizo and mulatto towns adjacent to the main colonial cities. These towns correspond to San Felipe de Austria in the city of Leon, which later became the district of San Felipe; the town of Santa Maria de Haro, founded in Granada; the town of San Andres de Arbieto, which fused later with the Village of Realejo; and the town of San Juan de Esquivel in Nueva Segovia. By 1752, 60% of the population of Rivas were persons of African descent who controlled one fourth of the production of cocoa. Around the same time 20% of Santa Ana's population, Chinandega, was mulatto, reaching 36% in Chichigalpa, 25% in Nuestra Señora El Viejo, and a notable 80% in Realejo. Realejo was the main port in Nicaraguan Pacific and towards 1740 the thirteen caulkers that worked there were persons of African descent. Also, ten of them owned a house, five owned banana plantations and two owned cattle ranches. In the region of Granada by 1790 there were eight thousand four hundred free people of African descent and at least one hundred enslaved persons. Many of them held essential positions in the militias dedicated to the defence and the maintenance of the public order in the different cities and towns of Colonial Nicaragua.
Social Influence of People of African Descent
In the Spanish colonial system it was possible to create spaces for the social mobility of the persons of African descent, especially in those cases in which there were family ties acknowledged by the Spanish, or in those in which the work or skills learned during slavery were valued, or through the adoption of Spanish ways and customs. A clear example was that of Manuel Molina, a pardo born in San Miguel in El Salvador, who in 1776 was appointed Tithe Accountant in the Cathedral of Leon. This appointment was accepted two years after the deliberation of the council of the Cathedral of Leon. The most striking case of upward mobility was that of the afro-mestizo Dionisio de la Cuadra, born in Granada in 1774 as the son of Spanish father and free mulatto mother, who was granted the position of notary public with permission of the Spanish Crown during the final days of the colonial rule. Dionisio de la Cuadra married Ana Norberta Lugo, afro-mestiza herself, and both were the parents of José Vicente Lugo (1812-1894), who was president of Nicaragua from 1871 to 1875.
Mestizo and Pardo Militias
The presence of people of African descent in the militias was important during the second half of the 17th century, serving in the defence of cities and in the borders of the province of Nicaragua. Since the wages for military service were very low, the members of the militias also worked as carpenters, bricklayers, barbers, tailors, coachmen, or in the sowing of small parcels. The highest rank attained by persons of African descent within the militia was that of captain, although it was not frequently conferred. This rank was followed by those of second lieutenant, lieutenant, sergeant and corporal, which were more frequent.
The militia companies of blacks, mulattos, pardos and mestizos were in charge of maintaining and guarding the fortifications of the Castillo de la Inmaculada Concepción (Castle of the Immaculate Conception), and the borders of the province of Hispanic Nicaragua adjacent with the territory of the Mosquitia, site of imperial tensions with the Miskitu Kingdom and the British. They were also part of the garrisons established in the cities of Leon and Granada. By 1658 there were in Leon two infantry and one cavalry companies made up by one hundred and fifty afro mestizo men. Towards 1752 there were nine infantry and two cavalry companies in Leon, with a total of one thousand three hundred militiamen, most of them mulattoes. During the year of 1685 there were also companies in Granada, although we do not know the number of militiamen. By the mid 18th century there were militias of mestizos and mulattoes in Telica, Managua, Masaya and Nandaime.
The neighbourhood of San Felipe, in Leon, was established as a segregated area for the people of African descent, and became the centre of the militia of pardos during the 17th century. The militia leaders were active in politics, both in the neighbourhood as in the entire province of Nicaragua. One of the most outstanding cases was that of Antonio Padilla, captain of the militias of pardos and leader of two rebellions during the 18th century. The first uprising took place in 1725 against the appointment of Don Vicente Luna y Victoria as the new field master, since he had threatened the militias with sending them to work in the indigenous work camps. The mutiny of the militia took place in the plaza of the San Felipe neighbourhood until they decided to depose their weapons. Later on, in 1740, Padilla rose against the first sergeant Antonio Lacayo de Briones, when he refused to attend his installation ceremony. Days later, all the militia companies were offered munitions except that of Padilla, which resulted in the withdrawal and uprising of all his troops. Padilla was later on captured, executed and quartered as a form of public punishment. Since this did not put an end to the defence of their rights by the militias of pardos and mulattoes, the governor finally replaced two of their captains, Melchor Toruño and José Pérez, with Spanish officers.
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