Regional Office for Culture in Latin America and the Caribbean

Portal of Culture of Latin America and the Caribbean

The presence of Africans and persons of African descent in Panama has been constant since the Conquest up to the building of the railroad and the Panama Canal in the 19th and 20th centuries.

During the colonial period, Panama was one of the first provinces to be explored and settled by the Spanish, growing rapidly in importance for the Spanish Crown as the bridge between the Atlantic and the Pacific. After the establishment of the Viceroyalty of Peru in 1542 it became even more important since the commercial system between Peru and Spain connected in Panama. Since the first Spanish incursions into the present Panamanian territory, enslaved Africans came along as military aids, gun porters, and persons in charge of domestic chores. Although it is impossible to estimate the number of Africans brought during the early days, demographic calculations by 1575 indicate the presence of a 56.65% of enslaved Africans, followed by 34.59% of Spaniards, and finally an 8.77% of natives. However, account must be taken that these figures do not include the growing number of free Blacks and mulattos engaged in countless manual trades.

From the first decades of the colony, Africans were sent to the gold-panning sites of Concepción and Acla, to the cleaning of Chagres River, pearl fishing in the Pearl Islands archipelago, to the building and repair of public works, to livestock haciendas and the portage across the isthmus. Gradually, the indigenous workforce was replaced by the African, especially after the 1550’s when the Spanish Crown issued orders to eliminate the system of encomiendas in Castilla de Oro. From that moment on, the African labourers became essential for the colonial economy, in such a way that in 1561 four hundred and fifty enslaved Africans were destined only for mining, a figure that increased to one thousand five hundred in 1575 and to two thousand years later.

The inventories of the import of people during the 17th century indicate that tens and at times hundreds of Africans were brought in every year. The processes of racial mixture characterizing Panama today were already evident since the beginning of this century, above all in Portobelo and in Panama, and they would destroy the social stratification according to ethnic origin that was reported in the 17th century, since they tended towards racial balance. Cases of the inclusion of mestizos and mulattos as scriveners are reported towards the 17th century, the most famous was the case of Manuel Botacio Grillo whom in 1623 requested authorization from the Crown to take an exam as a notary public before the Court of Panama, obtaining a positive response the second time. These events reflect the acceptance enjoyed by some mulattos within the Panamanian elite, above all when they showed dexterity, good behaviour and influential family ties.

The Route over the Isthmus

Since the beginning of colonial times Panama became essential to the Spanish Crown, since it was the route of transportation over the isthmus of precious metals, commodities and enslaved people. The first step between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean was known as Camino Real de Nombre de Dios, connecting Nuestra Señora de la Asunción de Panama (Panama City), founded on 1519, and the port of Nombre de Dios in the Caribbean, founded in 1520. The System of Fleets and Fairs was established on 1543 with the purpose of providing Spain with gold, silver and raw materials from the colonies, and to provide the colonies with European products and enslaved Africans. Both in Nombre de Dios as in Panama, during the first half of the 15th century, nearly all the non-specialized works were carried out by persons of African origin, who were also the majority of the population on both locations.

Pirate Francis Drake attacked and destroyed the city of Nombre de Dios, which was not fortified, in 1596. As a result of such attack, the scant port infrastructure of Nombre de Dios, and the growing inter-ocean traffic, the port was transferred to Portobelo in 1597, and Camino de Cruces became the main portage across the isthmus, connecting the city of Panama with Venta de Cruces by land up to the mouth of Chagres River and from the mouth of the Chagres to Portobelo by sea. The small village of Venta de Cruces, by the Chagres River, had barely seventy houses, twenty of which were occupied by enslaved Africans in charge of transporting the merchandize up the river. Both in the Camino Real and in the Camino de Cruces the Africans and enslaved persons of African descent worked as mule drivers.

Panama as a Gateway of Africans

Due to its strategic geographic location, Panama operated as a commercial centre for the Spanish colonial world. . Portobelo, in the Caribbean Sea, was one of the legal ports that appeared in the entries and signed by the consulate of Seville or the Spanish monarchy. Panama, in the Pacific Ocean, became an important colonial city dedicated to commerce and the portage of commodities and people across the isthmus. With the purpose of regulating the transoceanic traffic of persons, the Spanish Crown decided to create between the years 1595-1789 contracts or entries, which would allow a private citizen or a company to replace the Spanish government in the administration of the trade of enslaved manpower. This modality generated a marketing structure parallel to regular commerce, with representatives in the main ports, exonerating such agents from the control to which other traders were submitted.

However, the elimination of Portobelan fairs, foreign competition with the opening of Buenos Aires as a slave marketplace, and the opening of Cape Horn made Panama suffer a decline of its trading activity, including the traffic in persons, towards 1770. Likewise, the trans-Atlantic trade of enslaved Africans decreased as of the 1760’s, exceeded in numbers by the increasing traffic of Creole Blacks, born in the colonies. Towards the second half of the 18th century, most of the jobs were occupied by free persons, especially Afro-mestizos, mulattos and zambos (Black and Amerindian ancestry). The census from 1790-1793 indicate a strong decline of the slave regime that became more noticeable with the passing of time.

The People’s Uprising

The rebellions of Africans submitted to slavery took place in Panama since very early in the colonial period. The uprisings of the 16th century were a source of concern for the Spanish authorities and were quite large when compared to later occurrences. Many of these rebellions opened the way to the establishment of runaway slave refuges (sociedades palenqueras) such as Bayano, Portobelo and Cerro de Cabra, during the second half of the 16th century. Ethnic diversity was one of the characteristics of the palenques with members from different geographical regions and in some cases even different language families. The first movements of rebel Africans occurred in Acla in 1530 when the miners rebelled against the mine owners and took refuge in the abandoned city of Santa María del Darien. Other uprisings took place in Camino Real, in Venta de Capira, in Nombre de Dios and in Panama City.

Among the leaders of these movements we may point out slave Felipillo, who was Captain of the pearl divers (“capitán de negros de concha”) and started an uprising in the archipelago of the Gulf of Panama in 1549; slave Bayano who rose up and was joined by three hundred slaves from Cape Verde in 1553; Captain Antón Mandinga who rebelled and had eluded the authorities for 17 years towards 1581, and Captain Antón Tiguere who rebelled for more than 40 years towards 1582. In the 1580’s “palenques” (runaway refuges) were established in Santiago de Principe, near the future Portobelo, and in Santa Cruz la Real, at the foot of Cerro Ancón. At the beginning of the 16th century there are many cases of palenques such as that of Yanga, that of Luis Mozambique in Portobelo, and the one of Anton Mandiga in Panama, who negotiated with the Spanish authorities their acknowledgement as free people through collective freedom letters.


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