Lest We Forget - African American Military History by Researcher, 
				Author and Veteran Bennie McRae, Jr.

Afromestizo - The Third Root

African Heritage of Central America

By Kent C. Williams

©2001 - Kent C. Williams, Santa Rosa, California


Although Africans, including the nobleman Nuflo de Olano, were with Balboa in Panama when he "discovered" the Pacific in 1513, most historians record the beginnings of an African presence in Central America with the landing of Gil Gonzalez De Avila near Puerto Cortes in 1524. That same year Cristobal de Olid established the first Spanish settlement in Honduras at La Ensenada (near Tela). 

Sailing from the island of Jamaica, a storm had forced De Avila and his party to land on the Honduran coast. Among those on board were African salves as well as Spanish women. These are generally considered the first Africans (and European women) to arrive on Central American soil. It should be noted  that a man of African heritage Diego Mendez, was with Columbus on his fourth voyage to the New World in 1502. Mendez sailed with Columbus along the eastern seaboard of Central America and landings were made on the Honduran coast at Trujillo and in the Bay Islands (at Guanaja) as well as at other points along the Central American coast from Honduras to Panama. Mendez therefore can be considered the first person of African heritage to set foot in Central America in modern times.

Although today only 2% (110,000) of the population of Honduras is considered to be of black ancestry, the story of  the African presence in Honduras reflects the great mixing of peoples that has taken place in this country over the centuries. Next to El Salvador, Honduras has the second highest percentage (90%) of people of mixed racial ancestry in Central America. The African element is found not only among those of  mestizo heritage, but also among other African descended communities such as the Garifuna,  Miskitos and Afro-Antilleans. These three groups live primarily along the Mosquito and North Coasts of Honduras, as well as on the nearby Bay Islands.

Persons of native American ancestry make up 7% of the population. Those of European ancestry are 1%.  Smaller communities of Arabic speaking peoples, as well as Chinese, also live in Honduras.


During the colonial era (1524-1821) Honduras received most of the African slaves that were sent out from  Spain's Caribbean colonies. From North Coast towns such as Puerto Cortes, Triunfo de la Cruz and Trujillo, African slaves were sold and dispersed throughout  Central America.

During the first years of the colony most African slaves lived in Spanish settlements along the North Coast. But by the 1530's mining interests in the interior took over as the colony's most important industry. These mining centers were originally located near the Guatemalan border (around Gracias) and by 1538 over 60,000 pesos of gold had been mined. During the 1540's the mining areas shifted eastward towards the  Rio Guayape Valley. Other gold deposits were also discovered near San Pedro Sula and the port of Trujillo. Both gold and silver were mined in these areas by large numbers of African slaves.

By the 1540's the native labor supply had become greatly depleted through sickness, warfare and the native slave trade. This resulted in the increased importation of African slaves into Honduras. Over the next 100 years more Africans than Europeans arrived in the colony. By 1545 it is estimated that 2,000 African slaves were laboring in the mines of the colony. In 1561 the Spanish writer Menendez de Aviles noted that large numbers of black slaves were in the Spanish colonies and mentioned  "Puerto de Cavallos" (Puerto Cortes) as having a large slave population.

In 1548, slaves working the mines near San Pedro Sula rebelled against the Spanish. Military reinforcements from neighboring colonies were brought in to suppress the uprising. In 1550 eighty African slaves were sent to work the Buria mines near Barquisimento. Five years latter, a Spanish speaking slave named Miguel organized Africans and native Americans into an uprising known as Miguel's Rebellion. Miguel and his followers escaped from their Spanish masters and organized their own "nation" with Miguel as their king. They established a capital and founded an army to defend themselves against possible recapture by the Spanish. This rebellion is considered one of the first important slave rebellions in Latin American history.

Miguel ordered an attack on the Spanish settlement at Barquisimento. The Spanish colonists here numbered forty. With the arrival of a military detachment, Miguel and his follows were defeated and the rebellion put down. The Spanish also used Africans in their colonial armies as "shock troops" to crush slave rebellions and maintain order throughout  their Central American colonies.

Mining production began to decline in Honduras during 1560's. A silver strike in 1569 revived  some operations and  resulted in the founding of the city of Tegucigalpa. Tegucigalpa became the capital of Honduras in 1880. By 1584 the silver boom had peaked and the large numbers of Africans brought in to work the mines slowly decreased.  During the 17th century fewer African slaves were brought to Honduras, and the colony was largely forgotten and left on its own. Honduras was the poorest of the Central American provinces during the colonial era. During the 17th century the African population began a process of amalgamation with the native American and European elements in the country resulting in the composite muli-racial population that today makes up the overwhelming majority of the Honduran population.

The Garifuna:

The Garifuna, also known as "Black Caribs", are the descendants of runaway and shipwrecked African slaves and native Americans of  Carib and Arawak origin. Technically, the people are referred to as the Garinagu and their culture and language is called Garifuna, but Garifuna is commonly used today to describe both the people and their language.  The story of the Garifuna begins on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent. Native American Arawak and Carib tribes from South America (Venezuela) settled over several centuries on a number of islands in the Lesser Antilles including St.Vincent. The Arawaks arriving around 100AD, and the Caribs from about 1200AD. The Carib's subdued and absorbed the culture of the native Arawaks, killing off their men and intermarrying with their women.

The British claimed the island in 1627 and in 1660 the British and French signed an agreement that the island should be left in "perpetual possession" of the Carib peoples. For years the Europeans had been unsuccessful in their attempts to conquer island from the Caribs.  By 1719 the treaty was broken and  French settlement on the island commenced. In 1748 both countries reaffirmed their "neutral policy" towards the island. This lasted until 1763 when the Treaty of Paris placed the island back into British hands.

In 1635 two ships carrying captured Nigerians were shipwrecked off the coast of St. Vincent. Some of the Africans were able to swim ashore and find shelter in the Carib villages. In 1675 a British ship carrying settlers and their slaves was shipwrecked between St. Vincent and Bequia. Only the slaves survived the shipwreck and they also came to live and mix with the native Carib-Arawak population. For several decades escaped slaves from the nearby islands of Barbados, St. Lucia and Grenada also arrived on St. Vincent. In the beginning their dealings with the Caribs were less then cordial and for 150 years the relationship between the Africans and natives went from one of "reluctant acceptance" to that of occasional warfare and finally to the complete fusion of the two peoples into a new "tribe". In 1700 for example, tribal warfare between the Garifuna and Caribs took place. The colonists referred to those of mixed African and native ancestry as "Black Carib" and to those of unmixed ancestry as "Red" or "Yellow"  Caribs. 

The African newcomers came to politically dominate the Carib population. They achieved  linguistic and cultural unity among themselves by adopting the Carib language and many of their customs, as well as intermarrying with them. Having come from several different tribes in Africa, the Carib language served as a lingua-franca giving the Africans a new found unity and cultural identity. Over the centuries the Garifuna language incorporated Yoruba and French words into its native Arawak-Carib vocabulary. These two groups, one African and the other Carib-Arawak, blended together to form a new ethnic group. One that has endured for over three centuries.

From 1719 on, French settlers started arriving on St. Vincent. They set up small tobacco, cotton and sugarcane plantations and for the most part got along well with the Garifuna and Caribs. In 1760 the Garifuna population on St. Vincent was estimated at around five thousand.

The English wanted to set up large scale plantations and attempted to force the Garifuna off their land. They also would not tolerate of a large free African population existing on the island in such close proximity to their own plantations. A campaign to push the Garifuna off their land resulted in warfare between the two groups in what were known as the Carib Wars of 1772-'73.  A short lived peace treaty was signed in 1773 and by 1776 the French and Caribs had retaken the island from the British. The island was returned to the British in 1789.

Another war took place between England and French on the island between 1795-1796. A Frenchman by the name of Victor Hugues organized the French on the island in a revolt against the British. Hugues was joined by the Garifuna in one final attempt to rid the island of the British. For a year and a half the Garifuna fought bravely (with the French) against the British. They were led during the early phases of the conflict by King Joseph Chatoyer (Satuye) who was killed in May of 1795. He remains to this day the "national hero" of the Garifuna people. During the war the Garifuna took revenge on the English, and a number of plantations were pillaged and their owners killed. The French and Garifuna were finally defeated  (June 10, 1796) by 4,000 British troops under the command of General Abercrombie. The 5,000 Garifuna on the island were then held as "prisoners of war". The English made the decision to deport over 60% to an uninhabited island off the coast of Honduras, believing the Garifuna would now become a "problem" for the Spanish. The decision to do this came back to haunt them in latter years when the Garifuna attacked repeatedly English settlements along the Honduran (Mosquito) coast.

On March 3, 1797 over 3,000 Garifuna were loaded onto a convoy of ten ships and relocated 1,800 miles west to the depopulated island of Roatan. Arriving on April 12th , they were left with supplies for only three months.  Most of the Garifuna did not find Roatan much to their liking and soon after their arrival the Spanish governor of Honduras invited the Garifuna to settle in an area near the coastal town of Trujillo. The Spanish believed the Garifuna might be of help to them in their efforts to bolster the meager coastal population against British encroachments in the area.

By 1799 the Garifuna had established their first two mainland settlements on both sides of the city of Trujillo (located at Rio Negro and Cristales). The Spanish welcomed the Garifuna as workers and warriors. They were excellent boatmen, fishermen, loggers and mercenary soldiers. They also helped to defended coastal Honduran towns against English pirates and latter took part in the wars for Central American independence. Some escaped Spanish military conscription by fleeing to the nearby Mosquito Coast. In 1823, two years after the independence of  Central America, an abortive takeover of Honduras by Spanish royalists resulted in some Garifuna finding themselves on the loosing side. Defeated and facing political persecution, some moved to the remote coastal area of Livingston (Guatemala). Several years latter in 1832 another group under the leadership of Alejo Benji left for the Stann Creek (Dangriga) area of Belize.

A small group of Garifuna remained on the island of Roatan. Moving to its north side they established the village of Punta Gorda, the oldest Garifuna settlement in Central America. Over the next century groups of Garifuna moved up and down the coast of Central America establishing villages from Belize to Nicaragua. A total of 51 communities now exist (43 in Honduras or 85% of the Garifuna population). Most settlements are located along the shores of the North Coast of Honduras (within 200 meters of the ocean) from Puerto Cortes to the Rio Paulaya.  On the island of St. Vincent there is still a small Garifuna community living in the area around Sandy Bay, the descendants of those who were not deported in 1797. In 1802 the island of St. Vincent was finally recognized as a British possession with the signing of the  Treaty of Amiens.

Some of the younger generation Garifuna have moved to the larger cities of Honduras such as San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa. A number of them now speak only Spanish. Others have immigrated to the United States in recent years and have settled in Los Angeles and New York. It is estimated that there were 75,000 Garifuna speaking persons living in Honduras in 1995.

Important Garifuna settlements along the North Coast of Honduras include: Puerto Cortes and it's surrounding areas. The area around the city of Tela has several villages and the Garifuna museum (Museo Garifuna) is located here. In and around the city of La Ceiba there are also several settlements. The Garifuna first came to La Ceiba in 1810 and are famous for their yearly fiesta called the Feria de San Isidro. Here one can see the Punta danced. The Punta is a Garifuna folk/social dance popular throughout Central America. Garifuna style dance bands are well known throughout Central America and the Caribbean (see page 37).

Trujillo (the "Garifuna capital") was the first mainland Garifuna settlement. There are still many small Garifuna villages in this area. Trujillo was destroyed by English and Dutch pirates in 1642-'43 and for nearly  150 years it was left deserted until Spanish soldiers arrived in 1780. The Garifuna were the first persons to re-settle the area when they arrived between 1797 and 1799.

Many Garifuna are fishermen and merchant sailors. They take great pride in their traditions, having their own language, dances, music, foods and variations on Roman Catholicism all showing strong African  influences. They see themselves as a native American culture group, although they are predominantly of African ancestry. In April of 1997 the Garifuna celebrated their 200th anniversary in Central America with festivities in Trujillo and on Roatan. "Uwara wachuluru, lidawama aban" (We came united, we stay united) was the motto of the day.

For over 200 years the Garifuna have maintained a distinctive lifestyle along the eastern shores of  Central America, the product of the mixing of two races and cultures for over three centuries. 

The Miskitos:

Because of Spain's failure to colonize the eastern Caribbean lowlands of Honduras, English pirates, traders, woodcutters and planters began to settle in the region east of Trujillo around Palacios and Brus Lagunas. As early as 1625, English explorers (based in Bermuda) explored the Mosquito Coast of  Honduras and Nicaragua. In 1633 an English  settlement was established at Cabo Gracias a Dios in the region known as La Mosquitia . Until 1860 La Mosquita or the Mosquito Coast of Honduras and Nicaragua, was essentially a  British "protectorate". 

The Miskitos are the descendants of native Americans (Pech, Tawahka, Sumo), black Africans and   English and Scottish woodcutters and planters who settled along the coastal areas of Honduras east of Trujillo continuing along the coast into the eastern coastal areas of Nicaragua. Through ongoing miscegenation between the three races a people predominantly native American in culture and language emerged known as the Miskitos. Whereas the Garifuna of Honduras and Nicaragua are generally considered to be  black,  the Miskitos are most often thought of as being an indigenous or native American community. They tend to show fewer African influences then the Garifuna, who have retained far more influences in religion, music, dance, food and folklore.

With the arrival in 1633 of the first English settlers at Cabo Gracias a Dios, a population of mixed native American and English emerged. In 1641 the first of several shipwrecked slave vessels  brought Africans to the area. Escaped slaves, as well as Garifuna fleeing Spanish military service also contributed to the growing Miskito population. The small Garifuna communities in the Nicaraguan portions of La Mosquita add yet another ethnic dimension to the diversity of the Coast.

By the 18th century the three racial groups had merged together to form a "tribe" calling itself the Miskitos. The language of the Miskitos is a Creole based on the native American Bahwika language with influences of African, English and German. German speaking Moravian missionaries came to the Nicaraguan coast during the 19th century and converted large numbers of Miskitos to the Moravian faith. Many Miskitos also speak Creole English as well as Spanish. Miskito settlements stretch along  the Honduran coast from Laguna de Brus (Honduras) to the Laguna de Perlas in Nicaragua and inland along the Rio Coco (the border between Honduras and Nicaragua).

The first written account of the Miskitos is in 1672 when the pirate John Equemelin estimated their numbers at sixteen hundred. The English saw the value of cultivating the Miskitos against the Spanish. In 1687 they invited the chief of the Moskito's  to Jamaica and crowned him Jeremy I, the first of many Miskito kings (this tradition lasted into the 19th century). Miskito kings traveled from Bluefields (Nicaragua) to Jamaica (and latter to Belize Town) for their "coronations" receiving the "good will" and "blessings" of the British Crown. The Miskitos were well know for their loyalty to the British, and many joined in English pirate raids on Spanish cities along the Honduran coast. The Miskitos also launched their own attacks against  Honduran cities such as San Pedro Sula and Juticalpa, as well as against Leon and Granada  in Nicaragua and Matina in Costa Rica, where they exacted tribute from the population until 1841.

In 1780 a major Spanish offensive to remove the English from their settlements in Honduras commenced. In 1782 the Spanish attacked British settlements in Honduras and the English and Miskitos fled into the jungles. They quickly recaptured their communities. In 1786 the Convention of London  (Anglo-Hispanic Convention) was signed and the British agreed to evacuate the Mosquito Coast in exchange for Spanish recognition of their Belize colony. The "Shoremen", as the English living along the coast called themselves, were forced to leave their settlements and most went to Belize or the Caymen Islands. The British had their main settlements at Black River (Palacios) (settled originally by Englishman William Pitt in 1699) and at nearby Brewer's Lagoon (Brus Lagunas).

The British had come to the Coast for the groves of mahogany and logwood. The Chartered Company also set up operations in the area exploiting the pearl fisheries of the region.  The British brought with them blacks from Jamaica to work in the timber industry. These were the first Afro-Antilleans to come to Honduras. British interests in the region continued in the form of the "Miskito Kingdom" a "protectorate" that was re-established in 1816 and lasting until 1860 when Honduras finally gained complete control over their portion of the Coast. The Spanish language did not become important in this region until the 1950's.

There are around 10,000 Miskito speaking Hondurans living along the Honduran part of the Coast. Other Miskito settlements are along the Rio Coco (on the Honduran-Nicaraguan border) where there are forty villages. During the 1980's up to 10,000 Miskitos fled from Nicaragua to the Honduran side of the river as a result of operations against them by the Sandinista government.


North Coast:

The first Afro-Antilleans in Honduras were slaves brought by the British to the Mosquito Coast from Jamaica and other Caribbean islands. They were brought in to work in the mahogany and logwood industries developed there by Scottish and English woodcutters during the early 18th century. Logwood was used in dyes that were used in the British woolen industry. Mahogany was used to make furniture. When the  British and their slaves were forced to leave their settlements during the 1780's many moved to Belize or the Caymen Islands. Afro-Antilleans would not return to the Honduran coast in large numbers until the end of the 19th century.

Fruit companies from the United States developed a banana industry along the North Coast of Honduras during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The United and Standard Fruit companies established   operations here in 1899. These companies recruited Afro-Antilleans from Jamaica and the Caymen and Bay Islands to work on these plantations. Black immigration to Honduras from the Caribbean continued  into the first half of 20th century. Several Afro-Antillean communities developed in and around the larger towns of the of the North Coast (Tela, La Ceiba, Puerto Cortes). Companies such as United (Chiquita) and Standard (Dole) controlled much of the economy of the region and continue to have a major economic influence, employing large numbers of  Afro-Antilleans on banana and pineapple plantations.

Around the towns of Tela, La Ceiba and Puerto Cortes Afro-Antilleans speak a Creole English related to the Jamaican variety. Most younger generation Afro-Antilleans are either bi-lingual or Spanish speaking only. They continue to become more assimilated into Hispanic culture with each generation  with greater numbers leaving the North Coast for  jobs in the larger inland cities.

The Bay Islands:

 The Bay Islands (Islas de la Bahia) are several small islands lying off the North Coast of Honduras. The largest of the islands are Roatan, Utila and Guanaja. Roatan, the most populated of the islands, has a majority black population. Since the 1970's a Spanish speaking mestizo community from the mainland  has also settled on the island. North Americans and Europeans have come to Roatan and Utila in recent years as well. Utila is predominantly English speaking and culturally the most Anglo. Its population is about half black and half white.

In 1980 the ethnic makeup of the islands was 42% black, 27% white, 16% "mixed" and  4% Garifuna, thus persons of African or partial African ancestry made up 62% of the islands population. The 1995 population was estimated at 60,000. There has not been a lot of intermarriage between the various groups on the islands but a general sense of social equality exits between the black and white communities. Many blacks and whites living here remain economically impoverished.

 The Afro-Hispanic Diego Mendez was with Columbus when he landed on the Bay Islands in 1502. He is the first person of African descent to set foot in Central America in modern times. The Spanish did not return to the islands until 1516 when they kidnapped numbers of native Americans sending them into bondage on the island of Hispaniola. During the 1530's French (and latter English and Dutch) pirates and freebooters started using the islands as a base for attacks against the Spanish fleet. Although claimed by Spain, an English military detachment occupied the islands in 1742. English military forces had landed at Port Royal and Sandy Bay three years earlier and English settlers (along with their slaves) started to settle on the islands. Spanish forces retook the islands in 1748 and forced the English to evacuate their settlements three years latter. By 1779 the English had returned, but were again defeated by  Spain (1782) and once again the colonists and their slaves were forced to leave. The islands were left depopulated until 1797 when the English deported the Garifuna to Roatan. The Garifuna village of Punta Gorda  is the oldest continuous settlement in the islands.

 During the 1780's the English settlement at Black River on the Mosquito Coast was forced to evacuate to Belize and the Caymen Islands. Thirty years latter, descendants of these refugees started the re-settlement of the Bay Islands by persons of English, Scottish and Africans descent. With the abolition of slavery on the island of Grand Caymen, British landowners and their slaves began moving to the Bay Islands. Starting at Suc-Suc Cay off Utila in 1831, planters and their slaves eventually migrated to Coxen Hole, Flowers Bay and West End (on Roatan) and Sheen and Hog Cays on Guanaja. This migration continued until 1843.

 In 1859 the English officially recognized Honduran sovereignty over the Bay Islands. However, many islanders continued to think of themselves as a part of the British Empire well into the 20th century.  English speaking and of the Protestant faith, they represent the influences of the Afro-Anglo Caribbean cultures that settled along the eastern coastline of Central American from Belize to Panama.

Category: African Heritage of Central America | Subcategory: Honduras | Tags: California , 1700
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