The Third Root
By Kent C. Williams
©2001 - Kent C. Williams, Santa Rosa, California
Geographically Central America lies between Mexico and South America. The seven republics that make up the region are highly diverse in their ethnic and racial compositions. The blending of native American, European and African elements over four and a half centuries produced cultures reflective of the mixing of these peoples into the various multi-racial communities that currently inhabit isthmus. In 1998 the population of Central America was estimated at 33,000,000 persons. Around 66% are mestizos or of mixed racial origins. Central America's mestizos are descended from the mixing of the three major ethnic/racial groups that settled in the region: native American or "Indian", European and African.
Persons of native American ancestry are 18% of the population, those of European ancestry 9% and those predominantly of African heritage 4%-6% of the population (1.3 to 1.9 million persons). If we include mestizos among those with some African ancestry the percentage of persons with an African heritage would be much greater.
Looking at Central America we also see that 50% of the population is concentrated in the Pacific coastal lowlands, 40% in the central highlands, and 10% along the Caribbean coast. Ethnically mestizos live in the Pacific coastal and highland zones, native Americans in the highlands and more isolated Caribbean coastal areas, and blacks along the eastern coastal or Caribbean side of the isthmus.
This paper seeks to give a brief historical overview of the African heritage of Central America. Historians in the region, as well as in the United States and Europe, have often overlooked the contributions made by Africans to Central America's history and culture. Among the Central Americans themselves historical emphases has often been placed on the European contribution to the region, and the mixing of that element with native American cultures. The African contribution to Central America has been largely left undiscovered. John Henrik Clarke in an introductory chapter on Latin-America in J.A. Roger's World's Great Men of Color (Vol. II) wrote "The part that Africans played in the making of South and Central America is still a neglected aspect of history". I hope to correct this oversight.
A more in-depth investigation into these communities is still needed. It is hoped that this paper might be the catalyst that encourages scholars of the African Diaspora to investigate more fully this "undiscovered" part of the story of Africans and their descendants in Central America.
The Mexican historian Gonzalo Aguirre Beltran (the father of black Mexican history) referred to Mexico's African heritage as the tercera raiz or "third root" of the Mexican people. The tercera raiz also extends south of Mexico into the republics of Central America. Along with native American and European elements, Central America's tercera raiz has also left its imprint upon the ethnic and cultural landscape that makes up the various peoples and cultures of Central America.
The Pre-Colombian Age:
The focus of this paper is on the history of African settlement in Central America during the years after the Spanish conquests of the 15th and 16th centuries. However, African influence in the region before the Spanish conquest must also be considered. A growing body of evidence collected by archaeologists since the 1920's strongly suggests an African presence in Mexico and Central America long before the arrival of Columbus. These Africans arrived not in bondage, but as merchants and traders who, like their European and Asian counterparts, came to the region to trade with the native population. Other historians have speculated that some could also have been refugees expelled after military defeats. Dr. Cyrus H. Gordon of Brandeis University writes in Before Columbus (1971):
"Long before the Vikings reached America around A.D.1000, Mesoamerica had long been the scene of the intermingling of different populations from across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Some of the most creative people came from the Near East; but no one group monopolized the scene. Caucasians from one end of Europe to the other came; Negroes from Africa; Mongolians of Chinese and Japanese types from the Far East"."
Gordon goes on to say that the results of this on-going "mingling" between these groups was "a galaxy of brilliant Mesoamerican civilizations, whose final phases are known to us as Inca, Maya and Aztec". He continues by saying that these civilizations were not the creations of "savages who lifted themselves up by their bootstraps" but rather that they were "culminations of mingled strands of civilization brought to these shores by a variety of talented people from Europe, Africa and Asia". What role did the African play in this early history of Mesoamerica?
On the Gulf Coast of Mexico there appears to have been from the earliest of times a great mix of peoples and races including Africans, Europeans and Asians. Around the Mexican towns of Veracruz, Tres Zapotes and San Lorenzo sculpted figures of peoples of various races have been found. These peoples eventually mixed together forming the various "native American" tribes of the region. From this area some migrated south into Central America and had an influence on the development of the Mayan Empire.
Jim Bailey writes in his Sailing to Paradise: The Discovery of the Americas by 7000 B.C. (1994) "While the impetus for much of this Mexican colonization will have come from the eastern Mediterranean, I think we must expect tropical West Africa to have provided some part of the leadership, or they would not have selected an area so climatically unlike Egypt and the Mediterranean yet so similar to the rain forests of the Guinea coast". He goes on to say "This culture provided the all important foundations for the future Mexican civilization and for subsequent societies in Central America, especially the Toltec".
The most substantial evidence of the great variety of peoples who settled in Mesoamerica during these early years is found in the large number of sculpted heads of stone and terra-cotta that have been discovered. Black Africans, along with white Mediterranean and Semitic types, are depicted among the pre-Columbian artifacts of the region.
The massive sculpted heads of black Africans discovered near Vera Cruz (at Hueyapan) , Tres Zapotes and San Lorenzo represent some of the most compelling evidence of pre-Columbian African settlement in Mesoamerica. Other similar types of heads have been found as far away as El Salvador. Dating from some time after 1,500BC these heads were made by peoples of the Toltec and Olmec culture. Jim Bailey in Sailing to Paradise (1994) had this to say about the sculptures: "It is unmistakably African, the portrayal of a type completely unknown among Amerindians. Furthermore it is a realistic and self-consistent portrayal - not a fantasy that happens to look like an African in some ways. If it had been carved in Africa one would be completely unsurprised, but in fact it is one of seventeen colossal African heads made by the Toltec/Olmecs after 1500BC." Other heads have been discovered in the Tabasco state weighing up to 20 tons and eight feet tall. Smaller heads and figures have also been found in the states of Oxaca and Michoacan.
Mr. Bailey goes on to say that "at Monte Alban, a great temple site in inland Mexico, there are carvings that portray distinctively African features and African dancing" and that further south in Guatemala the ancient Maya, who carved their Gods as bearded white men, made an exception in regards to their war god who was black and "had protruding lips after the African model".
Throughout Central America archeologists have discovered sculpted figures, masks and heads that indicate an ancient African presence in Central America.
Guatemala: In the church at Esquipultas the "Black Christ" is venerated. Thousands of native Americans and mestizos travel from all parts of the country to this shrine. The fact that the image of Christ here is black is significant. Some Indians still refer in private to the "Black Christ" as "Ekchuah" the Maya god of "merchants and cacao planters". "Ekchuah" was a black Maya god with "red lips". A number of figures of people with African features have also been unearthed in Guatemala and can be traced to the ancient Maya.
The Latin-American archaeologist J.A. Villacorta wrote about black people living in pre-Columbian Guatemala. He claims that both "blacks and whites" lived in the area around Chichicastenango speaking different languages and of "Negro chiefs who appear in the role of conquerors".
El Salvador: At Chalchuapa (near Santa Ana) an enormous African stone head was discovered near a coffee plantation. Attributed to the Olmec peoples of the Veracruz region of Mexico, this massive sculpted head weighs 40 tons and is nine feet tall. The four sides of the stone head are carved "in low relief" with images of fierce warriors. The Olmecs, who now appear to have had an African connection, were among the first people to settle in El Salvador 3,500 years ago.
Honduras: An ancient stone mask uncovered in Honduras depicts the face of a black African. Some archaeologists have also speculated that the African "tribe of Almamys" settled in Honduras during ancient times.
Costa Rica: J.A. Rogers in Sex And Race - Vol. 1 writes "The American Museum of Natural History in New York City contains several early idols. In the Central American division is a group of ancient Costa Rican divinities which are Negroid. One of them, the largest, being strikingly so."
Panama: Peter Martyr, historian and friend of Columbus, wrote that the "first Negroes seen in the Indies" were encountered in Panama. He stated that when Balboa arrived in 1513 he found "Negro slaves in this province that live in regions only one days march from Quarequa, and they are fierce and cruel". The Spaniard Gomara remarked in his writings that when he crossed the Panamanian isthmus "Balboa found some Negroes. He asked them whence they got there, but they could not tell, nor did they know more than this that men of colour were living near by, and they were constantly waging war with them". He also mentions that the Cuarecas tribe had black slaves. The Spanish found skulls in caves in the Darien that were latter identified as belonging to persons of African origin.
Some native American tribes of the Darien (Panama) believe that when their ancestors arrived in the region it was inhabited by "small black men who soon afterwards, retired into the forests". The Pajas and Tapalisas Indians of the Cuna Cunas believe their origins go back to "a man and two woman, one Indian and the other Negro, who lived on the banks of the Tataruma".
How did these pre-Columbian Africans living in Panama get there? When did they arrive? Jim Bailey's research suggests that they might have been among the survivors of a great fleet of "canoes" that was dispatched by the King of Mali Mansa Musa (1307-1332). King Mansa Musa was the most famous of the kings of the Empire of Mali. This empire was at its height under his rule. Mansa Musa once led 8000 of his subjects on a pilgrimage to Mecca and was known as the "King of the Gold Mines". According to Bailey king Mansa Musa "dispatched a thousand canoes across the Atlantic to seek land beyond the ocean " they never returned".
Harold G. Lawrence in the article African Explorers of the New World (1962) wrote "The Mandingoes of the Mali and Songhay Empires, and possibly others, crossed the Atlantic to carry on trade with the Western Hemisphere Indians, and further succeeded in establishing colonies throughout the Americas. Mali, the earliest of these two great empires, building on the ruins of ancient Ghana, rose to become one of the leading nations of the world."
When Columbus set out for the "New World" he was informed during a stop in the Cape Verde islands that Africans had set out before him with large canoes heading west. When he landed on the island of Hispaniola he was again told by the natives that they had obtained gold from "black men who had come from across the sea - from the south and southeast". These could have been some of the sailors and merchants sent across the Atlantic by Askia the Great king of Songhay Empire.
Blacks were also found living along the Amazon River of Brazil. Could these Africans living in Panama and Brazil before the European conquest have been the descendants of black people who had crossed the Atlantic Ocean 160 years or more before Columbus? Some scholars believe they are.
Early Years of Spanish Conquest:
From the earliest days of Spanish exploration in the "New World" persons of African origin were present. Pedro Alonzo Nino, considered by historians to be of African ancestry, sailed with Christopher Columbus as a navigator on his first voyage to the Americas in 1492. Columbus also had Africans with him on his second voyage in 1494.
In 1502 Portuguese slave ships brought the first of their "human cargo" to the Spanish island of Hispaniola (Haiti & Dominican Republic). These Afro-Hispanics, who were born in Spain (mainly in Seville) were Spanish speaking and of the Roman Catholic faith. A Royal Ordinance proclaimed by Queen Isabella in 1501 had given sanction to the introduction of African slaves into the Spanish colonies of the "New World". In 1510 larger numbers of slaves arrived with the introduction of 250 Afro-Hispanics from southern Spain to work the gold mines of Hispaniola.
In 1517 the Spanish Crown took the final steps in its full adoption of African slavery by authorizing that native Americans be substituted by Africans for purposes of slave labor. The Dominican missionary Bartolome de las Casas had been appointed the previous year "Protector of the Indians" and recommended the Crown replace native labor with African labor in the mines of Spanish America. This resulted in a sharp increase in the numbers of Africans being brought to the Spanish colonies. Over the next two centuries more then 3,650,000 Africans are forcibly transported to Latin America (including Central America) from Africa and southern Spain.
During the early years of Spanish settlement in Central America the lack of available labor proved to be a problem for Spanish land owners. Slavery had come to be thought of as an essential element in the development of the Spanish Empire. At first, native Americans were forced to labor for the Spanish through a system called the encomienda. The encomienda was used as a form of "christianizing" slavery with the idea that in return for their labor, natives would receive the "benefits of Christianity". Within a generation unusually high rates of death and disease eliminated the native as an important factor in the encomienda system. A Royal Ordinance issued in 1512 sought to protect the natives from harsh treatment. Another ordinance proclaimed in 1542 (The New Laws) attempted to end the forced laboring of native Americans under the encomienda. Such laws protecting the natives were not always well enforced and the native population in Central America continued to decline during the 16th and 17th centuries.
With the elimination the encomienda, an increase in the arrival of slaves from Africa took place in Central America during the decade of 1540's. Africans were brought to the Caribbean and Central America from several western and central African regions. Many were brought from Senegal, The Gambia, the Guinea and Gold Coasts, Nigeria, the Congo basin and as far south as Angola. During the 16th and 17th centuries thousands were transported from these regions to the islands of Hispaniola, Cuba and Puerto Rico. Spanish planters tended to favor the Yoruba speaking Africans of western Nigeria and many were "imported" from this region. From Hispaniola, Cuba and Puerto Rico, African slaves were transported to ports along the North Coast of Honduras and from there sold to Spanish miners and planters living and working in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua.
The first group of black slaves to arrive in what would latter be the United Provinces of Central America landed near Puerto Cortez (Honduras) with Gil Gonzalez de Avila in 1524. Over the next century more Africans than Europeans would arrive in Central America. By the time Central America received its independence from Spain in 1821, a process of assimilation had taken place. This resulted in the racial and cultural absorption of the majority of Africans into the mestizo population. The importation of African slaves into Central America declined during the 18th century. Native and mestizo labor began to replace the slave labor that had been so important to the Spanish miners and planters during the 16th and 17th centuries. A growing miscegenation between the races resulted in a steady cultural and racial amalgamation that was nearly complete in Central America by the time of independence. This amalgamation process had taken place slowly, over a three hundred year period starting in the 1520's.
Long before the abolition of slavery in Central America (1823) many Africans and Afromestizos had become "free men and women of color". This status had been achieved either through desertion or "individual liberation". In addition to this, the children of African slave fathers and native American mothers were deemed free by Spanish colonial authorities. As a result, more than a few African male slaves took native "common-law wives" in an effort to gain for their descendants the freedoms that had been denied them. Because of a great shortage of European women immigrants to Central America during the 16th and 17th centuries, Spanish men often took African and native American women as their common law wives. These African and native American women are the "first mothers" of over 65% of today's Central American population.
In the introduction to the chapter on Latin-America in the book Great Men of Color (1947) John Henrik Clarke comments on the life of the African slave in Latin-America "...the slave master did not outlaw the African drum, African ornamentations, African religion, or other things dear to the African, remembered from his former life". John Hope Franklin writes in From Freedom To Slavery (1969) about the Spanish attitude towards African slaves. "There was generally a greater respect for Negroes as human beings then there was in English America. The willingness of Spaniards to intermarry with Negroes is ample proof of this" and "There existed all through Spanish America an inclination to merge the blood of the Spaniard with the blood of the Negro -on a respectable basis- that, in the long run, had a profound effect on the institution of slavery itself". It seems that the results of this "inclination" was that the African population of colonial Central America essentially "melted into" the mestizo mainstream over several generations creating the "tri-racial" population (known commonly as mestizo) that is found throughout much of Central America today. It should also not be forgotten that slavery in Spanish America was at times just as brutal as anything found in the British colonies, and that thousands and thousands of Africans died in the mines and on the plantations of Latin America during the years of the slave trade.
The exceptions to the above examples of Afro-Hispanic amalgamation in Central America are the two Afro-Amerindian population groups known as Garifuna and Miskito, as well as the Creole English speaking Afro-Antillean communities scattered along the eastern coastline of Central America. These groups live culturally separate lives from the mestizo majority and are also ethnically different than the mixed descendants of Africans from the colonial era.
Latin-American historian F. D. Parker in The Central American Republics (1964) suggests that "For every seven indigenous persons who contributed their blood to the amalgamated stream there were two Africans and one European". This 20% African contribution to the mestizo peoples of Central America has often been overlooked by students and historians of the African Diaspora. It is my hope that this paper will raise a few questions, as well as answer some existing ones regarding the origins of these peoples and at the same time give the reader a good general overview of African descended peoples in the region.
The following is a "country by country" breakdown of Central America's African descended communities:
Forward to Guatemala
Back to Index Page