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Mon, 11.03.1513

The Afro Panamanian Community, a story

*Afro Panamanians are affirmed on this date in 1513. They are Panamanians of African ancestry.

Afro Panamanians descended from slaves brought to Panama during the middle passage. Early Period The first Africans to arrive in Panama came with Vasco Núñez de Balboa in 1513. Panama was a significant territory because it had the shortest route from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Goods were taken from ports, transported overland to Panama City ports, and boarded ships headed to South America. Initially, indigenous labor was used but was decimated due to abuse and disease. By 1517, the trade in Africans was underway.

Initially, slaves maintained the ships and ports. It later turned to transport goods across the isthmus. The transportation of goods was grueling due to the terrain, stormy weather, and attacks by indigenous people. According to the studies, the slaves from the region between the southern Senegal River and northern Angola began arriving to work on plantations. From 1523, men and women who arrived mainly came from GuineaCameroon, the Congo Basin, and Angola. By 1560, there were Maroon communities in Bayano Palanqueras and Cerro de Cabra, Portobelo, Panama.

The asiento was granted to the South Sea Company until the mid-eighteenth century. In the last decades of the eighteenth century, the Spanish Gaditana Company imported African slaves, although most came from Havana, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and the French Caribbean colonies. The African presence has determined the ethnic-cultural core musical features of the Panamanian people. Beginning in 1607, Africans used this form of communication (songs, instruments, and dances). 

Many legendary figures like Bayano, Anton Mandinka, and Domingo Congo led to a peace treaty in 1607. This granted some freedom, but with restrictions, to thousands of former slaves and is still cultivated by the "Congo" (a culture and genre of Afro-colonial dance). Students of this culture find parallels as their cryptolect language is like funeral practices of San Basilio de Palenque, Colombia, of Congolese and Ghanaian origin. Studying this culture helps determine at least some Afro Panamanians' greeting with feet and talking backward, as a mixture of European, African, and Indigenous cultures.  


Some African slaves used the isolated nature of transporting goods as an opportunity to escape slavery. Many people of African descent fled into the sparsely settled terrain and formed Cimarroneras or marooned societies. These ex-slaves were known as Cimarrones. Cimarrones would mount attacks on transport caravans so often that the attacks became very disruptive to trade by the 1550s. The most famous of these Cimarrones was Bayano. In 1570, all Maroons were pardoned to stop the raiding. Cimarrones proceeded to find Cimarroneras. Luis de Mozambique founded Santiago del Principe Cimarronera, and Antón de Mandinga founded Santa la Real. With the Cimarrones of Panama, Sir Francis Drake allied in 1572 to carry out his first independent attack on the New World Spanish colonies.

Slaves were used in many functions in Portobelo and Panama City. Most worked as domestic servants; others were skilled tradesmen—blacksmiths, carpenters, and cobblers. The discovery of gold also saw its use in mining. This strong dependency on slaves saw an increase in the slave population. For most of the 1600s and 1700s, Afro Panamanians outnumbered whites. By 1625, Afro Panamanians numbered 12,000; by 1630, white Panamanians were outnumbered ten to one. By 1789, Afro Panamanians numbered 23,000 out of a population of 36,000. Some slaves could buy their freedom or were emancipated by their masters. A few free blacks were able to get an education. Some became artisans, and a few became lower bureaucrats in the government.


Around the early 1800s, Panama, part of Spain, sued for autonomy, which they received in 1821. Independence brought about the end of slavery, but little changed for Afro Panamanians. In 1838, the Hispanic elite quelled Panama City's major race riot. Afro Panamanians continued life at the bottom of the racial caste system, with white Panamanians at the top. Mulattoes and Mestizos claimed Hispanic heritage and indigenous Panamanians were above blacks in the caste system. The Afro Panamanian population comes in two categories "Afro-Colonials" and "Afro Antilleans." West Indian immigrant descendants in Trinidad, Martinique, Saint Lucia, Guadeloupe, Dominica, Grenada, Haiti, Belize, Barbados, and Jamaica, whose ancestors were brought in to build the Panama Canal. Afro Panamanians are in Colón, Cristóbal, and Balboa, the Río Abajo area of Panama City, the Canal Zone, and the province of Bocas del Toro. 

African ethnic groups and their arrival in Panama

When registered as slaves, some Africans used their African ethnicities and homeland as first or last names. Registration resulted in names such as Luis Mozambique, Congo Anton, Christopher Sape, Miguel Biafra, Bran Gaspar, Pedro Mandinga, Anton Bañol, and John Jolofo (Wolof). They came through several circuits and networks that joined with the economy in the South Atlantic during the colonial PeriodPeriod. On the African side, and according to Enriqueta Vila Vilar, major African ports' output of forced labor during the sixteenth century was the buying and selling of people. The fact is that this is a small number who had direct control of large contracts to take enslaved Africans.

Afro Antillean migration waves

In the immigration of 1844, people came from TrinidadJamaicaBarbados, Martinique, GuadeloupeDominica, Leeward Antilles (Dutch and Venezuelan islands north of Venezuela), Grenada, St. Kitts, Saint Vincent, and the Grenadines, etc. Another Afro Antillean migration to Panama occurred in the mid-nineteenth century. The California Gold Rush began in 1849, and the subsequent attraction of wealth highlighted the need to facilitate travel between the East and West coasts of the United States. An overpopulation crisis in the Caribbean caused labor shortages. These two situations combined the need for workers in Panama and unemployment in the Antilles, which resulted in the influx of Afro Antillean people to the isthmus. After 1880, growing bananas in Central America expanded. The United Fruit Company and the Chiriqui Land Company were established in Bocas del Toro (Panama) and Puerto Limon (Costa Rica). These events again raised the need for Caribbean labor. 

The last event that caused Afro Caribbean immigration to Panama was the French's construction of the Panama Canal. Between 1906-1907, Panama received more than 2,800 workers from Martinique and about 2,000 from Guadeloupe. An estimated 50,000 Guadeloupeans and Martinicans participated in the construction of the Panama Canal between 1904 and 1914. In 2014, it was estimated that 60,000 and 70,000 descendants of these West Indians lived in Panama. In 1904, the construction of the Panama Canal was taken over by the United States, again resulting in an influx of West Indian workers to Panama. About Afro-Antillean Panama, Leslie B. Rout said that when the canal opened in 1914, some 20,000 Afro-West Indians remained in Panama. 

Modern status:

By the 1960s, Afro Panamanians began to organize and align themselves politically with the labor movement. The National Center of Panamanian Workers (CNTP) was at the center of Afro Panamanian rights. A few Afro Panamanians broke into the upper circle, were elected to the national assembly of the People Party, and aligned with CNTP. One Afro Panamanian was elected to the supreme court.

During the 1970s, they organized congresses dealing with their communities' issues, like the National Symphony Orchestra's discrimination against Blacks. In 1980, Manuel Noriega, who had African ancestry, was elected. He became authoritarian, and the United States invaded Panama in 1989 and removed him. The hardest hit were Afro Panamanian neighborhoods.

During the 1990s, more congresses were formed to address the problems of Afro Panamanians, like the destruction of black property during the invasion. Also, the study of Afro Panamanians took root. The Center of Panamanian Studies was formed. The University of Panama also began to focus more on Afro Panamanian subjects as a discipline.

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