Total population
(15% of the Panamanian population.)
Regions with significant populations
Colón, Cristóbal and Balboa, Río Abajo area of Panama City, the Canal Zone, province of Bocas del Toro, villages in the Darién Province
Panamanian Spanish
Predominantly Roman Catholicism
Related ethnic groups
Afro-Caribbeans, Jamaicans

Afro-Panamanians are Panamanians of African descent, and constitute 15% of the population. The Afro-Panamanian population can be broken into the "Afro-Colonial", Afro-Panamanians descended from slaves brought to Panama during the colonial period and the "Afro-Antillean", West Indian immigrants from Trinidad, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Dominica, Grenada, Barbados and Jamaica, brought in to build the Panama Canal. Afro-Panamanians can be found in the towns and cities of Colón, Cristóbal and Balboa, the Río Abajo area of Panama City, the Canal Zone, and the province of Bocas del Toro.[1]

Early Period

The first Africans to arrive in Panama came with Vasco Núñez de Balboa, in 1513. Panama was a very important territory because it had the shortest route from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Goods were taken from ports in Portobelo and Nombre de Dios, transported overland to ports in Panama City and reboarded on ships headed to South America. Initially, Indian labor was used. Due to maltreatment and disease, the Indian population was decimated. Bartolomé de Las Casas advocated getting slaves from Africa. By 1517, the trade in Africans was underway. Initially slaves were used to work and maintain ships and port. It later turned to transporting goods across the isthmus. The transportation of goods was grueling not only due to the thousands of miles of terrain, but also to bad weather and attacks by Indians.[2]


Theories about the African origins of the slaves in relation to current African countries

It is difficult to pinpoint and identify the place of origin of the African slaves brought to Panama during the colonial era. According to the study of Martin Jamieson, some authors point out that most were from Guinea.

Other authors point out that the slaves came from the region between southern Senegal River and northern Angola. In fact, according to other authors, whether from 1514 began arriving Africans, brought from West Africa to work on plantations in Panama, from 1523, men and women who arrived mainly came from Guinea, Cameroon, the Congo Basin and Angola. The presence of this factor determined the ethnic-cultural core musical features of the Panamanian people. The form of communication used by Africans since 1607 (due to their songs, their instruments and their dances, their numerous uprisings - many of whom fled to settle in the forests, under the guidance of legendary figures like Bayano, Anton Mandinga or Domingo Congo-and the conclusion of a peace treaty in 1607, which granted some freedom, but with restrictions, to thousands of former slaves), and is still cultivated by the "Congo" (a culture, and genre of Afrocolonial dance from Republic of Panama, originally from Guinea,[3] characterized by a violent expression and erotic dancing, and is almost always associated with some sort of mime and theater, with themes of infamous historical episodes of African slave trade, slavery and the resulting slave rebellions during the time of the conquest and colonialism. Students of this culture did find parallels as their cryptolect is similar to funeral practices of San Basilio de Palenque, Colombia, who are of Congolese origin. The study of this culture helps determine at least some origins of Afro-Panamanians), is the greeting with feet and talking backwards, mixing the Castilian, English, French and Portuguese. Already by 1560, there were maroon communities in Bayano palanqueras, and Cerro de Cabra, Portobelo, Panama.

Moreover, besides the slaves which some authors may have been imported to Panama from, mostly, Guinea, Cameroon, Congo and Angola (which originated culture "Congos" in 1607), according to Guzman Navarro, many of the slaves who arrived in Panama in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries were transported by French traffickers, from Goree slave factory in Senegambia. During the English period, which lasted until the mid-eighteenth century, slaves came mostly from the Windward Coast (Liberia - west of Ivory Coast) and the Gold Coast (east of the Ivory Coast-Ghana), but also came some slaves from Senegambia. In the last decades of the eighteenth century the Gaditana Company was authorized to import African slaves, although most came from other American colonies, including Cartagena de Indias, Havana, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and the French Caribbean colonies.[4]

African ethnic groups and their arrival to Panama

When registered, certain African residing in Panama and gave the name of their ethnicity. So we have: Luis Mozambique, Congo Anton, Christopher Sape, Miguel Biafara, Bran Gaspar, Pedro Mandinga, Anton Bañol and John Jolofo (Wolof), to name a few. This confirms the contribution of slaves from Senegambia, Ghana, Central Africa and Mozambique. Thus, the name of Africans living in Panama allows us to draw some lines on its possible origin: Mozambique, Congo and the region Kasanga, Congo-Angola, Sao Tome, the island of the same name in the equatorial region, and the region situated between Guinea and Senegal in West Africa: Manding, specifically, gelofo/Wolof, Bañol (Banyun, established in Senegambia and Guinea Bissau), Zape (Sierra Leone), Bioho (Bijagos), Biafara, and Bran. They came through several circuits and networks that joined the "Middle America" with the economy in the South Atlantic, in which Panama and Cartagena were central ports and points of passage required for the transfer of Africans during the colonial period. On the African side, and according to Enriqueta Vila Vilar, major African ports output of forced labor during the sixteenth century were the islands of Santiago in Cape Verde, São Tomé in the Gulf of Guinea and Loanda, confirming what Rodney Hilton called "almost exclusive relations between Upper Guinea and the middle region of America." In West Africa was, by then, a group of Portuguese merchants called "reindeiros", who had a monopoly of the sale of captives and "selling" the right to sell slaves, whose earnings the Crown received a percentage. The buying and selling of people involved a complex network of officials and employees installed at key points in the sales network was articulated across the Atlantic.

While there were small traders traveling from Africa to America during the sixteenth century, the fact is that it was a small number who had direct control large contracts to take enslaved Africans in Cape Verde, Sao Tome and Angola. In this last stand Gomez Reinel and Juan Rodríguez Coutiño (governor of Angola), who lived in Panama working ranch in the early seventeenth century with his brother Manuel de Souza Coutinho, known as Louis de Sousa, the Dominican friar who in 1602 was responsible for the seats in Cartagena.[5]

Afro-Antillean migration waves (1849 - 1910)

The first Afro-Antillean migration to Panama occurs in 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. This raises the urgency of building a railroad interoceanic in Panama for the narrowest point of the American continent, but the problem facing the engineers of the railway company was that Panama did not have the amount of labor force to provide workers for the construction of railroad. It's going to be just about the same time that there is an overpopulation crisis in the Caribbean causing labor shortages. These two situations combined the need for workers in Panama and unemployment in the Antilles explain the influx of Afro-Antillean this Isthmus.

During the immigration of 1844, people came from Trinidad, Jamaica, Barbados, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Dominica, Leeward Antilles (Dutch and Venezuelan islands north of Venezuela), Grenada, St. Kitts, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, etc. After 1880 it expanded the cultivation of banana in Central and established The United Fruit Company in Bocas del Toro (Panama) and Puerto Limon (Costa Rica) and the Chiriqui Land Company. This raised again the need to bring Caribbean labor. The West Indians who migrated to Bocas del Toro were mainly of Ashanti-Fante origin.[4]

The third event that causes the Afro-Caribbean immigration to Panama will be the construction of the canal by the French. Afro-West Indians had shown endurance and be good workers in the construction of Railroad and projects Bocas del Toro and Puerto Limon. Thus the French company returned to the Caribbean to recruit workers. In fact, according to Lobinot Marrero, many West Indians arrived in Panama during these years were from the French Antilles of Martinique and Guadeloupe, for example in the year 1906-1907 Panama reached more than 2,800 workers and about 2,000 of Martinique and Guadeloupe.

In 1904 when the construction of the Panama Canal was taken over by the United States for the failure of the French company, will again resort to the Indian worker. Although between 1904 and 1914 the vast majority of Afro-West Indians who arrived in Panama did a one-year contract with the idea of returning to their home islands once the offshore project, after construction of the canal many Afro-Antillean stayed in Panama. Afro-West Indians who remained in Panama many got jobs in the Canal Zone and became the largest immigrant group in Panama. On the subject of Afro-Antillean Panama, Leslie B. Rout said that when the canal was opened in 1914, some 20,000 African-West Indians remained in Panama.


Slaves used the isolating nature of transporting goods as an opportunity to escape. Many slaves escaped into the sparsely settled terrain and formed cimarroneras or marooned societies. These slaves were known as cimarrones. Cimarrones would mount attacks on transport caravans, to the point that it was 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. Famous cimarrones proceeded to found cimarroneras. Luis de Mozambique founded Santiago del Principe cimarroneras. Antón de Mandinga founded Santa la Real.


Slaves were used in many functions, in the area of Portobelo and Panama City. They worked as domestics in the house of their masters. Some engaged in the production of textile and dyes. Others were skill tradesmen—blacksmiths, carpenters, and cobblers. The discovery of gold also saw their use in mining. This strong dependency on slaves saw the increase in the slave population. For most of the 1600s and 1700s, Afro-Panamanians outnumbered whites. In 1610, The population consisted of 548 white men, 303 white women, 156 white children, 146 mulattoes, 148 West Indian blacks, and 3,500 slaves. In 1625, Afro-Panamanians numbered 12,000. In 1630, they numbered ten to one compared to the white population. By 1789, they were 23,000 of a population of 36,000. Some slaves were able to buy their freedom or were emancipated by their masters. A few free blacks were able to get an education. Some were artisans. A few were lowly bureaucrats in the government.


Around the early 1800s, Panama, part of Spain, sued for independence, which they received in 1821. Independence brought about the end of slavery, but little changed for Afro-Panamanians. Changes did not come with independence and emancipation as was expected. Numerous race riots broke out in the 1830s, because many blacks were disappointed with the rate of progress. In 1838, Panama City had a major race riot which was quelled by the white elite. Afro-Panamanian continued in a lower caste systems, with whites at the top, mulattoes who claimed to be white, natives above blacks. Job discrimination, social rejection because of color was rampant. Afro-Panamanian remained a world apart from the greater culture.


In November 1903, the construction of the Panama Canal began. 50,000 workers were imported from Jamaica, Martinique, Barbados and Trinidad. The workers were referred to as Antilleans or derisively as chombos. Antilleans and other black workers were paid less than white workers. Discrimination was rampant. Most supervisors were from the southern US, and implemented a type of southern segregation. The presence of West Indians had other repercussions. Creoles and mestizos who had a social status above blacks were lumped with them. They were deeply offended and engaged in rampant discrimination of all blacks outside the general canal local. This led to great racial tension. Native blacks began to resent the West Indians, who they felt made things worse for them. In 1914, the Panama Canal was completed. 20,000 West Indians remained in the country. They generated a lot of xenophobia. In 1926, Panama passed laws decreasing immigration from the West Indies and later barring non-Spanish speaking blacks from entering the country.

Modern status

By the 1960s, Afro-Panamanians began to organize themselves politically, aligned with the labor movement. National Center of Panamanian Workers(CNTP) was at the center of Afro-Panamanian rights. A few Afro-Panamanians broke into the upper circle. A few were elected to the national assembly of the People Party, aligned with CNTP. One Afro-Panamanian was elected to the supreme court. During the 1970s, they organized congresses dealing with issues surrounding Afro-Panamanians, like discrimination of the National Symphony Orchestra against blacks. In 1980, Manuel Noriega, who had African ancestry, was elected. He became authoritarian, turned off most of the populace. His African ancestry was cited as a reason for his unpopular action. The United States in 1989 invaded Panama and removed Noriega. 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-Panamanian 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.

Notable Afro-Panamanians


  1. "AFRO-PANAMANIANS". Word Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples. Word Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples. Retrieved 17 December 2012.
  2. MOORE, ALEXANDER. "Panama". Countries and Their Cultures. Retrieved 17 December 2012.
  3. El lenguaje de los negros congos de Panamá y el lumbalú ... Abolición de la esclavitud en El Salvador y América Latina (in Spanish: The language of Black Congos in Panama and the lumbalú... Abolition of slavery in El Salvador and Latin America).
  4. 1 2 La expresión musical popular centroamericana y la herencia africana (in Spanish: Centroamerican popular musical expression and African heritage)
  5. Del olvido a la memoria, 3: África en tiempos de la esclavitud (In Spanish: From Oblivion to Memory, 3: Africa in times of slavery)
This article is issued from Wikipedia - version of the 12/3/2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.