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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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, English
Predominantly Roman Catholicism
Related ethnic groups

Afro-Panamanians are Panamanians of African descent. The Afro-Panamanian population can be mainly broken into one of two categories "Afro-Colonials", Afro-Panamanians descended from slaves brought to Panama during the colonial period, and "Afro-Antilleans," West Indian immigrant-descendants with origins 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 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 boarded on ships headed to South America. Initially, Indian labor was used. Due to abuse 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]


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-Bissau.

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.[clarification needed] 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,[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 and Ghanaian 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.[clarification needed] 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 Bissau, 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 as slaves, certain Africans used their African ethnicities and possible places of origin as first or last names. This resulted in names such as 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 Portuguese 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 Luanda in Angola, confirming what Rodney Hilton called "almost exclusive relations between Upper Guinea and the middle region of America." In West Africa existed, by then, a group of Portuguese merchants called "reindeiros", who had a monopoly on the sale of captives and "selling" the right to sell slaves, of 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 and was articulated across the Atlantic.

While there were a small number of traders traveling from Africa to America during the sixteenth century, the fact is that it was this a small number who had direct control of 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 ranches 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 occurred 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 raised the urgency of building an interoceanic railroad for the narrowest point of the American continent, but the problem the engineers of the railway company faced was that Panama did not have the amount of labor force needed to provide workers for the construction of railroad. At this same time existed an overpopulation crisis in the Caribbean causing labor shortages. These two situations combined the need for workers in Panama and unemployment in the Antilles, which resulted the influx of Afro-Antillean people to the 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, the cultivation of banana in Central America was expanded, and 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 West Indians who migrated to Bocas del Toro were mainly of Ashanti-Fante origin.[4]

The third event that caused Afro-Caribbean immigration to Panama was the construction of the Panama Canal by the French. Due to the endurance shown by Afro-West Indians in the construction of railroads and projects in Bocas del Toro and Puerto Limon, the French company returned to the Caribbean to recruit workers. According to Lobinot Marrero, many of the West Indians who arrived in Panama during these years were from the French Antilles of Martinique and Guadeloupe. Between 1906-1907, Panama received more than 2,800 workers from Martinique and about 2,000 from Guadeloupe.

In 1904, the construction of the Panama Canal was taken over by the United States due to the failure of the French company, again resulting in an influx of West Indian workers to Panama. Although between 1904 and 1914, the vast majority of Afro-West Indians who arrived in Panama worked a one-year contract with the idea of returning to their home islands once the project concluded, after construction of the canal many Afro-Antillean people stayed in Panama. Many Afro-West Indians who remained in Panama 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 Afro-West Indians remained in Panama.


Some African slaves used the isolated nature of transporting goods as an opportunity to escape slavery. Many people of African descent escaped 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. Famous Cimarrones proceeded to found Cimarroneras. Luis de Mozambique founded Santiago del Principe Cimarronera and Antón de Mandinga founded Santa la Real.


Slaves were used in many functions in the areas of Portobelo and Panama City. Most worked as domestic servants in the house of their masters. Some engaged in the production of textile and dyes. Others were skilled tradesmen—blacksmiths, carpenters, and cobblers. The discovery of gold also saw their 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. In 1610, the population consisted of 548 white men, 303 white women, 156 white children, 146 mulattoes, 148 West Indian blacks, and 3,500 African slaves. By 1625, Afro-Panamanians numbered 12,000 and by 1630 white Panamanians were outnumbered ten to one by Afro-Panamanians. By 1789, Afro-Panamanians numbered 23,000 out 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 became artisans and a few became lower 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, as many Afro-Panamanians were disappointed with the rate of societal progress. In 1838, Panama City had a major race riot which was quelled by the Hispanic elite. Afro-Panamanians continued life at the bottom of the racial caste system, with white Panamanians at the top. Mulattoes and Mestizos who claimed Hispanic heritage, and indigenous Panamanians were above blacks in the caste system. Job discrimination and social rejection because of ethnicity was rampant. Afro-Panamanians remained in a world apart from the greater culture.


In November 1903, the construction of the Panama Canal began. 50,000 workers migrated 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 and 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. Archived from the original on 3 December 2012. 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. ^ a b La expresión musical popular centroamericana y la herencia africana Archived 2013-10-29 at the Wayback Machine (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 page was last edited on 31 December 2020, at 16:32
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