Afro-Panamian are Panamians of African descent. Afro-Panamanians are 15% of the population and it is estimated 50% of Panamanians have African ancestry. 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, Barbados, and Jamaica, brought in to build the Panama Canal. Afro-Panamanians can be found in towns and cities Colon, Cristobal and Balboa, Rio Abajo area of Panama City, the Canal Zone, and province of Bocas del Toro.
The first blacks to arrive in Panama came with Vasco Núñez de Balboa, in 1513. Panama was a very important territory because it had the shortest point from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Goods were taken from ports in Portobelo and Dios de Nombre, 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 were on the way. Initially slaves were used to work and maintain ships and port. It later turned to transporting goods across the isthmus. The transporting of goods was grueling not only the thousands of miles of terrain, but bad weather and attacks by indians.
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 societie. These slaves were known as cimarrones. Cimarrones would mount attacks on transport caravans, to the point that it was very desruptive 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 mulattos, 148 West Indian black, 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 Colombia, 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 of militant blacks who were impatient with the rate of progresss. 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, mullatos who claimed to be white, natives above blacks. Job discrimination, social rejection because of color was rampant. Afro-Panamian 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, Trinidad, and Barbados. The workers were referred to as Antilleans or derisively as chumbos. Antilleans and other black workers were paid less than white workers. Discrimination was rampant. Most supervisors were from the southern US, who 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 lump with them. They were deeply offended and engage in rampant discrimination of all blacks outside of 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.
By the 1960s, Afro-Panamanians began to organize themselve 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 towards 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 remove Noriega. The hardest hit were Afro-Panamanian neighborhoods. During the 1990s, more congresses were form 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-Panamian subjects as a discipline.
Prominent and Famous Afro-Panamanian
Carlos Guillermo Wilson