The issue of slavery takes a particular interest every May. In many places the reflection ends up evaluating this, one of the darkest episodes in recent history. May, the month of Black ethnicity, opens the possibility to reflect on this topic. It is opportune to approach this topic and refer to what happened in Panama during the period of conquest and colonization, even up to the moment of independence from Spain in 1821. These facts should be highlighted in order to extrapolate some dimensions of that legacy, not only at a cultural level, but also at a territorial level, and to understand some processes related to our identity. From there, to contribute to the formulation of public policies that include Afro-descendants as a fundamental part of the social, economic and political structure of our country.
Blacks in America
The introduction of black slaves in the isthmus occurred after the decline of the indigenous population. Sources document the phenomenon of the reduction in the number of indigenous people. According to Dr. Omar Jaén Suárez (historian, geographer and diplomat), by the year 1533, there were about 500 Indians, being reduced to 120, eleven years later. Faced with this reality, it became necessary to introduce slave labor. Jean Pierre Tardieu, in his work Cimarrones en Panamá, la forma de una identidad afroamericana en el siglo XVI, affirms that under the command of Diego de Nicuesa, in 1508, some 40 Blacks were introduced to the mainland for the construction of fortresses in Veraguas. It is known that by the year 1513, Blacks from Cape Verde (Africa) had already arrived in Panama. It is also known from the same documentary sources that by 1575, there were 8,929 black slaves in Nata and Veraguas; of these, 1,600 were in Panama City. Carmen Mena García documents that in 16th century Panama, more than 70% of the population of the “Audiencia de Panama” was of African origin. The efforts of inter-oceanic communication across the isthmus in colonial Panama had a black component. The Camino Real and the Camino de Ventas de Cruces were built and operated by black slaves. It is certain that part of our interoceanic status is due to the participation of black slaves in Panama.
During this same period of conquest of the isthmus, the exploitation of marine resources, such as the pearl fishery, and the construction and operation of the transisthmian roads, were in the hands of Blacks. A particular phenomenon took shape both in the Antilles and on the mainland. Much of the Black population, moved by mistreatment and aspirations for freedom, rose up in resistance, escaping from slave oppression, reducing themselves to palenques in the forests of the isthmus. The voices of Bayano and Felipillo come to us today as a memory of these maroon leaders who waged battle during the following centuries, even being allies of the English, in the efforts to break the commercial monopoly in America. By 1549, Maroon resistance was concentrated in the Camino Real and the Gulf of San Miguel by Felipillo, an intrusion that reached the domains of another Maroon, known as Bayano.
Independence and abolition
In his work The Abolition of Slavery in Colombia and Panama (1851), Oscar Vargas Velarde indicates that this process “ran parallel to that of Colombia, since the Isthmus of Panama was part of that nation for most of the 19th century”. Let’s remember that Panama was part of the republican regime for the first time at the time of its independence from Spain.
“In the Congress of Angostura in 1819, Simón Bolívar declared that the bases of the republic would be constituted by the sovereignty of the people, the division of powers, civil liberty, the abolition of the monarchy, the suppression of privileges and the outlawing of slavery” adds Oscar Vargas Velarde.
By then, we were the Department of the Isthmus, as part of Gran Colombia and one of the precepts of independence from the monarchy was precisely the abolition of slavery. Slavery was abolished in Panama by the law of May 21, 1851. Historian Carlos Guevara Mann states that “three decades would pass -since the ‘freedom of the womb’ declared by Simón Bolívar- for slavery to be outlawed in Panama. The law of May 21, 1851, decreed the freedom of all slaves existing in Neo-Granadian (Colombian) territory as of January 1, 1852. Tomás Herrera, Justo Arosemena and José de Obaldía were other key players, the latter being the one who was responsible for putting this ‘law of freedom’ into effect as Vice President of Gran Colombia, in charge of the Executive Power in 1851-1852”. Slave owners had the obligation to educate, clothe and feed their children and they had to compensate them for the expenses incurred up to the age of 18.
Cinema, blacks and territory
A few years ago, a documentary by Japanese-born filmmaker Toshi Sakai, entitled Cimarronaje en Panamá (Maroonage in Panama), was released. His work focuses on the characters of Felipillo and Bayano, whom he dignifies in history.
“Characters who express themselves in their claim to live free and, above all, in dignity” according to Toshi Sakai.
From Sakai’s work, interesting information is generated about names of places that are inextricably related to our African ancestors. Rio Congo, Malambo, Mandinga, Cuango Palenque, are places in Colon. Likewise, sites called El Bongo, la Quisama, la Guinea, and Cerro Mandinga, are as far away as Chiriqui. In Azuero, the Afro toponymy is recalled by places such as Zape, Folofo and La Guinea. All these names evoke our black colonial past.
Blacks and public policies
With the purpose of making the afrodescendant population visible and establishing mechanisms to gather information for the next population and housing censuses, as well as for the definition of public policies, the National Secretariat for the Development of Afro-Panamanians (Senadap) has been developing interesting initiatives. One of them is The Drum Routes, a resource with a strong cultural component that is being used as a mechanism to culturally recognize the Afro descendants in Panama.
Where the black man was, there is the drum, and in it we recognize ourselves as part of this rich and culturally diverse society. The drum makes a direct connection, where music and song articulate a process of self-recognition and appreciation of the local culture. At the end of this historical journey where not only the skin is tinged with history, but our entire culture of transit, I come to the conclusion that we are blacker than we had thought.
And you, how do you feel?