Thursday, January 24, 2008

Afrocaribbean Roots in Costa Rica

My preliminary research on the presence of Africans and their decendents, Afrocaribbeans in Costa Rica indicates that they share a similar history with African Americans in that they too were kidnapped and brought to the "New World" in the 17th century as slave labor. In 1655 Spain was defeated by the British and one of Spain's possessions, Jamaica became a colony of Britain. Sugar plantations based on free labor renewed the demand for slave labor. The majority of these slaves were forcibly taken from the Ashanti Empire in Ghana. Many slaves resisted the oppressive conditions of plantation life and escaped to freedom. It took almost two centuries of waging a bloody war for Jamaicans to gain their legal freedom. An economic crisis devastated the sugar cane industry in 1860. This crisis had an equally devastating affect on Jamaicans, forcing them to seek their livilihoods in places like Panama, Cuba and Costa Rica.

Worker Migration
In 1870 Costa Rica's President, Tomas Guardia, obtained a loan from the British to build a railway line to link with the port of Limon. Thus, the second wave of Afrocaribbeans came from the Antilles, especially Jamaica, around 1872 to help build the railroad that eventually linked the Atlantic Coast with the Central Valley. The construction began in the small village of Limon which caused it to expand to a flourishing city. (Alvin Williams. Black People: Struggle for Equality Continues. Mid Ocean News, 28 Feb. 2003, Tues 4 May 2003)

On December 20, 1872, the ship Lizzie pulled into Puerto Limon from Kingston, Jamaica carrying 123 Jamaican workers that had come to work on the railroad. A year later about 1000 Jamaican workers, most of them orginally Ashantis had already arrived. While most of the workers over the years migrated from Jamaica, others came from the Caribbean, Honduras, Curacao, Belize and Panama.

The Plantation Economies
The plantation economies were based on several major crops including cotton, coffee, tobacco, indigo and sugar. In the Caribbean and South America, sugar plantations created the biggest demand for African labor from the 16th to the 19th centuries. During the 17th century, enslaved Afrocaribbeans were taken against their will primarily from the Equatorial region and Western Africa and included the Congo and Angola, in the basin of the Congo River. Those taken hostage and eventually shipped to the New World included the Asaras from the Dahomey Empire (Benin), the Wolofes (Guinea), the Mandingas (Gambia), the Puras (Sudan) and the Ashantis from Ghana. The cocoa industry in Matina forced the escalation of the slave trade, particularly in Limon, according to the Caribbean Way, a Costa Rican tourist handbook.

Slave labor also promoted and made possible cattle farms in Guanacaste, the Central Valley Plantations and the cocoa farms of Matina. Some sources contend that the working conditions were most harsh on the cocoa farms in Matina.

Costa Rica gained its independence in 1821 after many years of colonial rule by first the Spanish then the British. Slavery was officially abolished in 1832. In 1821, miscengation, that is, intermingling of Blacks, Whites and Indians despite social norms to the contrary, resulted in 17% of the total population having  African bloodlines.

This brief essay is the result of my desire to better understand the presence of Afrocaribbeans in Costa Rica. It appears that the two most significant circumstances that resulted in a large presence of Africans in Costa Rica is linked to the slave trade during the 17th and 19th centuries and the huge migration of workers drawn to the railway line that began development in 1872. The greatest influx of railway workers migrated from Jamaica and were decendants that were orginally forcibily brought from the Ashanti Empire in Ghana to work on the plantations. Thus, workers were drawn to the railway from the Caribbean, Honduras, Curacao, Belize and Panama.

Perhaps, I will be able to continue tracing the diapora of Africans as I am able to travel. Until then, Blessed Be!
Rev. Dr. Qiyamah A. Rahman


carla said...

I enjoyed reading your blog...I am a Jamaican/Costa Rican descendant living in America. In fact 1st American born in the family.
I am trying to trace my family who migrated from Jamaica around the late 1890's to about 1910. My grandmother went to Costa Rica with her husband or domestic partner. He left with 2 children and 1 grandchild..never to return. She had about 7-8 other children and stayed there. I am wondering if you have any information on how to trace roots to Jamaica or if you know of any civil registries in jamaica that might help?
Thank you

Qiyamah A.Rahman said...

Carla: I would start by contacting the American Embassy and asking their assistance and take it from there. If they cannot help then ask them to refer you to someone that can.
warmest regards and much success in your search! Qiyamah

Sherri said...

Thanks for sharing this information. I too am very interested in learning the history of our Ancestors throughout the African Diaspora and will be traveling to Costa Rica in June.

Gerardo said...

Read your comments and I have to disagree on one important historical point...the British did not come to Costa Rica as you suggest, they may have visited the Caribbean Coast, but they did not stay for most of the towns during the Colonial period were inland and there were other towns more accessible along the Caribbean Coast, Portobelo in Panama, Cartagena in Colombia and others...