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Black Rebels: The Cimarrons of Sixteenth-Century Panama

From: The Americas
Volume 64, Number 2, October 2007
pp. 243-266 | 10.1353/tam.2007.0161

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Black Rebels:
The Cimarrons of Sixteenth-Century Panama

The strategic location of the Isthmus of Panama within the commercial network of the Spanish Empire and the need to defend it has greatly influenced historical writing on sixteenth-and seventeenth-century Panama. Most studies have emphasized military and economic history and with few exceptions, have shown little interest in other aspects of Panamanian life. An excellent review of the historical literature on colonial Panama can be found in Christopher Ward, Imperial Panama: Commerce and Conflict in Isthmian America, 1550-1800 (Albuquerque, 1993). Despite a continuing emphasis on the usual themes of trade and defense, there is a growing trend to focus on other topics such as population movements and social classes. One of the areas still awaiting further investigation and study is the history of the cimarrons of Panama. The two principal primary sources for the role of the cimarrons are the collections of documents from the Archivo General de Indias in Seville published by Irene Wright and Carol F. Jopling, respectively. Wright's Documents Concerning the English Voyages to the Spanish Main, 1569-1580 (London, 1932) contains the correspondence of Spanish officials on the Isthmus to the king relating to the activities of the English pirates and their alliance with the cimarrons. Jopling's Indios y negros en Panamá en los siglos XVI y XVII (South Woodstock, Vermont, 1994) is a selection of documents dealing specifically with the history of the blacks and Indians and contains a wealth of information about the cimarrons. Among the early writers, the chronicle of Pedro de Aguado is of particular value for its rich account of the cimarron king Bayano. The writings of María del Carmen Mena García, especially her volume on La sociedad de Panamá en el siglo XVI (Seville, 1984) presents a thorough overview of Isthmian society with several chapters devoted to the black population and the cimarrons. Two other earlier informative studies are Federico Guillot, Negros rebeldes y negros cimarrones (Buenos Aires, 1961), and Armando Fortune, "Los negros cimarrones en Tierra Firme y su lucha por la libertad," Revista Lotería (1970). Another valuable contribution is an article [End Page 243] by Enriqueta Vila Vilar, "Cimarronaje en Panamá y Colombia. El costo de una guerrilla en el siglo XVII," Caravelle (1987).

In the sixteenth century there were two principal Spanish settlements on the Isthmus of Panama, Nombre de Dios on the Caribbean side and Panama on the Pacific Coast. Between these two ports there was endless jungle interrupted only by long chains of high and jagged mountains and between them valleys drained by rivers. For centuries it was necessary for men and merchandise to cross this hostile and forbidding land to reach Spain from Peru.

For many years in the sixteenth century this region was under attack by armed groups of escaped black slaves who did not accept their subjection to bondage and fled to the mountains where they lived a free life based on African tribal customs. They were called cimarrones (cimarrons), a term most probably derived from cima and marrón, invented by the conquistadors. According to Garcilaso de la Vega, el Inca the word was first used in the islands of the Caribbean to describe fugitive black slaves who lived in the mountains. These free black colonies called palenques existed in many parts of Spanish America. They constituted a permanent danger to the Spanish settlements because their inhabitants often came together in armed bands to attack the cities and countryside. The palenques threatened the control of Spain over the land and were a source of concern for the Spanish authorities.1

The Isthmus of Panama was one of the places where the cimarrons achieved their greatest power and extension. None of the cimarron revolts elsewhere in the Spanish Empire in the sixteenth century such as in Mexico, Colombia, or Venezuela equaled the movement in Panama in numbers, intensity, leadership and duration. With their large following and a favorable location, the Panamanian cimarrons were led by able and bold men who were willing to take great risks including allying themselves with the French and English pirates. The most violent period in their history occurred...