Africans and their descendants in colonial Costa Rica, 1600-1750
The societies from which they came, patterns of the Atlantic slave trade, and local conditions in the societies in which they arrived all decisively influenced the varied experiences of enslaved Africans in the Americas. Unlike plantation societies with large slave populations, Costa Rica was a small, isolated, and economically disadvantaged colony on the edges of the Spanish Empire, with only intermittent access to the Atlantic slave trade. Enslaved Africans in Costa Rica came from hundreds of diverse African societies and arrived in small numbers, forming a small minority in the colony’s population. Their opportunities to associate with women and men of similar background in Costa Rica were sharply limited; at the same time, they lived and worked in intimate contact with members of other racial and ethnic groups. The impact of African ethnic origins consequently diminished in importance as slaves rapidly began to adapt to local institutions and adopt new identities. African-born men and women known by such names as angolas, congos, minas, and ararás soon came to associate and identify with an ever-expanding circle of enslaved and free people of different origins as shipmates, countrymen, blacks, slaves of the same masters, fellow servants, family and friends. Gender also made a crucial difference in the experiences of slaves in Costa Rica. Due to the nature of their work, slave men often enjoyed exceptional physical and sometimes social mobility within the confines imposed by slavery, while women usually lived out their lives in their masters’ homes. As enslaved men pursued and exploited relationships with free people, seeking the sponsorship of free patrons and sometimes marrying free women to form free families, slave women’s opportunities to forge such relationships remained limited and their children were overwhelmingly born in slavery. Patterns of ethnicity, gender roles, and labor conditions thus all contributed to the assimilation of African slaves and their descendants to a creole culture broadly shared by all members of Costa Rican society, rather than encouraging the formation of a distinct African, black, or slave identity.