A New Discovery Puts Panama as the Site of the First Successful Slave Rebellion

Deep in the archives, a historian rescues the tale of brave maroons

An illustration of ships at port
The 17th-century fort at Portobelo, built by enslaved laborers, overlooks the bay area where some of the earliest maroons settled after gaining their freedom. Alamy

A dogged U.S. scholar has upended the conventional wisdom about enslaved Africans in the New World by demonstrating that the first successful slave uprising in the Americas occurred in Panama, not in Haiti, as many have long believed.

Robert Schwaller, a University of Kansas historian, discovered new details about the Panama uprising at the General Archive of the Indies, a repository in Seville, Spain, devoted to the Spanish Empire in the Americas and Asia. The papers, including letters, royal edicts and court documents, shed new light on several groups of enslaved Africans in and around what is now the Panamanian province of Colón.

The Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa first transported captured Africans to Panama in 1513. Around a decade later, the enslaved population began to flee captivity, first individually and then in groups. As the ranks of the self-emancipated grew, they conducted raids on Spanish cities and highways, to gain riches and to free fellow Africans.

These maroons—an English term used for formerly enslaved people who had freed themselves—tied up Spanish forces in a costly guerrilla war for decades, eventually forcing a negotiated peace. In 1579, Panama’s high court granted permanent freedom to resistance leader Maçanbique and his community of maroons throughout Spain’s territories in the Americas. The decree, long overlooked by historians, marks the success of this series of uprisings, which took place more than two centuries before Toussaint Louverture helped lead the Haitian Revolution. “The success of Panama’s maroons established a precedent for securing freedom and autonomy that other African maroons would repeat in the centuries to come in Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador and Jamaica,” says Schwaller, who details his research in a 2021 book, African Maroons in Sixteenth-Century Panama: A History in Documents.

tropical port with color homes
A present-day view of Portobelo, which many descendants of the original freedom fighters still call home. Alamy

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This article is a selection from the January/February 2023 issue of Smithsonian magazine

The 16th-century African freedom fighters formed self-governing settlements in the regions around the Spanish fort of Portobelo. More than four centuries later, the Portobelo community lives on. “The amazing thing about Portobelo is that the people who live there today have a direct connection to the people who came from Congo and Angola, many of whom were maroons,” Schwaller says. “They know their history, even though few outsiders do.”

Other scholars, meanwhile, have been celebrating Schwaller’s finds. Ben Vinson III, a historian and executive vice president at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, says Schwaller’s “exceptional work … has engineered new pathways for teaching about rebellion, as well as understanding how peace was brokered, and how different imperial aims created space for African resistance.”

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