The first Afro-Ecuadorians to inhabit Ecuador arrived in the middle of the 16th century (1526). During the time of the Spanish conquest, jesuits and landowners began importing African slaves to the Ecuadorian coast.
At the time, the demand for African slaves was high, since they could work extended hours compared to local indigenous slaves. In the beginning, jesuits, missionaries, and farm owners, wanted Africans (and later Afro-Ecuadorians) to work in their cane and cotton plantations. Later, they began sending them to the gold mines, where they were exposed to dangerous situations without any protection.
In 1533, 23 slaves who were en route to Peru escaped from the ships where they were being held as slaves, looking for a new territory to settle and prosper. They were the first slaves to be free in Ecuador.
Soon, slaves from nearby countries began escaping to Ecuador to join a group of freed slaves, which continued to grow. Slowly, Esmeraldas became a community of Africans and Afro-Ecuadorians who had escaped from their owners.
Did you know? Several attempts at rebellion and resistance from Afro Ecuadorians are mentioned in history. Unfortunately, slavery continued for hundreds of years.
In 1822, many Afro-Ecuadorians fought in the war of independence alongside the Ecuadorian army. However, despite the victory which gave the country its independence, slavery did not end in Ecuador until years later (officially in 1850).
End of Slavery
Once slavery officially ended, Afro-Ecuadorians continued to suffer from racism and discrimination. Without land or economic power, education was unattainable for them, and many were forced to continue working for their masters. They either worked for a small financial compensation or in exchange for a place to eat and sleep. Generations that followed continued to suffer.
In 1988, the Afro-Ecuadorian community created the Association of Ecuadorian Blacks (ASONE), to fight for their rights and recognition. In addition, the association sought to reverse the ecological destruction caused by timber and shrimp companies in the coastal region. Then, in 1992 (the year that marked the 500-year anniversary since the arrival of the Spaniards in the Americas), Afro-Ecuadorians raised their voices, asking to be included in history and taken into account in a narrative that excluded them and disrespected them. Afro-Ecuadorians have long been a marginalized population in Ecuador.
Later, in 1998, with international support from pan-Afro-Latin American networks, Afro-Ecuadorian organizations got the government to recognize them as a distinct ethnic group in the new constitution. In addition to this milestone, the same year, President Fabián Alarcón created the Afro-Ecuadorian Development Corporation (CODAE) dedicated to addressing the problems the Afro-Ecuadorian population was facing. In 2002, CODAE became an official institution.
A concentrated population
Today, 70% of the Afro-Ecuadorian population lives in Esmeraldas, while the rest of the inhabitants are mainly in Imbabura and Carchi, and a lower percentage in the cities of Guayaquil, Quito and Cuenca. Their concentration in the province of Esmeraldas has kept Afro-Ecuadorians isolated in the economic and social sphere, with governments that did not invest in education, commerce and public works in the province. However, they have a significant number in the population of Ecuador, with approximately 1.2 million Afro-Ecuadorians.
On the other hand, this centralization has contributed to keeping their culture and traditions alive over time. Afro-Ecuadorian culture has been transformed in the past 400-500 years, merging with a green, vibrant, and resource-rich province while maintaining its African essence.
Music and identity
Music is central to Afro-Ecuadorian expression, manifesting its African roots. Afro-Ecuadorian music, with a cheerful and tropical rhythm, is better known as Marimba. The marimba is a musical instrument, consisting of wooden bars and metal mallets (it closely resembles the xylophone, and it derives from the West African balafon). In Esmeraldas, Afro-Ecuadorian musicians began to form professional and folk dance schools to teach and perform marimba music. During the months of May and August, marimba festivals are held in the San Lorenzo sector.
Tourism in Esmeraldas
Today, the region receives more attention and is growing as a tourist destination in Ecuador. Esmeraldas has not only grown in popularity for its beautiful beaches and delicious typical food, it has also become popular because of the hospitality of its people. With a rich and well preserved culture, the Afro-Ecuadorian population has managed to raise their voices, and become a beloved and gracious community, after years of struggle to be recognized and appreciated.