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Portobelo: The Heart of Afro-Panamanian culture

"They chased us around the plaza where everyone was watching and cracked their whips so everyone has to run away..."

Welcome to Portobelo

From the anchorage at Linton Bay, the culturally significant town of Portobelo is just a short bus ride away (and the town itself also has a bay where you can anchor.) Portobelo is the home of two significant Afro-Panamanian traditions. One is the Congo culture which developed out of the legacy of slavery as a way for Afro-Panamamians to ritualise their past and to remember their African roots. The other is the important figure of Black Jesus. In 2018 the Congo rituals were recognised as part of  UNESCO’s Representative list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

We were exceptionally lucky to be here on Ash Wednesday, when the most intense ritual of the devils occurs. The Pollera Festival held every two years 15 days after Easter is another good time to visit. This celebrates the matriarchal nature of the Congo culture, with the Queen and the other women in the court and their colourful clothing on parade. The Queen represents the African continent and is the mother and authority of the culture. Later in the year, on the 21st of October you can see the humble pilgrims flock to visit the miraculous Black Christ.

The buses are even more colourful than the buildings. In the background is the old customs house

Portobelo is home to an excellent museum on Afro-Panamanian culture. Housed in the old customs house, it has interactive displays and extensive information in English, Spanish and Braille which contextualises the cultural life of the town through its history of slavery and racist conceptualisations in the area, as well as having exhibitions on the Congo Culture and the Black Christ. You can visit the forts, the purple painted church which hosts Black Jesus, the culture centre where they sell and display Congo art and the community centre, where we watched them rehearsing for the ceremonies. There is also a drumming school which was closed on both occasions we visited, although this may be because the drummers were involved in the ceremony rehearsals at the time.

The drum school

After the European conquest of the Americas, Native Americans were used as labour by the colonists until the 1530s. However, the terrible mass depopulation of the native population caused by disease and the violence of the colonists meant that Europeans turned to Africa to acquire slaves to work in fields, mines and cities. Panama was an important route for Africans being transported to the Pacific Coast of South America. While the canal had not yet been built, the distance by land was relatively small - just four days by mule on the route known as the ‘Royal Road’ and by the 1600s people of African descent made up one third to half of the population of Panama’s main coastal cities.

The Spanish colonial government tried to impose a system to regulate the privileges of the population through a hierarchy of castes, which categorised you according to your race. There were huge numbers of different ‘races’ depending on your mix of African, European and Native heritage. Some of these included mestizos, mulattos, zambos and pardos. An example of one of these regulations was that a free, black, slave or mulatto (mixed African and European) could not wear gold, pearl or silk unless they were married to a Spaniard, in which case they were allowed certain specified items, but not others. In this case they were allowed gold earrings with pearls but could not use or have burato mantles (a decorative transparent cloth). Given the level of complexity of this system, it is not very surprising that it didn’t work very effectively.

Panama was defended mostly by non-white militias, even though they were initially forbidden from using weapons or riding horses. For the enslaved, being a member of these militias could be a way to earn their freedom. For the free, it was a way of increasing their status. By the 1770s they were allowed to be properly equipped. However, despite Afro-descendants making up the majority of the troops, the militias and ranks were still structured according to the complicated caste system, although by the 1700s Afro-Panamanians had successfully petitioned to be led by members of their own caste.

The remains of the forts show the strategic importance of this area to the Spanish

Many escaped from slavery and these slavery escapees are known as maroons. The maroons fled into the dense Panamanian jungle to hide from their captors. They carried out raids on the Colonists, but eventually 52 of them reached a settlement with the authorities in 1579 to be freed in exchange for capturing other maroons and defending the garrison where they were settled at Santiago del Principe. They were led by one of their own and were the first slaves to be freed in the Americas. They became known as mogollones and successfully defended the Spanish settlement of Nombre de Dios  in 1596 by burning it before it could be taken by the British privateer Sir Francis Drake. Eventually the mogollones settled in Portobelo by the mid 1600s.

There were three ways in which a slave could become free in Spanish America - one was manumission where the owner voluntarily freed a slave they owned. This was most often done for house slaves and was rare. The most common method was buying your freedom and the third method was running away and joining a maroon community. Most jobs were open to free Africans, but not all and so a freed African-descendant who had managed to become successful could buy a concession that gave them the same legal rights as whites, such as being able to attend university and hold public office.

The descendants of those that escaped slavery in Portobelo developed a rich heritage to recognise their struggle. The Congo ritual is also known as ‘the game’ and it represents the Queen and her court as they fight for freedom from their slave masters. It starts with the building of a palenque or palace on January 19th. It includes several characters, including the Queen or Micé, her husband, their children, her successor and the princesses.

The Congo Queen and her court fight the devil (slavers)

The men paint their faces black and wear their clothes inside out. Around their waists are strings with different objects attached which represent different things, such as nature, family or objects they took when escaping their slave masters. One of the objects is a broken doll which represents the mutilation caused by the slave masters. The cross provides protection from the back. The hats work as a message as the shape of them, if turned inside out represents the boats that brought them from Africa. The women wear very brightly coloured layered dresses made of various fabrics and long strings of bead and shell necklaces. 

Rehearsals for the big day in the community centre

As they dance to the sounds of the drums, the moves represent their communication between each other. The music reminds them of their creator and gives them the freedom to do whatever they want to do. The devil character represents their oppressor who they must overcome to gain their freedom. On Ash Wednesday the ritual culminates with a series of devils dressed in frightening masks and carrying whips. They chased us around the plaza where everyone was watching and cracked their whips so everyone has to run away. The Queen and her court baptise the devils in order to liberate them from their evil. All the while the Queen and her court were dancing and drumming, joined in by everyone from the town.

Congo male and female costumes

The town plaza hosts the ritual on Ash Wednesday

It was amazing to see how close as a community it brought people. All generations are involved and have different roles, from children to teenagers, men, women and the elderly. A tiny devil chased after the tiny children so everyone got to participate. People come from the surrounding towns to witness the festivities and the local people are really proud of their culture. Mischief makers add even further to the merriment, with costumed Congos tying one man’s bicycle to the stage with tape, and shoving lots of crisps in another man’s mouth. Coming after two days of Carnival, it is both ritualistic and reverent with the Queen and the court, yet fun and mischievous, the triumph of a life of freedom and laughter over the evils of confinement and ownership by others.

The Devil ceremony is the day after Carnival

In addition to the Congo culture, Portobelo is also home to the figure of the Black Christ and is visited by pilgrims, some walk on their knees every year on 21st October. This marks the start of a four day procession led by Black Jesus. The faithful take three steps forward and two steps back and adorn his tunic with jewellery and symbols. The Black Christ was first washed ashore during a storm in Portobelo in the 1600s and was supposed to have cured cholera after its arrival. We weren’t present during the four day festival, which takes place in October, but we were able to see the statue inside the purple painted Church and to see the local people venerate it.

The Black Christ in pride of place

The purple church hosting the Black Christ or 'Nazareno'

These ‘intangible’ cultural events are what makes a community vibrant and cohesive and alive and are also a form of opposition to ‘official’ history in some way. The fierce resistance to slavery by the slaves themselves is often glossed over by Europeans in favour of the veneration of the European political figures who campaigned for its end, such as William Wilberforce in Britain and Victor Schoelcher in France - who has a magnificent library in Fort de France and a town dedicated to his name in Martinique. But traditions, such as the Congo culture in Panama, Capoeira in Brazil and Big Drum in Carriacou, Grenada pay homage to the struggles fought by the enslaved themselves over centuries to get free, stay free and recall their African roots.

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