Exploring Costa Rica’s Unique Slave History

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    Costa Rica was involved in the slave trade, but had a slightly different path than many other countries in central America and the Caribbean. As outlined by the University of Texas at Austin, the relatively low-profile nature of Costa Rica within the Spanish Empire meant that it didn’t experience either the volume of slaves that other colonies did, nor the concentration in terms of nationality or place of origin. As a result, those men and women brought over from Africa had a much different experience to those in nearby countries, something which shaped the modern-day story of slaves in the country.

    Costa Rica’s slave history is curious because the country was not viable for plantations, according to the Tico Times. Accordingly, many slaves ended up being forced to work as domestic servants. However, the Spanish estate owners often could not afford to support the slave population, and so even in the 1600s many Costa Rican African slaves were Americanized having bought or been given their freedom. As a result, there’s a long history of free slave estates in the country. At the same time, there is a dark history at play that can be explored via dark tourism. In particular, several shipwrecks off the Caribbean coast tell the story of disaster and tragedy, when slave-carrying ships didn’t make it to shore. Even though the humans aboard the ship escaped, they were later recaptured.

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    Continued servitude

    While there were numerous incidences of Costa Rican slaves having their freedom, moreso than in the surrounding area, it remains a fact that many stayed in slavery, including entire generations. According to AAREG, Costa Rica only abolished slavery in 1824 – 47 years after the State of Vermont, and 14 years after Great Britain, and even 13 years after Spain. Accordingly, although the social situation might have been slightly better, the law took a long time before it gave absolute legal privilege to slaves in order to receive their freedom from their previous owners.

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    Enduring hardship

    Furthermore, black Costa Ricans have faced a long battle for recognition. As outlined by Face2Face Africa, it was only in 1949 that black citizens received their citizenship. This is despite black families having worked on plantations from as early as the 1600s. As a result, the black Costa Rican community has an uneasy relationship with the rest of the nation, and there have been continued talks and symbolic meetings between officials in Costa Rica and those in the west coast of Africa to help recognize this history and continue fostering goodwill. Costa Rica is so progressive in other areas that it’s odd that more hasn’t been done to recognize the history of slavery.

    Change looks to be coming, however, and with dark tourism to help show travelers from abroad exactly what hardships slaves experienced in Costa Rica, there’s more education going on than ever before. Costa Rica is a progressive country in the world, and needs to show that with regards to its colonial history.


    Photo: Kira auf der Heide

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