From Involuntary to Voluntary Colonists: The Belizean Settlers of San José de Los Negros, Guatemala

Saturday, January 5, 2019: 8:50 AM
Salon 12 (Palmer House Hilton)
Mark Lentz, Utah Valley University
Over a ten-year period (1790-1800), more than one hundred enslaved Africans from Belize broke the bonds of captivity to relocate as free settlers in neighboring Petén. Upon arrival, they declared their desire to convert to Catholicism, a key step in becoming faithful subjects of Spain. Despite the official end of sanctuary policy in 1790, as late as 1825 slaves fleeing Belize justified their flight by stating that they wanted a Christian baptism administered by Roman Catholic priests.

Not all inhabitants of Petén welcomed the newcomers, however. Reluctance to accept the growing number of former slaves into Maya society on the part of indigenous leaders and Spanish officials’ suspicions over the allegiances of these new arrivals led authorities to select a new site near Petén’s fortress as a closely monitored, segregated town for former slaves. Despite reservations regarding the new colonists’ loyalties, the town experienced rapid growth and relative stability for the first thirty years of its existence, attracting more fugitive slaves as numerous Belizean slaves benefited from the porous border between Belize and Guatemala in their pursuit of freedom. This paper highlights the role of Africans and their descendants as town founders, focusing instead on voluntary rather than involuntary settlement in the Americas. In doing so, it aims to draw attention to the underappreciated role of black colonists in establishing frontier communities as free colonists rather than their better studied role as slaves.