The Cimarrons – African communities in the Americas

10th June 2020
The Cimarrons – African communities in the Americas

Throughout the 16th Century, groups of escaped slaves formed large and powerful communities in Central and South America which were able to pose a serious challenge to Spanish colonial rule. At their peak, these ‘Cimarrons’ numbered in the thousands, outmatched the Spanish in military might and formed mutually beneficial alliances with English and French pirates.

The Slave Trade

The wealth the Spanish and Portuguese took from their colonies in the Americas relied predominantly on slave labour. It was slaves who worked the plantations, the gold and silver mines and the pearl fisheries which provided the materials for transforming the Iberian kingdoms into superpowers of the Early Modern world. At first, the Spanish and the Portuguese enslaved people native to the Americas, but as disease and poor treatment dramatically reduced the size of their populations, the Europeans turned to Sub-Saharan Africa to supply their labour force.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, Portuguese and Spanish slavers transported hundreds of thousands of Africans to the Americas – so many slaves were imported that the Peruvian capital, Lima, had a considerable African/African descent majority between 1614 and 1800. The Europeans subjected African slaves to brutal work and often terrible living conditions, and as a result the regularly suffered from malnourishment, disease and serious injury.

Under Spanish and Portuguese laws, some slaves were eventually able to buy their freedom. Others, who could demonstrate that they had been particularly maltreated by their masters, were released. Most, however, battled slavery through escape and violent resistance.

The Cimarrons

The first notable slave rebellion in the Spanish Americas took place in Panama in 1525, where a group of African slaves escaped the town, headed into the countryside and began attacking farms and ranches. This particular rebellion was swiftly put down by the Spanish authorities, but large-scale resistance to slavery only grew.

In 1549, Felipillo, a slave who was captain of a pearl fishing boat off the coast of Panama led a revolt and built a settlement (a ‘palanque’) in the Gulf of San Miguel. Despite the efforts of the Spanish authorities, which included the capture of Felipillo, similar communities of escaped slaves quickly grew in strength. They became known as the Cimarrons, and by the mid-16th century, they numbered in the thousands.

The Cimarrons were strongest in the isthmus of Panama, where they built heavily fortified palanques in the dense, mountainous jungle which lay between the towns of Panama and the Nombre de Dios. From these strongholds, they attacked the Spanish mule trains which were ferrying riches from the Pacific to the Atlantic coasts.

 1280px The Isthmus of Panama at the time of its discovery 1513 23

Bayano: King of the Cimarrons

A man called Bayano soon emerged as a leader, and ruled as a king from his fortified palanque on the top of a steep hill, surrounded by thick jungle. Three military expeditions were sent by the Spanish between 1553 and 1556 to try and overthrow him, but all of them failed.

In 1556, the Viceroy of Peru spent 30, 000 pesos from the royal treasury in an attempt to combat Bayano, naming the experienced Captain Pedro de Ursúa as leader of an expeditionary force charged with destroying Bayano’s palanque.

When Ursúa and his army arrived, they quickly recognised that they wouldn’t be able to take it by force. Instead, they tricked Bayano and his men into attending a feast in his honour where they poisoned and captured the king and a number of his followers. Many of Bayano’s Cimarrons fled, but others were forcibly captured and sold back into slavery.

Bayano himself was likely sent to Seville, Spain, where he spent the rest of his life as a prisoner. Ursúa, in return for his success, was given charge of an expedition to find the mythical land of El Dorado, during which he was assassinated.

Cimarrons and Francis Drake

Despite the capture of Bayano, the vast numbers of slaves being shipped to the Americas meant that Cimarron numbers continued to swell. By 1570, they likely numbered over 3000 in the Isthmus of Panama alone, and were divided into small groups, ruled over by separate kings. So powerful were the Cimarrons, that the residents of Nombre de Dios seriously considered abandoning their homes as a result of Cimarron attacks.

It was at this time, that the Cimarrons began to ally themselves with English and French pirates in the region, united by their shared hatred for the Spanish. In order to maintain their friendship with the Cimarrons, the pirates often positioned themselves as ‘liberators’, freeing the slaves held captive in the Spanish towns they sacked.

Arguably the strongest alliance of any was between the Cimarrons and Francis Drake in 1572-3. Drake’s previous experience of Africans was as a slaver, in which he and his kinsman John Hawkins sold slaves to Spanish colonies (read more). Now, in a twist of fate, his arrival in the Americas provided the Cimarrons with an opportunity to inflict greater damage upon the Spanish, release slaves and capture wealth.

In 1572, during Drake’s failed raid on Nombre de Dios, an escaped slave called Diego boarded the pirate’s ship. Diego was a skilled negotiator and organised a meeting between Drake and Pedro Mandinga, the leader of group of Cimarrons. The two men entered into a mutually beneficial alliance, and the Cimarrons helped the English construct Fort Diego on the Isla de los Muertos where they waited a year for a chance to attack the Spanish.

In the spring on 1573, Mandinga and Drake led around thirty Cimarrons and eighteen to twenty English pirates into the jungle to plunder Spanish mule trains. The Cimarrons were far better accustomed to the terrain, carrying the majority of the weapons, supplies and, on occasion English pirates who had collapsed due to sickness.


The alliance had limited success until April, when Mandinga and Drake allied with a French pirate called Le Testu and launched an attack on a 190 strong Spanish mule train near Nombre de Dios. Le Testu was killed in the assault, but the Cimarrons and pirates took so much booty that they couldn’t carry it, and were forced to bury silver bars in the sandy banks of the river Chagres.

Mandinga later went aboard Drake’s ship, where Drake pledged his fidelity for life and gave him rights to any item of his choosing. Mandinga chose the late Le Testu’s sword, which had once belonged to King Henri II of France. The English then stripped their pinnaces, so that the Cimarrons might use the iron for making weapons.

On the 9th August 1573, when Drake set sail for England, Diego went with him as his manservant. Diego’s next voyage to the Americas would be onboard the Golden Hinde as part of Drake’s circumnavigation.

The Decline of the Cimarrons

Partly as a result of their collaboration with the French and English, the Cimarrons came under fierce assault from the Spanish. To reduce Cimarron numbers, the Spanish restricted the number of slaves which were to be brought into the isthmus and kept a closer eye on the ones who were. At the same time, Spain increased its military presence in the region and launched a number of successful campaigns against the Cimarrons, destroying their palanques. Eventually, the Cimarrons were forced to negotiate a peace.

By 1607, the Spanish authorities reported that Cimarron numbers had dropped below a hundred. Many now worked in Spanish settlements and farms as wage labourers and no longer posed a threat. Nevertheless, the Cimarrons maintained a presence in Central and South America right up until the abolition of slavery in the Spanish empire in the 19th century.

Further Reading

Kaufmann, Miranda, Black Tudors: The Untold Story (Simon and Schuster, 2017)

Nicols, Philip, Sir Francis Drake Revived (Good Press, 2019)

Pike, Ruth, ‘Black Rebels: The Cimarrons of Sixteenth-Century Panama’, The Americas, 64.2 (2007), 243–66

Sugden, John, Sir Francis Drake (Random House, 2012)


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