Esmeraldas, one of Ecuador's most isolated and sparsely populated areas, visited by Francisco Pizarro during one of his early expeditions to South America. The province is located on the northwest coast of Ecuador and shares its northern border with Colombia. Lured by stories of gold and emeralds, a few hardy Spaniards returned to the area, administered by the Audiencia of Quito. They established the city of Atacames, originally a native settlement, as the capital of the Atacames government, as the province was then known.
Historians hypothesize that blacks arrived in Ecuador in 1553, when a slave ship ran aground along the southern coast of the province. Alonso de Illescas, a former slave, governed a territory of free black survivors of the shipwreck so effectively that the province was almost completely outside of Spanish domination for about sixty years. Many of the shipwrecked blacks intermarried with natives. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century migrations of blacks brought to work the mines in the Barbacoas area of Colombia swelled the black population of Esmeraldas. Today, the majority of Ecuador's black population (500,000) resides in the province and maintains traditional customs such as the Marimba dance and a form of oral literature known as the décima.
Pedro Vicente Maldonado, perhaps the province's most renowned citizen, worked as a geographer and assisted the French Geographic Mission, headed by Charles-Marie de la Condamine, during its travels throughout the province in the mid-1730s. Appointed governor and captain-general of Atacames and Esmeraldas in 1738, Maldonado had ambitious plans to build roads and a shipyard, but died in 1748 of a tropical fever before he could carry them out.
Two years before Antonio José de Sucre Alcalá led his troops to victory in the battle of Pichincha in 1822, a group of stalwart Esmeraldas residents in Ríoverde declared independence from Spain. The movement quickly spread to neighboring towns, but this early revolutionary attempt was put down by government troops sent from Quito.
Following the murder of former president Eloy Alfaro and his supporters in 1912, Esmeraldas's black population again controlled much of the province, fending off well-armed government troops with machetes and sticks. The Concha War, essentially a skirmish protesting the second administration of President Leonidas Plazas Gutiérrez, lasted from 1913 to 1916 and resulted in great loss of life.
More recently, the province experienced a number of periods of growth and expansion, beginning with the export of cacao, the rubber and balsa wood boom during the two world wars, record exports of bananas from 1948 to 1968, and the opening of the country's largest oil refinery during the 1970s. Yet despite these intermittent booms, the province remains both geographically and politically isolated from the mainstream of Ecuadorian life; until the 1990s it was only accessible by boat. The 2000 census estimates that 140,300 people live in the city and metro areas.
Theodoro Wolf, Geografía y geología del Ecuador (1892).
Norman E. Whitten, Jr., Class, Kinship, and Power in an Ecuadorian Town: The Negroes of San Lorenzo (1965).
Alfredo Pareja y Diez Canseco, Ecuador, la república de 1830 a nuestros días (1979).
Sabine Speiser, Tradiciones afro-esmeraldeñas (1985).
Karen M. Greiner and José G. Cárdenas, Walking the Beaches of Ecuador (1988), esp. 31-120.
DeBoer, Warren. Traces behind the Esmeraldas Shore. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1996.
Moschetto, Pedro. El Diablo y el arco iris: Magia, sueños, tabúes en Esmeraldas. Quito: Ediciones Abya Yala, 1995.
Karen M. Greiner