During the seventeenth century, the elite from the then capital city of Cartago invested in cacao farms in Matina, in the Atlantic region. Black slaves worked and lived in these farms, isolated from the rest of the country; the owners only went to oversee the crops once a year. However, the following century witnessed a gradual lessening of the abysmal differences between blacks and their white owners. As whites took black women as their concubines, they freed the children that were born from this union. The same thing started to happen with the "zambos" or the products of the union between Indians and blacks. Some analysts have suggested that this tendency to free slaves was due in part to the desire of the owners to free themselves of the economic burden that slaves had become in a poor country such as Costa Rica.
Whatever the reason for the gradual freeing of slaves was, it's a fact that by the time of the Independence of Costa Rica from Spain (1821), slavery was a disintegrating institution. The Federal Assembly of Guatemala declared the abolition of slavery in the region in 1822, but this law didn't get fully authorized in Costa Rica, until April 17, 1824. By the time that the law was established, the slave population in the country was considerably low, since a lot of the slaves had been freed previously.
In 1871 the railroad to the Atlantic started being built. Henry Meiggs Keith, an American hired by the Costa Rican government, was in charge of this monumental ordeal. He insisted in utilizing blacks for clearing the forest and building the railroad tracks. Several workers arrived from the Caribbean, Panama and other countries, but in 1872 the first group of Jamaicans entered the country. These Jamaicans and their descendants would become the main inhabitants of the region, thus providing the basis for a culture that was entirely different from any other in the country. The two large Jamaican migrations occurred at the time of the railroad construction and in the next century, for the banana plantations owned by the United Standard Fruit Company. If it hadn't been for this influx of black population, Costa Rica wouldn't have become the world's largest producer of bananas in 1911.
By the 1920s, the black population had improved its economic status dramatically, through their own farms or through their jobs with the banana company. However, since they weren't even considered citizens of Costa Rica, they didn't possess legal rights to own land. In the 1930s many white Ticos moved into this region and took over the land of these blacks. Many blacks had to migrate to Panama or other countries when they were dispossessed of their land or even of their job at the banana company. Due to these repressive circumstances, many black workers organized strikes and labor unions, and they even participated with Figueres (revolutionary leader) in the 1948 Civil War, after which they won citizenship and full guarantees.
The story of the black population in Costa Rica started, as does the story in most American countries, with slavery. From the beginning this group of people were indispensable in agricultural chores and in cacao and later on, banana plantations. Their participation was also central in the construction of the railroad that would connect the interior of the country with the coast, thus, with the rest of the world. However, the blacks didn't only contribute to the economy and progress of the nation, since elements of their culture, such as their language, religion, food and music, shaped a whole new culture in the Caribbean, and eventually extended to the rest of the country.
Afro-Costa Ricans constitute 3 percent of the population of Costa Rica, but nearly 50 percent of the population of the province of Limón, on the Atlantic coast. They came primarily from the British West Indies, and especially from Jamaica, in the late nineteenth century to build a railroad that was needed to transport coffee from the interior highlands to Puerto Limón.