The West Indians of Costa Rica: Race, Class, and the Integration of an Ethnic Minority


240 pages
Contains Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-7735-2162-3
DDC 305.896'972907286




Reviewed by J.H. Galloway

J.H. Galloway is a professor of geography at the University of Toronto.


The Caribbean coast of Central America—extending north from Panama to
the southern reaches of the Yucatan Peninsular and including such
offshore islands as San Andrés and Providencia—is a little-known part
of the English-speaking world. Only a short length of this coast (the
colony of British Honduras, now known as Belize) was ever under formal
British administration. The Spanish were never able to exercise their
authority over what seemed to them remote coastlands with little obvious
sources of wealth.

Left unadministered, the coastlands became a haven for those who had
reason to live without the law—for instance, runaway slaves and
pirates in search of a place to retire. A good number of these people
reached this coast from the British islands of the Caribbean. The
hardwoods of the tropical forest did attract log cutters, and a trade
developed with England and New England. Other West Indians came to hunt
for turtles, briefly a valuable export. In the late 19th century and
into the early 20th century, there was a migration from the British
Caribbean—a response to the boom in bananas and the need for labor to
build the Panama canal and a railway in Costa Rica. In recent years, the
governments of the central American republics have worked to integrate
this English-speaking population into the Hispanic culture.

Based on local newspapers and the author’s extensive research in
Costa Rican archives, The West Indians of Costa Rica concentrates on one
part of this coast where migrants from the British Caribbean became
particularly well entrenched. The book traces the story from the
founding and growth of this community through to the Costa Rican
government’s policies of assimilation. The United Fruit Company looms
large in this history, as do the visits of Marcus Garvey. Harpelle has
made a major contribution to the history of the Caribbean coast of
Central America. It is a pity his publisher could not find the space for
even one map.


Harpelle, Ronald N., “The West Indians of Costa Rica: Race, Class, and the Integration of an Ethnic Minority,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 24, 2024,