The origins of Kuna militancy

The following extracts were taken from Judy Bennett’s Masters dissertation [1].

At the time of the Spanish Conquest between 300,000 and 700,000 Kuna-speaking peoples inhabited the Darién rainforest, an area that today remains one of the most inaccessible regions on earth. For 250 years the Kuna were under extreme pressure as the Spanish tried to colonise the Darién, mine the area’s gold, and subject the Indians to their political control. In 1787 the Kuna emerged triumphant but with their numbers greatly reduced by warfare and disease, and entered the nineteenth century with control of large areas of the Darién region of eastern Panama. The Kuna were almost unique in coming out of the Spanish period as an independent people, achieving this largely through alliances with English and French pirates, and through their willingness and ability to modify their social organisation. In 1831 New Spain granted them their independence.

Around 1850 the Kuna began to move onto the small coral atolls of te San Blas archipelago positioned closest to the coast. The reasons given for the move are varied, but it is generally thought to have been in order to avoid epidemics, probably due to malaria-carrying mosquitoes, and to be closer to the coastal traders with whom the Kuna traded tortoise shells and coconuts. This move continued slowly for the next seventy or so years, … some Kuna remaining in the Darién and Colombia to this day.

[1] Judy Bennett (1997) ‘San Blas: the Role of Control and Community Participation in Sustainable Tourism Development’, University of North London, M.A. dissertation, pp.9-10.

She draws on the following works:
Feeney, C.B. (1941) ‘Arch isolationists, the San Blas indians’, National Geographic Magazine, 79, 2.
Holloman, R. (1969) ‘Developmental Change in San Blas’, Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University, Ph.D. thesis.
Howe, J. (1986) ‘The Kuna gathering: contemporary village politics in Panama’, Latin American Monographs, no. 67, Austin: University of Texas Press.
Salvador, M.L. (1976) ‘The clothing arts of the Cuna of San Blas, Panama’, in Graburn, N.H.H. (Ed.) Ethnic and Tourist Arts: cultural expressions from the fourth world, Berkeley and Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, pp. 165-182.
Stout, D. (1947) San Blas Cuna Acculturation: an introduction, New York: Viking Fund, Publications in Anthropology, 9.