Documented history and legend establish the beginning of Afro-Hispanic culture in Esmeraldas, Ecuador, when a Spanish slaving ship ran aground in 1553. There, a group of twenty-three Africans from the coast of Guinea, led by a Black warrior named Antón, attacked the slavers and liberated themselves. Soon after, by means only partially documented, this group, together with other Blacks entering the region led by a Ladino (Hispanicized Black person) named Alonso de Illescas, came to dominate the region from northern Manabí north to what is now Barbacoas, Colombia. At this time (late sixteenth century) intermixture with indigenous peoples, to whom Black people fled to establish their palenques (fortified villages), was such that, on the basis of their features, they were described as "Zambo" (Black-indigenous admixture), synonyms of which were "Negro," "Black," and "Mulato." Movement into southwest Colombia by African slaves was through Cartagena via the Cauca Valley and through Panama and Pacific ports. The first Black there may have arrived with the pilot of Francisco Pizarro, Bartolomé Ruiz, on the Isla de Gallo in 1526. There is evidence that the earliest influence on Afro-Hispanic culture in the region came from the Senegambian area of North Africa. Culturally, the influences of Bantu Africa, as seen in the music—especially the currulao (see Ceremonies)—and archaic Spain—especially some funeral customs—predominate.
By 1599 Black people were clearly in charge of what was called "La República de Zambos." In that year a group of Zambo chiefdoms, said to represent thousands of Zambo people of Esmeraldas, trekked to Quito to declare loyalty to Spain. An oil painting of three of these chiefs from the emerald land of the Zambo Republic is portrayed by the "Indian artist" Adrián Sánchez Galgue; it is reportedly the earliest signed and dated painting from South America. The subsequent history until the wars of liberation led by Simón Bolívar in the north is that of slavery and freedom existing side by side. Organization of labor in raising food, exploitation of forest, mangrove, and sea, and panning for gold existed in remarkably similar forms in both free and slave communities. The primary cultural relationship from the sixteenth century through the twentieth is that of "racial succession," whereby Black people encroach on the cultural territories of indigenous people.