Esmeraldas town and province derive their name from the first visits of Spanish conquistadors, who entered coastal villages around here in 1531 and supposedly found emeralds the size of “pigeons’ eggs”; the moniker stuck, despite years of fruitless expeditions for phantom emerald mines.
Before the Conquest, the Esmeraldas coast was so heavily populated with indigenous tribes that Bartolomé Ruiz, who passed through the area on orders from Francisco Pizarro five years earlier, was afraid to land and anchored in the bay instead. The native population declined rapidly during the sixteenth century, probably due to the introduction of foreign diseases, Spanish military probes and the arrival of Africans as slaves and soldiers, which dramatically changed the region’s ethnic and cultural character.
The Afro-Ecuadorians here, possibly the descendants of escaped slaves from Guinea who survived a shipwreck off the Esmeraldas coast in 1553, had control of much of the region by the early seventeenth century, which hardly bothered the Spanish, who preferred to leave alone its impenetrable forests and hostile denizens. Pedro Vicente Maldonado, who became the provincial governor in 1729 at the age of 25, made the most successful exploration of the region in the colonial era, building the first road down from the highlands to the coast as far as Puerto Quito.
Little else is known about the region during this period, save for an account by Irish explorer William B. Stevenson, who in 1809 followed Maldonado’s footsteps and uncovered the settlement at Esmeraldas, which then comprised 93 houses on stilts. Even then, the legend of the emeralds lived on, as Stevenson wrote that the province derived its name “from a mine of emeralds which is found no great distance from Esmeraldas-town…I never visited it, owing to the superstitious dread of the natives who assured me that it was enchanted and guarded by an enormous dragon”.