Panama Hats – Montecristi, Ecuador (and the Secular State)

Updated: Dec 28, 2020

Finn learning to weave

Headwear aficionados will know the best of these hats are made in Montecristi, Ecuador, and have been for hundreds of years. They are light and comfortable under the hot tropical sun and gained global notoriety when Theodore Roosevelt wore one during his visit to the Panama Canal construction site in 1904.

Previous to the canal’s construction, miners used the hats during the California Gold Rush in the late 1840’s. Indeed there is a long forgotten American trade route that pre-dates the Panama Canal. Many miners in California, British Colombia, Yukon and Alaska actually travelled around Tierra del Fuego and up the entire Pacific Coast of the Americas to discover they were probably too late to find any gold.

A voluptuous woman weaving a hat. Looking beyond the obvious, this ‘welcome’ to Montecristi is also a message of abundance, market and a liberal view of female economic participation.

The hats are still hand-woven using the leaves of the jipijapa palm (not a true palm), and are valued according to density of the weave, colour and weight.

It turns out Montecristi is located on a hill, 8 km’s inland from Manta, Ecuador’s principle sea port. There it is hot and tropical, but despite the heat, people from Manta moved inland to a higher point to avoid regular incursions from pirates – another vaguely remembered element of American history!

Montecristi is a small city of around 50,000 people, yet it has played an important role in Ecuadorian history.

Trying hats on!

Isolated from much of the country, yet heavily involved in international trade, Montecristi and the province of Manabí was the ideological centre of 19th century Radical Liberalism.

Radical Liberalism & Eloy Alfaro

Born in Montecristi in 1842, shot and burned in Quito in 1912, Jose Eloy Alfaro Delgado was twice president of Ecuador and even honorary General of Nicaragua!

He championed the cause of the 19th century secular state. Radical Liberals called for such revolutionary changes as ending slavery, emancipating women and indigenous people, developing market infrastructure and reigning in the Church’s vast powers.

The Church and mural of Eloy Alfaro in the Plaza of Montecristi

Since the 16th century enslaved Africans were transported to Ecuador. The institution was abolished in Ecuador in 1851 (before the USA, Cuba and Brazil). The Catholic Church was openly complicit in the transatlantic slave trade and generally opposed any change to the strict colonial social order throughout the Americas.

Liberal successes in Ecuador – and throughout the Americas – can be traced to abolitionist and secularism.

General Eloy Alfaro served as President of Ecuador from 1895-1901 and again from 1906-1911. Among his government’s most significant achievements was the construction of a train between Guayaquil and Quito – an impressive feat from sea level up to the high Andes.

A model of the first national Ecuadorian train system

The construction of the train explores yet another important element of Latin American history – nation building.

Whereas the nationstate in Europe (and parts of Asia) emerged from empire based around language and cultural identity. The process in Latin America has much more to do with the development of state institutions and the painful march towards inclusivity.

I promise to explore this more fully…

Following on from a very interesting Easter lunch conversation in Quito, part of the reason I have fallen so in love with this part of the world is the Latin American tone. Despite terrible inequality, Church / colonial oligarchy and misogyny, rarely do people of one country tell me why they are superior to another.

I like the term ‘sister-republics.’

When Latin America shed the chains of colony, it did so in a pantheistic manner. Within that process of liberation, new societies were formed. Those with the most effective institutions have been the most successful.

I think seems Eloy Alfaro is reveared in Montecristi and the region – indeed almost like a cult, yet he stands out in South America as a voice for equilty (at least in opportunity) and an important

The Decalog of 19th Century Ecuadorian Liberalism: 1. Ending perpetual church ownership of land (essentially feudalism) 2. Dissolution of convents 3. Dissolution of monasteries 4. Teaching secular society and obligations 5. Indigenous rights 6. Abolish the 1862 contract with the church in Rome (for all spiritual life) 7. Ecclesiastic secularization 8. Expulsion of foreign clergy 9. Well financed and well paid army 10. Train infrastructure to the coast

Little Montecristi, with its magnificent hats, offered a neo-liberal model of a more inclusive free-market model. How interesting!

I may have to wear my new hat in Panama!

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