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The Afro-Latin@ Reader
HISTORY AND CULTURE IN THE UNITED STATES
DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS Copyright © 2010 Duke University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One Historical Background before 1900
The Afro-Latin@ presence in the United States predates not only the nation's founding but also the first English settlements. The earliest Africans in North America were actually Afro-Latin@s. In addition to their role in the settlement of St. Augustine in 1565, Africans and their descendants were also instrumental in the exploration, conquest, and settlement of the United States Southwest. Eager to escape the caste restrictions that limited their social and economic possibilities, they were among the first to respond to the Spanish Crown's call for settlers to the sparsely populated areas of present-day Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas.
Afro-Latin@s and other non-Whites were usually the numerical majority in these early Spanish towns, a situation that encouraged-and arguably required-greater flexibility with regard to racial relations and classifications. Certainly the significance and complexity of class, race, and gender is apparent in the ways that free and enslaved men and women both complied with and defied White authority. By the mid-nineteenth century the formative period of Afro-Latinidad can be seen both in the centrality of the historical relations of African Americans and Afro-Latin@s in the war with Mexico and the Cuban-Spanish-American War and in the beginnings of the long-term experience of Black Cubans in southern Florida.
PETER H. WOOD The Earliest Africans in North America
In the summer of 1619, a 160-ton ship from the port of Flushing in Holland sailed into Chesapeake Bay. This Dutch vessel was under the command of Captain Jope and piloted by an Englishman named Marmaduke Raynor. They were seeking to obtain provisions after a season of raiding in the West Indies. In exchange for supplies, Jope and his crew sold more than twenty Negroes to the local authorities in the struggling English colony of Virginia. These black newcomers came ashore twelve years after the founding of Jamestown and one year before the Mayflower arrived at Plymouth in New England. The people brought to Virginia by the Dutch man-of-war are often cited as the first persons of African ancestry to set foot on North America. But in fact, others had come before them and had traveled widely through the southern part of the continent.
The earliest Africans to reach North America arrived nearly 500 years ago as participants in the large expeditions organized by Spanish-speaking explorers. These Spaniards were the successors to Christopher Columbus, and in the generation after 1492 they fanned out across the Caribbean, competing to find a passage to the Orient and to locate gold and other riches. They exploited the local inhabitants ruthlessly as they advanced. Within several decades, constant warfare, strange diseases, and brutal enslavement had destroyed the native population of the West Indies. The Spanish colonizers immediately began searching for new supplies of labor.
One solution to the labor shortage was the transportation of additional workers from Europe, but most of these people were practicing Christians, so fellow Christians felt reluctant to exploit them. The Catholic Church in Rome and the Spanish government in Seville had less concern about exploiting non-Christian Indians, so a second option centered upon Native Americans. Expeditions were sent out from the Caribbean in various directions to the American mainland, seeking inhabitants who could be enslaved. But this strategy also presented problems. Some groups resisted fiercely, and others died rapidly from diseases the Europeans had unknowingly carried with them from across the Atlantic. The aggressive Spanish empire-builders wanted more slaves than they could get in the Americas. Thus they began to seek more distant sources of labor, and soon they focused upon a third Atlantic region: the West Coast of Africa.
By 1500, European ships had been trading along the coast of West Africa for several generations. Besides purchasing gold and ivory, they also bought slaves and transported them north for sale in Europe. Soon the Spanish began diverting some of these slave-trading vessels to the Caribbean. Many of the first African workers found themselves forced to clear land for plantations or to dig for gold and silver. But others were pressed into service as soldiers, sailors, and servants. They were present, therefore, when the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés marched against the Aztecs in Mexico in 1519 and when Francisco Pizarro attacked the Incas in Peru twelve years later.
Africans were also present in the early Spanish forays onto the continent of North America, as Juan Ponce de León and his successors probed Florida and the Gulf Coast in search of slaves, wealth, and a passage to the Pacific. In August 1526, for example, six Spanish ships landed on the coast of what is now South Carolina. Their commander, Lucas Vásquez de Ayllón, brought at least 500 people-men, women, and children-along with 100 horses and enough cattle, sheep, and pigs to start a settlement. They pushed south along the coast to find a suitable location, and they constructed a small village of thatched-roof huts. But within months Ayllón died, and bitter tensions arose over who should succeed him. In the midst of this struggle for control, African slaves set fire to some of the houses at night. Divided and embittered, 150 survivors straggled back to the Caribbean as winter set in. Almost all the rest-more than 350 people-died because of sickness, violence, hunger, or cold. But it was rumored that some of the Africans had escaped their bondage and remained to live among the coastal Indians.
That same winter the Spanish king approved another expedition to the Florida region, and five ships, commanded by Pánfilo de Narváez, set sail from Spain in June 1527. The following spring more than 400 soldiers and servants, including some men of African descent, landed near Tampa Bay and marched northwest. They hoped to make great conquests, but they were poorly prepared and badly led. The Indians fought fiercely to defend their own lands, and soon the invaders were separated from their supply boats and from each other. Most died in the Gulf Coast wilderness, but a few survived long enough to be taken in by local tribes. Miraculously, four such men encountered one another on the Texas coast in 1534. They evaded the tribes with whom they were living and set off across the Southwest in hopes of reaching Mexico City, the capital of the Spanish colony of New Spain.
One of these four survivors was a Spanish-speaking African named Esteban (Stephen)-the first African to emerge clearly in the pages of North American history. Another survivor was a Spanish officer named Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca who wrote down their incredible story. He told how they had been enslaved by Indians and forced to haul wood and water, living on nuts, rabbits, spiders, and the juice of prickly pears. Heading west, they viewed the rolling Texas prairie with its herds of buffalo. "Over all the region," they reported, "we saw vast and beautiful plains that would make good pasture." They also marveled at the variety of languages they encountered among Southwestern Indians. Cabeza de Vaca noted that "there are a thousand dialectical differences," adding that Esteban served as their primary go-between. "He was constantly in conversation, finding out about routes, towns, and other matters we wished to know."
After eight years in America, including two years traveling together through the Southwest, the four men finally reached Mexico City in 1536-the first newcomers from Europe and Africa to cross the huge expanse of North America. When they described the massive Indian apartment dwellings they had seen (known as pueblos), gold-hungry listeners assumed they had glimpsed the legendary and wealthy Seven Cities of Cíbola. Soon Governor Antonio de Mendoza, the first Spanish viceroy of Mexico, organized a new exploration to seek out these seven mythical towns, which were supposedly surrounded by turquoise-studded walls of gold. Since the black man was a skilled translator and a seasoned guide who remained enslaved, Mendoza purchased Esteban and presented him to a Spanish friar named Marcos de Niza, who had been selected to lead the expedition. In March 1539, the friar's party, "with the Negro and other slaves, and Indians," headed northward toward what is now Arizona in search of Cíbola. According to an official report: "The Lord Viceroy having ... news and notice of such land sent a friar and a negro, the latter having come from Florida with the others ... as survivors of the party taken there by Pánfilo Narváez. These set out with the knowledge the negro had in order to go to a very rich country; as the latter declared, and told the friar ... that there are seven very populous cities with great buildings.... They have houses built of stone and lime, being of three stories, and with great quantities of turquoises set in doors and windows."
Esteban, familiar with the region, proceeded ahead with his two dogs and a number of Indians. As the summer heat increased, he sent wooden crosses back to the Christian friar to assure him of their progress. Finally he approached a large community-probably the pueblo of Zuni in western New Mexico. Hoping to have reached "Cíbola" at last, Esteban sent messengers ahead as usual, carrying "his great Mace made of a gourd," which "had a string of belles upon it, and two feathers one white and another red, in token that he demanded safe conduct, and that he came peaceably." But the Zunis quickly recognized the bells as Spanish. They linked this party advancing from the south with rumors of Spanish slave raiding and violence that were already circulating in the Indian markets of the region. Zuni leaders blamed the appearance of foreigners for deaths that had already occurred, and they feared a plot by which "neither man nor woman of them shall remaine unslaine."
When Esteban's messengers returned, they reported handing over the "great gourd" to the Indian magistrate. He "tooke the same in his hands, and after he had spyed the belles, in a great rage and fury hee cast it to the ground, and willed the messengers to get then packing with speed, for he knew well ynough what people they were, and that they should in no case enter the citie, for if they did hee would put them all to death." Determined in his course and confident that diplomacy could prevail, Esteban dismissed this initial rejection as "no great matter" and proceeded to approach the town. But armed men blocked his entrance to the city and confined him to an outlying building. They denied him food and water overnight, and they confiscated his trade goods. Negotiations proved unsuccessful, and when Esteban emerged the next morning, he and most of his company were attacked and killed by an angry crowd. Though "bloody and wounded in many places," several of his Indian companions managed to survive. They returned southward to inform Fray Marcos of the death of his experienced black guide.
The failure of the expeditions of Ayllón, Narváez, and Fray Marcos only increased the ambitions of other explorers. Their ventures into the American interior would also include the presence of Africans at every stage. Even before the death of Esteban at the Zuni pueblo, other black Hispanic soldiers and slaves were among those preparing to accompany Francisco Vázquez de Coronado into the Southwest and Hernando de Soto into the Southeast, and a few remain visible in the surviving accounts. Among those marching with de Soto, for example, was a man named "Gomez, a negro belonging to Vasco Gonçalez who spoke good Spanish." In 1537, de Soto had received permission to invade Florida and carve out a province for himself and his followers in the southern interior. The Spanish Crown had authorized him to raise an army, to establish three fortified towns, and to include as many as fifty enslaved Negroes in his plans. Gomez was among the black men forced to take part in this ambitious design.
When the expedition landed in Florida in May 1539, it contained 330 foot soldiers and almost as many others-artisans, carpenters, cooks, servants, and priests. They also brought herds of hogs and other livestock that would accompany their army to provide fresh meat. De Soto had taken part in Pizarro's successful campaign against the golden cities of the Incas in Peru. Now he was anxious to discover an equally wealthy kingdom of his own. But long marches through the swamps and forests of the Deep South revealed no such prize, even when he tortured local leaders for information and pushed his own company to extremes. The more de Soto's ambition was frustrated, the more ruthless his invasion became. At the Indian town of Cofitachequi near the Savannah River, he finally received gifts of pearls in the spring of 1540. But he thanked the young woman leader (or cacica) who had presented the pearls by making her a captive in her own region and obliging her to march with his soldiers to assure their safe passage in her domain.
De Soto's repeated cruelty toward the Native Americans assured that few would give him a kindly reception. His ruthlessness with his own army meant that many were willing to risk desertion in a strange land, especially slaves who stood to gain nothing from the entire enterprise. Several weeks after de Soto's departure from Cofitachequi, his royal Indian prisoner stepped off the path with several servants and made good her escape. Several members of de Soto's company also disappeared, including three Spanish-speaking slaves: an Indian boy from Cuba, a Berber from North Africa, and a West African-Gomez. The first two slaves eventually returned to camp and begged forgiveness, reporting that Gomez had elected to remain behind with the young Indian. Regarding the black man and the Native American woman, these informants said, "it was very certain that they held communication as husband and wife, and that both had made up their minds" to go to Cofitachequi.
So by 1540, less than fifty years after the arrival of Columbus in the Caribbean, an African ex-slave and an Indian cacica were living together in the southern forest. By now other European countries, jealous of Spanish wealth in the New World, were beginning to show an interest in the coast of North America. Several explorers sailing for the French king envisioned the possibility of discovering a short "Northwest Passage" from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Giovanni da Verrazzano hoped to find a route to the Orient when he examined the Outer Banks of Carolina and the mouth of New York harbor in 1524. Jacques Cartier had similar ambitions when he sailed up the broad St. Lawrence River in 1535. Even if they could not discover access to the Pacific, Spain's rivals could take advantage of the excellent fishing grounds in the North Atlantic. Or, if they dared, they could go after grander targets, attacking the Spanish galleons that sailed homeward regularly from Mexico.
The annual Spanish fleet, carrying gold and silver from the New World to Seville, followed the currents of the Gulf Stream northward along the Florida Peninsula. Foreign ships, lying in wait along that coastline, could easily attack and capture stray vessels before they headed across the Atlantic. In 1565, therefore, the Spanish established a garrison at St. Augustine on the east coast of Florida. The purpose of this small port town was to help protect the passing gold fleet from marauders and to secure Spain's claim to the Florida region against European rivals. It became the first permanent non-Indian settlement in North America, and Africans were present there from the beginning.
By 1600, roughly forty Africans had been transported to the small outpost of St. Augustine as property of the royal garrison; another sixty had arrived in the households of private individuals. These early African Americans-mostly men and mostly Spanish-speaking-were involved in erecting more than 100 Spanish-owned shops and houses and in building Fort San Marcos on the northern edge of town. They planted gardens and fished in the Matanzas River, selling their catch in the local fish market. Those who had accepted Christianity worshipped at the local Catholic church, and some drew token pay for themselves and their owners as drummers, fifers, and flag bearers in the local militia.
But living conditions were harsh, and controls at the remote outpost were limited. So some Africans escaped to live among the Indians, as Gomez and others had done several generations earlier. A Spanish document from 1605 complained that slaves had slipped away toward the south and intermarried with the Ais tribe living along the Florida coast. Those who remained in town had little reason for allegiance to their owners. The authorities feared that they would support any invader who offered them their freedom, and one official, writing in 1606, warned others to be wary of "persons of their kind, who are the worst enemies we can have." More than a century later St. Augustine would be viewed as a potential haven by a later generation of black Southerners, but that day was still far in the future.
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