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Indians and Africans in the Age of Exploration
The Africans who sailed with Columbus, Balboa, and the other European expeditions in the "age of exploration" helped change the Americas and the world. In 1513 thirty Africans with Balboa hacked their way through the lush vegetation of Panama and reached the Pacific. His men paused to build the first large European ships on the Pacific coast. Africans were with Ponce de Leon when he reached Florida, and when Cortez conquered Mexico three hundred Africans dragged his huge cannons into battle. One stayed on to plant and harvest the first wheat crop in the New World.
Africans marched into Peru with Pizarro, where they carried his murdered body to the cathedral. They were with Amalgro and Valdivia in Chile, Alvarado in Ecuador, and Cabrillo when he reached California. The Europeans destroyed a world, but many Africans peeled away from the devastation to seek a new life. Many found it among Native Americans in Mexico, the Southwest, and elsewhere in the Americas.
The first Africans to enter the chronicles of the New World, whom historian Ira Berlin has called "Atlantic Creoles," were men possessed of extraordinary language skills and familiar with life in Africa, Europe, and the Americas. "Fluent in [the Americas'] new languages, and intimate with its trade and cultures, they were cosmopolitan in the fullest sense," Berlin wrote of these intercontinental pioneers. Historian Peter Bakker elaborates on their contributions
Especially in the earliest contact period, Africans were highly valued by Europeans as interpreters with the Native Americans. These men of African origins were not slaves but free black men in the employ of various European trading and exploratory ventures.
The use of Africans as interpreters in trading and exploratory ventures was initiated by the Portuguese in the fifteenth century. Prince Henry the Navigator ordered in 1435 that interpreters be used on all such voyages. Portuguese ships thereafter systematically brought Africans to Lisbon where they would be taught Portuguese so that they could be used to interpret on subsequent voyages to Africa.
The Portuguese strategy was imitated by other Europeans.
Hired initially as interpreters, negotiators, and ambassadors, many of these Africans settled in the Americas and struck out on their own. In Latin America the Catholic church celebrated their souls, consecrated their marriages, baptized their children, and buried their remains in hallowed ground. In the seventeenth century, from Angola to Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro, African settlers formed religious brotherhoods and self-help societies, and by 1650 Havana, Mexico City, and San Salvador had "Atlantic Creole" communities.
In North America "both whites and Indians relied heavily on Negro interpreters," writes historian J. Leitch Wright, Jr., and they were considered "among the most versatile in the world." Africans proved highly effective in building peaceful relations with Native Americans. In the Carolinas in the 1710s, Timboe, an African, was "a highly valued interpreter" whose role, historian Peter Woods writes, "is emblematic of the intriguing intermediary position occupied by all Negro slaves during these years."
European officials began to call some Africans impudent and arrogant. They were usually referring to those who successfully advanced their own interests, launched merchant businesses, or became independent career diplomats. Matthieu da Costa, an African, may have visited the site of New York as a translator for the French or Dutch before Henry Hudson's Half Moon reached it in 1609. Dutch and French officials battled each other in court for the exclusive right to da Costa's services. In New Amsterdam two years before the Dutch built their first fort, Jan Rodriguez, an African, established a trading post among the Algonquins.
Africans and Indians: Slaves and Allies
In their quest for riches, the conquistadores cast the long shadow of slavery on the Americas. On October 12, 1492, Christopher Columbus recorded in his diary: "I took some of the natives by force." Six years later explorer John Cabot seized three Native Americans. The European conquest led to a drive to enslave laborers.
In 1520 Lucas Vazquez de Ayllon dispatched two emissaries to the South Carolina coast to build friendship among native people and locate a site for his colony. Instead, the two seized seventy Native Americans: this made the first European act on what would become U.S. soil the enslavement of free people.
In April 1526, Ayllon sailed to the South Carolina coast to build his dream settlement, San Miguel de Gualdape. He arrived with five hundred Spaniards and one hundred African laborers. But mismanagement, disease, and Indian hostility dogged his colony for six months and took Ayllon's life. Then Indian resistance and slave defiance tore it apart, and the surviving Europeans retreated to Santo Domingo. The remaining Africans joined with neighboring Native Americans, and together they created the first permanent U.S. settlement to include people from overseas. Their peaceful colony, marked by friendship and cooperation between foreigners and newcomers, introduced an American legacy not born of greed and conquest. The conquistadores soon overran San Miguel de Gualdape, but it came to have many models in the Americas.
Native Americans were the first people enslaved by Europeans in the New World, but they died by the millions of foreign diseases, overwork, and cruelty. European merchants next turned to Africa and seized its strongest men, women, and children to perform the hard work of the new lands.
This meant that Indian and African people first met in the slave huts, mines, and plantations of the Americas. In 1502 Nicolas de Ovando, the new governor of Hispaniola, Spain's headquarters in the Caribbean, arrived in a flotilla that carried the first enslaved Africans. Within a year Ovando reported to King Ferdinand that his Africans had escaped, found a new life among the Native Americans, and "never could be captured." He was describing an American tradition older than the first Thanksgiving.
In the following decades enslaved Africans and Indians escaped bondage together and began to unite against the common foe. Anthropologist Richard Price studied the sacred legends of the Saramaka people of Dutch Guiana, now Suriname, which date back to 1685. In one, Lanu, an African slave who would become a leader of the Saramakas, escaped, and Wamba, the Indians' forest spirit, entered his mind to lead him to a native village. "The Indians escaped first and then, since they knew the forest, they came back and liberated the Africans," concluded Price.
Once free of the European conquerors, Africans and Native Americans found they had more in common with each other than with a foe wielding muskets and whips. For both peoples the spiritual and environmental merged. Religion was not confined to a single day of prayer but was a matter of daily reflection and action. Africans and Indians believed that community needs, not private gain, should determine judicial, economic, and life decisions. Both accepted an economy based on cooperation, and were baffled by the conqueror's passion to accumulate wealth.
During the conquest the two peoples brought each other important gifts. The Middle Passage and enslavement gave Africans a multidimensional understanding of European goals, diplomacy, and weaponry. To Native Americans they brought their knowledge of the foe's plans, weaknesses, and often valuable arms and ammunition. Native American societies offered Africans a red hand of friendship, a refuge, a new life--and a base for insurgency.
In the early decades of the sixteenth century, slave revolts in Colombia, Cuba, Panama, and Puerto Rico often found Africans and Native Americans acting in unison. In 1537 Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza of Hispaniola told of a major rebellion that threatened Mexico City, saying the Africans "had chosen a king, and . . . the Indians were with them." By 1570 Spanish colonial officials admitted that one in ten slaves were living free. Viceroy Martin Enriquez later warned, "the time is coming when these [African] people will have become masters of the Indians, inasmuch as they were born among them and their maidens and are men who dare to die as well as any Spaniard."
In the Southwest, Africans joined the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 as leaders and soldiers, helping to drive out Spain's armies and missionaries and freeing the region for a dozen years. Decades before fifty-five white men met in Philadelphia in 1776 and wrote the Declaration of Independence, people of color on the continent had revolted against foreign rule, injustice, and slavery. They became the first freedom fighters of the Americas.
"Division of the races is an indispensable element," warned a Spanish official. European governors constantly sought to destroy the alliances in the woods with tactics of divide and rule. In 1523 Hernando Cortez enforced a royal order in Mexico that banned Africans from Indian villages. In 1723 Jean-Baptiste LeMoyne de Bienville, founding governor of Louisiana, urged that putting "these barbarians into play against each other is the sole and only way to establish any security in the colony." In 1776 U.S. Colonel Stephen Bull, saying his policy was to "establish a hatred" between the two races, dispatched Indians to hunt Black runaways in the Carolinas.
Staggering rewards were offered to Africans to fight Indians and to Indians to fight Africans. In the Carolinas Native Americans were bribed with three blankets and a musket, and in Virginia it was thirty-five deerskins. Governor Perier of Louisiana offered Indians two muskets, two blankets, twenty pounds of balls, four shirts, mirrors, knives, musket stones, and four lengths of cloth for the recapture of a single runaway. Local warriors often refused to hunt runaways, so Europeans had to recruit people from distant regions. "Between the races we cannot dig too deep a gulf," stated a French official.
In 1708 British colonials deployed mounted slave cattle-guards to protect colonial Charleston from Indians. On Virginia's frontier George Washington hired African American "pioneers or hatchet men." In 1747 the South Carolina legislature thanked its militiamen of African descent who "in times of war, behaved themselves with great faithfulness and courage, in repelling the attacks of his Majesty's enemies." But the legislature limited the number of Black men to a third of the total to ensure they would always be outnumbered by armed whites.
Despite divide-and-rule strategies, the lid never closed. In 1721 the governor of Virginia had the Five Nations sign a treaty and promise to return all runaways; in 1726 the governor of New York had the Iroquois Confederacy make a similar promise; in 1746 the Hurons promised and the next year the Delawares promised. None, reports scholar Kenneth W. Porter, returned a single slave.
What for European merchants and planters was a matter of profits had taken on another meaning for Native Americans. They would not sunder the bonds between husband and wife, parent and children, relatives and loved ones. Lacking racial prejudice, Native Americans had welcomed Africans into their villages, then their homes and families. This became clear to careful observers. Thomas Jefferson discovered among Virginia's Mattaponies "more negro than Indian blood." Artist George Catlin found that "Negro and North American Indian, mixed, of equal blood," were "the finest built and most powerful men I have ever yet seen."
To the sputtering fury of European planters, two dark peoples were not only standing as families but uniting as allies. During Pontiac's War in 1763, a white settler in Detroit complained, "The Indians are saving and caressing all the Negroes they take," and warned that this could "produce an insurrection." Africans and Indians faced regimes more mercilessly cruel than the one denounced in the Declaration of Independence. The two peoples of color had to fight off slave-hunting posses dispatched by the men who wrote the great charter of liberty.
Carter G. Woodson, father of modern African American history, would call this genetic mixture of people of color "one of the longest unwritten chapters in the history of the United States." It also produced a number of talented persons. One gifted individual to emerge from this relationship was Wildfire, born in 1846 in upstate New York to a Chippewa mother and an African American father. Until her teenage years she lived with her mother's people; later she attended Oberlin College and began, as Edmonia Lewis, to pursue a career in art and sculpture.
After the Civil War Lewis had a studio in Rome where she produced works based on African and Native American themes. In the next decade her art was sold all over Europe and the United States, and in 1876 her twelve-foot-tall, two-ton Death of Cleopatra, exhibited at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, was called "the grandest statue in the Exposition."
Interview with a Young Sculptress
One of the most interesting individuals I met at the reception was Edmonia Lewis, a colored girl about twenty years of age, who is devoting herself to sculpture . . . I told her I judged by her complexion that there might be some of what was called white blood in her veins. She replied, "No; I have not a single drop of what is called white blood in my veins. My father was a full-blooded Negro, and my mother was a full-blooded Chippewa" . . .
"And have you lived with the Chippewas?"
"Yes. When my mother was dying, she wanted me to promise that I would live three years with her people, and I did."
"And what did you do while you were there?"
"I did as my mother's people did. I made baskets and embroidered moccasons and I went into the cities with my mother's people, to sell them" . . .
"But, surely," said I, "you have had some other education than that you received among your mother's people, for your language indicates it."
"I have a brother," she replied, "who went to California, and dug gold. When I had been three years with my mother's people, he came to me and said, 'Edmonia, I don't want you to stay here always. I want you to have some education.' He placed me at a school in Oberlin. I staid there two years, and then he brought me to Boston, as the best place for me to learn to be a sculptor. I went to Mr. Brackett for advice; for I thought the man who made a brist of John Brown must be a friend to my people. Mr. Brackett has been very kind to me."
She wanted me to go to her room to see . . . a head of Voltaire. "I don't want you to go to praise me," she said, "for I know praise is not good for me. Some praise me because I am a colored girl, and I don't want that kind of praise. I had rather you would point out my defects, for that will teach me something."
L. Maria Child, letter in The Liberator, February 19, 1864.
Pioneer Maroon Settlements From the misty dawn of America's earliest foreign landings, Africans who fled to backwoods regions created "maroon" (after a Spanish word for runaway) settlements. Europeans saw "maroons" as a knife poised at the heart of their slave system, even pressed against their thin line of military rule. They had a point.