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The Americas 57.2 (2000) 247-267

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'Por que no sabemos firmar':
Black Slaves in Early Guatemala*

Robinson A. Herrera

Juan, a literate black slave born and raised in the Spanish town of Cáceres, labored for at least five years during the 1560s in the Honduran gold mines of Guayape. Finally, growing tired of the arduous work of placer mining and taking advantage of his isolation, he made a bid for freedom. Upon hearing of Juan's flight, his owner, a wealthy Santiago-based merchant named Santos de Figueroa, immediately began the process of securing Juan's recovery. Eventually Juan made his way to Santo Domingo where unfortunately he was captured and Figueroa notified of his whereabouts. 1 It remains unknown if Juan was actually returned to Santiago or if Figueroa instead preferred to sell him, a rather common occurrence in cases of runaway slaves.

Juan serves to illustrate several aspects of African slavery in early Santiago. First, while literacy among slaves was rare, Juan was not unique in this regard; in his case, literacy undoubtedly was one of the important skills that permitted him to achieve a position of some trust. Second, the Honduran silver and gold mines used substantial numbers of African slaves. 2 Juan's [End Page 247] position at the mines, likely in a supervisory capacity overseeing native laborers, and his distance from Santos de Figueroa, are both in keeping with general patterns of black slavery as they developed in Santiago and elsewhere in Spanish America. Third, Juan's resistance, in the form of his escape, also proves quite common.

The general history of Africans in sixteenth-century Santiago de Guatemala, like Juan's flight, has for a long time remained buried in obscurity. The pioneering work done on early Mexico and Peru lacks counterparts for the Central American region; 3 indeed, only a few scholarly works have considered blacks as part of larger projects. 4 Fewer have made blacks (enslaved or free) the central theme of their investigations. 5 Santiago's population of African descent has often been portrayed as small and insignificant. Therefore the historical importance of blacks is ranked far behind that [End Page 248] of Europeans and natives. 6 In general, an historical amnesia, one that negates the cultural contributions of blacks and minimizes their economic and cultural impact, has hampered the study of this group.

As justification for the paucity of studies, a lack of sources has often been cited. Yet local and international archives contain hundreds of records related to blacks. Although documents written specifically by blacks for the period under consideration have not been found, slaves and their free counterparts appear in scores of mundane sources, including land sales, freighting contracts, testaments, and criminal and civil cases. When used judiciously these records shed much light on the lives and activities of blacks in sixteenth-century Guatemala. 7

Even though the number of black slaves remained modest when compared to the larger European and native populations, it was not so small that it did not influence the economic growth of Santiago. Indeed black slaves, and later free blacks, filled nearly every imaginable role in that city, working as semi-skilled domestics, highly trained (and valued) artisans, and supervisors of profitable agricultural lands such as cacao groves. Black slaves--and, by the mid to late sixteenth century, free blacks--served as intermediaries between natives and Europeans, contributing to (most likely in an unconscious way) the Hispanizing process by taking elements of Iberian culture to the largely native countryside. Within the urban context, black slaves also co-mingled closely with natives and likely exchanged cultural beliefs and practices. Undoubtedly, they also introduced elements of their own cultures to indigenous peoples and Europeans. 8

To gain a better understanding of black slavery during the early years of the Spanish conquest this article discusses how and when Blacks arrived in Guatemala, the black slave trade as it developed in Santiago, the roles slaves played in the local society and economy, and some aspects of slave family life. This discussion is prefaced with...


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