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The Americas 57.2 (2000) 171-205

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Black Conquistadors:
Armed Africans in Early Spanish America*

Matthew Restall

"I, Juan Garrido, black resident [de color negro vecino] of this city [Mexico], appear before Your Mercy and state that I am in need of making a probanza to the perpetuity of the king [a perpetuad rey], a report on how I served Your Majesty in the conquest and pacification of this New Spain, from the time when the Marqués del Valle [Cortés] entered it; and in his company I was present at all the invasions and conquests and pacifications which were carried out, always with the said Marqués, all of which I did at my own expense without being given either salary or allotment of natives [repartimiento de indios] or anything else. As I am married and a resident of this city, where I have always lived; and also as I went with the Marqués del Valle to discover the islands which are in that part of the southern sea [the Pacific] where there was much hunger and privation; and also as I went to discover and pacify the islands of San Juan de Buriquén de Puerto Rico; and also as I went on the pacification and conquest of the island of Cuba with the adelantado Diego Velázquez; in all these ways for thirty years have I served and continue to serve Your Majesty--for these reasons stated above do I petition Your Mercy. And also because I was the first to have the inspiration to sow maize here in New Spain and to see if it took; I did this and experimented at my own expense." 1

While the role of people of African descent in Latin America's colonization "is relatively well-known," Peter Gerhard once noted, "it is for the most part an impersonal history." Gerhard's brief biographical essay on Juan Garrido, "A Black Conquistador in Mexico," was his contribution to the personalization of black history in Spanish America. 2 [End Page 171] More than two decades later, that process of personalization--and contextualization--still has a long way to go. 3

This article places Juan Garrido in the specific biographical context of black conquistadors who fought and settled in other regions of Spanish America--from Yucatan to Chile (see Table 1)--and in the broader historical context of the black experience in Spanish America (see the articles that follow in this issue of The Americas). The sources for this endeavor are a combination of primary material, mostly the genre of colonial "chronicles" but including a few archival items, and secondary works, some pre-dating Gerhard's essay but some representing recent work. The article's purpose is thus, first, to marshal the widely scattered evidence on the topic with a view to making the broad and simple--but hitherto inadequately substantiated if not marginalized 4 --point that Africans were a ubiquitous and pivotal part of Spanish conquest campaigns in the Americas; second, to articulate whatever patterns are visible in black conquest roles and to locate African participation in the phases of Spanish expansion; and third, to argue that such roles should be seen in a longer-term colonial context whose most notable features were the existence of black militias and individuals whom I have termed black counter-conquistadors.

From the very onset of Spanish activity in the Americas, Africans were present both as voluntary expeditionaries and as involuntary colonists. 5 [End Page 172] Likewise from the onset, the roles played by people of African descent can be placed in three overlapping categories. The category that would soon include the majority of Blacks in colonial Spanish America was that of the mass slave--that is, slaves shipped en masse to the colonies and forced to work in labor gangs in various industries but most typically on sugar plantations. Beginning as early as 1505, enslaved men and women were imported in increasingly large numbers to the Spanish colonies, at first from the Iberian kingdoms but soon directly from Africa. 6 King Ferdinand authorized in...


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