- "We Never Could Understand Why the Black Man Did Not Come to Us": Early African-Amerindian Subjectivities in Miguel Cabello Balboa’s Verdadera Descripción De La Provincia De Esmeraldas (1583)
In the first chapter of The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, Paul Gilroy points out an interesting detail about Columbus’s first trip to the Americas:
Columbus’ pilot, Pedro Nino, was also an African. The history of the Black Atlantic since then, continually crisscrossed by the movements of black people—not only as commodities but engaged in various struggles toward emancipation, autonomy, and citizenship—provides a means to reexamine the problems of nationality, location, identity, and historical memory.1
This assertion emerges as part of Gilroy’s challenge to nationalistic and ethnic approaches that attempt to circumscribe the history of the African diaspora to the constitution of a particular identity. Beyond the debatable characterization of Pedro Nino as African, this remark expresses a position that is as suggestive as it is challenging.2 Gilroy proposes that the beginning of the black Atlantic is contemporaneous with the beginning of the modern European colonization of the Americas in 1492. Though his analyses remain mostly committed to ideas and vocabulary that emerge in the context of [End Page 167] the European Enlightenment (particularly, the double consciousness that W. E. B. Du Bois proposes as a development and challenge to a Hegelian approach to history) and focus on materials that come from the English black Atlantic, Gilroy seems to recognize here that the history of the black Atlantic covers a wider spectrum in terms of time and regions than the one that he explores in his own reflections (124–25).
If the black Atlantic as a “chaotic, living, disorganic formation” (122) that overcomes the boundaries established by modern slavery begins with the so-called discovery of the Americas, it is necessary to recognize that it covers more than five centuries, at least four colonial languages along with their creole variations, and more precisely those political structures, ways of resilience, and cultural exchanges that are not articulated in terms of the emancipatory ideals of the European enlightenment. In addition, a significant number of the texts that emerge in this expanded black Atlantic, particularly those coming from the Spanish and Portuguese empires from the sixteenth through the eighteenth century, were not produced from the perspectives of Africans and their descendants in the Americas but from the perspectives of their masters and/or authorities who despised, condemned, and misrecognized their search for freedom as much as their alternative forms of social organization.3 Therefore, double consciousness as a key concept for understanding the African diaspora should not be rejected but rather adjusted and combined with other concepts in order to face the challenges raised by the analysis of such texts.
On the basis of her work on the African diaspora in the French Caribbean, Christine Chivallon has proposed a suggestive approach to Gilroy’s ideas, emphasizing the dynamism of the African diaspora as diversity in permanent transformation that offers the possibility of a critique of modernity and, particularly, its mechanisms of objectification: “I understand that diversity as referring to the variety of collective orientations and to their interrelatedness in an open decentered community fabric.”4 Chivallon’s emphasis on diversity instead of double consciousness expands Gilroy’s black Atlantic in geographical and temporal terms, allowing us to explore the presence of a strong and persistent critique of modernity in texts related to African captives and their free descendants in the Americas.
In that context, this article examines a document that offers an approach to a maroon community that emerged in the middle of the sixteenth century in what we know today as Esmeraldas in Ecuador. My aim is to explore the way in which Miguel Cabello Balboa’s Verdadera Descripción de la Provincia de Esmeraldas (1583)—referred to hereafter as Descripción—registers the process of constitution of this community and to identify both elements of continuity and discontinuity between Cabello Balboa’s book and Gilroy’s reflections [End Page 168] on the black Atlantic as a system of cultural exchanges that challenges the ethnic and national...