African American Heritage & Ethnography African Nation Founders: Africans in Spanish America

Africans in Spanish America

People of African descent greatly altered the demographics of North America. Through participation in militias, the formation of African American communities, and the defense of colonial frontiers, pioneers of African decent helped to settle and develop Spanish America, an area which encompassed present day Florida and much of the Western United States as well as Mexico, Central and South America and parts of the Caribbean. Africans and their descendants influenced and were influenced by changes in culture, including a system of color and “racial” categorization, the social and economic order within Spanish colonial society, and the many types of resistance used during the late 15th through the 18th centuries.

Map of New Spain circa 1650.

Spanish American development with regards to people of African descent can be better understood through the application of a variety of resources including: the use of documented accounts that pertain to the arrival of various people of African descent; the role of black conquistadors; the role of women within Spanish colonial society; the way in which the caste system worked; and the tremendous impact African pioneers had on the region in terms of architecture, food systems, fraternal organizations, and the development of free societies. The time period before the arrival of the Spanish and their African counterparts to the New World helps to lay the foundation for the Spanish-African interactions that would shape New World identities and power relations.

Spanish and African Arrivals

The initial views of slavery held by the Spanish developed on the Iberian Peninsula between the 8th and 15th centuries. During these 700 years, Islamic Moors from North Africa occupied the peninsula and dominated the populations of Portugal and Spain until 1250 and 1492 respectively. These Islamic inhabitants were not solely of darker skin color as the name may imply. Depending on how the term was used and which country employed it, the term “moor” varied in definition (Forbes 1993:25–27 and 68), and could have also been used to describe non-Christian Africans of varying skin tones.

Islamic Architecture, such as the Gran Mezquita (interior walls) in Cordoba Spain(785–786) and the Alhambra (Red Palace) in Granada, Spain (1380), attest to the presence of Islamic Moors on the Iberian Peninsula from the 8th through the 15th centuries.

It was the Moorish introduction of slavery that affected Iberian views on the institution of slavery. Initially, slavery was seen as unnatural, a consequence of war or a refusal to except a conqueror’s religion (Deagan and MacMahon 1995). Slavery was a result of circumstance and not color. Because most slaves prior to the 15th century were Europeans and North Africans, “[N]o association of color with servitude existed” (Forbes 1993:102).

Spaniards were familiar with Africans, free and enslaved, due to the settlers and slaves of many nationalities brought to the peninsula by the Moors. As Colin Palmer, Jack Forbes and others suggest, slavery existed throughout Christendom and Muslims, Slavs, Egyptians, Asians, “Turks” [sic] and Africans were all potential slaves. Iberian Islamic laws not only recognized slavery, they allowed for Muslims to possess other Muslims as slaves if the latter were black or loro, of an intermediate color (Forbes 1993:26).

An increase in the number of darker skinned slaves occurred on the Iberian Peninsula during the 15th century. Within this time period more Berber and black Senegalese slaves arrived especially after 1440. As the number of darker skinned slaves increased, new terminology arose that associated color with servitude. Even ancient myths associated with the African continent took on new meanings.

For many Catholics, Popes included, slavery provided the rescue or salvation Africans needed. Not only would African souls be saved, but the Spanish kingdom would benefit as well from the commerce in human bodies. As Forbes states, “[B]oth Spaniards and Portuguese had become accustomed to financing their wars and expeditions by seizing men, women, and children whenever possible” (Forbes 1993:28).

The Spanish town of Seville had the largest number of Africans in residence. The Treaty of Alcacuvas in 1479 provided traders the right to supply Spaniards with Africans. As the Africans were brought to the peninsula, there were attempts to hispanicize them while they were enslaved. For many native Africans living in Spain, there was initially the option of baptism which allowed them to be considered as members of the broader community. The role of religion and the moral commitments associated with it would have an important impact on African and Afro-Hispanic American communities.

African/Afro-Hispanic Space

Enslaved and free Africans were able to create public social spaces for themselves in Spain through the development of ethnic enclaves in San Bernardo, San Roque and San Idelfonso (Pike 1972:185–187). The establishment of religious confraternities or cofradias, (some of which featured singing and dancing celebrations known as cabildos (Landers 1999:8)) contributed to the social network building of people of African descent. Africans during this time period in Spain were also instrumental in administering aid in the Hospital of Our Lady of the Angels, an extension of a local cofradia, which provided medical care for its members located in the parish of San Bernardo. The hospital was built by the church for people of African descent who lived within the vicinity. One could speculate that this hospital was maintained through the use of membership fees, periodic offerings, and other cofradia obligations in the form of in-kind donations as would be customary for confraternities found throughout the Spanish territories.

Through the aid of fraternal organizations like the Cofradia Nigrorum Libertate Datorum Civitatus Barchininote in Barcelona, Cofradia de San Jaime Apostol de Negros in Valencia, and a variety of other confraternities, members could provide food, alms, and medicine for the needy, attend funerals, and participate in religious observances such as Corpus Christi. By creating their own social and religious institutions, Africans allowed for the creation of new communities which would enable them to maintain their cultural heritage while making a new life in a new land. As Jane Landers is careful to point out, “Spain’s African brotherhoods provided fraternal identify for their members and critical social services for their communities…” (Landers 1999).

Self-governance was also a means by which communities were strengthened and public social spaces developed. Officials of African descent were often appointed overseers of community well-being. Juan de Valladolid was a black man of noble descent who was appointed in 1475 “…judge and mayor of the blacks and loros (browns) of the Seville areas, with authority over their communal life, whether they were free or slave” (Forbes 1993:28 and Pike 1972:173–174). Forbes comments that “[T]his policy of self-government for blacks and browns conformed to the established Castillian and Aragonese policies towards free Muslims and Jews, each community of which had its own laws and courts separate from those of the Christian community”(28).

Through these social and religious institutions as well as through the use of mayors and officials who oversaw the operation of barrios or neighborhoods, Africans sustained fraternal and community identities and reproduced their traditional social and cultural practices. As has been mentioned previously in Historic Contexts, African peoples were familiar with structured social, political, and economic livelihoods. Confraternities, brotherhoods and the application and administration of self-government were an extension of their cultural knowledge which, through the acculturation process, took on Spanish characteristics as well. These practices would later carry over into the New World.

The identities created in Spain and the strength needed to maintain them would be put to the test. Over the 16th and 17th centuries a gradual transformation of slavery from a condition of circumstance to a condition of physical differences would cause a renegotiation in the meaning of what it was to be African in Spanish society. As the Spanish traveled to the Americas and attempted to establish plantation economies, Spanish slavery was significantly altered, “stripping the slave of many of the medieval peninsular protections” they had come to rely upon including legitimate avenues of manumission out of servitude, the ability to practice their own religion, the ability to retain their own customs, and to right to keep their property (Curtin 1990:25–26; Landers 1999:6–11).