African American Heritage & Ethnography African Nation Founders: Africans in Spanish America—Development and Settlement

Development and Settlement

Africans and their descendants were a pertinent part of the settling and developing of Spanish colonial societies. The infusion of African culture into the Spanish colonies and the Americas as a whole can be seen in African techniques for fishing, farming, cooking, building construction and other trades and crafts. Many of the free people of African descent in Spanish America were craftspeople, laborers, soldiers, artisans, merchants, farmers, domestics, doorkeepers, fisherman, and watermen (Deagan and MacMahon 1995:15). As Matthew Restall and Jane Landers suggest, there were Africans all over Spanish America, many of whom performed skilled and unskilled labor though it is believed that there were more skilled than unskilled workers (Restall and Landers 2000).

The examples of Spanish Florida and Southwest North America provide us with a glimpse into how people of African descent lived and created their own social and economic spaces which aided in their survival. These examples illustrate ways in which people of African descent adjusted to life challenges through the development and building of communities and confraternities, as well as through the use of intermarriage, interracial collaboration, “witchcraft,” godparent alliances, and court litigation.

Spanish Florida (1565–1763 and 1787–1821)

With the proclamation of King Carlos II of Spain in 1693, many people of African descent began to escape to Spanish territories after the King declared “…give liberty to all…the men as well as the women…so that by their example and by my liberality others will do the same” (Deagan and MacMahon 1995: 19). This policy toward slavery increased the number of escaping slaves who found refuge in Spanish territories, a policy that angered the English colonists. Under Spanish law, slaves could legally buy their freedom, maintain family cohesiveness and sue masters for maltreatment.

Fort Mosé, Florida.

Fort Mosé, Florida, founded in 1738, is an example of what became a thriving black community in Spanish America. Francisco Menendez, a member of the St. Augustine black and mulatto militia company and an African-born Mandingo, petitioned Governor Manuel de Montiano of Florida for a grant of land. Montiano authorized the grant and in 1738 Fort Mosé was established with approximately 100 free men, women and children of African descent (West 2004). Fort Mosé, also known as Gracia Real de Santa Teresa, is “…the site of the first legally sanctioned free black settlement in North America” (National Park Service 2004). Mosé was a place that provided “…sanctuary, freedom, and land to Africans formally enslaved in English Carolina.”

It is important to note demographically that 200 years after the initial settlement of Florida there were only 3,104 Spanish subjects. When Spain lost control of Florida to the British in 1763, of the refugees to Cuba, 420 (13.5%) were Africans or mulattos. Included within this group were 350 slaves and 80 free men, women, and children (West 2004). By the time of the second Spanish period in Florida (1784–1821), “70% of the slaves sold in West Florida (Baton Rouge) were African born” and some worked within the journal system of labor.

Religious records provide insight into the social order of Fort Mosé as well. These records include recorded births, deaths, ethnic origins, naming patterns, godparents, epidemics, warfare and marriages (Deagan and MacMahon 1995:33). Some of these records have even recorded the names of the African nations of origin for many inhabitants. The records also show that interracial marriages occurred often and the child took on the legal status of his/her mother. Those who ran away to Mosé had to convert to Catholicism as a pre-requisite for staying in the Spanish territory.

The community of Mosé also established cofradias. The tradition of these fraternal organizations, of Spanish and African origin, can be seen throughout the Americas. These organizations were approved by the Catholic Church, recognized by the larger society, provided for the members of the community through the celebration of religious festivals, the provision of medical care, and aid with funeral arrangements. The celebrations of religious festivals like Corpus Christi also took place.

Material culture also attests to African influence throughout the region. African construction skills and labor contributed significantly to new fortifications for military outpost as can be seen in the building of the Castillo de San Marcos (1672–1695) and Fort Mosé (1738) (Flores 2004). Material culture in the form of housing further demonstrates the influence of African construction and labor in Spanish Florida.

The dwellings in Fort Mosé at this time were of palm-thatched huts, some “oval in shape, and about 12 feet in diameter. They may have been similar to African houses already familiar to the Mosé residents” (Deagan and MacMahon 1995:32–33). This material culture in the form of the architecture of the time reveals a link to African cultural origins.

The impact of African architectural forms on domestic dwellings in colonial Puerto Rico has also been noted (Pabon 2001). Although according to Vasquez the Spaniards brought engineers and architects from Spain to the Caribbean to design and build fortifications, the workforce was African and the building materials of limestone, mortar and sand were materials with which they had familiarity (1986). There is also evidence of palmetto leaves being used in the construction of housing. Theresa Singleton, quoting from Weld’s Slavery As It Is, says “[I]n Florida in 1830, it is reported that ‘the dwellings of the slaves were palmetto huts, built by themselves of stakes and poles, thatched with the palmetto leaf’” (1000:199). Not only were palmetto leaves a key to African influence, so too was the use of tabby in various building structures. Tabby, a burnt lime and seashell aggregate, can be found throughout the Guinea Coast of West Africa and functions as a building material in fences, walls, and roadways. Tabby has been found throughout North America, including Florida’s Castillo de San Marcos and Kingsley Plantation.

Archaeological evidence for Spanish Florida provides us with information on what the inhabitants of Mosé might have eaten. According to work done by zooarchaeologists (those who identify bones) and archaeobotanists (those who identify plants and seed), we find that Mosé residents ate fish, shellfish, turtles, rabbits, deer and other animals near the village. They also consumed oranges, figs, nuts, squash, gourds, melons, beans, huckleberries, plums, persimmons, blueberries, blackberries, maypop, and grapes (Deagan and MacMahon 1995:43).

Northern Spanish Territories: Southwest North America

Esteban’s journey and others like it encouraged further exploration of the West by the Spanish. People of African descent began to settle in increasing numbers in the Northern frontier of New Spain and were, among other things, servants and members of naval and military expeditions. Many who came to the north were members of frontier settlements which included a number of free people of African descent. There have also been reports that Africans and Afro-Hispanics fled central Mexico to escape discrimination (Taylor 1998:35–36).

The states of Texas, New Mexico and California each supported Afro-Hispanic American communities. Texas became “the principle area of settlement and a political and cultural frontier” for fugitive slaves and free blacks (Taylor 1998:37). Through travel logs, diaries, and church records, the presence of Afro-Hispanic Americans is well documented. By 1781, Frey Agustin Morfi described the San Antonio town council as “a ragged band of men of all colors” (Taylor 1998:34).

Those who arrived in the territory took full advantage of the services available to citizens. The example of an early pioneer to the Southwest, Isabel de Olvera, illustrates how free people of African descent “fit” within the social matrix. The following deposition of Isabel de Olvera aids in telling the story of free people of African descent, particularly women, during the 1600’s. Isabel was the first woman of color to venture into northern New Spain. In the deposition she writes:

“I am going on an expedition to New Mexico and have some reason to fear that I may be annoyed by some individual since I am a mulatto, and it is proper to protect my rights in such an eventuality by an affidavit showing that I am a free woman, unmarried and legitimate daughter of Hernando, a Negro, and an Indian named Magdalena…I therefore request your grace to accept this affidavit, which shows that I am free and not bound by marriage or slavery. I request that a properly certified and signed copy be given to me in order to protect my rights, and that it carry full legal authority. I demand justice…” [Quoted in Taylor 1998:30].

This one paragraph allows one to infer a number a things about free Africans and mulattos as early as 1600 as well as the position of free women in Spanish colonial society. Isabel’s account informs readers that she is a mulatta, or person of mixed race, and that her mother was free. As Jack Forbes notes “[Q]uite early, in both Portugal and Spain, the status of a child was determined by the status of the mother” (Forbes 1993:37). Because Isabel’s mother was free, so too was Isabel.

From this short passage we can also discern that there was legal recourse for free people of color during this time as is evident by the affidavit that Isabel sent and the order to protect her rights that would be given to her by the Justice. It is also evident that legal recourse was not limited to males. Isabel exudes a sense of entitlement to protection under the Spanish law that would legally be available to any free Spanish citizen. Isabel realized that her ambiguous status had to be legally defended.

The deposition of Isabel gives us a slight glimpse into the social order and changing patterns of Spanish colonial society during the 17th century. Through her example one is better able to understand the place of women, women of color, free people of color, and even, to a lesser extent, indigenous peoples. Isabel’s parents exhibit a degree of social adaptation or acculturation in the form of interracial marriages/relationships while Isabel demonstrates accommodation in the form of the use of the legal system.

Women, Witchcraft, Godparentage, and the Courts: Building Community

Isabel’s example is not the only account that sheds light on the life of people of African descent in Southwestern North America. The Spanish Archives of New Mexico reveal other aspects of the lives of mulattos and Africans in what was northern New Spain. There is evidence that there were a significant number of mulattos and Africans living in this region. Taylor and Moore, in addressing the role of African women and African women born in the Americas, examine Inquisition records in the Archivo General de la Nacion in Mexico which document mulattas involved in, among other things, “…witchcraft, herbal medicine and bigamy cases.” These accounts portray women as mothers, sister, wives and daughters who were also cuaranderas or healers (Taylor and Moore 2003:35), practitioners of herbal medicine, godparents, and court litigants.

“Witchcraft,” or alternative (non-Catholic) ways of obtaining results, was used by women of African descent as a strategy to gain a measure of social control in their daily lives. Juana Sanchez and Juana de los Reyes are two examples of mulattas who used witchcraft as a control mechanism. Each woman was married to an unfaithful husband and sought ways to end their husband’s extramarital affairs. Juana Sanchez consulted an Indian woman knowledgeable in herbs who possessed a remedy. The remedy did not work for Juana Sanchez but did stop, for a brief moment, the cheating ways of the husband of Juana de los Reyes. The collaboration and acculturation across “racial” lines allowed for the sharing of cultural knowledge.

Women of African descent also used godparent alliances to stabilize families and communities. In the case of baptisms, Africans and mulattos used this occasion to form social networks. Padrinos, or godparents, were selected from all ethnic groups. Godparentage had the “…social function of establishing a system of reciprocal obligation between the ahijado, the baptized, and his or her godparent, and between the compadres, or parent and godparents” (Landers 1999:121). These links helped to create bonds between members of the community. Slaves often, when given the choice, chose godparents of a higher social status for their children thus effectively connecting various members of the community (Taylor and Moore 2003:43).

Petitioning the court was also a means by which people resisted social control mechanisms. Just like Isabel de Olvera, the example of Maria Simona de Jesus Moraza and Santiago Phelie del Fierro illustrate how petitioning the court could have working in favor of Spanish subjects of African descent. Maria Moraza was an enslaved woman who fled her owner citing that her master’s daughter and daughter-in-law had whipped her without cause. When her owners, Dona Juana de Oconitrillo and her husband, demanded her return, the alcalde or judge had to investigate the situation because of Maria’s complaint. Finding the complaint valid, the judge ordered Maria and Santiago, her husband, to be allowed to seek out another residence. Their plans were stopped, however, by the death of their owner and the promise of his son to properly treat Maria and Santiago.

As this section has shown, people of African descent adjusted to given life situations through methods of acculturation, accommodation and cultural/counter cultural resistance. Some of these methods included the development of communities, building appropriate architecture, eating new foods, development of confraternities, intermarriage, “witchcraft,” godparentage alliances and court petitions. These adjustments give a textured picture of the social order during the early colonial period.