African American Heritage & Ethnography African Nation Founders: Learning Resources Center—Further Reading

Racial Distinction in the Military

The contrast between the African and the mulatto/African Hispanic American militiamen is significant. Africans who were a part of the earlier expedition tended to be seen in terms of old Spanish sentiments regarding African warriors encountered on the Iberian peninsula. Spaniards perceived Africans as being natural warriors. There was the very real possibility that those who survived the journey across the Atlantic were former warriors sold into slavery and thus had some knowledge of the art of war. Depending on the ethnicity of the Africans, particularly Wolofs, these men were described as arrogant and rebellious as well as fearless and courageous. If an African man was both a respected warrior and a loyal servant he became legendary like Juan Beltran who was praised to the highest authority and almost made into myth.

Military prowess was exceptional in Chile, the only place in the Spanish Americas where black conquistadors received encomiendas (land in which Indians were given as tribute). Not all black conquistadors, however, felt they received what was due them. It has been suggested that “[T]he frequency with which black conquistadors left the regions they had helped to conquer was probably related to the willingness [or unwillingness] of Spaniards to fully admit their black one-time Conrad-at-arms into colonial society.” As can be discerned from the types of jobs black conquistadors were able to occupy, we see that there was a limited amount of assimilation that could potentially take place within Spanish society with regards to these servicemen and occupational opportunities.

They did, however, have families though little is known about their “racial” and ethnic composition. There were some free black women in the colony, though, again, not many. One could infer, once again, that because of the lack of women of African descent especially earlier in the exploration phase, many conquistadors who had families had them with Indian or Spanish wives. These unions would contribute to the formation of castas that developed in Spanish territories (Sanchez 1994).