Precolumbian Arrivals & Spanish Conquest

PRECOLUMBIAN ARRIVALS: possible arrivals to the Americas before Columbus

1000 BC In They Came Before Columbus, Ivan van Sertima argues that ancient Egyptians and Nubians reached Mexico.

1000 AD Vikings arrived in Canada. Vikings also raided the British Isles and sold residents into slavery around this time.

1311 Emperor of Mali, Abubakari II, sets off to Brazil with 2000 boats according several sources (see web articles).

1421 The Year the Chinese Discovered America by Gavin Menzies marshals evidence for a fleet of Chinese junks that circumnavigated the world.


SPANISH CONQUEST: Spain sponsors a quest for wealth in the New World

1492 Columbus reached the Caribbean and thought he was in Asia (hence the term “Indians” for original American inhabitants). Spanish explorers follow his footsteps and conquer the island of Hispaniola (which is today Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and from there conquer Puerto Rico (1508), Jamaica (1509), Cuba (1511), and Florida (1513). Cortez overtakes the Aztec in Mexico in 1521, and Pizarro begins to overtake the Inca in Peru in 1531. The native populations (such as the Carib and the Taino in the Caribbean) resisted the Spanish repeatedly. However, European disease took a heavy toll along with the violence the Spanish used in their “pacification” campaigns where the Spanish had the advantage of horses and gunpowder. The Spaniards enslaved the Indian survivors and put them to work in silver and gold mines. This also took a heavy toll. Bartolome de Las Casas suggested that the Spanish just focus on converting the Indians to Catholicism and look to the trade in African slaves, which at this point was rather small in scale, to fill their labor needs. Unlike the English or French, some of whom will come to the Americas to settle and start a new life free of religious persecution and other forms of oppression at home, the Spanish initially viewed the Americas as sources of wealth (especially silver and gold)-- not necessarily as a place to settle and start a new life.

Many Africans, slave and free, accompanied and assisted the Spanish explorers and conquistadors in the New World. Numerous Africans settled in Spain while it was under Moorish rule from 711 to 1492. Islamic Spain was a tolerant, multicultural society that peacefully incorporated Muslims, Christians, and Jews. Africans began to develop sizable communities in several southern Spanish cities starting around the 13th century. Some were slaves. However, Spanish slavery not based on race. African slaves joined other members of various ethnic groups who had been taken in “just wars,” or condemned, or had sold themselves into slavery. There were free blacks in these cities as well who practiced crafts, owned property, intermarried with the larger population, and who formed benevolent societies for Afro-Spaniards.

1496 A West African man who took the Spanish name Juan Garrido joined an expedition to Hispaniola and encountered other free blacks there when he arrived. One of them, a translator named Juan Gonzales, would join Garrido on future missions.

(It is likely that these Africans took part in the pacification campaigns against resisting native populations and perhaps against maroons (escaped slaves) who also resisted the Spanish.
By 1503 maroons were reported to allied with the native population against the Spanish. Everywhere there were slaves in the New World, there were maroons.)

Once the Indian wars on Hispaniola were settled, the island became the base of operations for Spanish conquest. Africans took part in the Spanish expeditions that claimed Puerto Rico, Jamiaca, Cuba, and Florida. Juan Garrido and JuanGonzales, for example, helped to capture Puerto Rico and became gold miners there. Later they helped Ponce de Leon with Indian slave raids on the islands and in exploring Florida. Later still they joined Cortez in attacking the Aztecs and their city Tenochtitlan in Mexico. Ultimately these Afro-Spaniards settled there in Mexico.

1526 Five years after Ponce de Leon had tried to claim Florida, a Spaniard named Ayllon left Hispaniola to attempt to settle Florida. (The French and the English felt that you couldn’t just claim an area without actually peopling it and creating a settlement.) Ayllon brought 600 Spanish men, women, and children along with the first known group of African slaves to the US (in what is now southern Georgia.) The colony struggled with disease, starvation, and Ayllon’s death. Some of the Spanish mutinied and took control of failing colony, Thereafter someof the African slaves set fire to the compound of the mutineers. At this time the Guale Indians also attacked the settlement. The surviving Spaniards limped back to Hispaniola. The Africans stayed with the Guale making them the first group of Africans to settle in North America.

1528 Narvaez makes another failed attempt to colonize Florida (near Tampa Bay) with 600 Europeans and an unknown number of Africans. After a series of disasters only four men survived. They walked from Galveston, Texas to Mexico over the course of 8 years. These were the first “Old World” people to see the American Southwest. One of them, the Spaniard Cabeza de Vaca, wrote about the experience and recorded how Esteban, an Afro-Spaniard who was technically a slave, was key to their survival as a translator and negotiator with the Native American societies of the American Southwest.

1537 Hernando De Soto made another attempt to settle Florida with Europeans, Africans (free & slave) and Indians from Cuba. People from all of these groups left the settlement and ran off with the Florida Indians.

1565 Anxious to kick out the French Huguenots (Protestants shunned in Catholic France) who had settled in Florida and South Carolina, the Spanish finally managed to create a permanent outpost in St. Augustine (hailed as the US’s oldest town). Later this will also be the site of the first free black town in North America.

Even though the Spanish (including Afro-Spaniards) had superior force (and the deadly weapon of Old World diseases), the native populations put up a fierce resistance and repeatedly challenged the invaders. Even as the native people were overpowered militarily, many continued to resist (e.g. Hatuey in Cuba).

To read about more examples of Afro-Spaniards and other free blacks in the settlement of Florida see Jane Landers, Black Society in Spanish Florida.

The fact that Africans in the New World might be enslaved or free, that they might be allied with or against the Spanish or with or against the native population, shows that, at this point in history, there was no hard and fast line the separated black/white and slave/free. People of African descent were both conquered and conquerors, they were both allies and enemies of Europeans. Sir Francis Drake, for example, successfully allied his English crew with what he called “valiant” maroons in South America to defeat the Spanish in Peru in 1572. (Centuries later, escapted slaves (maroons) from South Carolina will ally themselves with the Spanish to defeat the English.)

Still, the brutal transatlantic slave trade was beginning to develop, and around 1700 a new social and economic system--the Atlanic plantation system--would change all this.