Driving the Countryside around Veracruz
Looking for African Roots
Congolese Towns
Near Veracruz

Photographs and Text by John Todd, Jr.

Towns with African Names
When you drive in the countryside around Veracruz, you sometimes find that some of the towns have strange names that don't sound Spanish. They have an African ring to them. When you ask the people in the areas about their town name, you get a blank look as if they had never thought much about it.

"I am sorry seņor, but it has always been the name of our town. I guess it has been here a long time."

Ancient African Roots in Veracruz
Around Veracruz, there are several towns and villages with a lot of history that goes back to the 1600īs.There is so much here that people donīt give it much thought because itīs always been there. You can walk through these towns, and it feels like things havenīt changed much since they were founded.

Many of the African roots in Veracruz have been forgotten, as well as the stories surrounding other communities with African names in the area, such as Mocambo, Matamba, Mozomboa, Mozambique, and Mandinga. These are the names that come to mind now. There may be other little towns where the African names were removed and changed. In some cases, only the African names remain and their history is unknown.

A Letter from a Reader
The other day, independent historian Paul Lutumbuez, who has traveled extensively in Africa and Belgium documenting the various cultures doing the field research on his upcoming book, sent me the following explanation of the African town names:

I will give you an answer to your enigma, Mocambo, Matamba, Mozomboa, and Mandinga are of Congolese origin.

  • Mocambo simply means "Sorrow" in many Kongo dialects;
  • Matamba is Luba for casava leaves that were cultivated at that time in abundance;
  • Mozomboa simply means a Zombo settlement or village of the Zombos. The Zombos are ethnic Kongos occupying the region between Angola and the Congo.
  • Mozambique is a Portuguese version of the word "Mosambo" or "Mosambu", meaning our joy or festivity in the Makonde language of Mozambique. Note that the Makondes are particularly renowned for their hospitality and dance; and finally,
  • the Mandingas are of West African origin with significant populations in Sierra Leone, Gambia, and Ghana. Note that though all these tribes are African, the dominant culture established its own settlement.

    The origins of these little towns with the Portuguese names near Veracruz are still a mystery and are still on my "pending list" of leads to follow up.

    Map of African Named Towns
  • Antigua, Veracruz
    It was a quiet morning in Antigua, Veracruz.I had been here many times just to walk around with friends taking in the atmosphere of this peaceful little village.

    It had been a full morning, and now I was looking for a bit of shade from the beastly heat of late May, so I sat down for a moment in the welcome corridor of the local primary school to cool off for a minute.

    Catty corner from the little plaza and church near the Casa de Cortes is a school with some very old looking columns. This type of construction was popular along the Gulf Coast in the early 19th century and before so I knew it was a very old building. Now it was the town's elementary school.

    Bad for our Image
    Later, when I was talking to one of the tour guides, he told me that the school in Antigua was the location of the slave market.

    "We donīt like to publicize it too much", he remarked.

    "Itīs because it gives us a bad image, and itīs something we would rather forget about."

    Now I can see why.

    As I sat there in the shade drinking a coke at a refresco stand across the street, I began to wonder what it must have been like in front of this school, back in those days almost 500 years ago.

    Tall Columns of a Corridor in Antigua, Veracruz
    The First Slave Market in America
    From the year 1523 until 1600, Antigua was the first place people came when they arrived in present day Mexico.

    During those years, it was the only official port of entry into Mexico on the Gulf of Mexico.It was here that all incoming passengers and cargo cleared immigration, and paid customs duties before entering the Spanish colony of New Spain

    This was probably also true for the slaves who were brought over from Africa by Portuguese slave dealers.

    Rather than an auction house, this building may have been more like a "processing house" conveniently located near the river in Antigua.

    At the same time, it must have been a place filled with horror, the sounds of shackles, and branding irons.

    It was probably where the slaves were officially consigned over to the brokers in Mexico by the Kingīs Casa de Contratación, which was across the street.

    Slaves were Captured in Tribal Warfare
    From what Iīve read, the poor unfortunate slaves who arrived in Antigua had been the losers in the tribal wars in Africa of those days.

    In these wars, the winning tribe would sell their captured prisoners to the highest bidders, and in this case, they eventually wound up in the hands of the Portuguese brokers and shipping agents who brought them to New Spain. While they might have been valiant fighters in the tribal wars, they had lost and now had to face the horrible living conditions of life as a slave on the sugar cane plantations or in the mines in colonial Mexico.

    At the same time, I wondered if the African sounding names of the villages around Veracruz might have been settling areas for the different tribes and languages of Africa who came to Mexico.Maybe Antigua was more of a port of entry rather than an auction house where the slaves were processed by government officials, like going through immigration and customs.

    Traffic and Logistic Problems
    As I sipped my refresco on that hot morning, I thought about this for awhile and tried to piece together what the logistics must have been like in those days. At the same time, I realized the operations people who received the slaves off the ships must have faced some tremendous logistics problems.

    The Public School in Antigua, Veracruz
    Tribal Differences and Old Resentments
    The slaves that were brought from the Congo probably were not a homogeneous group.

    It is more likely that they were from many different and sometimes rival tribes in Africa.

    They probably spoke different languages and had different religious and culinary customs.

    Many may have possibly carried deep seated grudges against the other tribesmen aboard the same ship.
    The Public School in Antigua, Veracruz
    There may have been old resentments left over from the African tribal wars, and many may have wanted revenge.

    Another logistical problem would have been the time of sale and delivery of the slaves to the end users.

    The buyers never knew when a slave ship would arrive and the slaves couldnīt be kept in Antigua for several weeks.

    Holding Areas near Antigua
    It was logical that the slaves would be separated by general tribal and linguistic origins and be sent to separate holding areas not far from Antigua.
    A Silent Corridor in Antigua, Veracruz
    Later they could be sold and distributed at the brokers convenience to owners far from the coastal area of Veracruz.

    These "holding areas" near Antigua were probably given African names according to tribal origin and later developed into the little towns we see today.

    To Prove a Theory
    Of course, itīs one thing to hold a theory and itīs another to prove that it is true.

    This information should be found in the original documents of those days, as well as the administratives procedure the early government people followed.

    Perhaps one day I will be fortunate enough to go the the Archivo de las Indias in Seville, Spain, or perhaps the Archivo General de la Nación in Mexico City to see if my theory is true.

    No matter what the purpose of this very old building, I was glad to see that the slave auction area in Antigua is now a place of learning for children.

    Sunset in Mandinga
    The People of Mandinga
    Mandinga is close to Veracruz and is about 10 minutes from Boca del Rio. Today it is a small fishing village that has several restaurants for the lunch business. The live music is good and it's a lot of fun to go there.

    From some of the features of the people, that although many generations have passed, you can still see a few people with black skin and if you look hard enough, there is a somewhat "African look". Perhaps their ancestors were the founders of the town.

    If you ask the local people about the possible African origins of the town, you get kind of a blank look, and they remark,

    "Seņor, weīd never thought about that. We donīt think much about the past". I guess they live just for today.

    I don't know much about the real African culture, and can't recognize anything "African" in the local culture that might make them different from the predominant local culture.

    It would take a culture expert to do that.

    The First African Settlements in America?
    At the same time, I wonder if, even though these little villages must have been like prisoner of war camps, could they perhaps be considered the first settlements of the African people on the American Continent?

    There are still many mysteries in the area around Veracruz, and a lot of loose ends to follow up.

    The Towns are Still a Mystery
    These African named towns also could have been Spanish land grants offered to escaped slaves turned bandits in the 1600īs. Spanish troops couldnīt catch them, so peace treaties were signed and they were given parcels of land to work and "municipio libre" status. These pacts have been respected to this day.

    The African Leader Ņanga
    In 1609, escaped slaves had reduced much of rural Mexico to desperation. One of the largest groups was that of an African leader named Ņanga, now called "Yanga". He ruled a village in the mountainous are near Xalapa, Veracruz. In that year, the Viceroy of New Spain dispatched troops to subdue Yanga.

    When Yanga eluded the detachment for several months, the Spanish commander granted Yanga's followers their freedom in exchange for an end to the constant raids in the area, and aid in tracking down other escaped slaves.

    Yanga, Veracruz became the first Free Town in America. Remember Plymouth Rock was 1620.

    Here is the interesting account of how the little town of Yanga in the State of Veracruz, Mexico was founded.

    It is interesting trip and is about an hour from Veracruz. More about Yanga here:

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