History

Looking for African Roots
Yanga, Veracruz

The First Free Town for Slaves in America

Photographs and Text by John Todd, Jr.

Ancient African Roots in Veracruz
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. More about the towns with Congolese names in Veracruz.

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

Towns with African Names
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.

This is what I found out about how the town of Yanga, Veracruz and how it was founded almost 400 years ago.

Part I--The Yanga Story

Statue to the African Slave Leader
in Yanga, Veracruz
An African Leader Named Ņanga
By the year 1609, the large numbers of escaped slaves had reduced much of rural Mexico to desperation, especially in the mountains in the state of Veracruz around the Pico de Orizaba.

One of the largest of these groups was that of an African leader named Ņanga, now called "Yanga" who ruled a village in the mountainous area near Xalapa, Veracruz.

In that year, the Viceroy of New Spain sent troops from Puebla to subjugate Yanga and his band of escaped slaves to Spanish rule.

After eluding the detachment for several months, the Spanish commandante agreed to give Yanga's followers their freedom in exchange for ending the constant raids in the area, and gain their help in tracking down other escaped slaves.

In the year 1618, Yanga, Veracruz became the first Free Town in America. Here is the interesting account of how the little town of Yanga in the State of Veracruz, Mexico was founded.

It is interesting trip, about an hour from Veracruz, and I wanted to see it for myself.

Map
How to Get There
How to Get There
Yanga is not hard to find. Itīs about an hour from Veracruz. It is a little faster if you take the toll road.

You get off at the Cuitláhuac exit and take a left onto the busy federal highway.

The highway is rough in parts, and you have to take it easy. The scenery is in the countryside is pleasant with people living in homes with little thatched roof houses.

Sometimes you can see the ruins of an old hacienda off to the side of the road.
Ayuntamento
The City Hall in Yanga

For a small town, Yanga has a remarkable history that goes back almost 400 years.

Itīs the story of a peace treaty that has been respected to this day.

Fear in Early New Spain
In those days only about a fifth of the country was in Spanish hands, and much of that was not yet secure.

This was a very real threat since in the coastal areas there were some 30 black slaves for every white Spaniard.

Each night living on these haciendas must have been filled with the terror of a possible slave uprising.

During the 1540s, there were two more uprisings of black slaves near Mexico City, and rumors of plots of other uprisings in the capital were heard frequently during the 1600s.
Church
The Church
In the 1560-1580 period, African slaves fled the mines in Zacatecas kept the area unsettled with raids on haciendas and roads.

Another group of escaped black miners from Zacatecas joined the unconquered Chichimeca Indians northwest of the city, and together they descended upon the settler communities in what became a brutal war in that part of the country.

In the late 1500s slaves from the Pachuca mines rose up and fled hiding out in a remote cave and went out periodically to steal cattle and other necessities.

Twin Palms
El Pico de Orizaba
And the Fertile Sugar Cane Country
Near Yanga, Veracruz
The African Population in Early Mexico
The African population in early Mexico was primarily along the Atlantic and Pacific coastal areas.

A combination of the need for workers and the habit of slaves running away, led the slave masters to utilize cruel measures to control their subjects.

The Protection of the Mountains of Veracruz
The enormous mountains behind the Veracruz lowlands soon became the home of fiercely independent communities of both ex-slaves and Indians.

Located in one of the back canyons was a small Aztec settlement that became later became a refuge for escaped slaves that the Spaniards never discovered until they went looking for Yanga and his band of escaped slaves.
El Pico de Orizaba
Near Totutla, Veracruz
Far from Civilization
From back in this rough country in the mountains few people ventured to live because it was just too far from civilization in those days.

Only those who were fugitives from the law would go live in this remote area. It was where people made their own laws.

It wasnīt until the 1950īs that the first paved roads appeared in the area.

It is said that the town remained sparsely occupied into the 1700s, and its existence did not become known to the outside world until 1994 when it was discovered by a group of investigators from the Universidad Veracruzana in Xalapa.

Monument to Yanga: An African Man
Yanga: The Leader
The most memorable of the Afro-Mexican groups of former slaves finding refuge in the coastal mountain range near the Gulf Coast was the one founded by Gaspar Yanga in the 1570īs.

Yanga was a slave from the African nation of Gabon. Some say it was Angola. Nobody knows for sure.

Many say that Yanga was from a royal family in Africa.

In the safety of the high mountain country of Veracruz, Yangaīs community eventually grew to a population estimated at 500 people.

Yangaīs followers got their provisions from raids on the early Spanish haciendas in the area or from the heavily laden caravans as they slowly labored through the high mountain passes along the Camino Real between Veracruz and Mexico City.
Yanga was a Fierce Fighter
A Fierce Fighter
Free for Almost 40 Years
Relations were also established with other groups of runaway slaves and Indians and for more than thirty years, Yanga and his band lived free while his community grew to about 60 homes in size.

After many complaints from settlers in the area and travellers along the Camino Real the Viceroy was forced to do something.

Finally, it was decided that Yanga and his band of "bandits" must be defeated.

From reading the early writings of the period, it appears that the concept of slavery wasnīt considered an important issue, and didnīt begin to become politically incorrect for another 200 years. Even the people in the church used some slaves on the plantations they owned.

As a concept, slavery had always existed as a consequence for people who were conquered in war. I guess peopleīs ideas were different in those days.
Church
In Chains
The Royal Army Sent to Crush Yanga
In January of 1609, the Viceroy of New Spain sent royal troops from the city of Puebla to crush Yanga and his band of rebels.

However, Yanga in spite of being was quite old in 1609, he was well prepared and had delegated his military organization to the Angolan Francisco de la Matosa.

Setting up Defenses
When he received word that the Spanish expedition had left Puebla, Yanga had Matosa gather his fighters set the area up for a defense.

Early accounts of the event say they had few weapons and people, and their combat experience had been limited to brutal raids on the nearby sugar and cattle haciendas.

Until then, they had never had any encounters with the Army.
Church
Now a Free Man
In all, Yangaīs people had perhaps a hundred serious fighters with a few firearms, and mostly lances, and bows and arrows.

Some were even using old muskets stolen from the Spaniards. It would be a fight to the bitter end.

Yangaīs Army
Four hundred others prepared to fight with rocks, poles, machetes, and bows and arrows.

Near the present day town of Ixhuatan de los Reyes, the well armed Spanish war party of 550 marched into the mountains

There were 100 crack Spanish troops, but the rest were a mix of adventurers, some of them also armed only with bows and arrows.

The Gamble
Yanga had already moved his people many times while creating a community that tried to farm land and tend cattle. The band included more children and elderly.

Yanga gambled on standing up to the enemy. There was no other choice.

Flowers
Flowers
Yanga decided to make a show of force that they hoped would cause enough psychological damage to interest the Spaniards in negotiating for peace.

Spanish Concerns
The Spanish feared that any free homeland would be a haven for other African runaways.

Yanga offered an answer to this concern. He promised to return any new slaves who sought asylum in his free territory.

When word reached the Yanga settlement that the Spanish war party was near, Yanga sent a captured Spanish prisoner who carried a message that offered a deal.
News
News Stand
The message also included a warning that to take on Yangaīs followers would prove costly.

Fierce Fighting Resumes
A deal was not forthcoming and a fierce engagement was fought downslope from the settlement with heavy losses on both sides.

Yangaīs troops retreated back through their village which the Royal troops entered and burned.

A Cease Fire
The prospect of chasing them further up into the mountains was not an inviting one for the Spanish Royal Army.

The Spanish called for a cease fire and a priest was sent to seek out Yanga. Hopefully, he convince him the cause was lost, but Yanga reiterated the following terms:
News
The Plaza
Yangaīs Proposal
  • He and his people would surrender in return for a grant of cultivable land and the right of self-government

  • Yanga also offered that he and his followers would return to Spanish authorities any slaves who might look for refuge in the future.

  • In addition to their own town, the rebels wanted in writing that all the slaves in his group who had fled before 1608 should be free;

  • That only Franciscan priests should attend to their people.
  • Plaza
    La Plaza
  • A final condition was that Yanga should be the governor of the town, and that the succession should go to his descendants.

    Once again Yanga would be a tribal king.

    An Agreement
    In spite of the opposition of the slave holders of the sugar plantations, the Crown agreed to Yanga's petitions, and the former slaves were officially settled on the mountain slopes near present day Totutla in 1610.

    News of the agreement with Yanga was greeted with great alarm and misgiving among many of the resident Spaniards of Mexico City.

    Slave owners in the city demanded assurances that no breach of private property rights as the liberation of Yangistas would ever happen again.

    Rumors of other slaves scheming with Yanga for further gains abounded. These were real fears, yet with the passage of time, they were unfounded.
  • Shine
    Veterinary Supplies
    San Lorenzo de Los Negros
    In 1618, the Yangans had asked for a better location with better farm land in the lowlands. The new town would be called "San Lorenzo de los Negros".

    The Viceroy agreed to their request perhaps because he preferred to have Yangaīs people living near his newly built military fort in the city of Córdoba, Veracruz.

    The town name of "San Lorenzo de los Negros" was officially changed to Yanga, Veracruz in 1956.

    Thatīs how Yanga, Veracruz became the first Free Town on the American Continent.

    Part II--A Personal Visit to Yanga, Veracruz

    Ayuntamento
    Ayuntamento
    A Luncheon in Yanga
    Today Yanga is a large town of over 20,000 people, with the majority being people from the highlands rather than Afro Mexicans from the region.

    From my own observations, after almost 400 years, there arenīt many blacks left.

    Since 1986 the town has celebrated its founding in an annual "Festival of Negritude" in the month of August.

    My reason for being in Yanga was that I had accepted an invitation to attend a luncheon to be held at the municipality building.

    We had arrived early and had time to stroll the plaza in front of where the luncheon was to be held.
    Gazebo
    Gazebo
    Because of the slightly higher altitude the weather was cooler than in Veracruz. Off in the distance you could see the snow capped Pico de Orizaba.

    The beautiful mountain probably looked the same as it did in the days that Yanga and his people lived in this area.

    On the plaza we met friends from other towns and sat on the park benches and talked or got a shoe shine from the friendly kids in town.

    When I am new in town I always try to buy something from a local store.

    Around the back of the band stand was a little store selling cokes and candies so I bought a canned coke and talked with the owner for a little while before joining my friends on one of the park benches.
    Shine
    Shine
    Outsiders Get a Shoe Shine
    When new people come to town, the shoe shine kids are as thick as flies.

    Kids are naturally curious and they come to hear the curious accents and the way outsiders talk.

    These are some friends from Villahermosa, Tabasco.

    I think they had as much fun as the kids did, joshing around about local life.

    Shine
    Shine
    Shine
    Shine
    Tables
    The Tables are Set
    All Set Up
    Soon we saw people going into the hall.

    The tables were now set up with white table cloths, and a flower arrangements. There is always fresh local fruit.

    In the corner, volunteer servers were brewing coffee in large caldrons, heated by a blow torch arrangement.

    In that way you can make large amounts of good Mexican coffee in a hurry.
    Jamaica
    Jamaica Water
    Jamaica Water
    At the doorway we were greeted by people who offered us Jamaica Water from a big glass jug with large chunks of ice.

    They call it "Agua de Jamaica", and it tastes like Hawaiian Punch.

    If you are interested, there are a couple of acres of Jamaica bushes next to the toll booth in Cuitláhuac.

    One day we stopped and the man there showed us how the plants are cultivated and the red leaves harvested and dried in the sun.
    Flowers
    Flower Arrangements
    Finding a Table
    My friends from Veracruz found a table and we sat down and looked around as the meeting hall slowly filled up.

    People we hadnīt seen for awhile came over to our table to say hello.

    Soon, there wasnīt any fruit left, and we settled down to wait for a the short formal meeting to begin.
    Shoes
    During Grace
    The Shoes of a Man
    At the next table was a man with some beautiful shoes.

    I remembered that poverty in Mexico has a certain amount of dignity.

    And perhaps a manīs shoes are a reflection of his dignity.

    His feet have gotten used to his sandals, and he doesnīt give much thought as to whether he is poor or not.

    His shoes have served him well for a very long time.
    Tamal
    Tamales in Banana Leaves
    Fresh Tamales
    In Veracruz, there are two kinds of tamales: tamales de masa and tamales de elote.

    Masa means "dough" and elote is "corn on the cob".

    But like many things in Mexico, things are not like they seem and itīs best to ask which is which.

    The Tamal de Masa is a normal tamal like you find in northern Mexico. But, the Tamal de Elote has sugar added to the corn dough. Some people prefer this tamal, but I avoid it. These tamales were great!
    Church Fountain
    A Quiet Fountain
    A Quiet Fountain
    The luncheon was over and we went back out on the plaza.The people I was with were busy talking to some other people, so I took one last walk around the plaza.

    In front of the church is a quiet fountain that has probably been there for 350 years.

    I sat down on one of the benches and looked at the church and the fountain and wondered if the Franciscans still ran the church that was founded in the 1600īs.

    At the same time, I was hoping my friends would stay a little longer. I wasnīt ready to go back to Veracruz yet.

    Part III--Doing a Little More Research about Yanga

    Doing your own Research
    After my trip to Yanga, I had a little time, and decided to dig a little deeper into the story. At the same time, I realized there might be others interested in the subject.

    If you are interested in doing your own research about the early Africans in Mexico, here are some books that have a lot of solid information about the origins of African Americans in Mexico:

    Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán
    "La poblacion negra de Mexico"

    Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán (1908-1996) was born in Tlacotalpan, Veracruz. Tlacotalpan is a small quaint village in the middle of the sugar and cattle cane country on the Papaloapan River. Anywhere you find sugar cane in Mexico, you will find the remants of Black History in America just by looking at the people.

    Perhaps young Gonzalo was curious about the black population in Mexico when he was growing up and going to school in the small village of Tlacotalpan. He had read about slavery in the area, but somehow the Afro Mexicans had been absorbed by history as it is taught in Mexico. He wondered how the black people had come to Mexico and what had happened to them.

    Anthropology as a Passion
    Later as a university student he became an empassioned student of anthropology and dedicated more time to looking for the early documention on slavery in Mexico rather than trying to find a way to make a living. It is said that his studies were more important than finding a job.

    One day in the 1940īs at the National Archives in Mexico City, he met French anthropologist Alfred Métraux who was doing research in Mexico, and they began to talk. Young Gonzalo told him of his frustration at not being able to find certain information such as shipping manifests, census reports, etc. The Frenchman suggested he go to the Northwestern library in Chicago. There was a lot of information there.

    Young Gonzalo must have laughed out loud and probably said,

    "But, Seņor, that is impossible, I donīt have any money". They must have been in the midst of the depression.

    "Thatīs easy," said the American. "You should apply for a scholarship." So, he did.

    A Scholarship to Study in the US
    Then, in the mid 1940īs, he received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation was accepted by Northwestern University, and found himself in the library looking for, and most of all, finding the missing information he needed. He wanted to take advantage of every minute he had available in the United States, and probably didnīt sleep much.

    Later he returned to Mexico and finished his work, and in 1946, published the results of his years of work in Mexico and in the United States. His book was simply called: "La poblacion negra de Mexico" by Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán. The book was received with ho-hum reviews. Perhaps it was because of the the Marxist/Leninist philosophy that was strong in the universities of those days, or that Black History was not politically correct for that time.

    Later in the 1970īs, his book about slavery in early Mexico was "discovered", and although it was written in 1946, no one has done a more compete job since then. For someone, who is seriously interested in the subject of Black History, you will find this small book chocked full of interesting information.

    Other Good Books
    The other day, a friend found that I am interested in the subject of slavery in the early years of the Spanish Colonial period. He loaned me a book by Dra. Adriana Navedo Chávez-Hita called "Esclavos Negros en las Haciendas Azucareras de Cordoba 1690-1830)". She has done a lot of work on it and it is chocked full of details.

    The last time I was in Arkansas, I went over to the university in Fayetteville, and in the libary I found another interesting work called "Negro slavery in the sugar plantations of Veracruz and Pernambuco, 1550-1680 : a comparative study" by Gerald Cardoso

    It has several chapters describing slavery, and how it worked in the state of Veracruz. His descriptions of life for black slaves are sometimes very vivid and his bibliography is also very good.

    The Attack and Surrender of Yanga and his Followers
    The Jesuit priest who was assigned to the detachment of Spanish Royal Army during the raid on the Yanga camp, wrote a fascinating account of the original details of Yanga's Surrender as told by padre Juan Laurencio, a Jesuit priest. It is about half way down the long page under the section called the "Rebellion of the Blacks". This account appears in the History of the Company of Jesus compiled by Francisco Javier Alegre in the 1840's.

    Accurate Sources
    These are the sources which I think are accurate. I hope they will help you in your own journey into the fascinating story of the early Africans in Mexico. It is a story that unfortunately is now mostly forgotten or ignored by many people.

    Tamal
    High in the Mountain Fog Above Orizaba
    Later Explorations
    After my visit to the little unassuming town of Yanga, I went back again several times to talk to friends I'd met there.

    At the same time, I had some time to travel around the area where Yanga himself had once roamed.

    When I do my exploring, I like to understand what I am looking at so in the meantime, I had read the above books and became interested in what life must have been like in the early days of the Spanish colony of New Spain.

    When you wander the back roads around the port of Veracruz, you can almost visualize what life must have been like for Yanga, and the other people who lived back then.

    I wanted to see for myself what it must have been like.

    Next I found this panoramic map of the state of Veracruz and begin to fill in the blanks to make it easier to understand.

    Part IV--Looking for Where it Happened

    Panoramic Map of Veracruz
    Hereīs a panoramic map of the State of Veracruz that shows the area that Yanga probably roamed and knew well.

    Plano Original

    Plano Original

    Plano Original

    Plano Original

    Plano Original

    Plano Original

    Part V--Questions Emerge and Looking for the Answers

    Tamal
    The Mountains Near Orizaba
    The Importance of the Yanga Story:
    I donīt know much about slavery, and I donīt think Iīve ever known any slaves.

    About all I know is what Iīve learned in school and heard what people have told me about it.

    At the same time, I realize it is part of our own history and accept it that way.

    Over the years in Veracruz, I have come into contact with several American scholars of Black History eagerly looking for African roots in this part of Mexico.
    Tamal
    Looking Down at the Camino Real
    However, each of them seemed to be perplexed at how different the subject of Africans in Mexico is treated.

    It seems that in Mexico the focus of black history is a little different.

    Or perhaps, it is because what you read in the library doesn't exactly match up with what you see in the field.

    Hernán Cortes with a Wrist Watch
    Just about everybody has a wrist watch these days.

    But, if you see a portrayal of the great conquistador with a wrist watch, you know something is wrong. They didnīt have wrist watches in those days.

    Itīs the same with history. You have to know what came first.

    Was Slavery different in Mexico?
    Yes.

    Why?
    The Spanish soldiers were always accompanied by Christian missionaries and spirituality was important to the people of those days. When a new area was discovered, they always held a church service, and added the name of a saint to the place name.

    Some critics may point to the atrocities of war, and may point an accusing finger of hypocrisy at the situation, but a chaplain or a priest was always there, sometimes as an unwilling witness.

    Fray Bartolomé de las Casas (1474 - 1566)
    Though he studied both divinity and law, he took only a law degree when he completed his studies in 1498. In 1502, he was with one of the first expeditions to the New World. During his lifetime he was proclaimed "Protector of the Indies" and was the first voice in America against bad treatment of Indian and African slaves. It was because he believed these people were not like animals and had a "soul" which could be saved.

    He was just the beginning in changing the attitude of Christian people in Spanish America. This didnīt happen until much later in the US. When was that? (Time to do you own homework.)

    If Yanga, had won his original battle in Angola, would he have sold the people he conquered into slavery?
    Yes, more than likely. That was the custom in those days, and was perhaps an easy way to get rid of people that might cause trouble later. I donīt know if this is true, but it is logical.

    The Library or the Field?
    When I go exploring in the field, it is to validate what I've read in the library. Then sometimes, when I see something in the field that doesn't make sense, then I turn to the archives and look for the original writings of someone who was there at the time. Sometimes I find mistakes like the wrist watch of Hernán Cortes. It couldnīt have been that way. It is like doing detective work and is fun trying to sort out the facts from the opinions of the different writers and why they may have left certain things out of their writings no matter when it was written.

    Criticisms of Barbarism
    Many people criticize the Spaniards of those days for being bloodthirsty for tortures like lashings and burning people at the stake. The Aztecs practiced public human sacrifices as part of their religion. At the same time, the Africans of those days also had barbaric practices. It is said that the Mandingo tribe still practiced cannibalism.

    In Francisco Alegre's account of the Yanga battle, Fr. Laurencio who was on the scene said that two Spaniards were captured by Yanga's people. One of them had his brains bashed out, and the people ate the brains and drank the poor man's blood. The other Spaniard, frightened out of his wits was later sent back with the written message that began the peace talks between Yanga and the Spanish authorities.

    The sensibilities of the people and points of view were very different back then, and it makes me want to dig deeper into the African customs of those days. Each tribe was different in many ways, and I think one of the criteria is what was considered to be good manners. That never changes. Yet, I believe that people had effective reasons for doing the things they did in those days.

    How was it possible to run freely for 39 years?
    As I read through these accounts, I tried to visualize what it must have been like to live in those times. It wasn't easy for the conquered Indians, the Africans, or the even the early Spaniards. If we had lived in those days, I doubt that any of us today would have felt comfortable or safe.

    At the same time, I wondered about those 39 years Yanga and his group and how they had remained free. I wondered if they lived as families like we do today, and if they continued to celebrate the traditions and holidays they remembered from Africa. There are many unsolved questions as to how they must have lived those years as their own little tribe in America.

    I think it also meant that the Spaniards weren't as much in control of their colony of New Spain as we think they were. It looks good on a paper map, or in the early writings of the people who were there, but I think that reality was different. Civilized society was limited to the cities, and life out in the countryside was dangerous at times.

    I still don't have the answers to many of these perplexing questions.

    Part VI--Traces of Africa Left in Mexico

    Mondongo and Tamales
    "Mondongo" is Now A Local Dish
    At local fiestas around Veracruz they sometimes serve menudo in little plastic bowls.

    It is like a spicy beef soup and is really good when you add diced onions, oregano, and a few drops of fresh lime.

    In Northern Mexico it is called menudo and in the area around Veracruz the same thing is called mondongo.

    There's even a restaurant in Veracruz that serves a "mondongo de frutas".

    Mondongo sounds like an African name. I wonder where that came from?
    Menudo or Mondongo?
    On the side there were little plastic bowls with limes, oregano, and ground red chile pepper.

    It is one of the last Mexican dishes I had to learn to like. I have to confess that at first it wasnīt easy. The way to do it is to add lots of lime juice.

    Tamales
    When we were half way through the mondongo they begin passing out little plates with tamales wrapped in aluminum foil.

    Once the aluminum foil is opened, a carefully wrapped tamal in a banana leaf appears.

    Although itīs a little greasy, with the tips of your fingers, you untie the string around the banana leaf to reveal a delicious pork tamal.
    Tamal
    El Pico de Orizaba
    My Explorations Continue
    In the comfort of my air conditioned car, I continue to explore the area that Yanga once roamed looking for clues to the past.

    It's what makes these short trips around Veracruz interesting.

    In my travels, I have found that there is still a lot left to be discovered.Once I heard a story I heard in Veracruz about the origin a local song called "La Bamba".

    I don't know how much any of this is true, but it's still fun to travel the countryside around Veracruz.

    You never know what you'll find or the interesting people you will meet along the way.

    I guess it's why I prefer this kind of "field research" over the classroom or the library.

    I'll bet Yanga enjoyed Tamales along with his Mondongo, too.

    Part VII--The Best Part--Doing Your Own Research

    A Final Suggestion
    The study of Black History in Mexico is a fascinating one because there are still so many missing pieces. There is also a lot of misinformation or misinterpretations, too, made mostly by people who donīt know Spanish or have only spent a limited amount of time exploring Mexico.

    Slavery began in Veracruz in the 1500īs, several hundred years before it became a big business in the United States and the traditions in Mexico surrounding slavery are very different.

    Distrustful
    I am somewhat distrustful of historians who donīt know Spanish or who havenīt gone back beyond the 1700īs. That is where the story begins.

    If you are truly interested in Black History, I would like to make the following suggestions:

    • I would like to encourage anyone interested in Black History in America to learn Spanish. Itīs not all that hard if you work a little bit at it each day.

    • Read the original writings, and donīt depend the writings or interpretation of others no matter how good they sound. This is where you will begin to find the rewards.

    • Come to Mexico and do your own exploration.

    The more time, effort, and money you spend in these areas will more than pay off in a special personal satisfaction that belongs to you.

    Most of all, if you feel like I do, donīt put it off any longer. Start planning your next trip to Mexico today!

    Part VIII--Expanding the Search Beyond the Yanga Story

    An Unsuccessful Uprising, now a Forgotten Event
    At about the same time of the Yanga settlement, I discovered another event involving slaves that is now pretty much forgotten. It was where an uprising led by blacks was unsuccesful.

    In the Aftermath of Yanga: The Conspiracy of 1612
    Still, I had many questions about the Yanga Event and continued to dig through the history of the times.There were many slave and Indian uprisings during this period, and I wondered why they had happened at this particular time.

    Then I discovered Don Domingo de San Antón Muņón de Chimalpahinīs gruesome account of the public execution of 33 blacks and mulatos in Mexico City on May 2, 1612 after one of these uprisings. There were 9 hanging stations and among the 33 people executed that day there were 7 women.Later they cut off their heads and placed them for public display for several days until the stench was so bad the people asked the authorities to take them down.

    There was also an account written by Mateo Rosas de Oquendo called "La ejecucción de los negros de 1612". There are other written accounts of the times that I havenīt been able to find.

    Perhaps these executions were about racism and fear, but perhaps it was to pass a message that these rebellions had to stop. Here there was no deal of free land and protection like the one Yanga had negotiated.

    Who was the message directed to? The organizers of a major plot on a larger scale? Hereīs what I found.

    The Early Missionaries: The First Defenders of Human Rights
    One of the little clues that popped up during the Yanga story was why would Yanga prefer two Jesuits as the mediators during the negotiations of his surrender? There were 18 other orders of religious people in Mexico at the time. I wondered if this might be an important clue.

    Two Basic Elements Among the Religious Groups
    It should be pointed out that during these times there were 2 basic elements among the religious groups active in Mexico.

    First, there was the formal church of bishops, priests, and deacons along with the parishes they served. Sometimes a bishop would be named a political leader such as the Viceroy, or representative of the King of Spain in Mexico.

    Second, there were some 19 other independent religious organizations such as the Franciscans, Mercedarios, Dominicans, etc. These groups had a different focus on service and operated independently from the "formal" ecclesiastical organization and reported directly to their superiors in Spain or in Rome. They didnīt have to obey the orders of the local bishop. Many of these missionaries were not Spaniards and were from other nations in Europe.

    Jesuit Missionaries: "The Slaves of the Slaves"
    In 1572, the Jesuits were the last to arrive in Mexico. Their mission was to organize schools and also work as "slaves to the slaves" as part of their charitable work in evangelization of the Indians and African and American born slaves.

    In Mexico, there still isnīt much information about the Jesuits since most of the documents were destroyed at the time of their expulsion in 1767. I found one of the most detailed accounts about their work in Francisco Javier Alegreīs (1729-1788) History of the Company of Jesus in Mexico.

    At the same time, from a few other sources, such as Herbert Konradīs excellent work called "A Jesuit Hacienda in Colonial Mexico: Santa Lucia, 1576-1767", I found their organization to be methodical in the way they did things, such as in their working structure and organization, monthly activity reports, architecture of their buildings. Their operation was similar to a broad transnational corporation of those days.

    Perhaps the Jesuits in other countries would reflect some of what was going on during those first generations of the Spanish Conquest and colonization of Mexico. I was looking for the Jesuit involvement with the first generation of African slaves: the "Bozales". After all, Yanga was a Bozal.

    The Jesuits in Cartagena, Colombia
    From early accounts from Cartagena, Colombia and the fascinating writings of Jesuit priest Alonso de Sandoval published in the 1620īs I found that, like Veracruz, Cartagena had become an important entrance of slaves into South America, and today you can see today they are active in preserving the history of slavery in their country. After all, itīs an important part of history and canīt simply be swept under a rug and ignored.

    The first Jesuit missionaries were sent to Cartagena in 1605 to found a new mission and Alonso de Sandoval began his work among the slaves in 1607, some 200 years before the French began to set up a series of small forts on the higher ground in the swamps of southern Louisiana.

    I also found that in early Maryland, the Jesuits also began to live their faith by working with the first slaves sent to North America. In both cases, besides teaching, and working with the sick in hospitals, the service of Jesuits was called to be "The slaves of the slaves."

    Controversies
    It goes without say that even within the Jesuit Order itself, there was a serious controversy about the "correctness" of slavery. Alonso de Sandoval was one of the witnesses of these wretched conditions both aboard the slave ships that docked in Cartagena and his reports and writings bear out the cruelty of the "business" of slavery. Perhaps his documentation of the conditions in Cartagena stirred up controversies and debates among the Jesuits in both Spain and Rome that eventually brought about a change in the attitudes of the people about slavery.

    Apparently, for Mexico, evidence like Sandovalīs in Cartagena hasnīt surfaced yet, however, the fact that Yanga asked for Jesuit mediators may be an indication that the Jesuits also practiced their faith in this way in Mexico. The Jesuits would have been the most sympathetic to Yangaīs cause.

    Back to the Conspiracy of 1612: "Cofradias"
    Then I noticed that the people executed in Mexico City were said to be part of a cofradia and I wondered if they might be related to another larger movement of the times.

    In early colonial times, as people in different parishes became more involved in religious affairs, "cofradias" were established. A "cofradia" is a brotherhood (or sisterhood) of the faithful dedicated to an advocation of serving Christ, a moment of passion, a particular saint, or a particular relic.The cofradias I have seen were dedicated to a particular saint, and they plan public celebrations and the old dances and music on the Saints Day.

    More importantly, in the areas where a full time priest for the church was not available, the cofradias served to continue the religious works in the parish.In addition to the formal church, the Jesuits and other religious orders formed cofradias of free people as well as converted slaves of African descent and assisted them in the expression of their religious devotions.

    Researching the Trends and Looking for Explanations
    As the military conquests of Hernán Cortes waned, the priests evangelized the Indians, and human sacrifices were outlawed under Christianity. As peace prevailed in the populated areas of southeastern Mexico, people began to raise food crops and produce cattle and chickens with the new animals and tools brought over from Europe. Sugar cane was introduced and a sugar boom ensued because the only sweetener available until that time was honey from bees.

    The Richest Gold and Silver Mines in the World
    In the 1550īs, production began on the vast gold and silver mines discovered in Taxco, Guanajuato, and Zacatecas. In Europe in those days, the value of gold and silver were almost the same, and with the large amounts of silver produced in Mexico, the European markets were flooded and the price of silver plunged to the gold/silver price relationships seen today. New Spain became the largest silver producer in the world.

    Business is Business
    A certain type of mercantilism began to take over with gold and silver being exported through the port of Veracruz, and highly profitable products coming over from Europe on the way back. It is said that a bottle of wine that cost $1 in Cadiz would sell for about $1,200 in the mining towns of Guanajuato!

    The Slavery Business Begins in America
    Regarding slavery, in 1493-1494 Pope Alexander VI drew the Line of Demarcation to settle new land claims between Spain and Portugal. Portugal got Brazil and Africa, and Spain got all of America and the Philippines.

    Slavery in Africa was an acceptable practice as a consequence of tribal wars, and Spain needed manpower on the sugar cane plantations, and in the mines. So, Portuguese slavers sold African slaves in concessions of 5,000 and 10,000 over 5 to 10 year periods to the Spanish at a good profit under concessions established by the Spanish Crown.

    The Changing Times
    Times change, and by the year 1600, the first generations of both the original bozal slaves from Africa were dying, and their children were taking their places. Some had become legally free, and others had not.

    At the same time, I noticed from the accounts of Francisco Javier Alegreīs (1729-1788) History of the Company of Jesus in Mexico that many of the original Jesuit missionaries who founded the missions and schools were also dying of old age.

    A Changing Focus
    Much of the new efforts of Jesuits appeared to be focused on staffing and running of schools and colleges in the populated areas, and now they were continuing their move into the North to evangelize the Indians. By that time it looks like the original cofradias were perhaps being neglected to a certain degree and became less supervised and more independent.

    This also meant that their first generation "cofradias" were also maturing and evolving, and new people with fresh ideas were emerging, and in some areas the priests werenīt entirely in control. Remember, many of these cofradias were in areas where a priest only visited to say mass occasionally.

    A Certain Instability
    As I researched these years, I found a certain effervescence with the threat of pirates on the coasts of Veracruz and Acapulco, bandits along the Camino Real, controversies among the different religious orders and the formal church, problems with the Viceroys, and a lot of rumors circulated through the streets and markets which were later spread throughout the colony by the muleteers who traveled the sometimes dangerous Camino Real from Mexico City to Veracruz. Life in New Spain was not all that stable in those days. Interestingly enough, in 1610, the Viceroy emitted a decree outlawing all meetings of the cofradias, however the local law enforcement people ignored this order and the meetings continued.

    In addition to the atmosphere of nervousness about an uprising of African slaves, in 1611, there was an earthquake, a solar eclipse, and the mysterious death of the new Viceroy García Guerra. Some say it was an accident when he fell from his carriage. Others say he was poisoned. Those were difficult times for anyone to live in and perhaps many Spaniards must have thought the end of the world was near.

    The Growth of the Black Population
    The population of blacks, both bozales and natives born of these bozales grew enormously. Some say that the ratio was 3 blacks for each white European living in New Spain. By the year 1607, there were rumors that an uprising of blacks was about to happen. Yanga and his band had operated for several years in the fertile mountains around the Pico de Orizaba and el Cofre de Perote. When they ran out of supplies, they would swoop down and rob a caravan or two, sometimes killing people in the process.

    The Yanga Settlement was Slow
    In 1609, the Viceroy had to do something and sent in the Royal soldiers to wipe out Yanga and his band or reach a settlement to calm these fears in the colony. It wasnīt until 1618, that the town of San Lorenzo de los Negros was founded near Cordoba, Veracruz.

    More about the Conspiracy of 1612
    The other day I found an interesting article by Alejandro Palma Castro. He compares the accounts of the Spaniard Mateo Rosas de Oquendo and the contrasting account by Indian San Antón Muņón de Chimalpahin of the same event. He also brings in other sources which expanded my search for more information about the event and life in the times surrounding the event.

    How it Began
    Apparently, the Conspiracy began in 1611 with the death of a slave girl at the cofradia of the new church of Nuestra Seņora de la Merced, built between 1602 and 1620. It was sponsored by a religious order called the "Mercedarios". (Need to find out more about the Mercedarios in Mexico...)

    Later a plot was devised, and a king and queen were chosen. Later the plotters decided to massacre all the Spaniards, and establish a kingdom of slaves. They even elected a king and a queen.

    The Jesuits werenīt directly involved in the plot
    Their plans were to rise up and kill all the white Spaniards and other Europeans in New Spain. There would several exceptions to the killing, and one of them were missionaries from 3 religious orders: the Discalced Carmelites, the Franciscans, and the Jesuits. This is important because I think it demonstrates that the Jesuits werenīt the only Order that had the sympathy of the poor.

    At the same time, itīs fair to say that the Jesuits probably didnīt play an active role in the conspiracy. Their role was in trying to find a solution to the Yanga problem. In the Conspiracy of 1612, I havenīt found any mention of their involvement in the negotiations after the arrest of the 33 conspirators.

    Not Enough Support
    Apparently they thought they had enough support among the black population to succeed in their plans for an independent kingdom. I noticed there wasnīt any mention of democracy in those days.

    It is said that the cofradia gained the support of several other cofradias, and planned their uprising for Easter Week of 1612. But, the uprising fizzled when the authorities found out about it ahead of time and people began to be arrested. On May 2, the conspirators were publicly hanged.

    For many people, this may have been a sign of weakness on the part of the authorities, and perhaps the organizers of the "Conjura de 1612" had expectations of a similar settlement. However, it looks like the patience of the authorities had worn thin, or there simply wasnīt enough support and weapons as in the case of Yanga.

    Perhaps one day, a student of Black History in Mexico or a writer of historical novels will have more tools than I do, will dig deeper into this subject, and compare the Yanga Settlement with the Conspiracy of 1612.

    The Puzzle is Still There
    I still have many questions, like why has this event been ignored? Was Viceroy García Guerra poisoned or was his death an accident? Who could have been responsible?

    Then I discoved the riot of 1622...

    Part IX--More Field Research--Finding the Unexpected

    Mondongo and Tamales
    New Leads--Where Yanga Once Roamed
    After all the research in the old musty history books, I thought my search had ended.

    Then last week at the barbershop, we began to talk about some of the history around Veracruz and the subject of Yanga and his story came up.

    One of the old men told us about a little town back in the country where Yanga once roamed that on Sundays only has some of the best tamales in the area. Country style.

    He said it didnīt have much to do with Yanga, but the local people say that at one time it was one of Santa Annaīs old haciendas.
    Crisp Empanadas with Chile Chipotle sauce
    Back into Yanga Country
    So, I thought to myself, maybe itīs time to go have some tamales and a cold coke in Yanga country and reflect some more about Yanga and the times he lived in.

    The following Sunday I had some time, and followed the old manīs directions and took a right at Soledad de Doblado and headed towards the Pico de Orizaba.He said that about 5 minutes into the steep climb into the mountains is the little town of Boca de Monte.

    In the corridor of the old hacienda you will find the tamales.I didnīt find any tamales that day, but had some of the crispiest empanadas with chipotle sauce Iīd ever had.

    I also met some nice people that day whoīd never heard the story of Yanga. At the same time, they told me some exciting stories about the Mexican Revolution on the old hacienda which I need to follow up on in the archives when I get back to Veracruz.

    And maybe one day on another trip back into the mountains around the Pico de Orizaba tracing the old maps, Iīll find Yangaīs original village.

    Back to the History Section