Black History Culture : Gaspar Yanga and The First Free People of the Americas

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  1. Omowale Jabali

    Omowale Jabali The Cosmic Journeyman PREMIUM MEMBER

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    The Setting: The first shiploads of slaves from Africato Mexico were hardly off the boat when an abortive slave uprising occurred in Mexico City. It was in 1537. This uprising frightened the Spaniards on many counts. The conquest was still proceeding. Only about a fifth of Mexico was in Spanish hands, and much of that not yet secure. The threat of "barbarian" Indian invasion from the far North or South was quite real. Moreover, wrote the Viceroy to his King, the uprising was preceded in Mexico City by close organization by Blacks, who chose their own "King," and devised a plan that called for Blacks and Indians to cooperate and together rise and slaughter all the Whites.
    During the 1540s there were two uprisings of Blacks near Mexico City, and rumors of plots for African uprisings in the capital were heard frequently during the 1600s. In the 1560-1580 period, Afromexicans who had fled the mines in Zacatecas kept the area in turmoil with raids on haciendas and roads. During this period one group of escaped Black miners from Zacatecas joined with the unconquered Chichimec Indians northwest of city and together they descended upon the settler communities in what became a brutal war. Also in the late 1500s slaves from the Pachuca mines rose up and fled the city. These ex-miners found refuge in an inaccessible cave from which they sallied forth periodically to steal cattle and other necessities.
    The African population in Mexico was pronounced along the Atlantic and Pacific coastal areas. On the Atlantic side, large slave labor sugar plantations in coastal Veracruz produced great profits for the Empire. A combination of the profiteers' need for workers and the habit of slaves running away, led the slave masters to utilize chains and other cruel measures on their subjects. Nevertheless, the enormous mountains behind the Veracruz lowlands became the home of fiercely independent maroon communities of both ex-slave Blacks and of Indigenous, too. The peaks of the range rise to 12,500 feet on the south, and to 18,300 Mt. Orizaba and 14,000 Cofre de Perote in the center. Below the ridges in the 10,000 foot northern stretch of the range there is the best evidence of the value of these jungle covered mountains for hideaways. Located in a canyon is a small city of an Aztec tributary state that became an Indian refuge that the Spaniards never discovered. The town remained occupied on into the 1700s, and its existence did not become known to the outside world until 1994.
    Yanga: The most memorable of the numerous Afro-Mexican maroon colonies in the range was the one founded after a bloody slave rebellion in the sugar fields in 1570. The rebel leader Gaspar Yanga was a slave from the African nation of Gabon, and it was said that he was from the royal family. Yanga led his rebel band into the mountains, where he found a locale sufficiently inaccessible to settle and create his own small town of over 500 people. The Yangans secured provisions by raids upon the Spanish caravans bringing goods from the highlands to Veracruz. Relations were established with neighboring runaway slaves and Indians. For more than thirty years Yanga and his band lived free while his community grew in size. A Spanish study of the situation concluded that Gaspar Yanga must be crushed. With that goal in mind a Royal war party left the city of Puebla in January of 1609. It did not succeed in its goal. Before he died, Yanga would have in hand a treaty with the Spaniards that granted freedom to his followers and established their own "free town."
    Five decades after Mexican independence Yanga was made into a national hero of Mexico by the diligent work of the grandson of Vicente Guerrero, Vicente Riva Palacio. The energetic Riva Palacio was an historian, novelist, short story writer, military general and major of Mexico City mayor during his long life. In the late 1860s he retrieved from moldy Inquisition archives accounts of Yanga and of the expedition against him. From his research, the grandson of the first "Black President" brought the story to the public in an anthology in 1870, and as a separate pamphlet in 1873. Reprints have followed, including a recent edition in 1997. Others have written about Yanga, but none have matched the flair of Riva Palacio in conveying the image of proud fugitives who would not be defeated.
    Riva Palacio informs us that Yanga was quite old in 1609 and "the revered ancient one" had delegated military organization to his aid, the Angolan Francisco de la Matosa. Upon receiving word of the Spanish expedition that had left Puebla, Yanga had General de la Matosa gather fighters for a defense. The General dressed in clothing fitting a commander, in the hope of instilling military decorum on troops which had little weaponry and nothing in the way of a military uniform. Their combat had been guerrilla raids. The maroon band whipped into shape by de la Matosa, aided by Yanga's son √Ďanga, had but a hundred fighters with firearms, and some were using old muskets of the conquistadors. Four hundred others prepared to fight with rocks, poles, machetes, and bows and arrows. Into their mountains marched the well armed Spanish war party of 550. There were 100 crack Spanish troops, but the rest were a mix of adventurers looking for spoils and conscripted Mexicans, including Indians and "mulatos" some of them also armed with bows and arrows.
    A retreat further up into the wilderness, no doubt, tempted Yanga. The 39 years that he had lived in the mountains gave him knowledge of the routes in and out of the ravines, around the 200 foot waterfalls, and through the forests of 150 foot high vine and fern covered trees. But should he flee? "The revered ancient one" had already moved many time while creating a community that tried to farm land and tend cattle. The band included ever more children and elderly. Yanga gambled on standing up to the enemy. The reports Riva Palacio found in the Inquisition led him to conclude that Yanga had decided ahead of time that he would join de la Matosa and his son with the troops, and that they would make a show of force that they hoped would inflict enough damage to interest the Spaniards in negotiations for peace. The terms? Perhaps the Spaniards would be interested in granting a form of peace treaty similar to the one that had ended hostilities with many Indigenous groups in Mexico, that is, a "homeland" in which there would be self-rule on local matters, but from which would come tribute taxes for the King of Spain and loyalty to the Crown in case of foreign attack. There was, however, a major difference between the Indian and Afromexican situation. Because of the slavery inflicted upon the Blacks, any free "homeland" would soon be crammed with African runaways from servitude. Yanga offered an answer to this worry of the slave masters. He promised to return any new slaves who sought asylum in his free territory. Early in February word reached the Yanga settlement that the Spanish war party was near. Yanga all but lit the way to his village by sending the enemy a captured Spanish prisoner, who carried a message that offered the deal. The message also included gratuitous insults to the Crown and a warning that to take on the Yangans would prove costly.
    A deal was not forthcoming and a fierce engagement was fought downslope from the settlement with heavy losses on both sides. The maroons retreated back through their settlement, which the Royal troops entered and burned. The prospect of chasing the maroons further up the mountains was not, however, an inviting one for the Spanish war party. A priest was then sent to seek out Yanga, and hopefully convince him the cause was lost. Yanga reiterated his terms: In return for a grant of farmable land and the right of self-government, Yanga offered that he and his followers would return to the Crown authorities any of the slaves who, in the future, might flee to such a Black refuge. In addition to their own town, the rebels wanted it in writing that all the slaves who had fled before 1608 should be free; that only Franciscan friars should attend to their people; and that Yanga should be their governor and that the succession should go to his descendants. In spite of the opposition of the slave holders of the sugar plantations, the Crown acceded to Yanga's petitions, and the maroons were officially settled on the slopes of Mount Totutla in 1630.
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