The Organic Intellectual

If our greatest task is to liberate humanity, as Paulo Freire asserts, then it is absolutely essential that we create a culture of resistance from below that is able not only to counter, but transcend the limitations of the ruling culture imposed by above. Hopefully, The Organic Intellectual will help serve this purpose.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Unique Role of Blacks in Colonial Spanish America

In “Black Conquistadors: Armed Africans in Early Spanish America,” Mathew Restall outlines a detailed and convincing account of the unique experience many blacks faced as auxiliaries to Spanish conquest in the Americas. He assesses a plethora of historical documentation, often primary accounts, to explicate his three main points: blacks played an integral role in various expeditions into native lands, black conquest roles displayed consistent patterns throughout the different phases of the Spanish expansion, and finally, these patterns should be considered in a “longer-term colonial context” concerning the unique role of black conquistadors and what he labels “black counter-conquistadors” (Restall 172). Following this, his all-encompassing thesis is that all three points converge to establish a unique identity for blacks in Latin America. Restall’s argument is largely consistent with the rather short blurb about the role of blacks in the conquest presented in Colonial Latin America (CLA 78-80), yet his postulation on the distinctive identity of blacks and the role of counter-conquistadors is markedly absent. By compiling such a prodigious amount of evidence and organizing it in a manner favorable to his position, he successfully challenges the idea that blacks played an insignificant, marginalized role. Restall masterfully argues the validity of all three main concepts.

Restall begins by categorizing the three main roles which blacks were pushed into during the Spanish conquest: that of the mass slave, unarmed auxiliary (individual servant or slave), and armed auxiliary. While the first category includes the majority of blacks in the new world (African slaves who worked in large quantities on plantations) and the second group generally remained individual slaves or servants to their masters, the third role played an active, participatory role in the conquest of the New World. These blacks, “armed auxiliaries,” or black conquistadors, were a mix of “African-born slaves and Iberian-born free men” (Restall 175). Throughout the conquest those who fought alongside the Spanish were often freed from captivity. They played a vital role in the conquest and could be found in large numbers in certain expeditions. Likewise, the legacy they left behind is one that still plays an important role in the experience of black Spanish Americans.

Various examples are cited repeatedly which indicate the presence of blacks taking part in the conquest. Restall lists the names of ten different black conquistadors (seven born in Africa, 3 free blacks or mulattos from Spain) who took part in various campaigns stretching from Mexico to Chile. Restall organizes the patterns of black conquistadors along the three phases of Spanish conquest. The first, ranging from the last decade of the fifteenth century to the last 1510’s, is exemplified by one of the most famous black conquistadors, Juan Garrido. Garrido claims to have accompanied both Ponce de León and Valázquez in expeditions of Puerto Rico and Cuba, respectively, and was to later assist Cortés on his conquest of the Aztecs. (Restall 177) Restall later notes that this high involvement in multiple conquests may have resulted in the increased mobility of blacks due to institutional racism in the early colonial period. He also observes Africans were originally used as slave breakers and overseers who managed native slaves, yet Spanish owners became concerned and claimed that Africans would actually incite native rebellion. During this first phase, many blacks arrived as unarmed auxiliaries and only a few dozen or a hundred came during the first two decades but after 1510 the importation of blacks increased dramatically. It is after this date which armed auxiliaries, or black conquistadors, truly began to play an important role in the expansion of the Spanish (Restall 178-9).

Although it is hard to pinpoint exactly how many black conquistadors there were throughout each period, it is safe to say that the number increased as the phases progressed. In the second phase black participation into west and south grew. Whether it was the Montejo-led invasion (who were granted a permit of up to one-hundred slaves from the crown) or the Yucatec campaigns, it is evident blacks played a role in the conquest and sometimes settled in these places. Restall cites at least eight different attempts to push into the north from Mexico in which blacks were present (Restall 182-3). The third major phase was the expansion from the southern area of Central America and into South America. Two hundred armed Africans are said to have accompanied Pedro de Alvarado to Peru in 1534 and overall thousands of blacks ultimately ended up participating in the expansion there, despite the overwhelming silence of historians on their role in that conquest (Restall 183). The 1530’s presented a significant increase in the amount of blacks brought to the New World and subsequently a considerable increase in the amount of black conquistadors. In Chile, only five blacks were given encomiendas (the only blacks in the new world to have been granted them) for their role in the conquests, signifying that despite the vital roles they often took on during the conquest, early colonial institutions had already established firm racial barriers. (Restall 187) Here, Restall presents a warranted indictment of both historians and contemporaries who ignored the crucial role played by the significant number of black conquistadors.

Restall thoroughly details the common life patterns and traits which black conquistadors shared. Most were young men, a significant number named Juan (given it by their masters), often were employed as criers (most common), constables, auctioneers, executioners, pipers, doorkeepers, and guards (Restall 189-91). However, the vast majority of conquistadors were known for their skills in combat. Restall notes a variety of sources which espouse praise of the fighting ability of black soldiers, having deep roots in the Spanish perception that blacks were “natural warriors” (probably stemming from the myth that they were simply primitive, warlike barbarians) who were inherently imbued with the “warrior tradition” (Restall 193). Interestingly, this perception of blacks is highly contrasted with the perception of slaves in the North American southern colonies where the dominant Anglo-Saxons viewed blacks as feminine and loving, incapable of being talented soldiers (and, likewise, unable to violently secure their own freedom). Restall does not point this out, but it is interesting to see how the prevalent myths concerning the underclass can change so abruptly depending on how the dominant group wishes to utilize that group and which social and economic institutions are in question. Restall does bitterly note, however, that only when the valor and battle skill employed were equally matched by a devout loyalty to the Spanish crown, were blacks likely to be recorded with “hagiographic treatment” by historians (Restally 194). Blacks also often formed segregated militias or militias shared with mestizos to fight in the service of the crown (Restall 197-9). The most obvious continuity, however, is the lack of rewards given to blacks for their role in conquests. Blacks were kept within their traditional social roles of lowly servants and rarely given encomiendas or rewards equal to many of their white counterparts. The unrest at not being properly rewarded also contributed to the high rate of mobility among black conquistadors. These factors make Restall’s argument all the more convincing and help outline the racial prejudice which the institution of race-based slavery created.

The last focus of Restall’s article, and probably the most fascinating (and respectable), is centered on what he titles “black counter-conquistadors.” These blacks, refusing to participate or accept their low level status in Spanish society, either deserted to form separate communities or took on acts of piracy in an attempt to make it on their own. Restall outlines the distinct difference between blacks who removed themselves from Spanish society in order to further their own personal gain (pirates like the three “el Mulatos”) and the formation of various collective maroon societies organized by escaped slaves. (Restall 201-204) Either way, the desertion and defiance aimed at the Spanish crown was a strong signal of resistance and that not all blacks were complacent with the treatment of the natives or their own designated social roles. Restall helps to shed light on the black resistance to colonialism and racial domination which is often very absent from traditional history texts. By ending on this note, he reminds readers that resistance always accompanies empire. Unfortunately, resistance was unable to stop the spread of empire in this instance. His argument, in conclusion, is that the submissive roles of black conquerors and the distinctive leadership roles of counter-conquistadors helped shape the inimitable black Spanish American identity.

Restall’s argument is generally coherent with the history presented in the textbook Colonial Latin America. Although his accounts are much more detailed and comprehensive, two of his three main ideas can be found in the text; blacks played an important role in many expeditions (CLA 78) and they shared common biographical traits, namely being treated as social inferiors (CLA 79-80). Many of the same examples can be seen in both sources, such as Juan Garrido and Juan Valiente, for instance, (78-9) and the historical framework presented in each share common themes. Yet, strangely, his third and most important factor, regarding the rise of special black militias, maroon communities which were forced to militarily defend themselves, and individualistic counter-conquistadors did not seem to gain any attention in the text. Likewise, the textbook fails to mention the complex native and African relationships which were sometimes manifested in acts of courageous unity against Spanish dominion. Instead, the section on “Black Participation in the Age of Conquest” only outlines and, indeed, ends on the relationship of stratification, of blacks playing the role of native slave-breakers (CLA 80), leaving readers to assume this is the role they most commonly filled. This, perhaps, is the most glaring absence in the textbook.

Restall’s case is highly organized and displayed in a manner which creates a consistent account of black participation in Spanish America. Each topic he covers appears as a congruent and feasible explication of the pivotal role of blacks. His exhaustive use of various sources to construct his argument makes it hard for one to challenge the validity of his research. Some of his postulations concerning specific numbers or certain biographical patterns are rather vague and he (along with other historians) lack the primary documentation required to give a decisive answer on these issues in specific circumstances; yet, it is obvious that blacks were very involved and more intricately tied into both the expansion of the empire and the struggle to resist it than what traditional historians credit them for. Restall’s most compelling argument is that the multitude of unique roles played by blacks throughout the colonial period is vital to understanding the identity of black Spanish Americans today; they were not natives to the region, Africans untouched by Spanish culture and tradition, or on the same social and political field as white Spaniards. Yet, blacks were a crucial aspect of the Spanish American world throughout every phase of colonization. Some helped build the empire; some tried to stop it. Some were overseers of natives; other supported and incited resistance against their masters. Some were given shares similar to those of whites; most were shafted and confined by artificial social boundaries. His overarching thesis concerning the unique historical roots of black identity is difficult to ignore. Restall’s article is essential for anyone wishing to understand the complex and fascinating role blacks made for themselves as history unfolded in Latin America.

Burkholder, Mark A., and Lyman, Johnson L., Colonial Latin America, Sixth Edition, Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Restall, Mathew, Black Conquistadors: Armed Africans in Early Spanish America, Academy of American Franciscan History.
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