• Warriors & Rebels

    • Rebellion as an emancipatory force has acted in different historical moments, guided by energetic protagonists.

    Gaspar Yanga: the rebel that founded America’s first free community / 

    Beyond the Caribbean and Brazil, the history of blackness in America since Spanish colonialism has many stories worth telling. One of them is that of the African slave Gaspar Yanga, who in 1537, escaped from his masters in Veracruz, Mexico, and forged a guerrilla war for over 30 years in order to resist Spanish oppression.

     Little is known about Yanga, except that he came from Africa and that he belonged to a royal family in his place of birth, “Brong” or “Bore”, in the Empire of Ghana. Perhaps embellished by this patina legend, it is said that Yanga was extraordinarily tall and spoke Spanish well, as well as having displayed military and diplomatic skills for years, skills that would eventually establish him as a national hero during the nineteenth century, during the Mexican Independence process.

    During Colonial times, the Spanish brought thousands of slaves from Africa or Caribbean Islands to New Spain; to the extent that towards the end of the sixteenth century they represented 6% of the population. Yanga was sold as worker to a sugar estate, but escaped to a mountain a few days later along with other slaves. This, by the way, was not common; and, as a matter of fact, fugitive slaves were called cimarrones, after the wild and untamed sheep that live close to the summit. The first years they managed to live off the animals they hunted, petty thefts, and robbing passers-by on roads. As other slaves arrived and the community began to grow they began to establish agricultural and poultry practices.

    The Spanish Crown was not going to allow such an insurrection on their land, so the community lived under constant and violent attacks. Due to their knowledge of the land, the community was able to defend itself for over 30 years, until the Crown was forced to accept Yanga’s negotiation. During the period of time they lived in the mountains, the self-liberated slave community developed liquor factories, and began to establish communication and commerce lines with other villages, which is why the Crown became more interested in their prosperity than in their political control over the area, and the symbolic coup to their authority.  This is why the Spaniards accepted Yanga’s peace terms in 1609, these meant respecting the independent area that Yanga and the rebels would imanage, in exchange for a periodic tribute, as well as military services to protect the Crown in case of an attack. The Spanish then added that only Franciscan monks were to assist the community.

    As admirable as all the latter is, what was truly ground-breaking and continues to be aweing is that this early independence declaration is the first abolition of slavery in America, since Yanga was able to ensure the crown would accept that any man or woman who made their way to the community were to be considered free.

    In 1630 the community changed its name to a “El pueblo libre de San Lorenzo de los Negros” (The free town of San Lorenzo of the Blacks”) and 300 years later, during the twentieth century they would change their name once again, this time to “Yanga”, as it is known today, to commemorate the slave that refused to be treated as a slave, a genuine rebel. 

    Tagged: Gaspar Yanga, freedom, Warriors & Rebels, America, Latin America