Blacks on the Spanish Frontier: Danger and Opportunity
In this episode, we explore how life was different for African Americans on the frontier. How those differences translate to both danger and opportunity for persons of African descent in the Spanish and English American territories, and the role Africans played in shaping what was to become the American frontier.
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Africans in the Spanish and English Territories of the Americas
In his book, They Came Before Columbus, Dr. Ivan Van Sertima asserts that there was a presence of Africans in the western hemisphere prior to 1492. This is a controversial topic, because many people have taken this to mean that Africans in coming to the western hemisphere bestowed upon the indigenous Americans their superior culture – teaching them agriculture, pyramid building, etc. While I am in no way suggesting that Native Americans were not capable enough to develop these advancements themselves, the frontier or interaction between two or more groups of people can often inform one’s historical inquiry.
Van Sertima’s book draws upon the similarities in facial features between the massive stone heads found in the Yucatan peninsula and an East African Nubian chief. In addition to physical features, Van Sertima points out the similarity in the Olmec helmet and the Nubian helmet. Additionally you have a detailed feature that you don’t find on many Native American people in their depictions of themselves, that is facial hair, specifically in goatee style. Also present are lines that resemble the marks of scarification rituals common among Sudanese people.
On the African side of the Atlantic, there is some written documentary evidence that Van Sertima also points to. Remember, information in West Africa tended to be transferred by oral historians, or griots, but in your first chapter you read an account of a Muslim traveler by the name of Ibn Battuta, who traveled the Muslim world and left a very detailed written record of what he found. While traveling to the Islamic empire of Mali, he documented a story told to him by a griot that recorded the history of Emperor Abubakari’s obsession with a transatlantic voyage.
Doctor Ivan Van Sertima’s book, They Came Before Columbus, explores a wide range of evidence, including linguistic and cultural patterns that crop up in Africa and and in the Americas along critical terminal points along the Atlantic oceanic conveyor belt. It’s important to understand that the evidence does have some problems, but continued research may reveal a broad new understanding of African American frontiers.
As we saw in Episode 3: Africa in Historical Context, the Muslims began to expand across North Africa around the 6th century. The year 711 initiated 700 years of Islamic rule in Spain. By the time Spain was reconquered in 1492 Spain was of exceedingly mixed ancestry. When North African rule in Spain came to an end, Spain went on a very vigorous attempt to try to stamp out 700 years of Muslim influence by expelling those it considered to be non-Spaniard. Columbus’s contact with the western hemisphere and the access vast new land resources gave Spain the perfect opportunity to expel its undesirables by sending them west.
Frontier regions tend to be loosely structured regions where social rules are not yet firmly established. So on the frontier with the lack its social structure, one finds a very dangerous climate – in San Francisco in the early1850s there were five murders every six days. But for that same reason for black folks on the frontier were in a region field with lots of opportunities and relatively few social. So, just as in the New Spain in the United States frontier we should expect to find significant numbers of poor folks including people of color.
That is a reason why we shouldn’t be surprised to find later on that the last governor of Mexican California was an Afro Latino by the name of Pio Pico. It also shouldn’t be surprising that we would find people such as Estabanico, in explorations of the Spanish frontier in Florida.
If the rules regarding race on the frontier are not as firmly entrenched, the roles regarding gender are also blurred. That is the reason why – in addition to Annie Oakley – we find some gun totting women out in the west. Because of the relatively loose social structure of the west, you find women in roles one simply couldn’t imagine seeing them in if they were in a place like Boston or New York during the same period. The relative social freedom women experienced in the west – or at least the general lack of social constraint – afforded some women unprecedented economic opportunities. In the mid to late-1800s, women entrepreneurs like Mary Ellen Pleasant and Biddy Mason amassed fortunes in the millions. Mary Ellen Pleasant’s fortune was assessed at upwards of $30 million (that’s 1860s money).
So, the lawlessness and gun slinging of the west presented both danger and opportunity for Blacks on the frontier. That is the nature and the significance of the frontier as it relates to blacks.