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Afro-Latin History on the Spanish Frontier: Danger and Opportunity

This article explores Afro-Latin History and how life differed for African Americans on the frontier. How those differences translated 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.

Did they come before Columbus?

Why Ivan Van Sertima is problematic

In his book, They Came Before Columbus, Dr. Ivan Van Sertima asserts that Africans were in the western hemisphere before 1492. This is a controversial topic for a variety of reasons. Many Black scholars have mistakenly juxtaposed themselves onto the Western European narrative. They have done so by suggesting that Africans and not Europeans bestowed their superior culture upon indigenous Americans. Van Serima himself falls into the trap of inferring that Africans introduced indigenous people to agriculture, pyramid building, etc. While I am in no way suggesting that Native Americans cannot develop these advancements themselves, the frontier or interaction between two or more groups of people can often inform one’s historical inquiry.

Where is the evidence?

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 characteristics, Van Sertima points out the similarity between the Olmec and Nubian helmets. Additionally, facial hair is a detail usually absent in many Native American depictions of themselves, 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. Information in West Africa tended to be transferred by oral historians or griots. Latter accounts of a Muslim traveler named Ibn Battuta, who traveled the Muslim world, 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 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.

Africans in the Spanish and English Territories of the Americas

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 att try to stamp out 700 years of Muslim influence by expelling those it cond to be non-Spaniards. Columbus’s contact with the western hemisphere and the access to 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 firmly established. One finds a perilous climate on the frontier lacking its social structure. In San Francisco in the early1850s, there were five murders every six days. But for that same reason, black folks on the frontier were in a region filled with opportunities and relatively few social. So, just as in New Spain in the United States frontier, we should expect to find significant numbers of poor folks, including people of color.

The Lawlessness of the Frontier

It should come as no surprise to find that the last governor of Mexican California was an Afro-Latino named Pio Pico. It also shouldn’t be surprising to see Afro-Latinos such as Estabanico among the early explorers 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 why – in addition to Annie Oakley – gun-toting women are not unusual in the West. Because of the relatively loose social structure of the West, women occupy roles difficult to imagine in places 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 wealth was assessed at upwards of $30 million (in1860s 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 significance of the frontier as it relates to the Black Afro-Latinos of the Spanish frontier.