Although today known as El Primer Libertador de America (the first liberator of the Americas), (Gaspar) Yanga is an often-overlooked freedom fighter in the histories of enslavement* in the Americas. Captured and sold into enslavement in what at the time was referred to as New Spain, today known as México, Yanga became known to the Spanish settlers as Gaspar Yanga.
According to the folkloric history of Yanga’s life, he was born in West Africa to a royal family. He was captured, enslaved, forced to endure the Middle Passage journey across the Atlantic Ocean, and eventually made to work as an enslaved worker in the sugarcane labour camps* of Veracruz, New Spain (modern day Veracruz, México). In the year 1570, Yanga led a revolt with other enslaved African peoples, leading to his escape and the settling of a maroon mountain colony.
Yanga and his community lived free of European enslavement for near forty years, disrupting the trade routes established along el Camino Real between Veracruz and la Ciudad de México throughout this time. Eventually, the threat that a community of free Africans posed to not only the individual communities of Spanish settlers but the entire system of chattel slavery in the area became too strong, in the eyes of the Spanish-controlled government of New Spain. The Spanish, as an attempt to maintain “order” in the area, established the town of Córdoba near Yanga’s self-governing maroon colony.
In 1609, a Spanish militia was sent to destroy Yanga’s community. Instead, they were defeated. Following the defeat of the Spanish militia, yet another group of Spaniards was sent to defeat Yanga – who instead offered to make peace so long as the Spanish meet his eleven demands. The most important of these demands were that recognition of free status be granted to all of the residents in Yanga’s community prior to 1608; that Yanga’s community was a legal, self-governing settlement; and that no Spaniards were welcome in the community. Following years of negotiations, San Lorenzo de Los Negros was established as a town in 1618 that would pay tribute to the Spanish Crown. Eventually, San Lorenzo de Los Negros was renamed Yanga, after the African freedom fighter (Gaspar) Yanga. The town of Yanga still stands today, with a statute erected in his honour.
Yanga’s fate, along with the fates of his community members, following 1618 is unknown. But his importance as an African who was enslaved in New Spain (México) and fought for (and won!) his freedom is critical to the intertwined colonial histories of the Americas, Africa, and Europe. Yanga demonstrates the importance of the African diaspora in the shaping of modern day México. He shatters the mythology that it is only Indigenous and European influences that inform México’s rich cultural and revolutionary political traditions.
* Monique does not use the terms “slavery,” “slave,” or “plantation.” Instead, she uses the terms “enslavement,” “enslaved,” and “labour camp” in order to serve as a reminder of the continuous acts that constituted the centuries-long enslavement of African peoples in the Americas. By eschewing more passive words such as “slavery” for “enslavement,” the active, continual choice to enslave people is forcibly brought to the surface of historical discourse surrounding these attempts at dehumanization and injustice. For further reading on the importance of linguistic choices when writing history, see Michael Todd Landis’s freely accessible article “These Are Words Scholars Should No Longer Use to Describe Slavery and the Civil War,” found here: http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/160266.
Black Past. “Yanga, Gaspar (c. 1545- ?).” http://www.blackpast.org/gah/yanga-gaspar-c-1545.
Landers, Jane G. “Cimarrón and Citizen: African Ethnicity, Corporate Identity, and the Evolution of Free Black Towns in the Spanish Circum-Caribbean,” in Jane Lander and Barry Robinson, eds., Slaves, Subjects, and Subversives: Blacks in Colonial Latin America. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2006.
Rowell, Charles Henry. “‘El Primer Libertador de las Americas’/The First Liberator of the Americas: The Editor’s Notes.” Callaloo 31.1 (Winter 2008): 1-11, 181- 192.