At the beginning of the 17th Century, hiding in the coastal highlands of Veracruz in New Spain (the territory which encompasses Mexico at present), the members of the palenques (communities of escaped slaves) attacked both merchants and soldiers, with weapons that were captured from their erstwhile Spanish slavers. Spain was unable to contain the resistance for more than three decades, largely because of their leader, Gaspar Yanga, an African previoulsy captured by European slave traders.
Allegedly a member of a royal family from the territory that currently comprises Gabon, Yanga was captured and reduced to enslavement in a plantation in New Spain in the mid-sixteenth century. Although it has not been conclusively proven whether Gaspar Yanga belonged to Gabonese royalty, what is certain is that Yanga arrived in Mexico because of the slave trade from which millions of African were victims. In fact, captive Africans were indispensable to the agricultural production in the Americas under Spanish colonial rule. At the time, only Brazil had a larger slave population than the New Spain.
But Yanga was soon to prove that he was not a slave like the others. In 1570, in the sugarcane plantation “Nuestra Señora de la Concepción”, in Veracruz, Gaspar Yanga led the escape of his fellow slaves into the nearby mountains. There they formed a settlement and lived for more than 30 years, arming themselves through their raids on Spanish colonists. The colonial authorities of Spain were aware of the existence of the community of free slaves, but made little progress against the community until 1609, when they gathered troops to take back the former slaves. They razed the community and attacked Yanga and his followers, who took to the rainforest to wage guerrilla warfare against their oppressors.
Despite that Spanish offensive, Yanga’s raids against the Spanish colonialists did not stop. His great expertise in the forest allowed him to fight the attacks of the Spanish slavers and lead the resistance against them. Yanga’s palenque thrived, surviving in part by ravaging the caravans that transported goods across Veracruz. In the end, the Spanish were forced to accept a treaty that granted the former slaves their freedom and the right to create their own free community. Thus, in 1631, Yanga reached an agreement with the viceroy of New Spain, Rodrigo Pacheco y Osorio, obtaining the autonomy of his band of slaves. In Veracruz, Yanga and his companions established the city of San Lorenzo de Los Negros, the first community of freed African slaves in North America.
In 1871, five decades after Mexican independence, Yanga was named a “national hero of Mexico.” This was largely due to the writings of the influential Mexican politician, military leader and journalist Vicente Riva Palacio (grandson of Mexico’s only black president, Vicente Guerrero), who recovered the stories and reports about Yanga -and the Spanish expedition against him- while searching in the archives of the Spanish Inquisition. In 1932, shortly after the end of the Mexican Revolution, recognizing this important and heroic episode in Mexican history, the settlement he had formed in Veracruz was renamed Yanga in his honor. The small town still exists in Veracruz; a statue commemorates the feat of Yanga and his band of slaves, while his name appears in several streets and public places in Mexico.
Slave uprisings against Spanish rule in the Americas occurred very frequently in the early 16th Century, shortly after colonization. But these uprisings did not always succeed, although the failed attempts later served as inspiration for another liberation struggle led by former slaves: that of Haiti, which attained independence in 1804 – a reminder that the he first free Latin American country became independent thanks to its slave population of African origin.
In this regard, the Yanga rebellion remains relevant because of its success. Gaspar Yanga became the first only African rebel to win a fight against his colonial captors. Nevertheless, the legacy of Africans in Mexico after Spanish colonization is a subject rarely covered in the history books of the Americas. As a result, Gaspar Yanga remains one of the almost neglected figures in African history in Latin America (not to mention African-American history). Although the rebellion is little known outside small Mexican (and Gabonese) historiographic circles, it is important to recover this relevant historical event, which reveals a glorious example of emancipation and resistance of peoples against their colonial oppressors.
The history of the rebellion of Yanga, the African slave who led the first insurrection against Spanish colonial rule in what is now Mexico (almost two centuries before the country became independent) should not be overlooked. This glorious chapter in the history of man’s emancipation shows us that the will to be free is stronger than the fire and chains of slavery; that defying oppression does not depend on skin color; and that human dignity knows no obstacles when people organize themselves and break their chains, making themselves invincible.
Andres D. Medellin is a Mexican sociologist and career diplomat, currently posted in South Africa. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.