Mexico's First “BLACK” LiberatorTribute to Mexican IndependenceAlmost 200 years before General Vicente Guerrero, son of a Black slave mother, led Mexico to her independence, the town of Yanga, led by its Afro-Mexican liberator Gaspar Yanga, gained independence from Spain, creating one of the first free Black towns in the Western world. Word among the locals says that Gaspar Yanga escaped slavery in the region of the Nuestra Señora de la Concepción plantation in 1570. Regional lore also says that Yanga was a prince stolen from a royal family in what is now known as the Republic of Gabon in Western Africa. The word "Yanga" has origins in many regions of West and Central Africa, including the Yoruba regions in Nigeria where the word means "pride".Between 1570 and 1609, Yanga led his followers into the mountains located in the vicinity of Pico de Orizaba, the highest mountain in Mexico. By 1600, it was reported that the Yanga was joined by Francisco de la Matosa and his group of African warriors.Yanga's rebellion turned into decades of resistance against colonial Spain. By 1631, the Viceroy of New Spain Rodrigo Pacheco began negotiations with Gaspar Yanga, and struck an agreement of an autonomous region for the African-Mexican community. The first official name was San Lorenzo de los Negros (aka San Lorenzo de Cerralvo), near Córdova. Since 1932, the Mexican town has borne the name of its liberator Gasper Yanga. The town reports approximately 20,000 citizens that is now primarily mestizo (mixed heritage).
Like his birth, no definitive records are available regarding Yanga's date of death. The first information about Yanga arose in the second half of the nineteenth century by the historian and ex-general Vicente Rivas Palacio, grandson of Mexico's first black president, and Mexico's liberator Vicente Guerrero.The inscription under Gaspar Yanga's statue reads:"Negro Africano precusor de la libertao de los negros esclavos fundo este pueblo de san lorenzo de cerralvo (hoy yanga) por acordado del virrey de nueva espana Don Rodrigo Osorio Marzuez de cerralvo el dia tres de octubre del ano de 1631 por mandato del virrey trazo el pueblo el Capitan Hernando de Castro Espinosa H. Ayuntamento Constl. 1973-1976".English translation:African Black liberator and precursor of the black slaves who founded the town of San Lorenzo de Cerralvo (now Yanga) by agreement of the viceroy of New Spain, Rodrigo Pacheco, on the third day of October 1631 by order of the viceroy's pen. Village Captain Hernando of Castro Espinosa H. Ayuntamento Constl. 1973-1976."
Ancient African Roots in Veracruz
When you drive in the countryside around Veracruz, you sometimes find that some of the towns have strange names that don't sound Spanish. They have an African ring to them. When you ask the people in the areas about their town name, you get a blank look as if they had never thought much about it. More about the towns with Congolese names in Veracruz."I am sorry señor, but it has always been the name of our town. I guess it has been here a long time."Towns with
Around Veracruz, there are several towns and villages with a lot of history that goes back to the 1600´s.There is so much here that people don´t give it much thought because it´s always been there. You can walk through these towns, and it feels like things haven´t changed much since they were founded.Many of the African roots in Veracruz have been forgotten, as well as the stories surrounding other communities with African names in the area, such as Mocambo, Matamba, Mozomboa, Mozambique, andMandinga. These are the names that come to mind now. There may be other little towns where the African names were removed and changed. In some cases, only the African names remain and their history is unknown.This is what I found out about how the town of Yanga, Veracruz and how it was founded almost 400 years ago.
|Part I--The Yanga Story|
|Statue to the African Slave Leader |
in Yanga, Veracruz
|An African Leader Named Ñanga |
By the year 1609, the large numbers of escaped slaves had reduced much of rural Mexico to desperation, especially in the mountains in the state of Veracruz around the Pico de Orizaba.One of the largest of these groups was that of an African leader named Ñanga, now called "Yanga" who ruled a village in the mountainous area near Xalapa, Veracruz.In that year, the Viceroy of New Spain sent troops from Puebla to subjugate Yanga and his band of escaped slaves to Spanish rule.After eluding the detachment for several months, the Spanish commandante agreed to give Yanga's followers their freedom in exchange for ending the constant raids in the area, and gain their help in tracking down other escaped slaves.In the year 1618, Yanga, Veracruz became the first Free Town in America. Here is the interesting account of how the little town of Yanga in the State of Veracruz, Mexico was founded.It is interesting trip, about an hour from Veracruz, and I wanted to see it for myself.
|How to Get There||How to Get There |
Yanga is not hard to find. It´s about an hour from Veracruz. It is a little faster if you take the toll road.You get off at the Cuitláhuac exit and take a left onto the busy federal highway.The highway is rough in parts, and you have to take it easy. The scenery is in the countryside is pleasant with people living in homes with little thatched roof houses.Sometimes you can see the ruins of an old hacienda off to the side of the road.
|The City Hall in Yanga||For a small town, Yanga has a remarkable history that goes back almost 400 years.It´s the story of a peace treaty that has been respected to this day.Fear in Early New Spain |
In those days only about a fifth of the country was in Spanish hands, and much of that was not yet secure.This was a very real threat since in the coastal areas there were some 30 black slaves for every white Spaniard.Each night living on these haciendas must have been filled with the terror of a possible slave uprising.During the 1540s, there were two more uprisings of black slaves near Mexico City, and rumors of plots of other uprisings in the capital were heard frequently during the 1600s.
|The Church||In the 1560-1580 period, African slaves fled the mines in Zacatecas kept the area unsettled with raids on haciendas and roads.Another group of escaped black miners from Zacatecas joined the unconquered Chichimeca Indians northwest of the city, and together they descended upon the settler communities in what became a brutal war in that part of the country.In the late 1500s slaves from the Pachuca mines rose up and fled hiding out in a remote cave and went out periodically to steal cattle and other necessities.|
|El Pico de Orizaba |
And the Fertile Sugar Cane Country
Near Yanga, Veracruz
The African Population in Early Mexico
The African population in early Mexico was primarily along the Atlantic and Pacific coastal areas.A combination of the need for workers and the habit of slaves running away, led the slave masters to utilize cruel measures to control their subjects.The Protection of the Mountains of Veracruz
The enormous mountains behind the Veracruz lowlands soon became the home of fiercely independent communities of both ex-slaves and Indians.Located in one of the back canyons was a small Aztec settlement that became later became a refuge for escaped slaves that the Spaniards never discovered until they went looking for Yanga and his band of escaped slaves.
|El Pico de Orizaba|
Near Totutla, Veracruz
|Far from Civilization |
From back in this rough country in the mountains few people ventured to live because it was just too far from civilization in those days.Only those who were fugitives from the law would go live in this remote area. It was where people made their own laws.It wasn´t until the 1950´s that the first paved roads appeared in the area.It is said that the town remained sparsely occupied into the 1700s, and its existence did not become known to the outside world until 1994 when it was discovered by a group of investigators from the Universidad Veracruzana in Xalapa.
|Monument to Yanga: An African Man||Yanga: The Leader |
The most memorable of the Afro-Mexican groups of former slaves finding refuge in the coastal mountain range near the Gulf Coast was the one founded by Gaspar Yanga in the 1570´s.Yanga was a slave from the African nation of Gabon. Some say it was Angola. Nobody knows for sure.Many say that Yanga was from a royal family in Africa.In the safety of the high mountain country of Veracruz, Yanga´s community eventually grew to a population estimated at 500 people.Yanga´s followers got their provisions from raids on the early Spanish haciendas in the area or from the heavily laden caravans as they slowly labored through the high mountain passes along the Camino Real between Veracruz and Mexico City.
|A Fierce Fighter||Free for Almost 40 Years |
Relations were also established with other groups of runaway slaves and Indians and for more than thirty years, Yanga and his band lived free while his community grew to about 60 homes in size.After many complaints from settlers in the area and travellers along the Camino Real the Viceroy was forced to do something.Finally, it was decided that Yanga and his band of "bandits" must be defeated.From reading the early writings of the period, it appears that the concept of slavery wasn´t considered an important issue, and didn´t begin to become politically incorrect for another 200 years. Even the people in the church used some slaves on the plantations they owned.As a concept, slavery had always existed as a consequence for people who were conquered in war. I guess people´s ideas were different in those days.
|In Chains||The Royal Army Sent to Crush Yanga |
In January of 1609, the Viceroy of New Spain sent royal troops from the city of Puebla to crush Yanga and his band of rebels.However, Yanga in spite of being was quite old in 1609, he was well prepared and had delegated his military organization to the Angolan Francisco de la Matosa.Setting up Defenses
When he received word that the Spanish expedition had left Puebla, Yanga had Matosa gather his fighters set the area up for a defense.Early accounts of the event say they had few weapons and people, and their combat experience had been limited to brutal raids on the nearby sugar and cattle haciendas.Until then, they had never had any encounters with the Army.
|Now a Free Man|
In all, Yanga´s people had perhaps a hundred serious fighters with a few firearms, and mostly lances, and bows and arrows.Some were even using old muskets stolen from the Spaniards. It would be a fight to the bitter end.Yang´s Army
Four hundred others prepared to fight with rocks, poles, machetes, and bows and arrows.Near the present day town of Ixhuatan de los Reyes, the well armed Spanish war party of 550 marched into the mountainsThere were 100 crack Spanish troops, but the rest were a mix of adventurers, some of them also armed only with bows and arrows.
|The Gamble |
Yanga had already moved his people many times while creating a community that tried to farm land and tend cattle. The band included more children and elderly.Yanga gambled on standing up to the enemy. There was no other choice.
|Flowers||Yanga decided to make a show of force that they hoped would cause enough psychological damage to interest the Spaniards in negotiating for peace.|
The Spanish feared that any free homeland would be a haven for other African runaways.
|News Stand||The message also included a warning that to take on Yanga´s followers would prove costly.|
A deal was not forthcoming and a fierce engagement was fought downslope from the settlement with heavy losses on both sides.
The prospect of chasing them further up into the mountains was not an inviting one for the Spanish Royal Army.
|The Plaza||Yanga´s Proposal |
In spite of the opposition of the slave holders of the sugar plantations, the Crown agreed to Yanga's petitions, and the former slaves were officially settled on the mountain slopes near present day Totutla in 1610.
|Veterinary Supplies||San Lorenzo de Los Negros |
In 1618, the Yangans had asked for a better location with better farm land in the lowlands. The new town would be called "San Lorenzo de los Negros".