The Uprising in New Spain by Africans: The Story of Yanga

The rebellion led by Yanga was not the first uprising in New Spain by enslaved Africans, much less the last; however, it is one of the most important due to the success of the resistance.

The Uprising in New Spain by Africans: The Story of Yanga
Yanga, an early victory against slavery and racism. Image and text: Cultura

The history of Africans and Afro-descendants in New Spain and throughout the Americas is a history of oppression, but also, and above all, a history of resistance.

The arrival of Africans to the lands we know today as America occurred with the arrival of the conquistadors and consequently, the slave trade system that was consolidated at the time and that made it possible that, between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, about 12.5 million people were forcibly removed from their places of origin in Africa to be sent as slaves to different parts of the Atlantic world, a fact considered the largest forced movement in history.

Slavery was to a great extent a determining factor in the social conditions faced by Africans and Afro-descendants in New Spain; this past of oppression still has effects on Afro-Mexican populations today that are reflected in the discrimination and undervaluation of their lives; these are remnants of the old racist and slave regime that survive in the 21st century.

However, the experiences and history of Africans and Afro-descendants in the Americas are not determined entirely by slavery and subordination to that regime, but also in opposition to it, since there were free Africans in the Americas and their relationship with the slave regime was not one of complete subjugation.

As researcher Adriana Naveda points out, "both the Africans taken from their continent through the lucrative business of the slave trade and subjected to an exploitative and discriminatory economic and social system, as well as their descendants, born in America within the institution of slavery, presented various forms of resistance aimed at protesting and getting out of their condition of subjugation. Resistance was evident in places of the New World where European colonization implanted slavery and varied in intensity and frequency according to the geographical and social conditions of each region".

Despite this history of resistance and impetus for freedom, the voices, experiences, and stories of black people are often invisibilized, and this is intensified when it comes to the history of black people who were enslaved and who fought to end this injustice, such is the case of Yanga or Ñyanga, the protagonist of an episode in our history that has become a great omission in the great stories of our country. To talk about Yanga, an African man who was enslaved and became an icon of uprising and liberation, we must talk about the social context of the time in which he lived.

Africans were brought to New Spain because of the need for sufficient labor in sugar plantations, sugar cane plantations, mines, ranches and to work in cattle ranching and agriculture. The arduous conditions in which they were forced to work and the yoke they suffered made some non-conformist slaves organize themselves to escape to remote and difficult to access places, such as mountains, ravines, swamps, or forests, to form communities known as "palenques", "rancherías" or "quilombos", terms that vary according to the region of Latin America in which these communities were established. At the time, these rebels were known as "cimarrones", a word used in allusion to the animals of the same name that were commonly found in the mountains.

To survive, they hid in their hideouts and stole from the roads and properties of the Spaniards and the surrounding indigenous villages, from where they stole cattle and abducted women. However, as was to be expected, the colonial authorities reacted to put an end to the assaults, quell the rebellions and stop the slaves from escaping to areas where it was difficult to catch them and then reintegrate them with their exploiters. The uprising of these organized groups represented a warning to the colonial power so that actions to deal with the resistance included surveillance, punishment, the founding of cities, and even negotiation with the groups of rebellious slaves.

As Adriana Naveda explains, slavery was of utmost importance at the time, since "it represented more than half of the total value of the haciendas"; hence the deep interest of the owners in recovering runaway slaves. Likewise, those who owned slaves not only refused to grant them freedom because of the economic loss it represented but also saw in the maroonage a dangerous example that other slaves could follow; that is why Yanga's rebellion is an emblematic case of this type of uprising.

Yanga was an African man who was taken in 1579 as a slave to New Spain, specifically to the area of sugarcane haciendas and cattle ranches in the Valley of Orizaba, Veracruz. According to Francisco Xavier Alegre (1729-1788) and his History of the Society of Jesus in New Spain (one of the main historical sources on this event), Yanga was a man of advanced age and originally from the Bran nation, where -had he not been a prisoner- he would have become a king.

Yanga escaped and settled in palenques located in the foothills of the Sierra de Zongolica, in the Sierra Madre Oriental, in the company of other Africans who were also seeking freedom and who had probably arrived in the area due to the growth of sugar production in Veracruz at the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th centuries. Soon Yanga became their leader and was in charge of the civil and political administration of the group for more than 30 years; while the military command was given to Francisco de la Matosa, a young man from Angola who took the name of his exploiter and who had also escaped from slavery.

According to Francisco Xavier Alegre, "the malcontents had made themselves strong in places that were by nature inaccessible, and on the other hand very abundant with provisions, from where they went out to assault the roads and places, with a damage that was already generally felt in the New Spain, and with an even more pernicious example for all the slaves and men who found in them a safe protection against the requisitions of their masters".

By 1609, the Spanish authorities, eager to curb the economic losses generated by the assaults on the royal road to the port of Veracruz, and willing to mitigate the slave uprising, undertook an armed expedition in the name of Viceroy Luis de Velasco and under the command of Captain Pedro González de Herrera.

Spaniards and Africans confronted each other, but the resistance and perseverance of Yanga's army and the Matosa made the viceroy agree to negotiate the freedom of the rebels. In this way, the Spaniards offered a truce that implied some capitulations for Yanga and his people; such conditions had to do with the desire to put an end to slave escapes and rebellions that had put the colonial power in crisis and that constituted substantial economic losses, so from that moment on, Yanga and his people committed themselves to catch and return any slave that escaped and sought refuge with them, although this condition was not completely fulfilled.

Likewise, the agreements they reached included the freedom and independence of the rebel groups and their descendants, as well as the foundation of a town in which they could settle and which would be free from the influence of the Spaniards. This is how the town of San Lorenzo came about, whose existence was legalized around 1640, and which was also known as Negros Libres, Pueblo de Negros, San Lorenzo Cerralvo, and San Lorenzo de los Negros; currently, this territory is called Yanga, a municipality located in the central zone of the state of Veracruz.

It should be clarified that the rebellion led by Yanga was not the first uprising in New Spain by enslaved Africans, and much less was it the last; however, it is one of the most important due to the success of the resistance, since the rebellion resulted in the founding of San Lorenzo de los Negros, a free town that is considered one of the antecedents of the struggles for freedom and the processes of independence in New Spain.

By David Olvera López