… that Africans came to the Americas before Columbus?
… that Africans came to the Americas before Columbus?
As a 15 year old boy, I remember gazing at and pondering on a full-page picture of an Aztec Indian in my second year Spanish book, El Camino Real. He was a black man or as I would have said in 1958, he was a Negro. For many years I never talked to anyone about this black Aztec but I stored the image in my memory bank. It remained a puzzle for many years. The only thing that I was certain of was that he was a Negro, the conclusion I came to at the first glance. How did this Negro Aztec Indian get to be in Mexico? Sixty-two years later, I decided I needed to find the book to make sure that I remembered correctly. Therefore, I did an internet search for this textbook and found it on eBay.
Once I flipped through the first few pages on the book, I was gratified to see that my memory was correct except for one important detail. He was, according the caption, an Aztec dancer, not an Aztec chieftain as I had been thinking all these years. I have attached a camera shot of that photograph as the Featured Image at the beginning of this post.
Since I took Spanish for four years, ninth to the twelfth grade, my association with things Spanish and Mexican continued throughout high school. I was a member of the Spanish Club (Los Cardenales) and every year participated in the Language Field Day Contest at San Bernardino Valley College. All of this was under the auspices of our Spanish teacher, La Senora Maria Florencia Rivera, a great lady. Before I left high school, Mrs. Rivera established a Spanish Honor Society which we named Quetzalcoatl. Quetzalcoatl was an Aztec (Mexican) god, one of Mexico’s major gods and a very complex figure. In my senior year, I was President of Quetzalcoatl. (See graphic below). The word Quetzalcoatl comes from two Aztec words, quetzal meaning bird and coatl which means serpent. Thus throughout the years, Quetzalcoatl has been associated with the plumed-serpent motif.
Over the 62 years since I first saw the picture of the black Aztec dancer, I have acquired some information that may throw light on how he might have gotten there. And thus I return to write about the enigmatic figure I first encountered as a 15-year old boy. There are essentially two ways Africans could have ended up in Mexico: the African slave trade and migration.
From the beginning of the 1500’s to the end of the 1700’s, Spain imported about 200,000 Africans into Mexico; most were brought in during the 1500’s and the 1600’s, and a few at the beginning of the 1800’s. By the end of the eighteenth century (1700’s), the majority of them had become mixed with the white and Indian populations.1 In short, the Africans who came into Mexico came much earlier than the ones who were brought into North America. Our Aztec dancer could have been a descendant of those enslaved Africans. However, that is not the only possibility.
First I would note that many authors and scholars have documented the fact that black Africans made contact with the Americas over a period spanning 2,000 years before Columbus came in 1492. The earliest contacts have been documented to have occurred between 800 B.C. and 600 B.C. (more than 2,500 years ago), at the latest, and the latest contacts during the late Middle Ages, around 1311 A.D., only 200 years before the first enslaved Africans were brought into Mexico. The contacts spanned the length of Latin America, an area extending from the southern United States to deep into South America. Focusing on Mexico, we know Africans made contact with the Olmecs over 2,500 years ago and the Aztecs during the middle ages in Central Mexico.
The late historian Ivan Van Sertima presents convincing evidence that Mandingos from the West African Kingdom of Mali made contact with the Aztecs around 1311 A.D.2 Van Sertima maintains that the Emperor of Mali, Abubakari himself, made the voyage, though he never returned to Mali. Some of you will be familiar with the name of someone connected to Emperor Abubakari, namely, Emperor Kankan Musa, the brother of Abubakari, who made a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324 and spread so much gold throughout the Middle East that it took years for the area to recover from the inflation it caused. Abubakari told his brother to assume his position if he did not return. These events are recorded in the courts of Mali and in Cairo and by Arab historians. Evidently he did not return to West Africa but it seems that he did make it to America. Another voice presenting convincing evidence of these contacts is Art Historian turned Archeologist Alexander von Wuthenau.3 He too presents incontrovertible evidence of contacts between Africans and Americans, and Mexicans in particular, over a period of hundreds of years. In my next blog, I will present some of the details of the evidence of Van Sertima and von Wuthenau.
One more piece of evidence connecting the Africans who came to Central Mexico with the Mandingos of West Africa is supplied by Judith Carney in her book Black Rice, an amazing piece of work that conclusively demonstrates that Africans from the rice producing areas of West Africa brought rice and the culture of rice cultivation to South Carolina and other areas of the Americas. In other words the Africans taught the white planters how to grow rice. As regards the Mandingoes in Mexico, I give you the words of Judith A. Carney, “On a research trip along the [Mexican] Gulf Coast in 1988, I came across a road sign south of Veracruz that caused me nearly to veer off the road. The name of the approaching hamlet was Mandinga (Italics added), the same as that of the rice-growing ethnic group with whom I had worked in Gambia. A stop in the village revealed a Mexican population of mixed African descent and the presence of some abandoned rice fields.”4
Many have heard of the Mandingos due to a series of novels by writer Lance Horner. The first of this series was made into the movie Mandingo, starring Ken Norton. Every description I have read of the Mandingos describes them as well-built, big in size, and above average in height. They evidently are impressive physical specimen. Explorer Mungo Park who visited Senegambia in 1794-95 said, “The Mandingoes, generally speaking, are of a mild, sociable, and obliging disposition. The men are commonly above the middle size, well shaped, strong, and capable of enduring great labour; the women are good-natured, sprightly and agreeable. The dress of both sexes is composed of cotton cloth, of their own manufacture.”5 The Mandingos live over a large area in West Africa which includes Gambia. During the time of Mungo Park’s visit, the Mandingo language was spoken throughout large areas of Senegambia and other parts of West Africa.
Returning to the Aztec dancer, he looks to be a tall, big man. My wife, who is an artist, says that he is about 8 head spans tall, which means that he is probably quite tall. He very well may be a descendant of one of the Mandingoes who landed along the coast of Veracruz in the early 1300’s.
References and Sources
- Franklin, John Hope (1967). From slavery to freedom: A history of Negro Americans, 3rd edition. New York: Alfred A Knopf, pp. 113-114.
- Van Sertima, Ivan (1976). They came before Columbus: the African presence in Ancient America. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks.
- Von Wuthenau, Alexander (1975). Unexpected faces in ancient America. New York: Crown Publishers.
- Carney, Judith A. (2001). Black rice. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press:, p, xi.
- Park, Mungo (2000, first published in 1799). Travels in the interior districts of Africa. Edited with an Introduction by Kate Ferguson Marsters. Durham and London: Duke University Press, p. 80.
1961 school picture of the Spanish club (Los Cardenales) and the Spanish Honor Society (Quetzalcoatl), San Bernardino High School, San Bernardino, CA