The real first Black Americans and why our Culture doesn’t talk about them
Today’s media is obsessed with highlighting black milestones. First black president. First black superhero. First black person to win a gold medal/Oscar/Grammy in a specific category. Any black achievement is accounted for and celebrated.
Except one. Who was the first black person in America? In this cultural climate, you’d think students would know who the first black person who came to the United States was. The New York Times would have you think that the first black who came to America was one of the twenty slaves who arrived in Jamestown in 1619. But this is wrong by over a hundred years. The first black man to arrive in America was a man named Juan Garrido. He wasn’t a slave. He was a handsome, catholic, west African adventurer. In 1514 he and some of his Spanish friends tried to take over Florida.
Juan Garrido aka. “Handsome John” was born in the Kingdom of Kongo in 1487 and in his youth moved to Lisbon, Portugal where he converted to Catholicism. Some speculate that his father, an African king, sent him to Portugal to improve relations with these strange new visitors to his kingdom. At age fifteen, as a free man, Juan Garrido decided to travel to the recently discovered New World, in search of adventure and treasure. By 1503 he was living in Hispaniola. His adventuring began in 1508 when he was one of the fifty treasure hunters in the party of the conquistador Ponce de Leon to embark on an expedition to Puerto Rico to find gold. They found the riches they sought, and Ponce de Leon became the governor of the island.
In 1513 Juan Garrido joined Ponce de Leon in an expedition to Florida. Their goal was to conquer the territory, acquire treasure, and, according to legend, find the Fountain of Youth. Juan Garrido landed in Florida in 1513, becoming the first known black person to set foot in North America. While that expedition failed (instead of finding treasure they only found hostile natives), Juan Garrido had become a veteran adventurer and in 1519 he joined Hernán Cortés in conquering the Aztec Empire.
The story of the Cortes expedition is legendary. A small band of adventurers using all their wits and skills, took on an empire of child sacrificing demon worshippers, fought epic battles where they were vastly outnumbered, and somehow managed to prevail, becoming fabulously rich in the process. It’s the closest thing to a real-life Dungeons & Dragons adventure.
Juan Garrido fought in climatic battles in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. Tenochtitlan was a fascinating island city built in a lagoon, with canals running through it. It was a Meso-American Venice. Juan Garrido survived the exciting scenes that took place during the city’s conquest. Like when Cortes, Garrido, and the other conquistadors found themselves on top of a blood-soaked pyramid in the middle of the city, surrounded by enemy warriors who wanted them eviscerated. The pyramid was covered in the flayed skin of Aztec sacrificial victims, so they knew the enemy warriors meant business. The conquistadors had to fight down the temple steps, through ambushes in the hostile city, and make it back to their fortifications that they had set up at the edge of the city.
While under siege there, the adventurers decided to try to escape from the island city, with the treasure they captured, by sneaking out in the dark by using a moveable bridge they constructed. An Aztec woman discovered them escaping and sounded the alarm. The Aztec guards attacked and only a third of the conquistadors survived, with the rest either getting killed on the battlefield or getting captured and having their hearts ripped out of their bodies during ritual sacrifice.
Garrido and the Spanish wanted revenge, so after getting supplies they marched back to attack the city. Sneakily, they constructed cannon-laden ships and launched a naval assault on the city where they fought swarms of Aztec war canoes. It’s a very interesting moment of history and ended with Spanish primacy in the Americas. Juan Garrido was there through it all, and the loss of his friends in these battles deeply moved him. Years later he would construct a chapel to memorialize his lost comrades.
For his efforts, Cortes gave Garrido land near the gates of the former Aztec capital, which Juan turned into a farm. Using African and Indian slaves, Garrido ran a farm where he became the first person to plant wheat in the New World. His wealth grew as he sold flour to Spanish colonies that struggled with their corn crops. He soon had a wife, a family, and eventually became the city manager of what is today’s Mexico City.
But Garrido couldn’t resist adventure, and led other expeditions across the New World. He died in 1547 on his plantation, struggling financially due to all of the expeditions that he had financed.
Juan Garrido wasn’t the only black conquistador however, there were many others. While they were a clear minority amongst the European forces, the Spanish, who had fought against conscripted black slaves during the reconquista wars, thought that Africans were natural warriors and sought to include them in their conquests. The average black conquistador began his career in his 30s as an enslaved prisoner of war. Almost all the black conquistadors became free, with most being freed soon after arriving in the new world, or shortly after fighting alongside the Spanish.
Unfortunately, there is a lot we don’t know about them. They didn’t write a lot of their own history, as most were illiterate. They also didn’t root themselves in colonial society, and instead pursued subsequent adventures throughout the new world. That said, there were some other notable conquistadors who did make it into the historical record.
The first person from the old world to discover New Mexico was the explorer Esteban. His life is a fascinating one, which includes a story where he and three Spanish survivors had to escape from a failed expedition in Tampa, Florida, and rafted/hiked all the way to Mexico City over an eight-year odyssey.
Possibly the first man from the Old World to see the Pacific was Nuflo de Olano, a slave turned explorer, who was with Balboa in the expedition to Panama. Interestingly, there they came across a tribe of black people living in Panama. There is speculation that these were Ethiopian pirates who had gotten blown off course. It would be fascinating to know what their story was.
Juan Garcia was a black man who was recruited to join Pizarro’s expedition to Peru. He helped, along with 107 other conquistadors, defeat the 8,000 strong Incan army at the Battle of Cajamarca. With Peru captured, he took his bars of gold and silver, his Incan slave woman, and illegitimate daughter back with him to Spain where he retired as a rich man. In Spain, he called himself Juan García Pizarro, suggesting he was good friends with the famous conquistador leader.
One story I particularly love is that of Juan Bardales, a black conquistador who fought in Honduras. He petitioned Spain for a royal pension, arguing that he not only saved a Spanish captain’s life, but also took 106 arrow wounds during his time campaigning in Honduras.
While not a conquistador per say, one of the most consequential people in world history was Francisco de Eguia, a black slave who was with Cortes’ party. De Eguia was the patient zero who introduced smallpox to the New World, altering it forever.
So why don’t we know about people like Juan Garrido and the other black conquistadors? Why isn’t our culture, so obsessed with ‘diversity and inclusion’ celebrating these historical figures?
Juan Garrido’s very existence is a repudiation of the victim-based narratives pushed on us. Finding out that blacks, too, conquered the Americas, befriended and fought alongside white people, and took slaves… investigating such ideas would lead to (god forbid) people viewing history contextually and with nuance.
Slavery in the 1500s was widespread. Africans raided Europe and enslaved whites. Indians took slaves. Whites took slaves. People were enslaving members of their own race. Everyone was enslaving each other, given the opportunity. It’s simply how war was conducted. Slavery was a human institution, one that wasn’t confined to any specific race, and one that almost all peoples throughout history took part in.
Black conquistadors were free men who went on adventures with whites and natives, explored continents, destroyed empires based on mass human sacrifice, and seized ancient treasures. They lived incredibly interesting lives that were more exciting than most movies. Why aren’t they highlighted during black history month?
A Juan Garrido movie would be fascinating. It would be Indiana Jones meets Black Panther. As far as historical films centering black protagonists go, people would much rather watch a movie where a handsome African prince is fighting off swarms of demon worshippers on a pyramid, rather than another somber film where a black guy is being abused in the American south. At a minimum, people should have the option where they can see either type of film.
Hollywood, whether due to screenwriter laziness or ideological commitment to woke narratives, is not telling the exciting, authentic stories we want. This attitude expands even into fiction. In the new Lord of the Rings TV series, Amazon Studios has a racial quota policy where 40% of speaking roles must be given to minorities.
Luckily for them, in Tolkein’s world there is a mysterious continent called ‘Harad’ that is home to people with black skin, as well as Ruhn which is home to the Easterlings. Unfortunately, instead of putting in the creative effort to examine these unexplored parts of the Tolkein universe, Amazon is arbitrarily making random men, elves, and dwarves, from the Anglo-Saxon inspired part of his world, black.
But people inevitably feel an aversion to this. It has nothing to do with them being racists, but with the fact that they instinctively recognize this isn’t a genuine attempt to authentically depict Middle Earth, but a rather an attempt to force contemporary political sensibilities into the setting. Audiences wouldn’t mind if there were minority Easterling characters or explorers from Ruhn in the show. It could be fun world-building to learn more about these cultures. Instead, we have yet another example of Hollywood not being willing to do the work and find exciting original roles for minorities. As we can see with the history of black conquistadors, there are interesting stories out there, one just has to be willing to look.
History is fascinating and, upon investigation, rarely fits into the neat narratives that our political class wants it to. A society can choose what historical stories it wants to focus on. But we should promote real, exciting, narrative-bending stories of adventure and heroism instead. After all, it’s what our country was founded on.