Given this recent submission, I thought I’d submit this today.
Matthew Restall wrote, “Wherever Spaniards set foot in the Americas as members of conquest companies they were accompanied by black conquistadors.” One such person was Juan Garrido, about whose life we know a fair amount, though many details remain sketchy. Also, some historians have provided postulations to fill in the gaps, and other people have run with those as fact, so some of the below may not be accurate, but I’ll try my best.
Most people seem to be agreed that he was probably born somewhere in West Africa around 1480 (some sites give the date of birth as exactly 1487, though I don’t know how reliable that is). At some point in his youth, he came to Lisbon, where he adopted Christianity, and later moved to Castile and lived there for seven years. Some people suggest that he was brought to Portugal as a slave, though this is probably in part at least due to a desire to assume that all black people who came to Europe were slaves—I believe there is no real evidence that he was one. (There are records of a Portuguese slave named João Garrido being freed by João II, the future king, in 1477, but this is probably too old to be the Garrido in question.)
Some have also noted that he shared the surname of the Spanish conquistador Pedro Garrido, and extrapolated from this that he may have been Pedro’s slave or servant, and adopted the family name. I think this was first proposed by Peter Gerhard, who admitted “this is pure conjecture”, but other people seem to accept it as fact. However, Gerhard writes that Pedro Garrido landed in Santo Domingo in 1510. Juan Garrido, meanwhile, wrote in a 1538 petition that he had been serving the Spanish king for thirty years, and listed among his feats “I went to discover and pacify the islands of San Juan de Buriquén de Puerto Rico; and also as I went on the pacification and conquest of the island of Cuba with the adelantado Diego Velázquez.” This would place him in Puerto Rico with Ponce de León in 1508, and then in Cuba with Diego Velázquez in 1511. So, I don’t think he was serving a Spanish family in-between that, but there may be other information out there I don’t have access to.
(As a completely irrelevant aside, “garrido” means “good-looking” in Spanish, so you could Anglicize his name as “Handsome John” if you were so inclined, which I am.)
Many people also write that Garrido accompanied Ponce de León to Florida in 1513, which I’m tentatively accepting, though I haven’t been able to find someone citing a primary source for that. We do know that he was with Hernán Cortés when they destroyed Tenochtitlán (Pedro Garrido was also with Cortés then, fueling further speculation that Juan was his servant). He lived in Mexico City for some years after that. During that time, he was apparently the first person to plant and grow wheat in the western hemisphere. The conquistador Andrés de Tapia wrote “after Mexico was taken, and while [Cortés] was in Coyoacán, they brought him a small amount of rice, and in it were three grains of wheat; he ordered a free Negro to plant them.” Garrido himself said he “was the first to plant and harvest wheat”, though in his petition he said that he had the inspiration to do so, not that he was ordered by Cortés. Whichever the case, he was certainly successful, and Cortés ordered that wheat be planted in all the villages.
Garrido continued to do other things. For a while he had several duties in Mexico City; he took a group of slaves to mine for gold in Zacatula; he was part of Cortés’s expedition to Baja California in 1533, with a retinue of slaves for mining. He did not have much success mining for gold, leading to his 1538 probanza, a proof of merit for his petition to the king to receive a pension:
I, Juan Garrido, black resident [de color negro vecino] of this city [Mexico], appear before Your Mercy and state that I am in need of making aprobanza to the perpetuity of the king [a perpetuad rey], a report on how I served Your Majesty in the conquest and pacification of this New Spain, from the time when the Marqués del Valle [Cortés] entered it; and in his company I was present at all the invasions and conquests and pacifications which were carried out, always with the said Marqués, all of which I did at my own expense without being given either salary or allotment of natives [repartimiento de indios] or anything else. As I am married and a resident of this city, where I have always lived; and also as I went with the Marqués del Valle to discover the islands which are in that part of the southern sea [the Pacific] where there was much hunger and privation; and also as I went to discover and pacify the islands of San Juan de Buriquén de Puerto Rico; and also as I went on the pacification and conquest of the island of Cuba with the adelantado Diego Velázquez; in all these ways for thirty years have I served and continue to serve Your Majesty—for these reasons stated above do I petition Your Mercy. And also because I was the first to have the inspiration to sow maize [wheat] here in New Spain and to see if it took; I did this and experimented at my own expense.
We have little other information on him. He probably died in Mexico City around 1547.
I write this not because it is great that people of African descent could also enslave and murder Native Americans, but because it shows one of the avenues open to black Spaniards of the time. There were many other black conquistadors (though a lot of them were slaves): Sebastián Toral, Juan Valiente, Juan Beltrán, etc. The images above are often credited as being depictions of Juan Garrido, but that’s mostly because people treat Garrido as the only black person with Cortés, which was not the case.
Fray Diego Durán, História de las Indias de Nueva España e Islas de la Tierra Firme, 1581. Illustrations on pages 413, 416.
Peter Gerhard, “A Black Conquistador in Mexico”, The Hispanic American Historical Review, vol. 58, no. 3 (Aug., 1978), pp. 451-459
Matthew Restall, “Black Conquistadors: Armed Africans in Early Spanish America”, The Americas, vol. 57, no. 2 (Oct., 2000), pp. 171-205
Ricardo E. Alegría, Juan Garrido, el Conquistador Negro en las Antillas, Florida, México y California, c. 1503-1540. Centro de Estudios Avanzados de Puerto Rico y El Caribe, 1990.
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An excellent and fascinating submission as always! Thank you for sharing your research.