There is a painting from the 16th century that depicts Juan Garrido holding a pike and standing next to the Spanish conquistador, Hernan Cortes. Many have mistaken Garrido in this painting as a slave along with other paintings from the same era. This is because in Portugal at this time, a time were almost all Africans were thought of as slaves brought from Africa on Portuguese ships, a free man such as Garrido is quite a mystery, and he wasn’t just a free man, he was a freely roaming African conquistador of the New World.
Historians came up with some theories addressing this mystery. One theory by the historian Ricardo Alegria says that Garrido’s father was most probably an African king who could have sent young Juan for a Christian and Portuguese education as a part of a commercial liaison. Another theory by Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. suggests that Garrido could have either been sold to Portuguese slave traders and afterwards managed to travel on his own or that he somehow moved to Lisbon by himself. This theory was drawn from the fact that a Spaniard among the convoy to Hispaniola was named Pedro Garrido, and so, it is thought that Pedro could have been Juan’s master and Christian namesake. The truth behind his early years is somewhat foggy and hazy, and his native African name prior to Juan was never known, but the fact that we know for sure is that he became a prominent free African Spaniard traveller and explorer of many lands in the New World.
Juan Garrido was born in the year 1487 on the West Coast of Africa, but later on when he was a young man, he moved and lived in Lisbon, Portugal. He converted to Christianity and upon doing so, he chose to be named Juan Garrido, which translated from Spanish to “Handsome John”.
Starting early on from his early teen years, Garrido led a life that was rather uncommon of an African man at that time. When he was a 15-year-old boy, he travelled from Lisbon to Seville, Spain and then, a year later in 1503, he went on his first expedition to Hispaniola. Garrido spent five to six years observing explorers pillage the New World. The conquistadors were allowed by the Spanish government to take land, treasure and slaves as an attempt to convert the people to Catholicism.
In 1508, he joined the expedition of Ponce De Leon with about fifty other conquistadors searching for gold in Puerto Rico and Cuba. When Ponce De Leon settled Puerto Rico and became governor, Garrido settled there too and was a participant in the fight against the natives’ revolt that took place in 1511. Later on, he joined the Ponce De Leon twice again.
Two years later, in 1513, Diego Columbus took the position of Ponce De Leon, and so, De Leon with the company of Garrido and other soldiers travelled looking for another treasure island. They reached the enormous peninsula of Florida but they were not fully equipped to conquer the natives. They did however, claim the peninsula, they named it and they planned to return later to conquer it. This expedition allowed Garrido to become the first free African to set foot on mainland America.
Meanwhile, in the Caribbean, the Spanish were facing ferocious revolts launched by the Native Americans. Garrido accompanied De Leon on the mission of scouting the islands, pacifying the Native Americans and fighting when it was necessary. After that, De Leon returned back to Puerto Rico and dedicated his time to raising his daughters after his wife’s death. By that time, Garrido became a thirty-year-old traveller with great experience in exploring and fighting. He joined in other small expeditions and searches for gold.
By 1519, he joined the invasion of the present-day Mexico as a participant in Hernan Cortes’ forces during which they managed to put Tenochtitlan under siege. During the invasion, Garrido watched as the troops got killed by the natives. He helped in picking up the bodies and in 1520, he created a memorial for the martyrs which can be seen today as “The San Hipolito of the Martyrs” chapel.
In Mexico City, Garrido got married, settled down and had three children but he still continued to serve with Spanish forces. Like all conquistadors, Garrido was looking to gather some fortune that would allow him to provide a comfortable life for his family. Garrido was compensated for his work with both money and land. During his conquests, he won spoils and farmlands, and even some slaves from Africa and India. The Spanish army gave him a land outside the former Aztec capital as part of the compensation for his services. He then became a farmer and started to cultivate his land. He became credited as the first wheat cultivator and producer in America.
In the 1520s, he and other Africans were part of several expeditions led by Nuño de Guzmán who swept through the region of Michoacán for an entire decade until 1530. Three years later, Garrido explored his final expedition to Baja California with Hernan Cortes, after which he passed away.
In 1538, Juan Garrido delivered a testimony on his 30 years of service as a conquistador:
“I, Juan Garrido, black in color, resident of this city [Mexico], appear before Your Mercy and state that I am in need of providing evidence 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 here in New Spain and to see if it took; I did this and experimented at my own expense.”
- Benedict Warren, The Conquest of Michoacán: The Spanish Domination of the Tarascan Kingdom in Western Mexico, 1521-1530 (Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1985)
- Peter Gerhard, “A Black Conquistador in Mexico,” The Hispanic American Historical Review, Vol. 58, No. 3 (August 1978)
- Ricardo E. Alegría, Juan Garrido, el Conquistador Black gro en las Antillas, Florida, México y California, c. 1503-1540 (San Juan: Centro de Estudios Avanzados de Puerto Rico y El Caribe, 1990)