The role of people of African descent in the colonization of Latin America is relatively not well-known, even though it is a pivotal one. Starting from the earliest Spanish activity in the New World, Africans were present both as involuntary settlers and as voluntary conquistadors. The acquisition of status and privilege by African officers was more than a simple step up the social ladder; rather, it reflected the active role of leadership played by these men of African origins.
When Juan Garrido, the African conquistador and the first cultivator of wheat in America was about 18 years old and was well on the second year of his five-year Hispaniola expedition in the year 1505, another iconic African conquistador was born in the same year in Northwest Africa, who would later be known as Juan Valiente.
However, unlike Juan Garrido who most probably travelled to Portugal on his own, Juan Valiente was enslaved and acquired from his homeland by the Portuguese as a slave and he was sent all the way to Mexico. In Mexico City, he was purchased by Alonso Valiente who happened to be a cousin of Hernan Cortes. Shortly after that, he was baptized and given the name “Juan Valiente” and accompanied Alonso Valiente as a servant back to Spain.
After spending several years with Alonso, he signed a contract that allowed him to work for others as a conquistador. The contract terms stated that after four years, he was to return back and pay for Alonso in order to gain his freedom. It was a time where a large number of Africans were sweeping through Latin America, the Caribbean and South America under different captains and commanders. In 1535, Juan Valiente joined up with the forces of Pedro de Almagro and his first destination was Guatemala. By the time he reached Chile in 1546, he joined yet other forces which were led by Pedro de Valdivia and he was then promoted to captain of the infantry. Upon settling and founding Santiago de Chile, de Valdivia became its governor.
He spent many of his years in South America assisting in the conquering of the lands and establishing settlements. Since the nature of these conquests was rather dangerous and often life-threatening, those who came over as slaves and servants often got their freedom along with other privileges in the New World. Juan Valiente was among those people, for in 1546, he was given a piece of land to be his own ranch. Moreover, as a captain in the conquistador forces and a helper in the founding of Santiago de Chile, Valiente was given an encomienda, which was a legal system conferring the right to demand forced labour and tributes from the natives of a certain area granted by the Spanish Crown. During this period, he married Juana de Valdivia who was a former slave of the governor de Valdivia. Life started to change for Juan Valiante and he became a free married man of considerable wealth.
Juan Valiente did not forget his debt to Alonso Valiente, and at this time he was able to pay him back with the wealth that he gathered. Unfortunately though, due to corruption in Santiago de Chile, the several attempts he made to send payments to Spain were not successful and the money somehow never reached its destination. Eventually Alonso had to send his grandson to get the money from Juan. However, by the time the grandson arrived, Juan Valiente had passed away. He died in 1553, a true conquistador’s death while fighting Andean natives at the Battle of Tucapel and he was buried in Araucanía, Chile. Even though legally, Juan Valiente was unable to claim his freedom, upon his death, his son inherited most of his wealth.
While Juan Valiente is the most famous of African Conquistadors in Chile, he wasn’t the only African Conquistador at the time, but was in fact, one among many of the sixteenth-century armed African-born or Spanish-born free Africans and servants who actively participated in the countless expeditions and conquests starting with the prominent Juan Garrido, who participated in the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1521. Other African conquistadors who participated in expeditions in the New World include Sebastián Toral in Mexico, Juan Beltrán in Chile , Estevanico in Florida , Pedro Fulupo in Costa Rica, and Juan Bardales in Honduras and Panama. For participating in these expeditions, most enslaved men gained their freedom while others who joined in as free men were awarded minor posts in their new homelands.
Many sources promote the idea that Africans who went to the New World were only mass slaves who were forcefully sent over by different nations in power to work as farmers in large quantities on plantations. The conquistadors’ names formerly mentioned and the accounts of how they were compensated for their participation by different means -including money, land and slaves- clearly demolishes this idea and shows instead that Africans played an integral role in the various expeditions to Latin America, South American and the Caribbean. Moreover, they were especially a great asset and played a vital role throughout the different phases of the Spanish expansion.
- Rob Garrison, “Chile,” Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience 2nd Edition, editors Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Oxford University Press, 2005)
- Matthew Restall, “Black Conquistadors: Armed Africans in Early Spanish America,” The Americas, Volume 57, Number 2 (The Academy of American Franciscan History, October 2000)
- Matthew Restall, Los siete mitos de la conquista española, Paidós, 2005.