When students learn about slavery in school, a lot of them often ask this question: “Why didn’t they fight back?” It’s a question that often remains unanswered because lesson plans don’t always address the grittier elements of history, particularly the slave trade.
But they did fight back. And one of them, Gaspar Yanga, changed history forever.
Often referred to as the “first liberator of the Americas,” Yanga was a leader of a slave rebellion in Mexico during the early period of Spanish colonial rule around 1570. By the year 1609, the large number of escaped slaves had reduced much of rural Mexico to desperation, especially in the mountains in the state of Veracruz.
Taking refuge in the difficult terrain of the highlands, Yanga and his people built a small maroon colony, or “Palenque”—a community of runaway slaves living on mountaintops. The colony grew for more than 30 years, partially surviving by capturing caravans bringing goods to Veracruz. In 1609, the Spanish colonial government decided to try to regain control of the territory.
Spanish troops, numbering around 550, set out from Puebla in January 1609. The maroons facing them were an irregular force of 100 fighters with some type of firearm and 400 more with primitive weapons such as stones, machetes, and bows and arrows. These maroon troops were led by Francisco de la Matosa, an Angolan. Yanga—who was quite old by this time—decided to use his troops’ superior knowledge of the terrain to resist the Spaniards. His goal was to cause the Spaniards enough pain to draw them to the negotiating table.
Upon the approach of the Spanish troops, Yanga sent terms of peace, including an area of self-rule. The Spaniards refused the terms and the two groups fought a battle that lasted for many years. Finally, unable to win indefinitely, the Spaniards agreed to give Yanga’s followers their freedom in exchange for ending the constant raids in the area and gain their help in tracking down other escaped slaves.
Additional conditions were also met, including:
1. Upon surrender, Yanga and his people would receive a farm as well as the right of self-government;
2. Only Franciscan priests would tend to the people; and
3. Yanga’s family would be granted the right of rule.
In 1618, the treaty was signed, and by 1630, the town of San Lorenzo de los Negros de Cerralvo was established. The town name of “San Lorenzo de los Negros” was officially changed to Yanga, Veracruz in 1956. This town of more than 20,000 people remains under the name of Yanga today.
» Contributed by Raymond Ward, DuSable Museum of African American History.