Blacks in the Age of Discovery
The story of the presence of people of African descent in Florida began over five centuries ago with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. Most people believe that the first Africans to set foot in what is now America were slaves who were landed by the British at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. But when St. Augustine, the oldest city in the United States, was established by the Spaniards in 1565, blacks were already living in Florida as free people, many of them having never been enslaved. People of African descent first came to Florida with Ponce de Leon in 1513. Many others arrived with the conquistadors who came in after “the discovery” of Florida. Some of the blacks who were in Florida before St Augustine was established were slaves who escaped the earlier conquistadors and fled into the vast wilderness. They came to be called maroons. Their settlements were numerous along the sea island coasts of the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida when the first Spanish bricks were laid at St. Augustine.
At least one black man arrived with Columbus in 1492. Dr. Eugene Lyons of St. Augustine’s Flagler College is an expert on blacks in early Florida. According to him there were at least three blacks with Ponce de Leon when he first landed in Florida. These first Africans to enter Florida came from southern Spain where a significant population of Africans, slave and free, had been established many years before Columbus sailed for the New World.
Spanish slavers had begun importing Africans soon after the Portuguese started the practice in 1444. By the time of the conquistadors, Africans had been living in Spain for over half a century. Most of these slaves were artisans, craftsmen, domestics, and members of the military, rather than field hands such as would be needed for large plantations. Many were royal slaves belonging to the Crown itself. Slaves in Spain had certain legal protections which did not exist in the law and society of England and, later in America. In Catholic Spain, slaves were considered to be individuals in their own right, under God. They were seen as people who had, through some accident or misfortune, been enslaved.
Spanish slaves, many of whom were Catholics, practiced the rites of the Catholic Church and ultimately the Church took the view that one Catholic could not enslave another; thus, professing or converting to Catholicism was a ticket to freedom used by many African slaves in Spain, and later in the New World. Spanish law protected slaves from injustice, and under those laws slaves had the ability to negotiate freedom for themselves and their families. They had a right to personal security and had legal mechanisms through which to escape a cruel master. Spanish slaves were also permitted to hold and transfer property and had the right to sue. Spain’s relatively lenient attitude towards slaves made possible the existence of a free black class in Spain and later in Spanish Florida.
Ponce de Leon was among the conquistadors who had come to the New World in search of fame and fortune. He quickly earned the reputation of being one of the most ruthless Spaniards in the New World. By 1509, he was made the first governor of Puerto Rico. “His great plantation returned huge profits . . . He worked his slaves pitilessly. When they died, he had them buried where they fell. When they fled to the hills, he sent his ferocious fighting dogs after them. He considered that great sport.”[ii] When he was replaced as governor of Puerto Rico by Columbus’ older son Diego Colon, Ponce de Leon found himself wealthy and with little or nothing to do.
He returned to Spain in 1512 and appeared at the court of Ferdinand, King of Spain. He told the King that he had heard that north of the island of Cuba there was another island. He had heard this from the natives of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic). The island was called Bimini. Ponce de Leon told the King that there was gold and silver in abundance on this island. He said Bimini had precious gems, spices and rare woods. It was a paradise on earth. Then, “Speaking softly so that others could not hear, repeated a legend he had heard in Hispaniola about a marvelous river in Bimini. A river whose waters would restore youth to those who bathed in it! A veritable Fountain of Youth! A fountain which would make a man strong again and virile!”
Whether the king, then well into his sixties, was interested in the Fountain of Youth or not, Ferdinand was a covetous man and the appeal of increasing his growing wealth by capturing the riches of Bimini likely appealed to him more. In February 1512, the king awarded Ponce de Leon a contract to look for this mythical and rich island of Bimini. The following year in his search for Bimini Ponce de Leon “discovered” Florida.
As Spain began the exploration of the New World, many of the Africans of southern Spain, both slave and free, were brought along for various purposes. Two blacks who were with Juan Ponce de Leon on the day he “discovered” Florida were a free African named Juan Garrido and his friend, another black man known as Juan Gonzalez [Ponce] de Leon (no relation to Juan Ponce de Leon). Gonzalez was an interpreter of the language of the Arawak Indians of Hispaniola. The expedition left Puerto Rico on March 3, 1513. On April 2, during the Easter season, Ponce de Leon landed in Florida, so named because of the many blooming flowers the Spaniards saw when they arrived. The group came ashore a few miles south of what is now called Cape Canaveral probably near Melbourne Beach but did not establish a settlement there.
The explorers navigated the current by hugging the shoreline, putting ashore near present-day Jupiter, where they were attacked by Indians. The Spaniards trekked south along the shoreline to Biscayne Bay and Key Biscayne. On Friday, May 13, they arrived at one of the Florida Keys, probably Key Largo. The expedition next explored the west coast of the peninsula making landfall off the deep mouth of the Caloosahatchee River and anchoring near Sanibel Island where they encountered hostile Indians. While sailing off the east coast of the newly discovered land, Ponce de Leon’s ships encountered a strange phenomenon. The ships were being propelled backwards, even though the wind was behind them. Ponce de Leon returned to Puerto Rico on September 23, 1514, after what he believed was a fruitless expedition. He did not fully appreciate the navigational value of his discovery of the Gulf Stream.
By early 1521 Juan Ponce de Leon was ready to embark on another expedition to Florida. This time he came better prepared. His plans provided for the establishment of a permanent settlement to be used as a base of operations. He left Puerto Rico on February 20, 1521, with two ships, two hundred men, settlers, and priests. There may have been blacks on this expedition too, most of whom would have been slaves. It is believed that the expedition landed somewhere near the Caloosahatchee River, near present- day Fort Myers. As Juan Ponce de Leon disembarked to explore the region, tragedy struck.
Calusa Indians, lying in ambush, attacked the entourage, mortally wounding Ponce de Leon with an arrow. The image that Florida displays of Juan Ponce being greeted by the Calusa Indians as he first set foot in Florida is an idealized myth. The Native Americans were incensed that the Spanish had arrived, and were capturing Indians and taking them to Cuba and elsewhere as slaves, particularly on sugar plantations. Instead of finding riches, Ponce de Leon was felled by a Calusa arrow and later died in Havana. But other Spaniards would follow him with blacks in their expeditions too.
The next conquistador to come to the mainland was Lucas Vazquez de Ayllon, an explorer and slave-raider. In 1526 he tried to establish a settlement on the Atlantic coast at a site he called San Miguel de Gualdape, believed to have been near present-day Sapelo Sound in Georgia. “Ayllon’s expedition included 600 men, women, and children as well as the first-known contingent of African slaves brought to settle in the present-day United States.” These slaves were likely skilled craftsmen rather than field-hands. The expedition failed; Ayllon himself died, and mutiny followed. Slaves set fire to the compound, and the area’s Guale Indians rebelled against the presence of the Spanish. Some of the white survivors managed to return to the Caribbean; however, some historians believe that the Africans from this expedition preferred to live among the Guales, becoming maroons.
In 1528 Panfilio de Narvaez landed on the west coast of Florida. He, like Ponce De Leon, had amassed riches in the New World and sought treasure in Florida which at that time included all of what is now the continental United States. One of the Africans who came with him became the best known of the early blacks in Spanish Florida. This man was an enslaved African named Estevan de Dorantes, also known as Estevanico (Little Stephen) or Esteban the Black. He was born in Morocco, Africa, around 1500. After being captured by Spanish soldiers, Estevan was sold as a slave to Andres Dorantes, a Spaniard who came to Florida with Narvaez.
In April of 1528, Narvaez, with nearly three hundred men, landed his doomed expedition at what is now St. Petersburg. In his frantic haste for riches, he divided his explorers into two parts and foolishly sent his ships, containing almost all of the supplies, ahead to meet him at a bay to the north of their original landing. Narvaez led one group, and Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca led the second, which included, among others, Andres Dorantes and his slave Estevan. The supply ships were devastated by storms and never found the bay to the north for which Narvaez had not provided clear directions. The ships searched for the men for almost a year before, supplies exhausted, they returned to Cuba.
The entire group led by Narvaez is said to have been wiped out by Indian attacks and sickness. Only three members of the other group survived the ordeal, Estevan among them. These men made their long, circuitous journey on foot, primarily following the shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico. They wandered as far west as the Pacific Ocean, and after eight years, they finally stumbled, near death, into Mexico City. Two of the men refused to explore further and returned to Spain, but Estevan remained in Mexico, learning the customs and languages of the Indians. He was used as a scout for a group of Spaniards who were looking for the fabled Seven Cities of Gold; supposedly somewhere out in what would become the American West. Estevan was given permission to travel ahead of the main party. But somewhere in what became New Mexico, he was killed by Indians who thought, correctly, that he was a spy for the Spanish. But through his wanderings in the West, Estevan the Black was the first person, who was not a Native American, to see the Grand Canyon.