Afro-Iberian Old Christians: Itinerant Free Blacks in the Iberian Atlantic and Their Transoceanic Community Ties, 1500–1640

Saturday, January 9, 2016
Galleria Exhibit Hall (Hilton Atlanta)
Chloe Ireton, University of Texas at Austin
In 1569 Francisco Gonzales, a free black resident of Seville, applied at the House of Trade in Seville for a license to move to the port of Veracruz in New Spain in order to ply his trade as a diver in that city. Francisco argued that the crown should grant him permission to travel to the New World as he was not of the ‘prohibited’ peoples. Numerous Spanish royal decrees of the sixteenth century sought to curtail travel of New Christians (recent converts be them descendants of Jews or Muslims) to the Indies, for fear that they would corrupt indigenous and Spanish communities. The crown allowed Francisco and his free black wife Juana, along with a servant and their nephew, to cross the Atlantic to establish residency in Veracruz. I have found evidence that hundreds of free blacks, some of them first generation Africans (manumitted slaves), acquired royal permits to embark in fleets to cross the ocean as vassals of the crown, that is, as Old Christians, in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. This poster presentation seeks to shed light on this puzzle: how did free Sub-Saharan Africans successfully claim an Old Christian status and travel in the Iberian Atlantic, creating transatlantic black communities in their wake? This is a study of the communities they created and the religious discourses they deployed to do so. The project explores how Iberian conceptions about conversion and religious lineage affected views on “skin color,” community, and empire.

The key to my project is the idea of “Ethiopia” and how it travelled in the cargo of ships, in published texts, between black religious confraternities, and in the legal decision-making process of royal officials in Seville (Spain), Veracruz (in present day Mexico), and Cartagena de Indias (in present day Colombia) between 1500 and 1640. “Ethiopia” allowed crown bureaucrats, free blacks, and slaves to agree that Africans were entitled to claim an “Old” Christian status. The idea of Ethiopia came to life in books penned by learned clerics and the ambitious plans of universal monarchs trying to justify planetary expansion. But it also came alive in everyday lives of free blacks who participated in the activities of black religious brotherhoods that venerated “Ethiopian” saints in the port cities that constituted the Iberian Atlantic. These brotherhoods created the conditions for black literacy and a black learned republic. The itinerancy of free blacks facilitated the circulation of black Iberian Atlantic Catholic cultures. I argue that the adoption of Old Christian Ethiopian heritages facilitated free blacks’ ability to define themselves as Royal Vassals, thereby shaping their experiences in the Iberian world. My project challenges a long-standing historiographical tradition that claims that Africans were considered the ultimate outsiders in this period.

In this poster presentation I interrogate the circulation of ideas about Ethiopian Christianity in the ‘black’ Iberian Atlantic, by tracing micro-histories of individual free black travelers who journeyed between Cartagena, Veracruz, and Seville in the sixteenth and early seventeenth century.

See more of: Poster Session #2
See more of: AHA Sessions