Guest Post: A View from the Past: The Contingencies of Racialization in 15th- and 16th-Century Iberia

When Paul Gilroy wrote his now-classic critique of cultural nationalism in 1995, he conceived a Black Atlantic that was a geo-political amalgamation of Africa, America, the Caribbean, and Europe. Gilroy was particularly interested in the construction of a modern, post-colonial cultural space in which slavery remained a part of modern black consciousness. His book is particularly noted for the introduction of race as a critical consideration in exploring the Black Atlantic.

It is fitting then, that we kick off our week-long discussion of the Black Atlantic with a post by Marley-Vincent Lindsey, which explores considerations of race in the Iberian Atlantic. Subsequent posts will consider Black responses to freedom (and unfreedom), historical narrative, race, and of course, power. Marley-Vincent Lindsey is a PhD student at Brown University. He is interested in writing the history of a Medieval Atlantic, tracing connections of land and labor grants between fourteenth-century Iberia and sixteenth-century New Spain. He also writes about history and the web with Cyborgology, and can sometimes be found tweeting @MarleyVincentL


An early image of an African conquistador during Cortes’s invasion of Tenochtitlan. While the associated text makes no specific mention of Juan Garrido, historians have often associated this image with Garrido, one of the few known early black conquistadors. Fray Diego Duran, Historia de las Indias de Nueva Espana e Islas de la Tierra Firme (1581), 413. Image credit: People of Color in European Art History.

Juan Garrido was a typical conquistador: arriving in Hispaniola by 1508, Garrido accompanied Juan Ponce de León in his invasion of Puerto Rico, and was later found with Hernan Cortés in Mexico City. Yet his proofs of service, a portion of which was printed by Francisco Icaza in a collection of autobiographies by the conquistadors and settlers of New Spain, made a unique note: de color negro, or “of Black color.”[1]

What significance was the color of his skin? From our crystal ball of future development, the answer is obvious: Spain had developed a particularly unique concern for racializing individuals, and the Iberian excursions throughout the western and southern coasts of Africa added fuel for “hardening identities” of what was significant about being Black or White. This unique historical contingency, argued James Sweet, was the genesis for American conceptions of race.[2]

Supporting this construction is the intuitive power of 1492, when Columbus invaded the ocean blue. Iberia’s box score for the year also included the seizure of Granada and the expulsion of Jews who refused conversion. For the century prior, there existed a rich vocabulary through which differences of religion were literally racialized: by 1611, Corrubias’ Spanish dictionary defined raza in reference to humans as being bad lineage, like Jewish or Muslim ancestry. Medievalists like David Nirenberg have traced these discourses through which raza gained biological potency through Castilian and Aragonese experiences with Jews and Moors.[3]

The further into the sixteenth century we go, the more compelling this intuitive power becomes: Indigenous populations––enslaved and otherwise––collapsed, while the importation of African slaves steadily rose. Narratives of the early Black Atlantic thus become a hegemony of Iberian power against which Black slaves and freedmen rebelled, “black counter-conquistadors” in the words of Matthew Restall.[4]

Accounting for the social and moral politics that develop from these origins should be tantamount for historians. However, there is a difference between accounting for how such politics could develop and asserting anti-Blackness as an essentialist mode of politics. Scholarship that appears to show traces of this essentialism ends up telling us more about the translators and the scholars who produced the work. So the classicist Shelley P. Haley shows that translators of works like the Aeneid or the Moretum were influenced by post-Enlightenment discourses of racial difference rather than the Latin of such work themselves.[5]

Paul Gilroy himself was deeply concerned with the type of narrative that projects an even, essentialist trajectory between the African slave and the Black citizen. Contextualizing the early discourses of skin color, it more likely operated as a regional identifier than the more essentialist notion of identity that we have today. So as late as 1585, the Golden Age playwright Miguel de Cervantes in his account of the Siege of Numantia could give lines to Scipio, mocking the Roman soldiers who had gone soft, denoted by their delicate, white hands (las blancas delicadas manos), and the full blush of their cheeks (las teces de rostros tan lustrosos); they looked like those servants from the British isles (allá en Bretaña parecéis crïados), born of Flemish fathers (de padres flamencos engenrados).[6] Whiteness could thus successfully serve as a punching bag for a rising sense of Iberian distinctiveness. Inversely, the historian Erin Rowe in an article from this year described the ways a Jesuit like Martín de Roa could synthesize climate influence on skin color not as a mark of sin, but natural outcome.[7] So the Black saints and holy people would be resurrected within their Blackness.

Politicizing difference always found salience in politicizing biology. A major rebellion against the king’s minister in Toledo 1449 found political force in arguing that he was a converso, or Jew who had converted to Christianity. Whether or not he was, such anxiety was enough to demand the king’s bureaucrats demonstrate their blood was clean of Jewish raza. These demonstrations became certificates of “clean blood,” or limpieza de sangre . While the limpieza de sangre would sail across the Atlantic, their connections were rooted in the political needs of individual actors and the economic needs of the institutions those actors represented. So the late María Elena Martínez could refute any easy trajectory between religious racialization and the rise of anti-Blackness in New Spain while still emphasizing their connectivity.[8]

The idea of a Black Spaniard could thus have been entirely consistent with the world of late fifteenth century Iberia. While the use of Black slaves both from Castile and Africa occurred as early as 1499, freed black men and women also sailed when opportunities presented themselves. In the petition of Juan Garrido, he stated explicitly that he moved to Lisbon and converted to Christianity of his own free will (de su voluntad). Other Black Spaniards, like Juan Valiente, were given freedom for military successes against Indigenous populations, and are even reported to have been holders of encomienda, grants that gave them income exploited from Native populations in exchange for Christianizing them.

Speaking with my advisor about a similar theme, he described his healthy skepticism to a solution found “by going further back in time.” The history of the early Black Atlantic cannot start by searching for the “origins” of African subject-position as it was understood in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. It instead should investigate the genealogies of difference as they moved through the centuries that proceeded them. Such a genealogy is a forceful reminder that rather than pathological obsession, the particularities of how we experience the Black Atlantic were made by human decisions, humans who exploited useful categories of difference for political purpose. The narratives of Black Spaniards like Juan Garrido the Conquistador, or St. Benedict of Palermo offer tantalizing hints to roads that were explicitly closed by the contingencies of a future time.


[1] The full title, in Spanish is Conquistadores y pobladores de Nueva España: diccionario autobiográfico sacado de los textos originales (Madrid: Adelantado de Segovia, 1923)

[2] James Sweet, “The Iberian Roots of Racist American Thought,” William and Mary Quarterly 54:1 (1997): 144.

[3] David Nirenberg “Was There Race Before Modernity? The Example of ‘Jewish’ Blood in Late Medieval Spain” (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009) p. 232-264.

[4] Matthew Restall, “Black Conquistadors: Armed Africans in Early Spanish America,” The Americas 57:2 (2000): 199-204.

[5] Shelley P. Haley “Be Not Afraid of the Dark: Critical Race Theory and Classical Studies” in Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza & Laura Nasrallah Prejudice and Christian Beginnings: Investigating Race, Gender, and Ethnicity in Early Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), 27-50.

[6] “En el fiero ademán en los lozanos marciales aderezos y vistosos, bien os conozco, amigos, por romanos: romanos, digo, fuertes y animosos: mas en las blancas delicadas manos y en las teces de rostros tan lustrosos, allá en Bretaña parecéis crïados, y de padres flamencos engendrados.”

[7] Erin Rowe “After Death, Her Face Turned White: Blackness, Whiteness, and Sanctity in the Early Modern Hispanic World,” American Historical Review 121:3 (2016): 735-736. As the title suggests, such discourses were not necessarily dominant, but they existed in a society more pluralistic than we imagine.

[8] María Elena Martínez “Part One: Iberian Precedents” in Genealogical Fictions: Limpieza de Sangre, Religion, and Gender in Colonial Mexico (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008) 1-90.

6 responses

  1. Do I understand Marley-Vincent Lindsey correctly that racism in America can be traced back to the Spaniards? What about the British whose colonization policies led to the establishment of the US. Oh wait, I forgot about some of the Roman emperors like Trajan and Hadrian who were Iberians and who colonized Britain.
    Sarcasm aside while it is true that the Spain had a racial classification system, things Spanish never had much influence on British or for that matter American thinking. Regardless men of the Enlightenment In Great Britain and America were influenced by Carl Linnaeus a Swedish scientist who published a work called Systema Naturae. It subdivided the human species into four varieties based on continent and skin colour: “Europæus albus” (white European), “Americanus rubescens” (red American), “Asiaticus fuscus” (brown Asian) and “Africanus Niger” (black African). In the tenth edition of Systema Naturae he further detailed stereotypical characteristics for each variety, based on the concept of the four temperaments from classical antiquity, and changed the description of Asians’ skin tone to “luridus” (yellow) and included the terms “wild and monstrous” for others.
    In his only published book,” Racism in Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781” Thomas Jefferson a Southern slaveholder, and a man of the Enlightenment who was the principal author of the US Constitution wrote about the natural history, inhabitants, and political organization of Virginia. It includes his most extensive discussion of his views on race. Like many other 18th-century Americans who had British antecedents and little or none from Spain, Jefferson believed blacks were inferior to whites. He questioned whether their low status was due to inherent inferiority or to decades of degrading enslavement. He thought that white Americans and enslaved blacks constituted two “separate nations” who could not live together peacefully in the same country.Jefferson’s belied that blacks were racially inferior and “as incapable as children.” He went on to state the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.

    • While I do attempt to follow the types of historians who claim racism “began” with Spain (Sweet is most explicit in this style of argument), I hope it is clear I disagree with that type of argumentation. I disagree with it empirically because regardless of whether we measure in terms of exclusive anti-Jewish tracts (England, France, and Germany all had expulsions of Jewish populations that occurred prior to Spain in 1492) or in terms of thinking through difference, à la British-Irish, Germans-Bohemians, it is clear that Spain was one of many, and that we tend to fetishize that because of its proximity to our modern relationship to race: very few people (for good reason) think about either the Irish or Polish–in America, anyway–as racialized in the same manner that Native Americans or African Americans are.

      I also disagree with it as a question because it is, to my mind, not a question of who “began” racialization, but when racialization became useful as a tool of essentialist politics. Here, I think I’m likely most sympathetic to the timeline given by someone like Eric Williams in Capitalism & Slavery, where tropes and political ideas about race are exacerbated and transformed by material interests. Although, that is a heavily qualified sympathy, given the significant amount of work done both on the empirics of the slave trade and cultural engagement with intersectionality of identities like gender and race.

  2. Pingback: Guest Post: German Pietism and the Black Atlantic « The Junto

  3. Pingback: Guest Post: Historical Narratives, Contemporary Tools « The Junto

  4. Pingback: Guest Post: Resistance and Adjustment in Suriname: A Durable Eighteenth-Century Cultural Schism « The Junto

  5. Pingback: Guest Post: Echoes of Revolution: Resistance, Hip Hop, and the Black Atlantic « The Junto


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: