Juan Garrido: The First Black Conquistador

Juan Garrido’s tale is deeply intertwined with the dark history of the transatlantic slave trade, spanning from the 16th to the 19th century. In the 1490s, Spain embarked on its conquest of the Americas.

As this took place, countless Africans found themselves transported across the Atlantic to the New World, where the Spaniards exploited them as laborers, particularly in the booming sugar industry.

Notably, among those transported were Africans equipped for battle. These individuals, whether African-born slaves or free men of mixed heritage, participated actively in the Spanish invasion.

Serving as black conquistadors, they stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Spanish forces against indigenous tribes.

Their brave combat services paved their path to freedom, integrating them into Spanish society, often through land ownership, commendations, official appointments, and retirement benefits. A shining example of such a figure is Juan Garrido.

Juan Garrido, also referred to as “Handsome John”, emerged from the Kingdom of Kongo in West Central Africa during the late 1480s. Many aspects of his early life, including his birthplace and original identity, remain shrouded in mystery.

Portuguese slave traders bought him when he was a young boy, subsequently introducing him to Catholicism during his baptism. It was in Lisbon, Portugal, that he adopted the name Juan Garrido.

By the age of fifteen, Garrido had left Lisbon, voyaging to Seville. From there, he set foot in the Americas by joining an expedition to Santo Domingo in Hispaniola in 1503, where he remained for half a dozen years.

Recognized as one of the first Africans in the New World, some theorize he might have been under the guardianship of a Spaniard named Pedro Garrido, potentially his owner and source of his Christian identity.

Juan Garrido’s early years in the New World hint at him being a freeman, yet the circumstances granting him this freedom amidst enslaved compatriots are unclear. Some speculate his valor in battles around present-day Puerto Rico and Cuba around 1508 earned him this status.

Evidently, the Spanish crown incentivized the conquistadors with offers of wealth, territorial claims, and slaves, all in pursuit of religious conversions. Juan Garrido stands out as a unique figure against the backdrop of a time when most Africans were subjugated as slaves.

In 1508, Garrido collaborated with Ponce De Leon, venturing in search of Puerto Rican gold. Following a native uprising in 1511, which Garrido helped suppress, he accompanied Ponce De Leon to Florida in 1513, following De Leon’s political ousting by Diego Columbus.

Their exploration led to Spain’s first claims in Florida. Garrido’s footprint on North American soil led many to herald him as the earliest African American in the New World.

By the time 1519 rolled around, Garrido had firmly established himself as a seasoned black conquistador, having taken part in various expeditions.

He aligned with Hernan Cortes’s forces, delving into what is now Mexico, and even partook in the siege against the Aztec stronghold of Tenochtitlan. Witnessing his comrades fall to the native resistance, Garrido took on the solemn duty of gathering the remains of fallen Spanish warriors post-conquest.

Following the Aztecs’ demise in 1520, Juan Garrido established his residence near the Tacuba Causeway, on the fringes of the once mighty city. To honor the memory of those Spaniards slain by the Aztecs, he constructed a chapel on this site.

Today, this place of worship stands as the “Catholic Church of San Hipolito,” nestled in the heart of Mexico City’s Paseo de la Reforma.

Awarded a desolate lake area near the former Aztec stronghold as a token of appreciation for his service, Garrido shifted his focus to agriculture. He notably introduced wheat cultivation in the region, thus marking him as the first to plant this grain on American soil.

Yet, his aspirations of aiding the Spanish conquests persisted. Between 1523 and 1524, Garrido participated in an expedition led by Antonio de Carvajal to regions like Michoacan and Zacatula. Upon his return, he found employment as a guardian for the Mexican administration and a steward for the city.

In 1533, Garrido embarked on what would be his last expedition, this time to Baja, California. Facing failure, he came back to Mexico City without wealth. Despite this setback, he settled down, started a family, and gave over three decades of service to the Spanish military.

Among his lasting contributions, he is particularly recognized for producing the earliest commercial wheat crop.

Garrido witnessed firsthand many significant events during the expansion and consolidation of New Spain.

However, these endeavors often drained his resources, as he received neither a consistent salary nor land entitlements. Yet, it’s crucial to note that his lack of rewards wasn’t rooted in racial prejudice. In that era, only Spanish officials of high stature typically enjoyed such privileges.

In a bid to gain recognition for his unwavering dedication, Garrido penned a testimony in 1538 detailing his 30-year journey as a black conquistador. This letter, addressed to the Spanish monarch, was a plea for a royal pension, symbolizing his hope for a deserving acknowledgment.

Circa 1547, Juan Garrido’s journey came to an end in Mexico City. Survived by his wife and trio of children, the specifics surrounding his demise remain shrouded in mystery.