“The history of the new world began when Spanish and African people settled in the Caribbean Islands. The history of Pensacola began when Spanish and African people settled in Pensacola.” So begins Georgia McCorvey Smith’s “Ebony Tales of Pensacola,” one of the few published works to recognize the early contribution and presence of Africans in what Pensacolians call “America’s First Settlement.”
From artists’ renditions of the expedition that hang in our museums to the fantastical recreations by Pensacola’s Fiesta of Five Flags celebration to the recently completed downtown murals and statues honoring conquistador Don Tristan de Luna and the city’s Spanish heritage—the African presence in the settlement is largely ignored.
The exclusion of Africans in the Luna colony narrative paints an inaccurate picture of the settlement by omitting the existence of the first black population living continuously in what we now call the United States.
As we continue to mark the recent historic discoveries—most notably the 2015 discovery of the original colony—many continue to view this history as solely European. This image is only part of the story, as a great number of the people in the Luna colony were not Spanish, but African.
Without recognizing Pensacola’s early African presence, our city’s origin story is incomplete.
Although historians know little concrete information of this population, Africans were a sizable portion of the Luna colony. Their roles were complex—most were enslaved but some free. Their fears were likely similar to that of the other colonists, but their sorrows certainly greater than were their non-African counterparts who volunteered to accompany Luna and were not abducted from their homelands to build the Spanish empire. Most Africans had no choice but still played a large role in the colony.
While artistic renditions and fictional historical recreations are quick to recognize the European side to the Pensacola story, the African side of the city’s origin remains ignored over 450 years after Don Tristan De Luna and his colonists stepped foot on this sandy soil.
“It’s actually a Mexican Colony”
The story of Pensacola’s settlement truly begins in Mexico City.
In 1521, the Spanish established New Spain as a colonial territory after the conquest of the Aztec. To administer its growing empire, the Spanish crown established several viceroyalties throughout the region, including the Viceroy of New Spain headquartered in the former Aztec capital of Mexico City.
In 1558, the Viceroy of New Spain chose a conquistador named Don Tristan de Luna to lead the expedition from Mexico to the Gulf Coast. Luna’s prior experience in various Mexican expeditions, his work suppressing a native insurrection in Oaxaca, and his personal wealth made the well-connected Spanish officer a good choice to lead the Gulf Coast expedition. Once established, Luna was to create a land route from the Gulf Coast to modern-day South Carolina. For the historic mission, Luna outfitted eleven ships to carry supplies with 1,500 people to serve as crew and passengers.
“The Luna colony was outfitted in Mexico,” said John Worth, a University of West Florida professor and lead archeologist at the newly-discovered Luna site. “We had 550 [Spanish] soldiers… recruited from a variety of locations,” said Worth, “as well as equipment and supplies issued or purchased between Mexico City and Veracruz.”
“Some of [the soldiers] were married and brought families,” also onboard were “a couple hundred Aztecs,” said Worth. The Aztecs worked as soldiers and craftsmen, possibly in exchange for monetary compensations and familial benefits back in Mexico. Luna hoped the Aztec would act as intermediaries between indigenous communities, as well as work within their trades. They were not used for slave labor. The Africans played this role.
“There were maybe as many as a couple of hundred [Africans with the Luna expedition], but we don’t know for sure.”
There is one reference to a free black man named Francisco, who enters the historical record buying items at auction from a deceased man aboard ship. “There’s no other reference to him or details about him other than the description of ‘de color negro,’” said Worth. “But he must have been free since he was purchasing goods for himself, and he’s not described as a slave, which would have been done had he been [enslaved].”
Most Africans with the Luna colony, however, were enslaved and purchased either by individuals or owned by the Spanish crown—the latter considered government property.
There is no way to determine with certainty where the Africans were from, but most likely they originated from West Africa near the modern-day countries of Nigeria, Benin, Gabon, Cameroon, and Equatorial Guinea. Once abducted in Africa, these people were eventually sold in the Caribbean and mainland of the Americas. By the late 1550s, as Luna is preparing his expedition, Mexico City held an enormous enslaved African population.
“Any slaves [on the Luna expedition] that were owned by the Crown would have come from Mexico,” Worth continued. “Privately-owned slaves would also have been resident in Mexico, though of course might have come from other areas when originally purchased by their owners.”
In the first modern census of Mexico, the African population outnumbered the Spanish. In 1560, the Spanish government counted 15,609 Africans and 13,280 Spaniards. Not counting the Indian population, there were also 2,425 mestizos.
As Luna created the rosters for his expedition—including free and enslaved Africans—all of these people made his crew, and ultimately the colony itself, very diverse. The Spanish, many of whom likely shared a long mixed ancestry with North Africans due to the Moorish presence in Spain, already held deep connections to Africa. Furthermore, the Spanish population in Mexico was also becoming multi-generational with a large multi-racial mestizo population rising—not to mention the strong presence of Aztec warriors and craftsmen on the expedition.
Though the credit for the Pensacola settlement usually goes to Spain, “it’s actually a Mexican colony, even with the Aztecs,” said Worth.
Luna’s ships left modern-day Veracruz, Mexico, on June 11, 1559. According to “The Luna Papers 1559-1561,” a collection of documents from Don Tristan de Luna’s expedition, “the party consisted of five hundred soldiers, one thousand servants and colonists.” Counted among Luna’s “servants and colonists,” in numbers not broken down by any demographics, “were women and children, negroes, and Indians.”
The expedition arrived in Pensacola Bay on August 14, 1559. Luna’s crew offloaded the ships slowly over the coming weeks, as explorers moved inland to search for indigenous peoples. Unfortunately for Luna, a massive hurricane hit Pensacola Bay and destroyed all but three of Luna’s ships. The wreckage of these ships are still being discovered in Pensacola Bay, one as recent as 2016.
Luna stayed in the area for some time trying to establish the colony, despite the incredible loss of his supplies and fleet. Ultimately, Luna’s attempts to establish a long-term colony are fruitless. He is replaced and, with the permission of the viceroy, leaves Pensacola in April 1561.
From the settlement he founded in modern-day Pensacola, Luna travelled to Havana and then to Spain. He eventually made his way back to Mexico, where he died in relative poverty.
Much of this story is covered in various biographies, histories, and historical novels about Don Tristan de Luna, but little is known about the others who made up the Luna colony, especially the “negro men and women servants,” as they are described in the historic documents.
These Africans were among the first non-natives to see the white sands of the Florida Gulf Coast, and the first people of African descent to live in what we now call Pensacola.
“Understudied Aspects of the Luna Expedition”
“African American history is generally overlooked by scholars unfamiliar with the subject,” lamented Teniade Broughton, a local historian working with the John Sunday Society. Broughton manages the social media site Black Pensacola and writes frequently about Pensacola’s African-American heritage.
Yet despite tremendous accomplishments by people of African descent in Pensacola, quite often their work goes unnoticed in the broader historical narratives of the city. Broughton describes this inattention to Pensacola’s black history as a “long history of exclusion,” which includes the Africans in “America’s First Settlement.”
“It’s one of the understudied aspects of the Luna expedition,” said Worth about the Africans with Luna.
Despite Luna’s major failures, the Pensacola community continues to honor the Spanish conquistador. In fact, history views Luna much better than his contemporaries did. While Luna’s praise is understandable due to his role in the colony, the African presence was not insignificant, but still ignored.
Still, the Africans with the Luna colony were not the first of their people in this region. “Blacks came to the Americas first as explorers, not as slaves,” wrote Smith in “Ebony Tales.” Spain and Northern Africa are geographically close, but also share a strong history stretching centuries prior to Columbus, linking the histories of Spain and Africa together during the century following the 1491 expulsion of the Moors from Spain and Columbus’ famous journey the following year.
A 1528 Spanish expedition to the Florida Gulf Coast, led by Panfilo de Narvaez, took an African man named Estevanico with them to establish a colony in Florida and search for the fabled Seven Cities of Gold. After the death of Narvaez, “Estevanico led the men [from the Gulf Coast] through present day Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico, where they continued [the] search,” wrote Smith.
Except for the brief stop by the African Estevanico, the Luna colony could boast the first continuous presence by Africans in what is now the United States of America.
“I was trying to think of another place anywhere in the United States where Africans lived multiple years, and I think this is the earliest,” said Worth. “Where actual large numbers lived in a single community, not wandering around for a couple of years, I think this would be the first place.”
The first task for the Africans, like everyone else in the colony, was survival. The land was hostile, supplies were scarce, and there was a lot of work to do.
“In the Luna settlement,” Broughton said, “it’s safe to assume that whatever activities Spaniards did, Africans did as well.”
Most of the soldiers—Europeans, Aztecs, or Mestizo—likely didn’t possess slaves, but “probably Luna and the higher ups had several servants, and potentially slaves,” said Worth.
Archaeologists are still learning about the day-to-day living situation within the colony. “During the expedition…probably the Aztecs hung out with each other…but the servants and slaves were probably with the households of their owners.” Worth continued, “If they were royally owned, they were probably living with the officers or the officials of the expedition. They might’ve been housed by the stables, with the horses, or the warehouse, or in the treasurer’s office. It’s kind of hard to say.”
Where they lived, with whom they communicated, and what their daily lives were like are still mysteries, at least for now.
“For one, we don’t really know how many Africans were on the expedition. We just know there were some,” Worth said.
“We don’t know what proportion of [the Africans] were free or were enslaved. Within the enslaved population, we don’t know what proportion were royally owned versus privately owned.”
Sifting through numerous journal entries and documents, there is little specific information about the Africans who came with Luna on the expedition. There remains no exact numbers of people, little concrete information about their tasks, and virtually nothing about their lives either before or after Pensacola—with a few notable exceptions. Francisco is one, but there is another.
“The Luna Papers” offer vague numbers and vague terms to describe who the African slaves were or what they did in the colony, but there is one specific allusion to a “negro woman,” who left the settlement with Luna on a frigate headed for Havana.
As far for names of enslaved Africans, “we have one, absolutely positively royally owned slave, who was sold or sold off after the expedition,” said Worth. The woman was “named Guiomar from Biafara. That’s all.”
Guiomar from Biafara
Guiomar is the only named African slave that we know of to date. What we know of her is from the records of her sale in Havana—”Guiomar de la Tierra de Biafara.”
The Spanish name Guiomar means “famous in battle,” which may have been seen as complimentary or a warning for future buyers. More than likely, Guiomar wasn’t her original name, but was given by the Spanish.
As her enslavement was early in the Atlantic Slave Trade, she was likely young enough to be seen as profitable but not too old to work.
Biafara, or Biafra, was a part of modern-day Nigeria. A region now mostly known for the post-colonial Nigerian Civil War of the 1970s, the people of the region were no strangers to conflict, going back to the beginning of the Atlantic Slave Trade. By the height of the slave trade, villages, towns, and communities fought frequently with Europeans and other Africans to fend off the traders.
As most slave traders sought the young, the long-term damage to the region was incalculable as Europeans carted away generations of men and women to become the forced labor that built the Americas at the expense of Africa.
The main ethnic group of Guiomar’s home in Biafara were the Igbo people. Europeans specifically targeted Guiomar’s people during the slave trade as the Igbo were known for their strength.
According to the first extended narrative written by an African in English, Olaudah Equiano described his Igbo people as “almost a nation of dancers, musicians, and poets.” In his narrative, Equiano wrote “Our manners are simple, our luxuries are few…when our women are not employed with the men in tillage, their usual occupation is spinning and weaving cotton, which they afterward make into garments.”
Equiano also describes female work with the Igbo as manufacturing earthen vessels. In 2015, Tom Garner stumbled across shards of earthenware, similar to those made by the Igbo, allowing for a positive discovery of the Luna colony.
“As to religion,” Equiano wrote of his and Guiomar’s people “the natives believe that there is one Creator of all things, and that he lives in the sun…They believe he governs events, especially our deaths or captivity.”
Assuming Guiomar’s capture was similar to Equiano’s description, either Europeans or Africans abducted her, brought her to a staging area with other captured Africans, and marched hundreds of men and women to the Atlantic Coast. Once aboard ship, the European slave traders chained the men and women beside each other to maximize capacity. From there, most travelled across the Atlantic under extremely inhumane conditions through what became known as Middle Passage—the long and arduous journey from Africa to the Americas.
Prior to Africans, the Spanish enslaved the natives in the Americas, starting with Christopher Columbus not long after his 1492 arrival in the Caribbean. The brutality of Columbus’ troops, along with the ravages of disease, decimated the native populations of nearly every Caribbean island in which the Europeans stepped foot. While resistance continued throughout conquest, within decades, native populations had virtually disappeared.
After the deaths of thousands, if not millions, of indigenous peoples, the Spanish moved from Native American to African slaves at the suggestion of a Spanish priest named Bartolome de Las Casas.
Horrified at the incredible loss of native life, Las Casas felt Africans may be better suited to the climate and intense labor forced upon the Indians. Las Casas grew to regret this suggestion, as the consequences were dire, but the trade only grew.
In his 1857 study of the Spanish conquest of the Americas, Arthur Helps wrote, “It was noticed [by the Spanish] that negroes and oranges seemed to have found their natural soil” in the New World. Many Europeans, Helps wrote, went so far as to think the Africans “were nearly immortal, as for some time no one had seen a negro die, except by hanging.” This assumption by the Spanish originally suggested to the crown by Las Casas, brought thousands of Africans into the Atlantic Slave Trade.
In 1517, the Spanish government allowed for the importation of four thousand Africans, as “the Indians of the islands were rapidly wasting away.” Most were initially imported to Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and Hispaniola (modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic). The numbers rose dramatically over the years.
The first major numbers of Africans came in 1523, with the Spanish crown’s authorization of 4,000 males to be captured in Africa and brought to the Americas as slaves. In 1527, Spain authorized another thousand. The following year, Spain again authorized another 4,000 men and women. Before long, what started as a trickle of Africans forced from their homeland turned to a continuous flow draining West Africa of its youth to work in the sugar plantations of the Caribbean or the post-conquest reconstruction of Mexico, to name but a few forced occupations.
Whenever the Spanish needed labor, slavery followed. This included Don Tristan de Luna’s expedition that ultimately landed in Pensacola. Among the 1,500 Europeans, mestizos, Aztecs, and Africans who landed in modern-day Pensacola was an enslaved African woman named Guiomar.
Besides her name and where in Africa she may have come from, we know little else.
By contrast, we know Luna’s background. Born to nobility in Borobia, Spain, he was the cousin of the Viceroy of New Spain (Mexico) and also the cousin of Hernan Cortes’ wife, Maria Zuniga. We know he fought in Oaxaca, Mexico, and helped suppress a major indigenous uprising. We also know he had dreams, like many conquistadores, of discovery and wealth. We know that everything in his life, prior to 1559, brought him and his fleet to Pensacola.
Though his dreams ended in failure, he was allowed to return to Havana and then home to Spain. By his own free will, he travelled back to Mexico and died there in 1573.
Guiomar’s path to Pensacola reads as more tragic. We know very little about her family, but only her people. We know the name given to her by the Spanish means “famous in battle,” but we know nothing of her own struggles. We know, with a fair amount of certainty, that she did not leave West Africa on her own accord. What is also very unlikely is that she ever travelled home again.
Phillis Wheatley, the first African woman to have a book of poetry published in the New World, offered a glimpse into her own abduction from her home as a young woman in West Africa:
“I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatched from Afric’s fancied happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labor in my parent’s breast!
Steeled was that soul, and by no misery moved,
That from a father seized his babe beloved:
Such, such my case.
As for Guiomar, we know nothing about her family or her “pangs excruciating,” her thoughts, her hopes, her fears, or her nightmares except to speculate that she must have dreamt of her home in Biafra and longed for it continuously. But this is speculation.
What we know is her Spanish name, her possible land of origin, and how much she sold for at auction.
In fact, the only reason we even have her name is because she is listed on a bill of sale.
To recoup losses from the failed expedition, “Guiomar from the land of Biafara” was sold in Havana. Her price—170 pesos. After that, she’s lost to history.
“Black history matters, just like everyone else’s”
If the presence of Africans in the Luna colony is no secret, but the question remains as to why is it so often ignored?
“Any answer requires I explain, and hopefully convince people, why local African-American history is important,” said Broughton. “Rephrase the questions replacing Black history with Spanish history or military history—no one would even ask those questions.”
Though certain aspects of Pensacola’s black history does receive attention—Chappie James, for instance—so much black history is absent from the city’s narrative. This includes the story of the first African-American communities living in what is now known as the United States.
“The history of slavery is uncomfortable to a lot of people,” said Broughton. “Chattel slavery built the economy of the Americas. How do we stay connected to history without being chained to it, so to speak?” Broughton asks. Her suggestion is simple: “Through education, inclusion and letting people tell their own stories.”
“Black history matters just like everyone else’s and anyone who learns about its benefits in the same manner,” said Broughton, “if not more because they’ll know more.”
The exact number of free or enslaved Africans with Don Tristan de Luna is unknown, but we do have at least two names. What we don’t know about these peoples is enormous, but what we do know is that the Luna settlement was made up of many peoples, and Africans clearly held a presence in America’s first multi-year settlement.
As archaeologists continue to sift through the sandy soil of Pensacola, the artifacts they uncover will most likely point to a very different narrative— a narrative in which the storytellers held darker complexions. Whether by force or free will, Africans were here since 1559. Their history— African history—is forever intertwined with the story of Don Tristan de Luna, and thus a strong chapter in the story of Pensacola, much of which from a book is waiting to be written.