Oxford AASC: Guest Scholar

Guest Scholar

Franklin Knight is the Leonard and Helen R. Stulman Professor of History at John Hopkins University. In 1973, Dr. Knight joined the Hopkins faculty as part of the internationally recognized Atlantic History and Culture Program. Since that time his academic and teaching interests have remained focused on the politics, cultures and societies of Latin America and the Caribbean as well as American slave systems. He has published numerous books, including The Caribbean: The Genesis of a Fragmented Nationalism, The Modern Caribbean, co-edited with Colin A. Palmer, The Slave Societies of the Caribbean and Las Casas: An Introduction, Much Abbreviated, of the Destruction of the Indies to name just a few.

The Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography

Every society, as well as every community, has a history. But not all histories are the same, nor are all histories presented in an identical format. Some histories are preserved in written form. Some are transmitted aurally from generation to generation. In our modern age, communication is increasingly through written forms which are preserved in myriad ways. There is no consensus, however, on precisely what constitutes a "proper" history, and for that reason there have been and will continue to be various forms of histories. Yet what makes history compelling, at least since the writing of the ancient Greek scholar Herodotus (c. 484– c. 413 BCE) is usually the force of its narrative quality and the resonance of its acute observations.

Herodotus has been considered to be the "father of history" at least since that title was conferred on him by Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 BCE–43 BCE)—better known in English as Tully—the Roman letter writer, orator, politician and lawyer. Cicero translated a large number of Greek texts and was important in introducing Greek methods of narration to Latin texts. In this way his vast body of work greatly influenced many distinguished Enlightenment thinkers including John Locke (1632–1704), Charles-Louis de Montesquieu (1689–1755), David Hume (1711–1776), Adam Smith (1723–1790), Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), and Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832). There is a long tradition, therefore, that connects our modern histories with the thinkers and writers of the Enlightenment and even stretching farther back in time to the earlier Latin models of Titus Livius (59 BCE–17AD) and Herodotus. This tradition is deeply imbued with meticulous research, detailed analyses, and insightful (although not necessarily accurate) observations on the past. In every case there was an attempt to reconstruct the past to provide lessons for the present.

Not surprisingly, an important component of historical narratives then has been the emphasis on the role of political and military leaders in shaping the course of events. That is totally understandable. In large measure, leaders determine the outcome of major events. But even the best leaders did not act alone. They depended on many others whose names may be forgotten and lost to posterity. Sometimes the emphasis on individual biography overshadowed the reality of a wider group action leading to a possible misunderstanding of the event.

That was the sort of complaint that motivated Bernal Díaz del Castillo (1492–1585) to claim that official histories of the time conveyed the erroneous idea that the eminent Spanish conquistador, Hernán Cortés (1485–1547), had somehow almost singlehandedly overthrown the impressive Inca Empire in 1521 in what is today Mexico. Díaz del Castillo was especially contemptuous of armchair court historians such as Peter Martyr d'Anghiera (1457–1526) and Francisco López de Gómara (1511–1566), whose personal experiences in the Americas was limited or non-existent. It was especially Gómara's Historia general de las Indias, published in Spanish in1553 and quickly translated into several other European languages, that agitated Bernal Díaz del Castillo, who complained that the volume lacked both authenticity and balance. Gómara was a chaplain to the Cortés family—a fact not lost on Díaz del Castillo. In the introduction to his famous Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España, Díaz del Castillo wrote:

… This is no history of distant nations, nor vain reveries; I relate that of which I was an eyewitness, and not idle reports and hearsay; for truth is sacred. [Francisco López de] Gómara received and wrote such accounts as were intended to enhance the fame and merit of Cortés; no mention being made of him of our valiant captains and soldiers; and the whole tenor of the work shows how much he was influenced by his attachment to the family by whom he and his were patronized.

Not only was Díaz del Castillo an active participant with Cortés in the great events described by Gómara, he enhanced the authenticity of his own history by providing abundant details of many of the individuals who contributed to the success of the expedition. He wrote about the expedition to Mexico: "These sailing vessels were to be commanded by his relatives, with Juan de Grijalva in charge, along with Pedro de Alvarado, Francisco de Montejo, and Alonso de ávila, all persons of valor and possessed of great estates on the island [of Cuba.]

In the tradition of Herodotus, Díaz del Castillo could be extraordinarily eloquent about people. On one occasion he noted:

… Just at that time Andres de Duero, secretary to the governor, and Amador de Lares, the contador of his Majesty in Cuba, made a private proposal to a respectable hidalgo named Hernando Cortés, a native of Medellín in Extremadura, and son of Martin Cortés, of Monroy, and of Catalina Pizarro Altamirano, both, though poor, hidalgos , and of good lineage in that province. Hernando Cortés possessed a property in the island of Cuba, had been twice Alcalde there, and had lately from motive of inclination, married a lady named Doña Catalina Suarez Pacheco, daughter of Diego Suarez Pacheco of ávila, and of María de Marcaida, Viscayan.

On many occasions he would describe extensively his fellow soldiers on the expedition. These graphic details conveyed an unusual personal empathy with the ordinary soldiers and consistently underlined the collective human dimension to the overall expedition. This is illustrated when he wrote of the jubilation after the overthrow of Montezuma and the fall of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan: "One of them, a Negro and a comical fellow, danced and shouted for joy, crying 'Where are the Romans? Who with such small numbers have ever achieved such a glorious victory?'" To Díaz del Castillo the conquest of Mexico was a collective enterprise in which every Spanish soldier pulled his weight and the success of the expedition belonged equally to all the participants. In his mind, the Spaniards went out "to serve God and his Majesty; to bring light to those who dwell in darkness; and to get rich, as all men desire."

To fully understand the people of the region is precisely the spirit that underlines the creation of the Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography (DCALAB). And in the case of the Caribbean and Latin America there is an additional imperative. Until recently, most general histories of the region tended to overlook a substantial proportion of the population—in some cases, the majority of some local populations. It is as though they never existed, or if they did, they were quite unimportant. Part of the explanation lies in a misguided attempt to create a homogenizing quality to the historical narrative, as though all individuals in any given time shared a common assumption about their shared reality despite monumental evidence to the contrary. Part of the explanation lies in the peculiar nature of the European experience in the Americas. The history of the Americas deviates from most common histories.

The original populations of the Americas, unlike those of Africa, Europe, and Asia, were relatively isolated for tens of thousands of years. As such these populations did not share the disease pool and hence the relative immunity to pathogens that circulated across the ocean. The immediate result of the arrival of Europeans and others toward the end of the fifteenth century was a rapidly-spreading catastrophic demographic disaster that severely debilitated the indigenous populations. Within a generation the indigenous populations within the tropics suffered mortality rates that approximated fifty percent of local communities along with morbidity rates that sometimes approached one hundred percent. It was not uncommon to have half of the citizens dead and the rest ill at the same time. This widespread disaster shattered the coherence and culture of the great majority of sedentary populations, especially in the centralized polities of the Aztecs, Mayas, and Incas. Moreover, European ambivalence toward the original peoples did not help their cause. Some Europeans wished to subordinate and enslave all the new people they met. Others, like Bartolomé de Las Casas (1484–1566) from Seville, wanted to exclude Spaniards entirely from Native villages. Humanitarian sensibilities succumbed to the irresistible desire for wealth and power.

Within two generations after the arrival of Christopher Columbus (1451–1506), the demographic disaster was reflected in the population collected in the designated "Spanish towns." By 1570 not only within the Caribbean islands but also within the Spanish mainland enclaves, more than sixty percent of the inhabitants of those so-called Spanish towns were neither of Spanish nor indigenous blood, but a mixture of invasive and local individuals who were assigned an increasingly bewildering classification. Even more surprising, in many of the originally designated Indian towns and villages, absolutely none of the native population survived.

Thus the Americas, especially across the Caribbean and Latin America, share a historical experience that sets them apart. Everywhere the new majority of the populations enumerated after the middle of the seventeenth century were predominantly hybrid groups created by the indiscriminate mixing of immigrants from all over the globe with the remnants of a decimated original indigenous population. The basic structure of the post-Hispanic American populations reflects a fundamental hybridity and spontaneous eclecticism. This is what the Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography tries to capture and convey. But it does far more than this.

The Dictionary provides data on individuals who made substantial contributions to their local societies, but whose efforts have been overlooked, or remain underappreciated. Such individuals deserve neither to be neglected or forgotten. After all, while not all deeds were of equal merit, the individuals included in this collection would all fall under the umbrella of Herodotus, who wanted to publish his history "in the hope of preserving from decay the remembrances of what men [and women] have done, and of preventing the great and wonderful actions…from losing their due need for glory…" The Dictionary represents an effort to make Caribbean and Latin American history more inclusive with the rationale that the better a community knows its past, the stronger that community will be in making genuinely democratic choices about its future. And every truly democratic society is one that includes more than it excludes.

But the Dictionary also has another purpose beyond merely expanding the numbers of those included in the construction and sustainability of the modern state. It seeks to correct the record of the past.

A substantial proportion of the American population can trace its ancestry back to Africa. Likewise, a substantial proportion of the ancestors of those Americans arrived as enslaved individuals bereft of their freedom and autonomy. Even before the general abolition of slavery throughout the Americas—a slow operation that took almost a century to accomplish—African Americans were stereotyped as perpetually denigrated and irredeemably marginalized. As such African Americans could no more escape their color than their condition.

The true story, amply illustrated in the Dictionary, is that not all persons of African descent arrived in the Americas as chattel slaves, and not all found their condition to be inflexible. Indeed, American slavery was not a homogenous institution. It varied across geographical space. It changed throughout time. And it responded to particular circumstances. Across the Americas the institution of slavery manifested many variations. American slavery was a particularly deliberate organizational response to an urgent labor scarcity. Its successful operation depended on the constant negotiation between master and slave despite the uneven power relations between the two.

Slavery evolved into an enduring social, political and economic construct with a warped system of power relations in which those who were declared to be slaves lost all access to the major institutions that shaped society. But lacking equal voice and representation did not indicate that the enslaved were powerless—or that they were of minor importance in the construction of the new American societies. Above all, Africans did not arrive in the Americas miraculously bereft of their innate intelligence, their social skills and their political sensibilities. Rather than suffer a "social death" during the horrible transit of the Atlantic Ocean, Africans demonstrated remarkable resilience and integrated themselves well into the strange worlds of the American slave systems. Of course African slaves did what they were ordered to do. But they also did far more, thus becoming indispensable agents in the construction of the Americas from Alaska to Argentina. Moreover, this contribution to the Americas began with the first Spanish to arrive in the New World in 1492.

Many persons of African ancestry participated in the Spanish conquest of the New World. Given the prevalence of Africans across Europe, that should not be surprising. A large community of Africans lived in southern Iberia and many remained after the fall of Granada in 1492. Many were free individuals. Some were servants. Others were enslaved, and the true condition of others remains ambiguous or unknown. Pedro Alonso Niño and Juan Garrido, who accompanied Christopher Columbus, were presumably free men from the Rio Tinto area of Huelva Province. Juan Garrido seems to have been a common name for African males in Spain and the early Indies. The Dictionary includes an interesting case of one extraordinary Juan Garrido (1500–1547)who was born in Africa, sold as a slave in Lisbon, found his way to Seville and joined the early expeditions to the Americas a free man. He traveled as a conquistador with Juan Ponce de León (1460–1521) to Santo Domingo, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Florida. He accompanied Hernán Cortés during the conquest of Mexico, and later visited the court of Emperor Charles V in Madrid in 1541. Also included in these volumes is Estebanico (d. 1550), whom Bernal Díaz del Castillo described as "Andres Dorantes black Moorish slave. He accompanied Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca (1490– c. 1560) on an amazing overland journey across what today comprises the southern United States to Mexico City. Born in Morocco, Estebanico was adept at learning local Indian languages. He and his colleagues posed as holy men gifted with supernatural healing powers. They may have been responsible for spreading smallpox across the area in which they traveled. Sebastiàn Toralparticipated in the pacification of Yucatan. Juan Garcia, born in Old Castile, served as a piper and crier in the Francisco Pizarro expedition to Peru in 1532 and received part of the enormous ransom exacted from the Inca Emperor Atahualpa at Cajamarca. What he did after returning to Spain is unknown.

Many other individuals of African descent appear in the early historical records although they have not yet been included in the Dictionary. Francisco de Eguía was a follower of the unfortunate adelantado, Pánfilo de Narváez (1478–1528) on expeditions to Jamaica, Cuba and Florida. He might have been one of those drowned with Narváez off Florida in 1528. Miguel Ruiz (d. 1533) was a part of the cavalry of Pizarro in Peru. As the owner of his horse, he received a double portion of the spoils of war. Unfortunately, he died in the ensuing civil wars after the fall of Atahualpa.

From the earliest days of Spanish and Portuguese colonialism in the Americas, it was not unusual to find persons of African descent doing exactly what other invading immigrants did. Nevertheless by the late seventeenth century a new type of hierarchical society was being constructed: the American slave society that eventually manifested a transformative sui generis form. The earlier European settler societies succumbed on the Caribbean islands and in the small enclaves on the mainland such as in southern Mexico, in the Magdalena-Cauca River Valley of what is today, Colombia, the Pacific lowlands of contemporary Ecuador and Peru, and the Sâo Francisco River Valley of Brazil to an aggressive, highly coerced plantation slave society narrowly engineered for an ever elusive maximum productive efficiency. By the late eighteenth century these exploitation slave societies had become highly explosive. Moreover, the situation was exacerbated by imperial rivalry. African slaves and males of the free non-European populations were drafted into the imperial military forces and deployed where necessary for imperial defense. Black soldiers such asGabriel Dorotea Barba , Jose Aponte(d. 1812), José Francisco Sánchez, Manuel Blanco, and Andrés Medina were drafted into the Spanish military in Havana and fought against the British in Cuba, Florida, and Louisiana. The British and French also employed black militias in the Caribbean. Sometimes military service was an avenue for individual manumission

Then in 1792 things fell apart in the French colony of Saint-Domingue on the western part of the island of Hispaniola. There the expanding French Revolution produced a large number of national heroes from the majority non-white population: Georges Biassou (1741–1801), Jean-Pierre Boyer(1776–1850), Jeannot Bullet, François Capois (1766–1806), Jean Baptiste Chavannes (1748–1791), Henri Christophe (1767–1820), Jean- Jacques Dessalines(1758–1806), Boukman Dutty(d. 1791), Marie-Claire Heureuse Felicité (1758–1858), Vincent Ogé (1758–1803), Jean-Francois " Pappilon" (d. c. 1805 ), Alexandre Pétion (1770–1818), Andre Rigaud (1761–1811), and Toussaint Louverture (1743–1806).

The Haitian Revolution (1792–1804) signaled the dramatic beginning of the end of America slavery. But even before that, major event enslaved Africans had continually demonstrated their implacable resistance to the institution of slavery. During the entire history of American slavery all across the hemisphere individual slaves led others against the harsh conditions of their coerced existence. The Dictionary includes several who carried out successful revolts and established free villages, called maroon communities, in symbiotic relationship with the colonial societies. Alonso de Ilescas (1528–1590) founded the free village of Esmeraldas along the Ecuadoran coast. Esmeraldas survived for more than a century. Gaspar Yanga(b. 1545) established a maroon village in southern Mexico that resisted the Spanish colonial authorities until 1609. Zumbi(1655–1695) took over a maroon settlement founded in the interior of Alagoas, Brazil and successfully defended their community until they were overrun in 1695 by a major Portuguese military expedition. In Jamaica a group of slaves led by Nannyfought the British army in 1739 and won the right to create a maroon community in the parishes of St. Elizabeth and in Portland. In 1760 in western Jamaica, Tacky(d. 1760) led a major slave revolt that included more than 60,000 slaves. After the independence of Haiti in 1804 slave revolts became endemic in the Caribbean. Even in this context, some Africans showed remarkable entrepreneurship. Manuel Joaquim Ricardo(d. 1865) of Salvador, Brazil, emancipated himself and entering the slave trading business among other occupations and died a wealthy man. Joaquim D'Almeida , also known as Zoki Azata (d. 1857) originally a slave from the Mahi nation in Africa, became a slave trader in Brazil before reestablishing himself in the Kingdom of Dahomey along the West African coast.

Political independence in Latin America and the changing nature of colonialism in the Caribbean expanded the opportunities for broader African-American participation in the political and economic life of the local communities. Domingo Sosa (1784–1866) became a state legislator in Buenos Aires. Vicente Guerrero (1782–1831), the president of Mexico who abolished slavery in 1829, was of African descent. "José Maria Morelos y Pavón(1765–1815), the priest who fought for the independence of Mexico, also had African ancestry.

Emancipation unleashed enormous new creativity among the previously enslaved. Haiti became a prosperous state until its trading economy was devastated by the long civil war in the United States of America, its principal trading partner. All across the Caribbean during the nineteenth century a spirit of enterprise promoted popular education and enthusiastic ex-slaves became indefatigable promoters of democratic states. Their legacy is a coherently diverse region that, in the world of the twenty first century, remains vibrant culturally, politically and economically.

The Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography, while ambitious in scope, represents only a modest beginning. Much more needs to be done to ensure that those noble individuals who served their societies so well are neither forgotten nor lost to posterity. And so this project is ongoing. Indeed one desirable consequence of the Dictionary would be parallel projects on a national scale for every country of the Americas.

For a complete table of contents for Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography, click here.

For the six-volume print version, click here.