Oxford AASC: Photo Essay

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PHOTO ESSAY

Africans in America

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Esteban

Esteban. Chakwaina, Esteban's mythical counterpart, late 1800s. (University of Michigan Museum of Anthropology.)

The first African to reach what is now the American Southwest, the slave Esteban (d. 1539) was born in Morocco, and was purchased as a servant by the Spaniard Andrés Dorantes. His story is extraordinary because it is both an epic adventure and an example of how complex race relations could be in the 16th century. Dorantes was a member of an ill-fated expedition that sailed from Cuba to what is now Florida in 1528. A series of attacks decimated the explorers, forcing them into a hasty escape into the Gulf of Mexico that eventually stranded them in what is now Galveston, Texas. Esteban and several others managed to survive the winter, but their efforts to explore the mainland resulted in a hostile encounter with Karankawa Indians, who enslaved the Spaniards for a period of five years. During this time, however, the slave Esteban showed his extraordinary talents as a diplomat and linguist. When he and the three surviving explorers escaped from the Karankawa in 1834, their travels through Mexico earned them a reputation as faith healers, religious figures, and interpreters. After eight years of wandering, Esteban and the explorers arrived in Mexico City. Though they claimed that the rumors of gold and other riches in the wilderness were false, the excitement generated by their exploration caught the attention of the Viceroy, who subsequently purchased Esteban from Dorantes. Esteban was then sent in search of the fabled Cities of Cíbola, and used his reputation among the locals to gain safe passage through their territory. However, Esteban ran afoul of the Zunis when he ignored their warning to stay away from the village of Hawikuh. Though the circumstances of the dispute are not entirely clear, it appears that the Zunis believed that killing Esteban would protect the village from future incursions by European explorers. In fact, the Moroccan left such an impression that the Zunis used him as the model for Chakwaina, a black spirit representing the foreign conquest of their lands (see the image above). After Esteban's death, word reached the Viceroy that Hawikuh was in fact one of the cities of Cíbola, prompting yet another expedition that failed to produce the mythical riches of the New World.

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