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Juan Garrido, African-Spanish conquistador.

Juan Garrido, African-Spanish conquistador

Juan Garrido, African Conquistador

By Amy Howard

We know quite a bit about Juan Garrido (1487-1547) thanks to his written petition for a pension from the Spanish government. When we add more details from Spanish colonial records, we see a man who led a full and exciting life.

We know that Garrido fought for Spain in Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Guadeloupe, Dominica, Florida, and Mexico. Like the other conquistadors, he was in search of fortune, or at the very least, a comfortable life for his family. He did win some spoils and farmland from conquered natives. He even owned African and Indian slaves. Nevertheless, like most of the treasure-hunting conquistadors, he died poor.

Unlike his fellow conquistadors, Juan Garrido appears to be the first free black person in the Americas, and he was the first person to grow wheat in the New World.

Black Conquistadors

Juan Garrido was not alone. Other black Africans found their way into Spanish society rather than slavery. Many joined the Conquest as soldiers, some in exchange for freedom, others for financial compensation. Sometimes they enjoyed rewards like the Spaniards got, including land, official jobs, and pensions. Often they had to plead their own case in written petitions. The Crown usually acknowledged their petitions, but didn't always grant them. Regardless of Spain's reward to them, they all received their share of the loot taken from the Native Americans.

A Free African-Spaniard

Juan Garrido was born in 1487 on the west coast of Africa and moved to Lisbon, Portugal as a young man. His freedom among slavers is still a mystery. Historian Ricardo Alegria suspects Garrido's father was a king who traded with the Portuguese. This theoretical African king may have set young Juan up as a commercial liaison, sending him for a Christian and Portuguese education.

Other historians presume Garrido was a slave who was granted freedom. This theory comes from the coincidence of his name matching a Spaniard's on his first voyage to the New World. The fifteen-year-old African boy traveled from Lisbon to Seville, Spain, and in 1503 he joined the convoy to Hispaniola with the island's newly appointed governor. A Spaniard on the ship with him was named Pedro Garrido. Pedro might have been Juan's master and Christian namesake. Either way, Juan's name surely was not Juan in Africa.

Juan Garrido, Ponce de Leon, and Florida

Garrido spent six years at Hispaniola watching explorers pillage the New World. The Spanish government allowed the conquistadors to take land, people, and treasure; it was the Crown's attempt to convert the world to Catholicism. Garrido signed on for the Conquest. In 1508, he joined Juan Ponce de Leon with about fifty conquistadors to look for gold in Puerto Rico. They found it, and Garrido's life became a thirty-year adventure of exploring, fighting, and looting.

Ponce de Leon settled Puerto Rico and became its governor. Garrido settled there too, and fought against the natives when they revolted in 1511. When Ponce lost his position to Diego Columbus in 1513, he took Garrido and other soldiers to look for another treasure island. Instead, they found the huge peninsula of Florida. They were not equipped to take on the Florida natives. They claimed it, named it, and planned to return later to conquer it.

Duty called back in the Caribbean. The Carib Indians were launching ferocious revolts against the Spanish. Garrido scouted the islands with Ponce, "pacifying" (fighting) and enslaving Native Americans. Then it was back to Puerto Rico. Ponce's wife died and he spent time raising his daughters. Meanwhile, Garrido assisted other small expeditions and mined for gold.

Ponce and company finally returned to Florida in 1521 with settlers, livestock, supplies, and weapons to control the natives. Florida's Indians ran the settlers off before they even got settled. Ponce took an arrow shot and rushed to Cuba for medical attention, but Spanish doctors couldn't save him. He died a month later. Garrido had worked for Ponce for thirteen years.

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