Slave leader and governor of first free settlement for Africans in the Americas
Gaspar Yanga escaped from slavery shortly after being brought to New Spain (Mexico) by Spaniards to work in the silver mines. It is thought that Yanga was a member of royalty from what is now Nigeria, though other accounts say he was from Gabon or what is now Ghana.
Spaniards began bringing Africans to Mexico in the early 1500’s to work in the profitable sugar plantations and silver mines, though it wasn’t long before the slaves began a series of revolts. Compounding that was Spanish officials' fear that slaves would not only organize, but combine forces with enslaved indigenous tribes to overtake the Spaniards.
By the 1560s, amid increasing revolts near the port city of Veracruz, the main entry point for both cargo and humans on Mexico’s Eastern coast, Yanga emerged as a leader for many of the uprisings and created a safe haven for runaway slaves – called cimarrones or maroons – in a settlement (a palenque) in the nearby lush but rugged and almost inaccessible mountain jungles. There were numerous palenques, but Yanga’s was the most prominent and active and considered the most dangerous. The mobile community thrived for more than 30 years, its inhabitants, which included both Africans and Indians, farmed and grew cotton, sweet potatoes, sugar cane, and raised small herds of cattle. However, some of the Yanganistas were also warriors who raided nearby towns and plantations, destroying property, securing provisions, and freeing slaves, who then joined the Yanga group.
Their activities made travel between Mexico City and Veracruz perilous. In 1606, the Viceroy of New Spain dispatched troops to capture Yanga and his men and destroy their settlement, but the foray was unsuccessful.
Three years later, 350 troops were sent from Puebla. A Jesuit priest accompanied the troops and later gave this account of his conversation with a Spaniard who had been held hostage by Yanga: “…this Yanga was a Negro of the Bron nation…..who had been the first maroon to flee his master and for thirty years had gone free in the mountains and he has united others who held him as chief, who are called Yanguicos.”
The Bron nation was a reference to the Brong or Abron, an Akan-speaking group from what is today Ghana.
The 1609 confrontation produced heavy casualties for both the Spanish troops and Yanga’s men, but led to offers of a truce from the Spaniards. However, Yanga and his men retreated deeper into the jungles. Later, Yanga and the Spaniards did settle on a truce, with Yanga agreeing to stop his raids as well as ceasing to help
slaves escape. In return, he and his followers were granted their freedom and land, which in 1617 was chartered as a free town – the first free settlement for Africans in the Americas – with Yanga as governor.
The settlement, in the mountains southwest of Veracruz, was formally named San Lorenzo de los Negros, but in 1932 the town was renamed for Yanga.