Africans in the Americas were first visually recorded by tlacuiloque, or indigenous artist-scribes, in mid-sixteenth-century Central Mexican manuscripts such as Diego Durán’s History, the Codex Telleriano-Remensis, and the Codex Azcatitlan. These figures, while often peripheral to the central narrative and never mentioned specifically by name, are nevertheless rendered as active agents in the shaping of a new colonial society. The article examines these images of Africans to reveal their ethnographic complexity and the development of concepts of alterity in the early contact period.
A dark-skinned man with tightly curled hair hangs from a noose tied to a wooden scaffold. Rendered in profile, he wears a red tunic and holds a cross in hand. His hanged body slumps downward, back and head sunken. This image, on folio 45 recto of the Codex Telleriano-Remensis, may well be the very first rendering of an African in the Americas. It was painted by an indigenous artist in the mid-sixteenth century, just a few decades after the conquest of Mexico (see fig. 1).
It is perhaps surprising that it was in Mexico, a country not typically known for its African population, that Africans in the Americas were visually recorded several decades before elsewhere. This precedent can be credited to the ingenuity of Mexica (Aztec) tlacuiloque (artist-scribes) who had been trained in the creation of the xiuhtlapohualamoxtli, or annals, a literary genre produced in Central Mexico long before the Spanish conquest. The earliest extant firsthand visual depictions of Africans in the Americas were therefore made by indigenous artists, not Europeans.1
These images can be seen in the Codex Azcatitlan (ca. 1550), the Codex Telleriano-Remensis (ca. 1550), and Fray Diego Durán’s History of the Indies of New Spain (1581).2 Studying them adds a new perspective to the field of New Conquest History, which problematizes accounts of the conquest as the triumph of Spaniards over the indigenous peoples through examining alternative narratives and viewpoints (see Restall 2012). This article contributes to this history by looking at the ways in which indigenous artist-scribes described and recorded the Africans who arrived as part of the Spanish entrada into Tenochtitlan. The indigenous reaction to Africans provides a visual alternative to the dominant European gaze, revealing not only the Spanish, indigenous, and African triangulation of the colonial encounter but also the ethnographic skill and artistic adaptation of the indigenous artists.3
The examples highlighted in this article show the ways in which tlacuiloque pictured and recorded “others,” both Spanish and African, and how those categories, while familiar in Europe, were only beginning to be defined on American soil. These images showcase the processes of social categorization from outside—showcasing Africans recorded not by Spaniards who are credited for setting the rules of the new colony, or by themselves, but rather by indigenous people.4 The act of being represented as the other would later be conceptualized by the African-American theoretician W. E. B. DuBois, who wrote of “a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others” (DuBois  1994: 38). But what if those “others” were not Europeans, but, instead, members of another marginalized group (in this case, indigenous Central Mexican artists who had recently been conquered and colonized)? These images from colonial codices offer the possibility of blackness that was not tainted with the pejorative notions that surrounded blackness on the European continent and would soon continue within Western culture in the Americas.
Toni Morrison developed the term Africanism to describe “the denotative and connotative blackness that African peoples have come to signify, as well as the entire range of views, assumptions, readings, and misreadings that accompany Eurocentric learning about these people” (Morrison 1992: 6). These Eurocentric readings of Africans saw an upswing in the fifteenth century with the reconquest and expulsion of Moorish (black and Arab) populations from the Iberian Peninsula and the increase of the African slave trade in Europe (Spicer 2012: 9). Because of the slave trade that would soon stretch across the Atlantic to the New World, Africans came to be seen as natural servants as well as heretics who were stained by exposure to Islam on the African continent.
In later centuries Mexican artists, displaying European associations with blackness, depicted Africans as biblical or allegorical subjects, or as stereotyped figures at the peripheries of Viceregal society. These earliest images, however, are neither idealized nor stereotyped. The Africans depicted by indigenous tlauciloque, while often peripheral to the central narrative and never mentioned specifically by name, are rendered as active agents in the shaping of a new colonial society.
Despite this, art historians have looked to the work of European artists as the progenitors of the earliest images of Africans in the Americas. Scholars studying images of Africans in colonial Latin American art have tended to focus on Brazil and the Caribbean as the primary sites of the African experience in the Americas, citing artists like Albert Eckhout, a Dutch painter who traveled to northeastern Brazil in the mid-seventeenth century as the first to record the appearance of Africans in the New World.5 Others have examined both European and local prints that depict Africans as Magi and various religious figures as the earliest examples (Brewer-García 2015: 111). The groundbreaking multivolume Image of the Black in Western Art similarly overlooks the early contributions of the indigenous people of Central Mexico to the rendering of Africans in the Americas. These early colonial works by the tlacuiloque are indeed some of the earliest examples of “Western” art in the Americas, showcasing the melding of Western European and indigenous American literary and pictorial traditions. Nevertheless, the “Age of Discovery” tomes overlook the codices and focus on European traveler art as well as depictions of black saints, the black Magus, and the personification of the African continent as the iconographic conventions for blackness (Bindman, Gates, and Dalton 2010–14).
By the seventeenth century, artists in Mexico had adopted similar schemes for rendering black Africans as magi, saints, or allegorical figures. By the eighteenth century, some of the most famous images of New World Africans were casta paintings that depicted the racial mixing between Spaniards, Indians, and Africans.6 Some casta paintings negatively portray people of African descent, particularly women, as violent and pernicious or as culprits in the degradation of Spanish blood. While much of the Viceregal visual production ignores or stereotypes the black body, the images located within the pages of the three key colonial manuscripts discussed in this article show that the tlacuiloque, not privy to the Hispanic history of racial categorization, rendered black bodies in key positions within these compositions.
By offering a visual alternative to the often negatively stereotyped images of blackness perpetuated in the Americas, these earliest images, though few, offer a glimpse into an African diasporic history untainted by what Krista Thompson describes as the perpetuation of imagery that rendered Africans as “noncitizens, nonhumans, as not representable, or as unworthy or incapable of art” (Thompson 2011: 10). Whether through negative imagery or the lack of representation of them in Western art, African diasporic peoples have been intimately acquainted with the inherent connection between the visual and the self. As Thompson aptly explains, “Who knew better the meaning and uses of the visual in Western society than those who were defined as black, as other, as property, based on the surface appearance of their skins?” (Thompson 2011: 11). The very visibility of black skin became codified as the identifier of African-ness, inferiority, and servitude. Yet in these conquest-era tlacuiloque images, such negative associations are largely absent. Within them we see a glimmer of possibility that exists beyond (or before) the racism that would come to define the black experience and the representation of blackness on the American continent.
Manuscripts, Pre- and Post-Hispanic Aesthetic Practice, and the Tlacuilo’s Development of New Iconography
All three manuscripts under discussion were commissioned by Spaniards and created by now-anonymous indigenous tlacuiloque (singuar tlacuilo). These individuals were trained in the Aztec-Mixtec writing tradition, a technique that combined ideographic, phonetic, pictographic, and mathematical elements to create what Miguel León Portilla describes as “true works of literature” (Léon Portilla 2001: 64). Much as alphabetic writing functioned elsewhere, the image in the Mesoamerican world was used to document and disseminate knowledge (Magaloni Kerpel 2014: 18).
In Nahuatl, cultural knowledge and wisdom were described as in tlilli in tlapalli, which translates to “the black ink, the colors” (Léon Portilla 2001: 66–67; see also Boone 2000). This describes the convention in which tlacuiloque created images outlined in black and filled in with color. Erudition and aesthetic practice were intimately linked, not only linguistically but mythically as well. The artist-scribe’s patron was the divine hero god Quetzalcoatl, the bringer of both art and knowledge to humanity via the Toltecs who in turn transmitted these skills to the Mexica (Aztecs). The making of images was thus intimately linked with the recording and acquisition of wisdom.
As Michael Baxandall has established, a society’s way of viewing itself and the world is communicated through picture-making (Baxandall 1988: 29–103). The stylistic conventions of a cultural group reflects its understanding of the world around it, mirroring the society’s values and interactions.7 After millennia of developing in tlilli in tlapalli, conquest and colonization fundamentally altered the cultural dynamics behind image-making. Suddenly the tlacuilo found him or herself working for Spanish patrons and incorporating the events of the conquest into their new sociocultural realities.
In order to render the appearance of the new arrivals, tlacuiloque had to quickly develop new iconographies. The genre itself, of historical picture-making, was nothing new for the tlacuiloque who had trained in the creation of the xiuhtlapohualamoxtli, or “book of years.” Of the three manuscripts analyzed here, only the Codex Telleriano-Remensis features a fairly traditional format for the annal. The other two (Durán’s Historia and the Codex Azcatitlan), however, also clearly draw from parts of Mesoamerican history-painting tradition.
The Codex Telleriano-Remensis was written a generation after the conquest, and was largely copied from pre-Hispanic texts, the images drawn by two artists (Quiñones Keber 1995: 123). The codex is made up of three traditional manuscript types: the ritual calendar of monthly feasts called veintenas; the tonalamatl, or divinatory almanac; and the xiuhtlapohualamoxtli, a chronicle of Mexica history (Quiñones Keber 1995: 111). The text records more than 350 years of Nahua history beginning with the migration from Aztlán in the twelfth century to the conquest and colonial period up to its mid-sixteenth-century creation. The artist-scribe of the Codex Telleriano-Remensis likely consulted a pre-Hispanic xiuhtlapohualamoxtli and expanded it to include the conquest and early contact period (Quiñones Keber 1995: 123).
While the ritual sections are as tightly organized as they would be in a pre-Hispanic manuscript, the annals deviate drastically from their traditional source, necessitating new iconography to render the arrival of Spaniards and the subsequent events and reordering of society, evident in the people, objects, animals, and the introduction of new modes of representation. The African, like the natives and Europeans throughout the codex, is rendered with conventional Nahua figuration emphasizing figure type rather than individual physiognomy. Figures are shown in isomorphic form in profile with large heads, frontally faced eyes, and large, protruding facial features. Changes to differentiate between groups are encoded in skin color: natives are given a medium brown, Spaniards a light tan, and the singular African is rendered in a deep brown. Hair and headgear are also signifiers, with indigenous male commoners shown with a straight fringed bob while Spaniards are typically rendered with beards and a variety of hats or hairstyles including tonsures, helmets, miters, and crowns. The African figure notably has cropped and curly hair, a notation of the appearance of African hair texture.
This modification of hair to suit an African phenotype shows the artist’s observation of difference. Indigenous artist-scribes took note of African bodies, not only in such images but also in written form. The Florentine Codex, commissioned by Bernardino de Sahagún, was an ethnographic study of the culture and history of the Mexica. Sahagún and his former students interviewed elder informants in Nahuatl, which was recorded alongside Spanish translations and accompanied by some two thousand illustrations (Sahagún 1950–82). While the images within the codex conspicuously omit the presence of an African soldier, the accompanying text written in Nahuatl mentions that some of the invaders had “tightly curled [hair]—ocolochtic.” The Spanish translation, written opposite the Nahuatl, further explains, “Among the Spaniards came Blacks, who had crisply curled dark hair.”8 Notice that the Nahuatl text emphasized only the hair texture without mentioning skin color. Much as the artist lavishes great attention on European headgear, the curly hair of the African figure serves as a prime marker of difference that separated him from the Spaniards and most obviously from the Nahuas themselves, who had straighter hair.
Curly hair, in fact, was considered a negative trait for the Mexica. During the festival of Toxcatl, the ixiptla (ritual impersonator) of the supreme god Tezcatlipoca was, according to Sahagún, “without defects,” and among the list of traits it is noted that “he was not curly haired” (Sahagún 1950–82: bk. 3, 66). Straight hair was a sign of beauty, while curly hair was considered unattractive. This parallel did not exist in regard to skin color: lighter skin in the Mexica worldview was not more beautiful than dark skin, which in fact had numerous positive associations. Evidently, the finely curled hair of Africans was a more striking difference than skin color, which was not so notably different from that of natives themselves, being just a few shades darker.
All of these conventions were developed by the tlacuiloque of the manuscript who re-created the events of the recent past using their powers of observation and recording. Whereas European artists had previously depicted Africans, it was a new phenotypical subject for the tlacuilo. Recording different ethnic identities, however, was nothing new in Mesoamerican visual culture. Indigenous artists in Mexico used markers such as dress and material culture to convey ethnicity since as early as the Classic period (ca. AD 150–650) (Pasztory 1989: 15–38). For stratified societies, the depiction of distinct ethnic or racial groups was key in the effort to order and codify power. With the Spanish conquest and development of a multiracial society, notions of difference and new social orders emerged. First referred to informally as géneros de gente (types of people) and later codified into a sistema de castas (caste system), colonial citizens were grouped based on the amount (or lack) of Spanish blood (Schwaller 2016; Magali Carrera 2003; Martínez 2004; Lewis 2003). While these notions of difference are rooted in a Spanish worldview, the tlacuiloque also clearly noticed and recorded the diverse types of people in the new colony and their related hierarchies.
José Rabasa describes the artist-scribe’s inventive depictions of European objects and people and even the occasional adoption of European perspective as instances in which “the observer found himself observed, . . . a return of the tlacuilo’s gaze that exposes the gaze of the missionary” (Rabasa 2011: 1–2, 47). He suggests, for example, that the images of the Spanish friars may have been read as caricatures of the very friars who supervised the creation of the manuscript. This inventiveness indicates that while created under Spanish aegis, the tlacuiloque of the Codex Telleriano-Remensis had relative autonomy in the painting of the manuscript, exhibited not only in its indigenous pictorial style but also in the development of new iconography and adoption of European visual devices.
The Codex Telleriano-Remensis is remarkable among the group discussed in this article for its indigenous style, including Nahua glyphic and visual conventions. It stands out as well for its iconography: it is the only example showing the repercussions of a rebellion, while the other early images of Africans showed them as members of the conquistador Hernán Cortés’s convoy.
Alliance, Revolt, and Punishment in the Codex Telleriano-Remensis
The figure in the Telleriano-Remensis shows the hanged individual as a symbol of the repercussions of a major slave uprising that took place in Mexico City in 1537. The figure and its annotation record events enumerated in Antonio de Mendoza’s letter to King Charles I of Spain. Mendoza, the first viceroy, writes of the election of an African king who plotted with native allies to overthrow the Spaniards and take over the lands of New Spain.9 In order to quell the fledgling uprising, Mendoza sent natives to round up rebel African leaders in Mexico City and the mines of Amatepacque for execution. Mendoza reveals many of the anxieties of the period within the letter, expressing concern about knowledge received by both Africans and Indians in the colonies and concerns about the paucity of boats arriving from Spain. Mendoza suggests an increase in Spanish ships as well as a decrease in the importation of Africans, stressing that too many would heighten their ability to rebel.
Both Mendoza’s letter and the annotation in the codex indicate how early on Africans rebelled against their enslavement. We may think of the image of the hanged African as an indication of centuries of discord to play out throughout the Americas through enslavement, uprising, escape, and various forms of corporal punishment. Rather than configure the image as symbolic of only the vanquished slave, we might think instead of the figure as indicative of the many individuals who rose up against the conditions of slavery. Furthermore, considering the authorship of the image, it may indicate indigenous sympathies with the plight of Africans.
The annotator reports the rebellion of negros and the subsequent hanging of their leaders as well as the “smoking star” (comet) and violent earthquake of that year. An ollin glyph representing movement of the earth through seismic activity is placed below the hanged figure. Beside him, also connected to the date sign above by a thin black line, is the “smoking star.” Both earthquake and comet were natural phenomena associated with bad omens.10 All three images—hanged man, earthquake, and comet—are further indicators of the unrest of the early colonial period that punctuates the text (Lockhart 1993: 51–53).
Mendoza mentions an allegiance between the Indians and Africans, and perhaps the prominent inclusion of the African alongside the foreboding comet and earthquake signifies the incorporation of Africans and their circumstances into the system of signs and portents that characterized the Nahua illustrated histories. Such evidence of alliances between Africans and indigenous peoples was rarely recorded, and, in fact, colonial documents tended to focus on instances of African-native hostility rather than coexistence and alliance building.11
Consequently, whatever documentation of interaction between Africans and native peoples there was tended to be negative, thereby reflecting Spanish self-interest. In the case of the 1537 slave revolt, Mendoza’s letter indicates the anxiety about the conspiring between the two groups, just the type of “flagrant violation,” to use Patrick Carroll’s term, that would be recorded (Carroll 2005: 252). And while the codex does not depict an alliance, speaking only of the negros revolting, it does point out the “smoking star” and the terrible earthquake of that year, thus associating typically Nahua concepts of unrest with the chaos of the squelched rebellion. Furthermore, the iconographic conventions that accompany the glyph reveal the ways in which the indigenous tlacuilo imbued the hanged figure with both Nahua and Spanish symbols.
The platform at the base of the typically European scaffold resembles a Mexica stepped pyramid, manmade sacred “mountains” topped with temples to the gods. The Nahua written convention for recording a city’s conquest features a toppled temple platform, seen at the bottom of the frontispiece of the Codex Mendoza, an early colonial document that features typical indigenous glyphic representation (see fig. 2). Similar to prehispanic militaristic conquest, the Spaniards who conquered Central Mexico also destroyed the great pyramids, at times erecting their Christian churches directly atop them. This symbolic gesture of the vanquished god superseded by the victor’s god was replicated in miniature in what Christian Nahuas called the momoxtli, an altar on which a cross is erected, seen in the Testerian catechism of 1614 that translates the Lord’s Prayer into a rebus for the instruction of indigenous Christian neophytes (see fig. 3). Before the arrival of the Spanish conquerors, momoxtli referred to a platform, stage, or altar for human sacrifice (Orduña 2011: 219).
Much as the stepped pyramid served as an altar-stage for the ritualistic act of human sacrifice, the early colonial momoxtli presented the symbol of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. The African on folio 45 recto is rendered with this same convention, the scaffold from which he hangs shown mounted atop the momoxtli. Furthermore, the toppled temples in and around the Mexica capital may still have been visible. The enormous Templo Mayor complex was not entirely dismantled for quite some time after the entrada, despite the fact that the earliest Spanish maps depict an entirely Hispanicized city center. The Codex Mendoza, for instance, records the Mexica leader Tlacotzin’s efforts to preserve Tenochtitlan’s indigenous infrastructure (Mundy 2015: 81). Folio 64 recto of that manuscript credits him with maintaining streets and bridges that are depicted as leading to an adjoining temple pyramid. Clearly, these structures were still seen, at least in part, in many of the most prominent parts of the city. The massive Templo Mayor still cast its shadow over the Plaza Mayor where Cortes set up gallows in the months after the conquest. Here the indigenous residents who had been exiled by the Spaniards were publically punished if they attempted to move back into the center of the city (Mundy 2015: 76). We can imagine, then, that alongside the figure of the hanged African in the Telleriano-Remensis, the momoxtli, temple base, and main plaza are conflated into a single space, harkening back to the sacrificial victims who died atop the great pyramids and representing the human deaths that occurred now within the same central urban space.
Even when hanged for disobeying Spanish authority, both indigenous and African victims were given the chance to accept Christianity and repent, following Spanish custom. The Telleriano-Remensis African is shown with a cross in hand, indicating he died in a state of grace, having been granted confession and absolution prior to execution. In the Old World as in the New, Africans were believed to have been corrupted by exposure to Islam, a religion that the friars were eager to eradicate following the Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula (Martínez 2009: 96). Indigenous people, by contrast, were seen as pure and eager to be molded into true Christians. For this reason, it was argued that the Indians should not be enslaved while Africans were natural slaves.12
As the colonial hierarchy evolved, Africans were placed into the Republica de Españoles rather than the Republica de Indios. Though this placement may be read as a sign of higher status for Africans, in fact it offered them few advantages and subjected them to greater control. They were associated with the Spaniards, often living in close proximity to them as slaves, which differentiated them from natives who were pushed to the outskirts of Mexico City and placed in reducciones in other parts of the Viceroyalty. As members of the Republic of Spaniards, they were expected to be true Christians and yet they were often not afforded the rights and privileges that were the lone domain of the peninsular Spanish and later creole Spanish overlords. Indigenous people, while undoubtedly exploited, were in some instances paternalistically protected by Spanish authorities. Africans thus occupied a liminal “in-between” space of being associated with but not fully regarded as Spanish. The ambiguous way that groups viewed each other was particularly notable to the tlacuiloque, who were perhaps unsure how to categorize the negros who arrived alongside the powerful Spaniards, a sentiment that is crystalized in the second category of first African images: those of the black conquistador.13
Black Conquistadors in the Codex Azcatitlan and Durán’s
The Codex Azcatitlán is a manuscript created in the mid-sixteenth century by tlacuiloque from the city of Tlatelolco. It chronicles the migration of the Mexica from their ancestral home in Aztlán to found the cities of Tlatelolco and Tenochtitlan. Of interest to the present study is plate 23, “The March of the Spaniards into Mexico,” which records the Spanish army led by Cortés and Malinche, a Nahua noblewoman who became Cortés’s interpreter (see fig. 4). The two leaders are followed by numerous armed henchmen and a trailing group of native porters bearing heavy loads. The soldiers wear armor and carry lances and shields, their faces obscured by their helmets. The single African in the group stands out markedly: he is placed near the front with only one soldier between him and Cortés.
The figure may be a reference to one Juan Garrido, an African auxiliary in Cortés’s militia (Restall 2000: 175). Garrido famously petitioned Charles I of Spain for recognition of his involvement in the conquest of Mexico.14 He was born in Africa, traveled to Portugal, and eventually arrived in Seville before setting off to the New World, becoming one of the first Africans to reach American shores, arriving in Santo Domingo as early as 1510.15 It is likely, in fact, that Garrido was one of a group of Africans involved in Cortés’s mission. Matthew Restall explains: “The proportion of black armed auxiliaries in expeditions such as that of Cortés is . . . difficult to assess, as Spanish conquest accounts tend to ignore them or mention them only in vague or passing terms” (Restall 2000: 179). Clearly, however, for the tlacuilo of the Codex Azcatitlan, the African soldier was distinctive and worth recording.
While the porters in back (the Tlaxcalan allies of the Spaniards) are shown floating in space, Malinche, Cortés, the African figure (Garrido?), and the henchmen are shown illusionistically along a path with a rolling horizon line following European pictorial conventions. Federico Navarette argues that such changes in the manuscript’s perspective were purposeful. Spanish figures and the portions most relevant for a Spanish audience were rendered with European conventions while the narrative sections concerned with indigenous matters use their own style and modes of representation (Navarette 2004: 145–46). This line of reasoning is interesting to consider in light of plate 23, where the African figure is shown entrenched within the Spanish army and given a prominent position near the front. He exists within the “Spanish” space of the image, as does Malinche, the indigenous interpreter. It is only two of the three Tlaxcalan porters who hover in space, divorced from the perspectival scheme of the rest of the composition. While a subtle difference, the African’s inclusion with the Spanish group rather than as a lowly servant like the Tlaxcalans indicates an intermediary, liminal position. Although part of the Spanish retinue, the figure is clearly singled out as different and given a prominence not accorded to the indigenous males within the entourage.
Painted a dark brown skin tone with curly black hair, the figure wears fine and colorful clothing: a yellow hat and doublet with red breeches and tights. He holds both a spear like that of the other soldiers and the reigns of the singular horse belonging to their dismounted leader, Cortés. His bright clothing and lack of armor distinguish the black figure from the Spaniards, yet his spear matches that of some of the trailing armored soldiers. The figure may perhaps be identified as Cortés’s servant, perhaps a groom or page, holding the leader’s reins and spear in either hand. The figure is clearly shown as an auxiliary, though possibly one who was himself unarmed.
The black conquistador as auxiliary is similarly rendered in Dominican friar Diego Durán’s The History of the Indies of New Spain, written between 1574 and 1581 (Durán 1994: xxviii; see fig. 5). Durán and his indigenous assistants traveled the Basin of Mexico collecting accounts of Mexica history and of the events of the conquest. Durán’s African figure similarly holds the leader’s horse, wears fine clothing that distinguishes him from both Mexica and Spaniards, and holds an almost identical spear. The figure of Cortés, just as in the Codex Azcatitlan, has dismounted his horse and removed his hat as a sign of respect. In Durán’s text, however, the image of Moctezuma is illustrated on the same folio rather than on the following (missing) page as in the Codex Azcatitlan. Two pages earlier, the Spanish leader is shown on horseback receiving the peaceful Tlaxcalans (see fig. 6). Here the Spanish soldiers are absent, showing the black conquistador’s distinctive role in this image as a servant of Cortés.
Even before the entrada, Nahua scouts sent by Moctezuma to survey the troops on the coast noted their varied skin color. According to Sahagún, Moctezuma was convinced that the Spaniards were gods, perhaps the return of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent.16 The Nahuatl account in Sahagún’s Florentine Codex reads: “They [the Spaniards] were called and given the name of gods who have come from heaven, and the blacks were called soiled gods.”17 While the Spanish translation makes no differentiation between the color of the black skin of the conquistadors themselves (los negros) and the concept of black gods (dioses negros), the Nahuatl translation differentiates between these two concepts.18 The Nauhatl word tliltque means “black people” or “black men”; the term was likely invented in this early contact period from the root word tlilli, meaning soot or black.19 Yet when referring to the gods, the Nahuatl text describes them as tliltique teucacatzacti, or “soiled gods.” This description of the black conquistadors as soiled gods likely derives from Mexica associations with blackened deities. Alfredo López Austin notes that there was a clear relationship between darkness and holiness and that the Nahuatl word teotl, which translates as god or sacred essence, also refers in some cases to blackness (López Austin 1990: 145). Mexica priests often painted themselves black to honor male deities and to embody the sacred prestige associated with blackness. This is seen in an image of a priest performing a ritual sacrifice in the Codex Tudela, a sixteenth-century Mexica manuscript (see fig. 7).20 The priest is shown with a dark brown skin tone that contrasts with the tan coloring of the sacrificial victim, indicating the use of body paint likely derived from poisonous or hallucinogenic plants and animals. This paint not only associated the body with the potency of blackness but also could provide bodily protection during harmful activities such as entering caves, sacred places of emergence, and portals to the underworld.
At times of turmoil or change, these same salves were placed on the Mexica ruler himself, allowing passage through ritualistic liminal zones (Peterson 2012: 61). The most powerful figures were routinely depicted as black, following Nahua conventions as a sign of their male sacred power and leadership. In this context, it is not surprising that the tlacuiloque took note of the African physiognomy, which evidently was noticeably darker than that of the Spaniards and perhaps conjured up preconquest notions of blackness and its connection to the divine.
By contrast, Europeans associated blackness with ugliness and sin and regarded whiteness as beautiful and holy.21 As Erin Rowe points out, “When meditating on the black skin color of sub-Saharan Africans, Franciscan missionary Juan de Torquemada (d.1624) decried blackness as a deformity—so ugly it was clearly a punishment from God.”22 These earliest images of Africans, then, indicate that the Spanish hatred of blackness was not understood by indigenous tlacuiloque, as such a binary distinction did not exist in Nahua cosmology.23 Africans in fact are given prominent places within the narrative of the entrada and its consequences. As the Mexica became entrenched in the colonial order, however, Africans were soon recognized as subordinates to their Spanish rulers.
Omission of the African Presence
While notable in indigenous accounts, the African presence was often ignored in Spanish chronicles of the entrada (Restall 2000: 184). Instead, the conquest was envisioned as an epic clash between Spaniards and Indians, with the valiant Spaniards portrayed as heroes. Numerous Spanish conquest accounts completely ignore African contributions, and those that mention it often do so only in passing (179). These chronicles were often used for social advancement, and the inclusion of Africans in the narrative was therefore peripheral to that goal. As Africans were captured and brought to the Viceroyalty in increasing numbers, their involvement in the conquest faded further from memory.
By the late seventeenth century, Antonio de Solís’s Historia de la conquista de México (Solís 1684) became the most popular account of the conquest on both sides of the Atlantic. Solís’s text details the encounter of Cortés and Moctezuma and the fall of Tenochtitlan, compiled using Cortes’s letters (1519–25) and narratives written by Bernal Diaz del Castillo (1552–80) and Francisco Lopez de Gomara (1553). Despite other evidence to the contrary, both Cortés and Diaz del Castillo fail to mention the presence of Africans during the conquest. Lopez de Gomara, however, does mention an African member of Cortes’s retinue, whom he blames for introducing smallpox and measles to the fledgling colony. A classic example of Spanish scapegoating, the African is mentioned only as the cause of discord (Restall 2000: 176). Lopez de Gomara’s account, like that of Solís, was secondhand, compiled from the accounts of conquistadors. Despite having never set foot on Mexican soil, he alone mentions the Africans who participated in the entrada, if only pejoratively. Africans were largely left out of the most popular narratives of the conquest.
This omission is evident as well in the visual record of the period. Perhaps one of the most famous images of the conquest of Mexico is in the seventeenth-century biombo, or painted screen, now housed at the Museo Franz Mayer in Mexico City (see Sanabrais 2015). One side of the biombo offers an idealized view of Mexico City and its environs devoid of its human inhabitants. The opposite side shows a panoramic scene of the conquest that includes events from battles in multiple cities. The view offers a continuous narrative pulsating with Spaniards and natives locked in combat. Gauvin Bailey points out that the two groups are rendered as equals in number, military might, and splendid regalia (Bailey 2006: 159). Biombos were commissioned for wealthy viceregal palaces as part of the process of cultivating a sophisticated criollo identity. Inspired by Asian models, incorporating European styles of painting, and rendering Mexican subjects, they crystalize the cosmopolitan tastes of viceregal Mexico. Despite this, the African presence is notably absent.
Not one African conquistador is depicted on the biombo, which is populated by hundreds of figures. The conquest scene is based on Solis’s Historia de la Conquista, which would have been well known among the learned elites of Mexico City at the time of the creation of the biombo (Mundy 2011: 166). This painted screen thus celebrates the popular narrative of the entrada, which by this point fails to acknowledge the presence of Africans within the Spanish retinue. By ignoring the presence of Africans in early conquest battles, Spanish narratives, as Herman Bennett comments, “den[ied] the complexity that characterized the initial ethnography of the Nahua” (Bennett 2009: 213). While the iconography of the black conquistador quickly faded, the extant images within contact period codices showcase both the keen observations of the tlacuiloque and the active role that Africans played in the formation of viceregal New Spain.
While much of the viceregal visual record ignores the black body, the images located within the pages of the three key manuscripts discussed in this article show that some indigenous artists in the early contact period found Africans notable and worthy of recording. These artists were now working under Spanish patronage, combining the inherited and newly introduced modes of representation. Following the tradition of the xiuhtlapohualamoxtli, the tlacuiloque recorded the events of the conquest and colonization of their people. Yet within that encounter lay not two monolithic cultural groups, but numerous ethnic and racial identities. These images of Africans captured by indigenous artists obfuscate the hegemony of the Spaniards. An indigenous hand renders an African body, the imagining of a cross-cultural exchange reduced to a few inches within a much larger narrative.
By the seventeenth century and into the eighteenth, the iconography of Mexican blackness had been reduced to mythologized or stereotyped figures. Africans were pictured as historical Catholic saints, as allegories of the African continent, or (negatively) stereotyped as racial “types” in casta paintings. Despite their visual absence as agentival agents, Afro-Mexicans continued to live, work, and even prosper within a society that denied their very personhood. Whereas under civic law Africans were seen as chattel, within the Catholic Church they were deemed fully human (Bennett 2009: 1). Africans and their descendants were able to legally marry within the Church, and they were also able to secure a degree of legitimacy through the development of their religious and familial lives.24
The archival records unearthed by scholars such as Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán, Matthew Restall, Herman Bennett, María Elisa Velázquez Gutiérrez, Ben Vinson, and Nicole von Germeten indicate the complex interactions and efforts exerted by Africans to gain their freedom and live as full citizens.25 This struggle continued into the modern era, when the African presence remained overlooked in the Mexican collective memory. In the 1920s, José Vasconcelos, the reformist minister of education, declared that the Mexican people were the “cosmic race,” made up of the best characteristics of the Spanish and Indian forebears (Vasconselos  1948). Vasconcelos insisted that the African influence in Mexico was negligible and that if there was any impact at all, it would have had to be negative (Moreno 2006: 15). Within the process of Mexican nation building, the stigma against blackness persisted, as it does in Mexico to the present day. The subject of the first Africans in Mexico therefore is particularly salient in the wake of the recent 2015 census, which for the first time acknowledged the category of Afro-Mexicans, despite the evident reckoning with alterity by the indigenous tlacuiloque more than four and a half centuries earlier.
Thanks are due to the following individuals who offered feedback on this article: Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank, Elisa Mandel, Lisa Boutin Vitela, Kristen Chiem, Ananda Cohen-Aponte, Lawrence Waldron, Eloise Quiñones-Keber, Don Wyatt, Emanuela Kucik, and the three anonymous Ethnohistory reviewers.
Theodore DeBry’s prints created for translations of New World travel accounts from Spanish, English, Italian, and Dutch sources included some images of New World Africans. These images were produced in Europe, rather than through direct observation in the Americas as in the codices analyzed in this article. Another notable early image of New World Africans is indigenous Peruvian artist Andrés Sánchez Galque’s Mulato de Esmeraldas (1599), a portrait of Afro-indigenous rulers of Esmeraldas, Ecuador. These examples are later than the dates of both the Telleriano-Remensis and Durán images. See Groesen 2008; and Cummins 2013.
Anthropologist Ivan Van Sertima claimed in 1976 that the Olmec heads were images of Nubian overlords who had sailed to the Americas around 700 BC. This claim, while popular among some Afrocentrists, has been dismissed by Mesoamerican archaeologists. The falsity of Van Sertima’s claims does nothing to undermine the impact of Africans in the Americas, who first arrived not in the eighth century, but in the late fifteenth. See Haslip-Viera, Montellano, and Barbour 1997; and Van Sertima 1976.
So far as the author knows, the only other scholar to point out that the first images of Africans in the Americas were in Mexican codices was Ricardo E. Alegría, who mentions this point briefly in a larger text on the life of the black conquistador Juan Garrido. He mentions only the Durán and Azcatitlan images. See Alegría 1990.
For more on this, see Fisher and O’Hara 2009: 15–23.
For example, Edward Sullivan writes, “The earliest surviving depictions of Africans in the Americas are in paintings by Europeans” (Sullivan 2006: 40).
For more on casta painting, see Katzew 2004.
Magaloni Kerpel (2014: 17) offers a useful discussion of Baxandall’s theories of perception as related to Mesoamerican picture making in The Colors of the New World.
The Nahuatl text says, “ . . . cocototzique ocolochtic,” which translates as “[The Negroes’ hair] was kinky, it was curly.” The accompanying Spanish text reads: “. . . y de como venja algunos negros entre ellos, que tenja los cabellos crespos, y prietos.” See Sahagún 1950–82: bk. 12, chap. 7, 19.
Report of Antonio de Mendoza, Viceroy of New Spain, to King Charles I of Spain, nationalhumanitiescenter.org/pds/amerbegin/settlement/text6/SlavePlotMexico.pdf (accessed 12 April 2016).
“Méxica/Aztec Chronicle, Codex Telleriano-Remensis, historyproject.ucdavis.edu/ic/image_details.php?id=1101026 (accessed 12 April 2016).
The Valladolid debate (1550–51) concerned the status of indigenous people. Dominican friar Bartolomé de Las Casas argued that Amerindians were rational beings who should have equal rights, while theologian Juan Ginés de Spúlveda claimed that they were sinful natural slaves.
Matthew Restall (2009) describes a similar phenomenon, of blacks living connected to yet in between Spanish and indigenous worlds.
Juan Garrido’s probanza (petitionary proof of merit)—dated September 27, 1538 and housed in the Archivo General de Indias, Seville, México, 204, f. 1—was published in Alegría 1990:127–38.
There is disagreement over whether Garrido was ever enslaved. All sources, as well as Garrido’s probanza, indicate that he was free at the time of his arrival in the Americas. See Alegría 1990: 19–22.
Restall (2003: 100–130) debunks this “Desolation Myth” as a Eurocentric revision promoted by the Franciscans.
From chapter 8 of Fray Bernardino de Sahagún’s Florentine Codex as translated in Lockhart 1993: 82. The original reads: “ic tocaiotiloque, teteu ilhuicac auh in tliltique teucacatzacti mitoque.”
From chapter 8 of the Florentine Codex translated in Lockhart 1993: 82. The Spanish text reads: “. . . y el lo mando hazer porque tenia que aquellos erá dioses que venian del cielo: y los negros pensaron que eran dioses negros.”
whp.uoregon.edu/dictionaries/nahuatl/index.lasso?&dowhat=FindJustOne&theRecID=115651&theWord=tlilli (accessed 5 September 2016).
Codex Tudela: ceres.mcu.es/pages/ResultSearch?Museo=MAM&txtSimpleSearch=C%F3dice%20Tudela%20o%20del%20Museo%20de%20Am%E9rica&simpleSearch = 0&hipertextSearch=1&search=simple&MuseumsSearch=MAM%7C&MuseumsRolSearch=11&listaMuseos=%5BMuseo%20de%20Am%E9rica%5D (accessed 5 September 2016).
Rowe 2016: 57, referring to Juan de Torquemada, Primera parte de los veinte i un libros rituales i monarchia Indiana (Madrid: Nicolas Rodríguez, 1724), 611.
For more on notions of racism in the early modern period, see Eliav-Feldon, Isaac, and Ziegler 2009.
Africans also used military service as a means of advancing in the viceregal society; see Vinson 2001.