December 2020

Early pictorial evidence of hybridisation between African and Amerindian populations

The colonising of America was soon drawing on Spaniards, free servants of the Crown, and Africans, slaves on the large plantations which developed in the new colony. The complex geopolitical and socio-economic history of hybridisation between native Amerindians, Spaniards and Africans offers important keys to understanding the extraordinary biological variability of most Latin American countries today, particularly those, such as Ecuador, which incorporated many Spaniards and Africans into the high density Amerindian populations that already existed before colonisation.

Its proximity to Central America (Panama), whence the conquistadors and colonists set off for the south of the continent, meant that the Ecuadorian coasts were navigated by many ships and that, as from the 16th century, the northern Esmeraldas coast of Ecuador witnessed frequent docking of the slave ships headed south to the haciendas. The dangerous rocky coastline saw a high incidence of shipwrecks, which allowed the African slaves to escape and found many settlements of African descent. Two cacicazgos or chiefdoms (the word «cacique» is Taino) stand out, that of the Arobe, in San Mateo and that of the Illescas, in Atacamas. Both were founded by runaway African slaves —«insurgents»— who managed to stay free for many years and to dominate large territories thanks to their hybridisation and cooperation with the natives in the area.

The portrait of the Arobe (1559) which we are studying here is a unique image of the successive inter-breeding of Africans and native Indians which, later on, in the 17th century, began to be portrayed in a more idealised fashion in the so-called «cuadros de castas» («caste paintings»), which depict the offspring of Africans and Amerindians as «zambos», «cambujos» or «lobos» («Afro-Indian», «dark-skinned» or «wolves»).

The cleric and historian Cabello Balboa tells the story in his work Descripción de la provincia de las Esmeraldas (A Description of the Province of Esmeraldas) of the slave ship which transported Andrés Maganche —captured on the coast of Madagascar— and was shipwrecked off the coast of Esmeraldas around 1540. Maganche managed to flee and integrate himself among the local Amerindians of the San Mateo region, where he fathered the Arobe family saga.

The picture portrays Maganche’s son and grandchildren, with the indication of their respective names and ages, and a dedication to the Court of Madrid: «for Phillip III, Catholic King of Spain and the Indies. Dr. Juan del Barrio de Sepúlveda, Judge at the Royal Court in Quito, had it painted at his own expense. 1599».

Their appearance, clothing, piercings, and spears reveal the integration of the three cultures: Amerindian, African and European. The native tunics («uncus») they are wearing show their Amerindian origins, as do the rich gold jewels which adorn their faces. Their dark pigmentation and the iron-tipped spears suggest they came to the area as African slaves. And finally their hats, ruffs, and lace cuffs indicate a European style.

The American origin of the gold leaf used for the facial ornaments and the blue dye used in the clothing is also significant, the pigment being obtained from an American mineral, azurite, which turned out to be cheaper than ultramarine blue and which, in the reign of Phillip II, was included in the range of blues used by Spanish painters.

Towards the end of the 16th century the Spanish, who already had a sheltered harbour in Ecuador (Guayaquil), decided to build another one in the Bahía de San Mateo, on the north coast of Esmeraldas. Aware that they lacked enough troops to defend it against the high risk of invasion by pirates and foreign powers, they decided to count on the aid of the «señores de Esmeraldas» (chiefs of Esmeraldas), offering a pact to the Arobe, leaders of the freedmen’s chiefdom of San Mateo.

Miguel Cabello had managed to convert the Arobe to Christianity, which apparently contributed to a good rapport with the Spanish authorities and which crystallised in the important agreement shown in this picture and which may have enabled the later pact with Illescas.

The negotiations between the judge («oidor») at the Royal Court in Quito, Juan del Barrio de Sepúlveda, and  Francisco Arobe established that the Maroons (runaway slaves) would protect the coast against pirates and other threats, while, in return, the King of Spain would provide them with many gifts (wine, weapons, clothing) and would also grant them a general pardon and would recognise the Maroon government officially. The agreement was sealed in 1599, the year that the Judge invited Francisco Arobe and his sons to Quito, where the painter Andrés Sánchez Gallique immortalised them. It is symbolic that the portrait was commissioned to an artist of Indian or mestizo origins, a member of the first generation of students educated at the San Juan Bautista Arts and Crafts School in Quito, which was founded by a Franciscan.

It has been suggested that with this agreement the Judge also hoped to persuade Illescas, from the other great chiefdom, who had arrived as a slave from Spain and was much less approachable and was considered the greatest threat in the region. Only a year later, in 1600, Alonso Sebastián Illescas arrived in Quito to agree on similar conditions to those of his neighbours.

In 1997 the National Congress of Ecuador institutionalised by statute the 2nd October as Afroecuadorian Day and acknowledged Alonso de Illescas as a National Hero and defender of the freedom and autonomy of the afro-indigenous peoples.


Cristina Bernis is Professor of Physical Anthropology  (Madrid Autonomous University, Spain) and co-director of the Virtual Museum of Human Ecology. More information on this Work of the month is available in Gutiérrez A. 2012. «Nuevas aportaciones en torno al lienzo titulado Los mulatos de Esmeraldas. Estudio técnico, radiográfico e histórico». Anales del Museo de América, 20: 7-64.