Gaspar Yanga was an African who escaped slavery in Mexico (then New Spain) during the early period of Spanish colonial rule, he later led a successful resistance in 1609 against the Spanish and forced recognition of his group’s freedom, self-governance, and rights to the land.
Born in 14 May 1545, Yanga was said to be a member of the royal family of Gabon, Africa, before being kidnapped and sold into slavery in Mexico.
In mexico, Gaspar Yanga and other enslaved men were used for field labour in plantations, while enslaved women filled numerous domestic service positions, like washerwomen, cooks, maids etc.
Around 1570, after years of working in his master’s plantations, Gaspar Yanga led a band of slaves in escaping to the highlands near Veracruz. There they built a small maroon colony which served as a refuge for runaway slaves who were forcibly brought to Mexico from Africa. Its isolation helped protect it for more than 30 years.
The escaped Africans aka maroons survived in part by raiding Spanish settlements and caravans transporting goods to Veracruz.
In 1609, after over thirty years of self rule, the Spanish colonial government decided to undertake a campaign to regain control of Yanga’s maroon colony.
Led by the soldier Pedro González de Herrera, about 550 Spanish troops set out from Puebla. The maroons had a force of less than 500 fighters, some with firearm, others were armed with stones, machetes, bows and arrows.
These maroon troops were led by Francisco de la Matosa, an Angolan.
Yanga, who was quite old at this time, employed his troops’ superior knowledge of the area to draw the Spanish colonial government to the negotiating table.
Upon the approach of the Spanish troops, Yanga sent terms of peace via a captured Spaniard.
He asked for a treaty similar to those that had settled hostilities between the Indigenous peoples and Spaniards, an area of self-rule, in return for tribute, and promises to support the Spanish if they were attacked. In addition, Yanga proposed he would return any slave(s) which might flee to his settlement. This last concession was necessary to soothe the growing worries of the many slave owners in the region.
The Spaniards refused the terms and went into battle, resulting in heavy losses for both sides. Although the Spaniards burned down the maroon settlement, they couldn’t achieve a conclusive victory because the maroons fled into the surrounding terrain, which they knew well.
The resulting stalemate lasted years; finally in 1618, Yanga achieved an agreement with the colonial government for self-rule of the maroon settlement. Located in today’s Veracruz province, the town in the 21st century is known as Yanga.
Five decades after Mexican independence in 1821, Yanga was designated as a “national hero of Mexico” and El Primer Libertador de las Americas (The First Liberator of the Americas).