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Estevanico: The man, the myth, the legend

The first Black person in the New World

Merdies Hayes Editor In Chief | 2/15/2019, midnight
This year marks the 400th anniversary of the importation of Africans into the..

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the importation of Africans into the Americas. The history of slavery in the Western Hemisphere has, of course, been well documented but there is one name that is often overlooked in within the posterity of Black people in the New World; Estevanico.

Sometimes called “Mustafa Zemmouri,” “Black Stephen,” “Esteban the Moor” or “Steven Dorantes” (after his owner Andres Dorantes, a Spanish nobleman), Estevanico was a member of the Panfilo de Narvaez 300-man Spanish expedition which arrived in April 1528 near present-day Tampa Bay, Fla. The expedition was largely doomed from the start. This was not uncommon among the list of Spanish conquistadors who ventured to the New World seeking fertile land and untold riches imagined from the artful tales of Giovanni Verrazano who explored the northeast, Cabeza de Vaca in the Gulf of Mexico, Hernando Cortes in Mexico, Hernando de Soto near present-day Florida, and Francisco Pizarro far south in Peru.

Who was Estevanico?

Chroniclers from the 16th Century, who were contemporaries of Estevanico, considered him a Negro. However, modern historians claim he was descended from the Hamites who were White residents of North Africa. According to this theory, Estevanico could not have been Black. Historian Caroll L. Riley has asserted that Estevanico was “Black in the sense that we would use the word in modern America. Actually, in modern generic terms I suspect that Estevanico was very mixed.” Riley also explained that if Estevanico was considered a “Negro,” his mixture must have been mainly Black.

Estevanico in 1513 was sold into slavery to the Portuguese in the town of Azemmour, a Portuguese enclave on Morocco’s Atlantic coast. More contemporary accounts have referred to him as an “Arabized Black” or Moor, the latter term often used for Berber natives. History primarily refers to him as a Black African. A Spaniard, Diego de Guzman, reportedly saw Estevanico in 1536 and described him as “brown.” Estevanico was reared as a Muslim—with some accounts of him converting to Roman Catholocism—but there is little historical account of his religious conversion.

The natives of one tiny island off the mainland coast (Galveston Island near Texas), encountered a strange sight in 1528: A band of emaciated White men lying naked and near dead on the beach. This group, in large part, was what was left from Narvaez’ expedition with de Vaca serving as its treasurer. Narvaez dreamed of riches when he reached the Florida coast and after finding mere traces of gold, he split the group and dispatched the ships toward the River of Palms (today’s Rio Grande) and took the land force toward a reportedly “rich” city brimming with gold and silver called Apalachen (near Tallahassee, Fla.).

A doomed expedition

Instead of finding their heart’s desire in wealth, the only things encountered in the Florida Panhandle were naked Native Indians, low supplies of food and even less game. The 260-man party lasted two weeks in this region, and eventually set out on makeshift boats with sails made from clothing. This was a fateful mistake. There was practically no food left or fresh water to drink. After constantly bailing water from their rickety crafts (and forced to drink salt water), only a few people survived and made it to shore. Narvaez was lost at sea.