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Three Afrikan Skeletons Found in Mexico Show Horrors of Early Slavery in the New World

A skull analyzed in the new study, along with tubes for genetic and isotope testing.
A skull analyzed in the new study, along with tubes for genetic and isotope testing.
Image: Rodrigo Barquera

Three skeletons belonging to African individuals have been uncovered at a mass grave in Mexico City. They represent some of the first African people to arrive into slavery in the New World. An interdisciplinary analysis of these remains is shedding new light on this grim period of history and the harsh conditions endured by the first wave of enslaved Africans in the Americas.

“To the best of our knowledge, they are the earliest genetically identified first-generation Africans in the Americas,” according to the authors of a new paper, published today in Current Biology.

Found in Mexico City, the three skeletons were buried in a mass grave near the former site of the Hospital Real de San José de los Naturales. This early hospital dates back to the early colonial period of New Spain and was primarily used to treat indigenous peoples. All three skeletons date back to this early colonial period in the 16th century, which means these individuals were among the first wave of Africans to be kidnapped and brought to the Americas via the transatlantic slave trade.

An interdisciplinary analysis of these remains paints a bleak picture of their lives, showing evidence of forged migration, physical abuse, and exposure to infectious diseases.

“By investigating the origin and disease experience of these individuals through molecular methods and evaluating the skeleton[s] for signs of life experience and cultural affinity, we illuminate, in some measure, the identity, culture, and life of these people whose history has largely been lost,” wrote the authors in the new study, co-authored by Johannes Krause from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.

The origin of this story goes back to 1518, when Charles I of Spain authorized the transfer of enslaved Africans to the Viceroyalty of New Spain, which at the time included most of what is now Mexico, the Caribbean, and parts of the U.S. and Canada. By 1779, an estimated 130,000 to 150,000 Africans had been forcibly relocated to the Viceroyalty, according to the researchers. Of these, some 70,000 arrived between 1600 and 1640. Writing in the new paper, the authors explained the sudden increase in relocation of enslaved individuals:

…in part due to a reduction in the indigenous labor force that resulted from both casualties in the many conflicts during the European conquest and from diseases (among them, small-pox, measles, and typhoid fever) that devastated nearly 90% of the native population. Creoles, Africans, mulattoes, and other African-descended groups were thought to have higher resistance to these diseases compared to Indigenous Americans and Europeans making them desirable assets. Further to this, Las Leyes Nuevas (The New Laws) of 1542 prohibited the use of Native American labor as slaves in New Spain.

To analyze the three skeletons, the authors combined genetic and isotopic evidence, along with physical evidence gleaned from the remains.

Proof that these people came from Africa came from multiple sources. First, their upper teeth showed evidence of decorative filing, a known cultural practice of some African tribes. Second, these three individuals shared a Y-chromosome lineage that is strongly correlated to people from sub-Saharan Africa and is now the most common genetic lineage among living African Americans. And thirdly, dental isotopes extracted from their teeth showed that the individuals were born outside of Mexico, having spent their entire youth in Africa, according to the research.

Skulls and dental decoration patterns observed on the skeletal remains.
Skulls and dental decoration patterns observed on the skeletal remains.
Image: Collection of San José de los Naturales, Osteology Laboratory, (ENAH), Mexico City, Mexico. Photo: R. Barquera & N. Bernal

Analysis of the skeletons suggests these people were subjected to physical abuse and intense manual labor, such as muscle-derived patterns on bones and signs of hernia on vertebrae. Other evidence pointed to “nutritionally inadequate diets, anemia, parasitic infectious diseases, and blood loss,” wrote the authors.

These enslaved Africans were also victims of extreme violence. One skeleton had five copper buckshots fired from a gun, while another showed signs of skull and leg fractures. None of these injuries resulted in their deaths, but all three died prematurely.

“And since they were found in this mass burial site, these individuals likely died in one of the first epidemic events in Mexico City,” explained Rodrigo Barquera, the first author of the study and a graduate student at MPI SHH, in a press release. “[We] can tell they survived the maltreatment that they received. Their story is one of difficulty but also strength, because although they suffered a lot, they persevered and were resistant to the changes forced upon them.”

The analysis also resulted in the detection of two known pathogens, namely the virus responsible for Hepatitis B virus (HBV) and the bacterium responsible for yaws (Treponema pallidum pertenue), which causes symptoms similar to syphilis. Importantly, this is the earliest evidence of HBV and yaws in the Americas.

Joint and bone damage found on the skeletal remains: (A) extensive bone wear, (B) signs of hernia on a vertebrae, (C and D) greenish coloration as evidence of a copper bullet.
Joint and bone damage found on the skeletal remains: (A) extensive bone wear, (B) signs of hernia on a vertebrae, (C and D) greenish coloration as evidence of a copper bullet.
Image: Collection of San José de los Naturales, Osteology Laboratory, (ENAH), Mexico City, Mexico. Photo: R. Barquera & N. Bernal

“Although we have no indication that the HBV lineage we found established itself in Mexico, this is the first direct evidence of HBV introduction as the result of the transatlantic slave trade,” said Denise Kühnert, a co-author of the study and an expert in infectious diseases at MPI SHH. “This provides novel insight into the… history of the pathogen.”

The same could hold true for yaws, which was common in the Americas during the colonial period. Prior to the new study, however, the oldest genetic evidence of yaws came from a 17th-century European colonist.

“It is plausible that yaws was not only brought into the Americas through the transatlantic slave trade but may subsequently have had a considerable impact on the disease dynamics in Latin America,” added Kühnert.

Needless to say, this is among the trickier aspects of the new study; linking the presence of HBV and yaws in these individuals to the spread of diseases from Africa to the Americas is a precarious proposition at best. Future research is needed.

The new paper presents a devastating snapshot of life during the early colonial period and the tremendous hardships endured by the tens of thousands of people abducted from Africa.


The first black president of Mexico whose execution shocked the nation

Vincente Guerrero. Photo: Institute of the Black World

When black leader Vincente Guerrero campaigned for president in 1828, sources say he had to fight the “lighter-skinned Mexican elite that was bent on maintaining a system of white supremacy in Mexico.”Even before he could abolish slavery, he had to face a Spanish invasion. There was another hurdle. Despite helping Mexico fight against Spain for independence in the early 19th Century, Guerrero had to deal with some influential Mexicans who looked down on him for having Afro-Indio roots and for being a mule driver by trade.

A descendant of the about 250,000 enslaved Africans brought to Mexico during colonial times, Guerrero was born on August 9, 1783, in Tixtla, now the state of Guerrero in Mexico, to a humble family.

His father, Juan Pedro Guerrero, was African- Mexican while his mother, Guadalupe Saldaña, was a native Mexican.

It is recorded that in the 16th Century, New Spain had the largest number of African slaves of all the Americas. A 1595 census showed that Afro-Mexicans outnumbered Spanish and Mestizos (persons of indigenous and Spanish mixed-descent) in urban towns.

By 1646, the numbers had increased to 116,529 for Afro-Mexicans and 35,089 for Africans.

Growing up without a formal education, Guerrero took to farming and later became the mule driver transporting goods.

He eventually became one of the few great figures who fought for independence throughout the entire period of 1810 to 1821. It has been documented that with his knowledge of native languages, he was able to rise in rank.

As a commander-in-chief of the Mexican army during the last three years of Mexico’s war of independence from Spain, Guerrero took certain actions that would ultimately bring him victory.

He basically sent letters to Mexican officers who were fighting for Spain, asking them to switch sides. Gaining victory with his team, Guerrero later served as President of Mexico, coming to power in a coup.

Guerrero served in a three-person “Junta” that governed the then independent Mexico from 1823-24, until the election that brought into power the first president of Mexico Guadalupe Victoria, according to BlackPast.In 1828, Guerrero and Ignacio Esteva created the first “People’s Party” in Mexico and its followers put Guerrero in the presidency in April 1829.

As head of the party, BlackPast writes that Guerrero “called for public schools, land title reforms, and other programs of a liberal nature.”

In 1829, he became the second president of Mexico, and went on to “champion the cause not only of the racially oppressed but also of the economically oppressed.” In September that same year, he formally abolished slavery, many years before Abraham Lincoln of the U.S.

Wanting his administration to be a reflection of the broad coalition he built during the 1810 war, he allowed conservatives and political centrists to dominate his cabinet, writes The Berkely Daily Planet.

He also accepted as Vice President a man who had “spent most of the independence war in the uniform of Spain.”“The political coalition Guerrero built fractured six months into his office, not from abandonment by the left, but by the right. His abolition of slavery, his promotion of a wider suffrage and his imposition of a stiff progressive tax code cost him most of his few upper-class supporters—including two cabinet members. In 1830 the conservatives rebelled, and led by Vice President Bustamante, they drove Guerrero from the capital. Most of the president’s progressive legislation was rescinded, but not the abolition of slavery, which had wide public support,” The Berkely Daily Planet continued.

Eventually, Guerrero, who believed in civil rights for all, especially African Mexicans, was betrayed by a group of reactionaries who captured him and ultimately executed him on February 14, 1831, an act that shocked many others.

Described as the “greatest man of color” by most Mexicans, Guerrero is also remembered for his eloquence, which he displayed in his first speech to Congress:

“If we succeed in spreading the guarantees of the individual, if equality before the law destroys the efforts of power and gold, if the highest title between us is that of citizen, if the rewards we bestow are exclusively for talent and virtue, we have a republic, and she will be conserved by the universal suffrage of a people solid, free and happy.”


Kramanti, the Afrikan dialect that outlived slavery to become Jamaica’s identity

Photo Credit: Continental Currency Exchange

The era of slavery is one of the cruelest times in human existence mainly because it was an atrocity committed by humans on other humans regarded as inferior. The effects and fallouts of the many centuries of the commoditization of human beings on the market, are still very fresh on the minds of many.By and by, new discoveries, researches and stories emerge around the era, helping current generations appreciate the practice, reasons, motivations and destructions that Africans, who formed the majority of people who were enslaved, underwent.

There’s one other evidence of somewhat good that slavery brought to the world and that should not be overlooked.

For instance, when the Europeans came to Africa to take slaves and bring them to the Americas, they did not simply come ashore and start raiding to capture as many slaves as they could. They came to exploit these countries and territories, long before and during the period of their trade of human beings.

But while people were forcibly relocated from their homes to other locations in the world to work and help build other economies, one other thing that they carried along with them was their cultural blueprints which includes their language.

And as a way of preserving their identities, we are aware of the immense role folklore played in slave communities.

The Jamaican Maroon people/My Island Jamaica

That takes us to Jamaica. In Jamaica today, the Maroons, believed to be escaped slaves who ran away from their Spanish-owned plantation when the British took the Caribbean island in 1655, reflect the linguistic effect of one of the most predominant languages of West Africa learned from slaves who connected from Ghana to the Caribbean.

Kramanti. This Akan-inspired language from Ghana, derived its name from the major coastal slavery town of Kormantse. Kormantse, in colonial history, is very important in Ghana as it serves as a historic site for the slave trade.

Historically, it is called Cromantin (Kromantine or Coromantyn), as that was how the British used to call it while referring to slaves taken from this port as the Cromantin slaves. And for Jamaicans, this place in Ghana is where they refer to “their natural home.”

Fort Amsterdam located in Kormantse, Ghana/

According to history, the slaves from Kormantse were notorious for causing most of the slave uprisings in the Caribbean, South and North America, making them one of the few groups of slaves that their masters feared the most.

It was so intense that an edict was eventually issued in the Caribbean to halt the importation of slaves from that port. But before all of that stopped, the Cromantin slaves were able to establish their language in their new land.In many parts of the Americas, including Suriname, Guyana and Carriacou, Coromantee and similar labels have been used for ethnic, linguistic and cultural groups with what appear to be Akan origins.

In a research sponsored by UNESCO in collaboration with the Jamaican Language Unit, Department of Language, Linguistic and Philosophy at the University of West Indies, it has been established that Kramanti was still spoken ‘freely’ in Moore Town till the early 1930s.

C.L.G Harris, in his 1994 work titled, ‘The true traditions of my ancestors,’ claims that the language was used alongside an archaic variety of English lexicon Creole styled in the literature as ‘Maroon Spirit Language’ (MSL). However, the language is referred to by its speakers as Deep Patwa.

Even though, in the 1930s, an English Creole vernacular was the most common means of communication within the community, Kramanti was used in preference to Creole at certain times. These included at Christmas time, which was a prolonged period of merriment, and during the frequent stagings of the Kramanti Play.

The Play was a ceremony that involved the process of summoning of ancestors, which involves the use of Deep Patwa (Maroon Spirit Language) for communicating with the more recently dead, Jamaica-born ancestors. Kramanti is employed for communication with the earliest Maroon ancestors, many of whom were born in Africa.However, there are many who have argued on whether or not Kramanti should be viewed or not as a dead language. In one sense actually, it is because it is a language used for communicating with the spirits of the dead. However, this is in a culture in which the dead, though absent in material form, are always present in spirit. Speaking of them is regarded as invoking their presence.

This is a language used by the living as part of their normal daily communication acts. It is simply that, within the culture, normal communication networks include the dead. In this latter sense, Kramanti is a living language.

M. Alleyne (1988) in his research, takes only a marginally more optimistic view. He comments that though Kramanti is dying, it is not dead. He notes that the language is hardly ever used in ordinary everyday contexts, but that ‘Scott’s Hall and Moore Town Maroons can carry on conversations in the old language on request, but that they use fixed and stylized expressions, and all creativity is lost’ (Alleyne 1988, pp. 126-7).



The story of Breffu, a female slave from Ghana who led a massive slave revolt to take over the West Indies in 1733

Many rebellions took place during the peak of the slave trade. The reasons for the amuprising are simple; enslaved Africans were tired of being abused, misused and mistreated. They were also tired of seeing each other die and living in stark poverty all their lives.

Enslaved Africans were not allowed to voice out their troubles and problems; this led to the act of rebelling against their masters and fleeing to freedom, their only way of being heard.

In 1733, one such revolt against the Danes in the West Indies happened. Known as the 1733 slave insurrection on St John, it is one of the longest lasting rebellion recorded in the history of the Americas lasting from November 1733 to August 1734. It is also one of the earliest to have occurred.

European power over the West Indies from late 1600 to 1718 shifted between the Spanish, British, French, Dutch and the Danes.  By 1718, the Danes had full control over the land and established a proper settlement. Slaves already existed in the West Indies, and a  high number of them were from West Africa, notably present-day  Ghana.

In November 1733, enslaved Akans from the Kingdom of Akwamu in Ghana were led by Breffu, a young female rebel owned by Pieter Krøyer in Coral Bay to plan a rebellion. With the support of Christian, another slave, Breffu empowered over 150 slaves to stand up for their rights, rebel against their masters and take over the West Indies. Many of these slaves were royals, and with the hopes of gaining their freedom and enjoying the privileges they enjoyed in the Akwamu Kingdom,  the slaves willingly agreed to Breffu’s idea.

On November 23, 1733, the rebellion against their masters started as planned. Going about their regular duties, the slaves had previously hidden knives in wood that they delivered to the fort at Coral Bay. After successfully entering Fort Fredericksvaern, the slaves killed majority of the soldiers in the fort. While they fought, John Gabriel, a soldier, managed to escape and alert the Danish officials, but the alert was too late as the slaves managed to take over the fort and fire the cannon from the fort indicating the takeover.

Back in their plantations, Breffu and other slaves waited patiently for the signal from the fort. The successful firing of the canon indicated that slaves in their plantations could kill their masters. Together with Christian, Breffu raced into the home of her master, Pieter Krøyer and murdered him and his wife. Other slaves followed suit taking all the ammunition and gunpowder they could carry. Breffu continued and killed three members of the Van Stell family, one of the wealthiest families on the island.

A few slave masters managed to escape off the island on their boats, and the Akwamu people took control of most of the island. Their plan was to take over the plantations and use Africans of other descent as slave-labour just as was practised in the Kingdom back in Ghana.

With Breffu as their leader, they were successful until early 1934 when the French military had finally agreed to help the Danes regain the Island and their lost plantations.

In April 1734, during a ritual, Breffu and 23 other Akwamu rebels committed suicide to prevent being captured. Their bodies were found at Browns bay minutes after the suicide ritual. A few weeks later in May, the Akwamus were defeated by the French Military due to the advantage of ammunition. By the end of May, many surviving plantation owners regained their property. The last Akwamu rebels were killed in August 1734 officially ending the 1733 slave insurrection on St John.

In many accounts of this rebellion it is revealed that until her death, the French military and many slave masters of the West Indies did not know that the leader of the uprising was a woman. Many were shocked at the revelation and were mortified that a woman singlehandedly led one of the most extended rebellions and take over known in the New World. Breffu is popularly called the ‘Queen of St John’.

source: The story of Breffu, a female slave from Ghana who led a massive slave revolt to take over the West Indies in 1733