The First West African on St. Croix?

Aimery Caron


In the June 10, 1990, issue of EL NUEVO DIA, Ricardo Alegría, the well-known historian and ethnologist, published the story of Juan Garrido: a West African conquistador, under the title "El Primer Negro Libre de America"("The First Free Black in the Americas"). As the story unfolds, we learn that Juan Garrido went to Hispanola, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Guadeloupe, Dominica, Florida, and Mexico. Although not mentioned specifically, a clue is given to assure us that Juan Garrido did visit St. Croix at least once.

According to Alegría, in 1538, after having served the Spanish Crown for 30 years in the Americas, Juan Garrido wrote a plea or memoir to Charles V detailing his services to bolster a request for a pension. It is primarily through this memoir that we are able to learn of him.

Juan Garrido was born on the West African coast and went to Lisbon as a young man. Since he was free, Alegría surmises that he was the son of a king who traded with the Portuguese. Most likely, Juan Garrido had been sent to Portugal to become Christian and to acquire a Portuguese education in order to facilitate political and commercial relations between the two nations.

Soon after, perhaps in a quest for adventure, Juan Garrido went to Seville and, in 1502, he joined Nicolas de Ovando, the newly appointed governor general of the Indies, and his large expedition to Hispanola. From there, in 1508, he joined Juan Ponce de Leon with about 50 conquistadors to explore Puerto Rico and prospect for gold. In the summer of 1509, Ponce de Leon and his men fell upon some Crucian Caribs building a canoe out of a Ceiba tree on the South coast of Puerto Rico ( 1 ). They were returned to St. Croix and Juan Garrido may well have been of this group.

In his memoir, Juan Garrido affirms that he participated, with Diego Velasquez, in the conquest of Cuba. If so, he could not have remained long in Cuba, as he fought under Ponce de Leon in 1511, to repress the Caribs and the Tainos who had joined forces in Puerto Rico in a great revolt against the Spaniards.

Then, in 1513 Juan Garrido joined Ponce de Leon to explore Florida in search of the mythical fountain of youth on the isle of Bimini. That same year, they returned to Puerto Rico to learn that the Crucian Caribs had set fire recently to the town of Caparra. It was at that time that Ponce de Leon was named commander of a squadron of three ships to fight the Island Caribs. Juan Garrido wrote that, in 1515, he sailed with Ponce de Leon's squadron on a punitive expedition 'to the islands of Guadeloupe, Dominica, and other islands and in all we fought the Caribs." However, we know from other sources (2) that the first stop of this particular expedition was St. Croix where a thorough search revealed that all the Caribs had left. Thus, this is the first known authenticated case of a West African visiting St. Croix. Furthermore, it is probable that, between 1513 and 1515, this same squadron was involved in other raids on St. Croix and the Virgin Islands against the Caribs, and that Juan Garrido participated in some, if not all, of them, as it is known that he always followed Ponce de Leon



In 1521, both men returned to Florida where Ponce de Leon was wounded by the Indians and died shortly thereafter In Cuba. At this point, Juan Garrido decided to join Hernan Cortes in Mexico. There, his first action was the capture of the city of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) from the Aztecs. He later gathered the remains of some conquistadors fallen during the "Noche Triste" and buried them in a historic sepulcher he built, titled "The Martyrs," at the City gate.

Sometime between 1522 and 1523 ln Cuyuacan, Juan Garrido took the initiative for which he is best remembered: he sowed wheat for the first time in Mexico and produced flour in commercial quantities at his plantation near the gate of Tenochtitlan, on the road to Tacuba. Later, in 1523, he took part in the exploration of the rich region of Michoacan. Upon his return to Tenochtitlan in 1524, the city council appointed him to a post equivalent to that of city manager which he retained for about three years, until Cortes fell in disfavor.

Toward 1527, he and a group of adventurers rushed for riches to Zacatula, Michoacan, where gold had been discovered. It would appear that within a year he returned to his plantation at Tenochitlan poorer and deeper into debt.

After several peaceful years on his plantation, in 1532, Cortes lured him again for his last adventure in search of fame and fortune. It was for the exploration of Baja California which was then some mythical island reputed to be populated with black women from the region of Cihuatan, rich in gold and pearls. They returned in 1535 after enduring terrible hardships and failing to find anything of worth.

This time, Juan Garrido retired permanently with his family on his plantation to die a few years later, poor and forgotten. Nevertheless, he was immortalized in three paintings. Two of these paintings are 16th century codex paintings where he is shown with Hernan Cortes and his conquistadors. The third one, a mural depicting the history of Mexican agriculture, was painted by Diego Rivera . . . at the Presidential Palace.



Alfredo E. Figueredo, "The Virgin Islands as an Historical Frontier between the Tainos and the Caribs," Revista/Review Interamerica, vol. 8 (Fall 1978), no. 3, p. 394.

Carl Ortwin Sauer, "The Early Spanish-Main," Berkeley and Los Angeles: The University of California Press, 1969, p. ??.

15 September 1990


1. As you follow Juan Garrido in his travels in the Caribbean in the first paragraph of the current article, are you able without the use of a map to trace with a fair degree of precision the directions and distances from one destination to the other in the chronological order suggested? Do you believe that he might have seen or visited at least one island more than once as he traveled from one destination to another?

2. What was the document that turned out to be the source of most of the biographical information available on Juan Garrido? Who was the author of this document?

3. What piece of information suggests to us that Garrido might have been the son of a king?

4. What would a Portuguese education have done for the young West African at this time?

5. Who was Nicolas de Ovando?

6. How does the author arrive at the idea that Garrido may have traveled to St. Croix? Do you accept this line of reasoning?

7. What is our source for knowledge that Garrido participated in the conquest of Cuba?

8. Do you know enough about the Tainos, and the Caribs to understand why the battle of 1511 was a particularly significant one?

9. Is there evidence that the Caribs from St. Croix traveled to Puerto Rico frequently?

10. What is it about the geography of the Caribbean that would either re-enforce or dispute the author's suggestion that on this punitive mission to Guadeloupe, Garrido would have visited St. Croix?

11. When and where did Ponce de Leon die?

12. What do you know about Cortes?

13. How did Garrido come to be known as a farmer too?

14. Is it apparent that Cortes' inlfuence had something to do with Garrido's success in public life?

15. Where on the mainland of the Americas is Baja California located?

16. Is it possible to know what this first African to have probably visited St. Croix looked like?

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