Weekly Role Models – Week 3: Gaspar Yanga

The Ancestor’s Story

Gaspar Yanga was a slave in Spanish colonial Mexico in the 16th century. He is said to have been of the Bran people of Gabon, and part of the royal family. In 1570, Yanga and some of his other fellow slaves ran away from their slave captors. They fled to the mountains near Córdoba and established their free slave community, or palenque, and spent the next 30-40 years in hiding. To survive, they attacked Spanish settlements and caravans using guerrilla tactics, and defended their community whenever threatened. They also rescued enslaved Africans and Indigenous peoples whenever they encountered them.

In 1609, Spanish frustration with Yanga and his band of cimarrónes (untamed, fugitive slaves) grew to a boiling point. The Spanish sent a gun-armed militia of 500, composed of army regulars and volunteers. With only 100 fighters armed with guns and 400 armed with sticks, stones and machetes, the palenque fought back, winning the battle based on superior knowledge of the landscape.

The Spanish, infuriated with their loss at the hands of los cimarrónes, launched another attack on the Yanga settlement. This time, Yanga sent a captured Spaniard with peace terms to avoid another battle. The Spanish army refused, and succeeded in burning the palenque to the ground, causing the Yanga contingent deeper into the mountains. However, Yanga and his group waged continuous warfare upon the Spanish for the better part of the next decade.

The Spanish were never able to subdue them. Tired of losing, the Spanish called for a truce with Yanga in 1618, offering him his own independent town in exchange for peace. The town was called San Lorenzo de los Negros, later renamed Yanga in honor of its founder. Some scholars believe this was the very first free Black settlement in the Americas.

The Ancestor’s Achievements

  • Engineered a successful slave escape, something which few were ever able to do
  • Successfully waged guerrilla warfare on Spanish colonists for almost 50 YEARS
  • Forced a Spanish treaty and founded San Lorenzo de los Negros, said to be the first free Black town in the Americas

 

Keys to Greatness

Despite being captured into slavery, Gaspar Yanga knew in his heart that he was more than a slave. For this reason, he could never BE a slave. Because he knew his heritage and place in African society, he refused to allow any other entity to choose his destiny.
Yanga overcame one of the biggest hurdles to successful slave escapes: convincing other slaves to participate. Yanga held enough sway over his compatriots that they trusted, respected and listened to him and his urgings to band together and form their own self-sufficient society.
Despite decades worth of ups-and-downs in resisting the Spanish, Yanga was able to instill enough unity among those in the palenque to keep resisting as one. No member of his group lost their will to fight and betrayed the others. Each person remained unified, and together won their independence.
One of the biggest keys to Yanga’s success was his adaptation to environment and circumstance as new leader to a community of fugitive slaves. Though he found himself in an alien land, having to constantly change locations to resist the Spanish, Yanga mastered his terrain, which proved to be the key advantage in many battles. He also adapted himself to being a runaway slave, having to live each moment on guard against Spanish captors. He remained vigilant for over four decades, leading to his people’s independence.

Copycat Challenge: Emulate Greatness!

 

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