Rare Books Highlights: Black lives in Early Modern Spain

As part of ongoing efforts to diversify our holdings in Special Collections and University Archives, about a year ago I purchased the book Historia eclesiastica, principios, y progressos de la ciudad y religion catolica de Granada by Francisco Bermúdez de Pedraza, published circa 1638 or 1640. An English translation of the title reads, Ecclesiastical history, principles and progress of the city, and the Catholic religion of Granada.

Image of an engraved title page. Book title is within an architectural archway motif. Two archbishops sit at the top of either side of the arch--the left one labeled St. Es Fon, and the right one labeled SHIS Cio.Standing in front of either column are San Tiago and San Cecilio. There are additional features of heraldry and decorative elements.
Engraved title page of Historia eclesiastica. It was created by Ana Heylan, one of only a few women engravers working in Spain at the time.

I purchased this book for a couple of reasons: we do not have many Spanish language rare books in our collection, and–as highlighted by the book dealer who knows his market–the book contains positive representation of four people of African descent living in Granada. Many academic libraries, including ours, are interested in developing more inclusive library collections, and the book dealer knew to highlight this aspect of the book in his description. And while it is true that this book sheds some light on the history of Black people in Early Modern Spain, I think it behooves me to acknowledge that this book helps to diversify our collections in only a limited and inherently compromised way.

The first critique that I can make of this book as a window into the experience of Black people in Spain is that it is written by (as I presume) a non-Black author. Biographical information available online seems to indicate that Francisco Bermúdez de Pedraza was a white Spaniard from Granada, who studied and practiced law, was later ordained as a priest, and was always very interested in the history of his native city. Given this assumption, his portrayal–positive or otherwise–of Black men and women in Granada is inherently a white gaze. We are not hearing directly from those Black people about what their lives were like.

Secondly, let’s take a look at the historical context in which this book was written. The year of its publication, 1640, was almost 150 years following the end of the Reconquista, or Christian “reconquest” of the Iberian Peninsula from the Muslim kingdom of Al-Andalus. A number of Arab or Berber rulers out of Northern Africa ruled parts of the Iberian Peninsula from around 711 to 1492, until Emir Muhammad XII of Granada surrendered to King Ferninand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile in 1492. The Treaty of Granada of 1491, in which Emir Muhammad XII surrendered the emirate to the so-called Catholic Monarchs, also granted Muslims living in the territory the right to practice their faith free of molestation. (The same rights were not granted to Jews living in the territory, who were forced to convert to Christianity or leave.) It did not take long for the Spanish authorities to break the terms of the treaty, however. By 1499, the second Archbishop of Granada, Cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, began the practice of mass forced conversions of Muslims. When this led to an uprising, the Catholic Monarchs revoked the treaty rights, and beginning in 1501, Muslims in Granada were forced to convert or be expelled, or even executed. Some moved to Northern Africa, but others remained and converted.

This book was also written 150 years into the Spanish Empire, begun under the very same Ferdinand and Isabella, who you may recall, sponsored Christopher Columbus on his voyage across the Atlantic, seeking a shorter trading route to Asia, and ultimately leading to Spanish colonization of the Americas. In 1640, the Spanish Empire included some outposts along the North African coast as well as the colonies in the Americas. Closely bound up with the empire was the Iberian slave trade, in which Spain and Portugal, under the same monarch until 1640, were the first European powers to transport African captives across the Atlantic to be sold as enslaved people in the Americas.

This history reveals a relationship between Spain and Africa in which Spanish officials persecuted Muslims of African descent and in which Spanish slave traders committed atrocities against Black Africans–severing them from their homes, communities, and cultures; de-humanizing them; and commodifying them for the ultimate enrichment of the Spanish monarchy. I cannot see but that this context must have some influence on how a Spanish writer would represent individuals of African descent in their community.

Let’s take a look at the mentions of these Black men and women in the actual pages of the text. It is a short passage, spanning a couple of pages. Outlined in red in the images below, you can read four names:

  • Juan Latino, a professor at the University of Granada
  • Cristobal de Meneses, a priest
  • Licenciado Ortiz, a lawyer for the Royal Court
  • Catalina de Soto, an artist and embroiderer
Image of text on a page in an older Spanish. The name Juan Latino is outlined in a red box digitally added to the image. The name Juan has an archaic spelling of I-U-A-N.
Entry on Juan Latino.

With the help of Google Translate, I find that Bermúdez de Pedraza describes Juan Latino as “a dark black man” (negro atezado), that Latino was raised in the house of the Duchess of Terrano, and that he was a scholar of rhetoric and Latin in both prose and verse. (What does it mean that he was raised in the house of a duchess? Was he enslaved, or the son of an enslaved person? Was he a servant, or son of a servant? I am no scholar of Spanish history, and so I have no idea.)

Image of a page of Spanish text with red boxes added to outline three names: Christobal de Meneses, Licenciado Ortiz, and Catalina de Soto.
Passage mentioning Christobal de Meneses, Licenciado Ortiz, and Catalina de Soto.

Bermúdez de Pedraza’s discussion of three more prominent Black people continues in the second column of the page. He writes that Father Christobal de Meneses belonged to the Order of Santo Domingo and was also Black. He was a good priest and preacher with a graceful and agreeable conversation.

Third is the Lawyer Ortiz, who was the son of a Black woman and a military man. (Though part of the sentence is unclear, it seems that Ortiz is attributed with saying something along the lines of something being due more to my mother who gave me a good father, than to my father who gave me such a mean mother.)

The fourth of the “black prodigies” (negros prodigios) is Catalina de Soto, who deserved for her illustrous parts to be queen of Black women, was of a gentle body and a well-liked face, and of the best hands of labor in her time, was the first needle of Spain to knit and embroider and draw,…

(Here I have recorded loose translations Bermúdez de Pedraza’s descriptions, taken largely from Google Translate, but with some interpretation of my own. Some portions of the text were less decipherable due to the combination of my elementary Spanish knowledge and the archaic quality of the text. Any misinterpretations are due to that dangerous combination.)

These descriptions of four Black residents of Granada are largely positive, but they also clearly portray that white gaze, which I see especially apparent in the use of the term “black prodigies.” It also hints at social hierarchies, norms, and biases that someone with more familiarity of the history and culture of that place and time would be better able to parse.

For a broader context on the representation of Blacks in Spain from a Black scholar of Spanish and the African Diaspora, check out this article: Nicholas R. Jones. “The Legacy and Representation of Blacks in Spain.” Black Perspectives, June 1, 2018, https://www.aaihs.org/the-legacy-and-representation-of-blacks-in-spain/.

Work Cited:

Francisco Bermúdez de Pedraza. Historia eclesiastica, principios, y progressos de la ciudad y religion catolica de Granada, corona de su poderoso reyno, y excelencias de su corona. Granada: Andrés de Santiago Palomino, 1638 [ie, 1640]. Call number: BX1588 G7 B4 1638

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