Regal Trio’s Historic Link to Escaped Slaves and South America’s Indigenous Tribes

Image of the Week: Father and two sons are members of a prominent family of mixed-race inhabitants from Esmeraldas, an area located in present-day Ecuador. 

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Adrián Sánchez Galque, Don Francisco de Arobe and His Sons, dated 1599. Oil on canvas, 92 by 175 cm.

Museo de America, Madrid

This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black in Western Art Archive at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

Presented as confident rulers of their own nation, a black leader and his two sons confront the viewer from a distance of more than four centuries. Their painted visages survive as a precious document of the complex racial and political makeup of early colonial Spanish America. 

Against the simple background of a cloudy sky appear the magisterially dressed figures of Don Francisco de Arobe and his two sons. The trio are members of a prominent family of mixed-race inhabitants from Esmeraldas, a fertile area located in the Northwestern part of present-day Ecuador.

The name of the region and its people originates from the encounter by the first Spanish conquistadores with natives wearing dazzling displays of emeralds. More broadly, however, the term evokes the verdant richness of the tropical landscape and its thick maze of rivers and forests. Soon after the conquista, this vast, primeval wilderness was dominated by a vibrant new society formed by the amalgamation of escaped black slaves with the original indigenous inhabitants.

Key representatives of this transformative culture, Don Francisco and his family governed a large area situated around the bay of San Mateo in the Northern part of Esmeraldas. By the late 16th century, the population of Esmeraldas may have risen as high as 100,000, a force truly to be reckoned with. Afro-Ecuadorians, including descendants of these first African arrivals, number more than 1 million people today.

This remarkable visual document was painted by Adrián Sánchez Galque, an indigenous Peruvian artist trained in a monastic school in Quito, the regional capital in the vast Spanish viceroyalty of Peru. Inscriptions around the figures document their identities, as well as the circumstances of the painting’s origin. This basic information is amplified by a wealth of surviving historical documents, so that a fuller idea of the place in history, and even the personal fortunes of the subjects, is vividly preserved.

According to the inscription painted above him, Don Francisco is 56 years old. His son Domingo, at 18, is still a teenager, while his brother, Pedro, is several years older. The triple portrait commemorates a specific moment in the often tense history between the Esmeraldas people of Northwestern Ecuador and the colonial Spanish government. Francisco de Arobe and his sons are presented at the time of their diplomatic mission to the governing authorities in Quito. At that time the viceroyalty of Peru nominally included much of the territory of present-day Ecuador to the north.

The Esmeraldas ambassadors appear in exotic, multicultural finery befitting their high status. Each wears a flowing, beautifully colored poncho-type garment. This article of clothing derives from the indigenous population, but the examples here are fashioned of a material from a quite different source, apparently Chinese silk imported from Spain. The gold ornaments worn in the noses and ears of the men reflect native practice.

Purely European, on the other hand, are the ruffs worn around the neck and the sleeves, as well as the sumptuously worked, round-brimmed hats. Scholars are divided over the authenticity of these costumes. Even so, the particular assemblage of such disparate elements of dress presents an ideal image of the complex, often conflicting political and cultural agendas represented by the Esmeraldas leader and his people.

As indicated in the inscription enclosed in an ornate frame in the upper right corner, the painting was commissioned by a prominent Spanish official, Juan del Barrio Sepulveda, “at his own expense,” in 1599. Sepulveda was one of several oidores, or judges, who presided over the general affairs of the Spanish colonial region based in Quito. His aim in this case was a formally negotiated peace between the Esmeraldas colony and Spain.