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.
The painting is dedicated to the ruling monarch of Spain, Philip III, “king of Spain and the Indies.” It was intended as a kind of visual dispatch to the home government in Madrid, and served as a record of an official matter of state. It must have arrived in Spain soon after its execution, presumably to be presented to the king himself.
Both the Spanish authorities and the Esmeraldas people had much to gain from a formally negotiated treaty between the two parties. The Spanish had long desired to establish a port along the Esmeraldas coast, as well as to construct a major highway into the interior of the region. Essential for this endeavor was the aid of the Esmeraldas, who would in return benefit from the concession of semi-autonomous status and exemption from tribute by the viceroyal authorities.
The history of the black settlement of the Esmeraldas region represents one of the best documented and most successful instances of black self-determination in the New World. The origin of an extensive network of settlements founded by escaped black slaves can be traced back to a single event, the wreck of a slave ship on the Esmeraldas coast during the 1550s. Aboard was a small group of captive Africans. Among them was Andrés Mangache, the father of Francisco de Arobe.
Soon the newly arrived slaves allied themselves with local native tribes, forming a distinctly new cultural entity. The mixed-race children produced from the union of black slaves and natives came to be called zambos, a general term used in the New World for this particular form of miscegenation. In a somewhat more political sense, the settlement could be termed maroon, or cimarron, referring to communities of runaway slaves established throughout the new world.
Some degree of stability and autonomy was achieved by Francisco and other Esmeralda leaders through these official overtures. To some extent this situation proved beneficial, since the stringent form of social control imposed by the Spanish colonial government over its subjects, known as casta, was partly avoided. Under this system, the Esmeraldas people, classified as zambos, fell into the lower ranks of society reserved for those with a discernible degree of African ancestry.
After Ecuador gained its independence from Spanish rule in the 19th century, the fate of the Esmeraldas became far less certain. Disadvantaged both by racial discrimination and their historically isolated character, the Esmeraldas now found themselves isolated within their new country. Only after mounting a sustained campaign of self-advocacy during the last several decades has this unique manifestation of New World assimilation been able to achieve a fuller degree of legal and cultural recognition.
The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive resides at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also The Root’s editor-in-chief. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.