Adri√°n S√°nchez 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.

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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 This basic information is amplified by a wealth of surviving historical documents, so that a fuller idea of the place in history, and even the personal fortunes of the subjects, is vividly preserved.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.

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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, ‚Äúat his own expense,‚ÄĚ 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, ‚Äúking of Spain and the Indies.‚ÄĚ 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.

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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.

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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.

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The Image of the Black Archive & Library resides at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also chairman of The Root. 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.