Ad Catolicum, et Invictissimum Philippum Dei Gratia Hispaniarum Regem De augusta" by Juan de Sessa, aka Juan Latino, 1576

Editor's note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these "amazing facts" are an homage.

(The Root) — Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 48: Who was the first black poet in the Western world?

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If you answered Phillis Wheatley to the question posed in the title of today's column, you would be close, but you would be wrong. Wheatley, who published Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral in September 1773, was the second black person to publish a book of poetry, but the first to do so in English. The first person of sub-Saharan African descent to publish a book of poems in any Western language was a man named Juan Latino. He was a black African ex-slave, who lived in the Southern Spanish city of Granada, the last capital of the Al-Andalus Empire, which ruled the Iberian peninsula for eight centuries. He published his first of two books of poems, The Austriad, in Latin in the year 1573 — that's 200 years before Phillis Wheatley's book was published and 34 years, incredibly, before the first permanent English colony was founded in North America. 

Known since his death as "el negro Juan Latino," the name by which Miguel Cervantes identified him in the prefatory poem of Don Quixote (1605), he proudly embraced his African identity, referring to and emphasizing his blackness in several places in his writings, including in his own epitaph, and asserting consistently that he was born in Ethiopia. Why don't we know more about this pioneering figure in black history? Why doesn't Juan Latino have a prominent place among the heroes of black history whom we celebrate each February? 

The answer is simple: because the English defeated the Spanish in the contest for dominion over the colonies in North America. When the victors write the history, the defeated get short-shrift. In the process, at least as far as African-American history focus is concerned, so much of the black presence both in the Americas and in Europe has been left out, as we saw in my columns about the first African American, the free black conquistador Juan Garrido, who arrived in Florida in 1513, and the first black explorer of the American Southwest, Esteban, who arrived in Galveston in 1528. Juan Latino is another such casualty of Spain's losing battle to England, although Joel A. Rogers lists him as a "Master" in Your History and a "professor of rhetoric, Greek, and Latin" in World's Great Men of Color, Volume II. I first learned about him through an essay that Arthur Schomburg published in Charles Johnson's famous Harlem Renaissance anthology, Ebony and Topaz, published in 1927.

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The Early Slave Trade

Black people lived in Spain before the first African slaves arrived in North America in 1619? Absolutely! As Ivana Elbl observes in "The Volume of the Early Atlantic Slave Trade, 1450-1521," in the Journal of African History, "in the opening period of the Atlantic slave trade (1450-1521) the Europeans are estimated to have purchased almost 156,000 African slaves," and many of them ended up living in Portugal and Spain, in places like Sevilla, Granada and Valencia, all of which had a relatively large population of black slaves. And by the time the first 20 Angolans landed in Virginia, almost 400,000 Africans had already arrived in the New World, virtually all enslaved in Brazil and South America (only 567 were sent to the British Caribbean in this period). In fact, to put the significance of this figure in a bit more perspective, as David Eltis and David Johnson write in the Atlas of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, as many slaves had already arrived in Latin America before 1619 as would arrive in the United States during the entire course of the slave trade! Since well over 100,000 Africans had already been shipped to Europe by this time, the black presence has a much longer and deeper history in both Europe and in Latin America than it does in the United States, a fact that surprises most Americans.

'As Rare on This Earth as the Phoenix'

I cite these figures so that we can begin to understand that Juan Latino was not walking around 16th-century Europe or Spain or even Granada as a solitary black man; he was a part of a community, composed of slaves and former slaves. But even among the free black community, he was exceptional in how high he rose in social status, and the unprecedented success of his academic career. His success was so rare, in fact, that his master and friend, the Duke de Sessa, is said frequently to have commented of him that "my black is as rare on this earth as the Phoenix." While Latino was one of three famous black men in Granada at the time, the other two men were of mixed-race ancestry, including a Dominican priest named Father Christoval de Meneses, and a well-respected lawyer named the Licenciado Ortiz, "the son of a knight of the [military] order [of] Santiago and a black mother," according to Glyn Redworth in "Mythology With Attitude?" in Social History (January 2003). (The three were so unusual in Spanish society that they were the subject of an essay published as early as 1608 in Granada, according to Glyn Redworth.)  

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That there were free black men and women living in both Spain and Portugal in the 16th century is a testament to the fluidity of status that the Spanish Crown would later extend to Africans enslaved in the British colonies of Carolina and Georgia — that is, if they could escape to the Spanish colony of Florida, where they would be free. Those freed slaves created the all-black settlement and a militia at Fort Mose in Florida in 1738. Nevertheless, lest we romanticize black slavery in Spain, these three members of the Spanish elite in the mid-1500s were anomalies, although Spain — given its proximity to Africa and the fact that the Moors ruled it for more than eight centuries — was probably more mixed ethnically than any other place in Europe. 

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According to an ecclesiastical census taken in 1561, just four years after Latino had received his master of arts degree, there were 991 adult slaves living in the city of Granada, out of a population of 43,000 people, or 2 percent of the total population, according to James Casey in Family and Community in Early Modern Spain: The Citizens of Granada, 1570-1739. And according to James Sweet at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in an email, "nearly all of these slaves came from Africa — 'Berbery' and 'Guinea'.'' In other words, Juan Latino was part of a larger black community of people who had been living in Spain and in the city of Granada, his hometown, for some time.

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Cervantes and Latino

Although Juan Latino was quite well-known in his hometown, he would be immortalized in Spanish literature by none other than Miguel Cervantes, the author of the most famous work of Spanish literature, the novel Don Quixote, published in 1605. Cervantes and Latino had a certain connection, through the famous Battle of Lepanto in 1571, which Latino would memorialize in his greatest work of poetry. Unlike Latino, Cervantes actually fought at the Battle of Lepanto, sailing on board the Marquesa, receiving three wounds from gunfire, one of which led to permanent paralysis of his left hand. (Cervantes would write in Journey to Parnassus (1614), "Thy left hand shattered lost the active power/It once possessed, for glory of the right.") Cervantes himself would be captured in 1575 by Algerian corsairs, and taken to Algiers, where he spent five years as a slave. He was freed when his family, with help from the Trinitarian friars, paid a ransom.

As V.B. Spratlin noted in his pioneering book Juan Latino: Slave and Humanist, published in 1938, Cervantes cites Latino as an example of the old linguistic convention that his novel intended to displace; Latino, for him, stood for Spanish poets who wrote in Latin, rather than in vernacular Spanish, which wasn't judged sophisticated or complex enough to be the language of great art. In one of his novel's epigraphs, a magus or wizard named "Urganda the Unknown" instructs Cervantes to avoid the Latinate diction of "el negro Juan Latino," and instead tell his tale in vernacular Spanish, which of course Cervantes famously did, just as Dante had done with the Italian vernacular in the early 14th century. Curiously enough, it is quite possible that Phillis Wheatley knew of the existence of her black poetic predecessor, since she was given a copy of Tobias Smollett's 1770 English translation of Don Quixote by the Earl of Dartmouth, during her visit to London in the summer of 1773, just before her own book of poems was published there.

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Becoming Juan Latino

Juan de Sessa — he changed his name to Latino when he was a student — lived roughly between 1518 and 1597. Although he claimed to have been born in Ethiopia in part to distinguish himself from the Moors from North Africa, who were being persecuted (as Baltasar Fra-Molinero observes in "Juan Latino and Racial Difference," in Black Africans in Renaissance Europe, some scholars argue that he was born in Baena, Spain, son of slaves said to be from "Guinea" (although "Guinea," like "Ethiopia," was a European euphemism for any site in sub-Saharan Africa). Juan was a slave in the home of Don Luis Fernández de Córdoba, the Count of Cabra.   

His principal task as a slave, it seems, was to be the companion and friend of Don Luis' son, Don Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba, the third duke of Sessa. Juan would claim, in a poem, that the two were breast-fed with the same mother's milk. According to legend, Juan de Sessa was the young duke's page and accompanied him to his Latin classes taught by Pedro de Mota, held in the Cathedral of Granada, carrying his books to class. Somehow, the slave was able to study with his master, and excelled so much that he took the name "Juan Latino." His owner, the count, freed him when he was a young man, but we are not sure when.

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Juan married a Spanish noblewoman named Ana Carlobal. Their romance, apparently not initially approved by Ana's father (one source, Ambrosio Salazar, as quoted in Spratlin's book, says their marriage eventually killed the father), has become the stuff of legend, sometimes compared to that of Othello and Desdemona. One often-repeated story, the heart of a famous and somewhat risqué play about the couple titled Juan Latino by Ximénez de Enciso (1652), alleges that Juan was Ana's Latin teacher and that he seduced her while conjugating the Latin verb amare, "to love"! The couple had four children, two girls and two boys.

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Latino was extraordinarily well-educated, even compared to a white Spaniard of his day. He received his first degree, the bachillerato, from the University of Granada in 1546, and two further degrees, the licenciatura in 1556 and finally a master of arts in 1557, writes J. Mira Seo in "Identifying Authority: Juan Latino, an Ex-Slave, Professor and Poet in Sixteenth-Century Granada," in African Athena. Ten years later, Archbishop Pedro Guerrero appointed Latino as the professor of Latin grammar at the Cathedral of Granada, a position, it seems, that he held until his death, although he is reported to have gone blind at some point. Juan Latino was the first black person to become a faculty member at any European institution of higher learning.

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Rare Books

He published two books of poetry. The first one, published in 1573 and entitled Ad Catholicum, "contains epigrams in praise of King Philip of Spain," writes Seo, as well as "poems on the relations between the Spanish Crown and Pope Pius V, and a hexameter epic in two [parts] on the battle of Lepanto, entitled The Austriad." Latino's second book, De translatione corporum regalium, published in 1576, "consists of poems on the transfer of the Spanish royal family's remains from Granada to the monastery of El Escorial, and an autobiography of the poet in verse," Seo explains. Latino also published a pamphlet in 1585, but no copies have been found. Both of his volumes of poetry are exceedingly rare: Only five copies of his first book, and only two copies of his second book are listed in World Cat, the global catalog of holdings of books in libraries. (First editions of both books have pride of place in my own library.) Both books are currently for sale from a rare bookseller in Maine, at the hefty price of $125,000, attesting to their rarity.

The Austriad, Latino's most famous work, consists of two volumes of 763 and 1,074 verses of Latin poetry. It is a commemoration of the naval Battle of Lepanto, in Greece, on Oct. 7, 1571. During that battle the Holy League fleet (an alliance of Venice, Pope Pius V and the Spanish King Philip II), with Don Juan of Austria as commander-in-chief and the duke de Sessa by his side, defeated the Ottoman navy in a battle over the Venetian colony of Famagusta, in Cyprus, which was under attack by Turkish forces. Twenty-five thousand Turks died in the battle, 224 of their ships were lost and another 5,000 Turks were taken prisoner and sold into slavery. The victory liberated 12,000 Christian slaves who had been forced to row the Turkish galleys. It was hailed as a decisive victory for Christianity over the Muslims.

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Latino's Austriad, a masterpiece of neo-Latin Literature from the Renaissance, which Mira Seo is busy translating into English, is a stirring account of this pivotal sea battle in the centuries-old contest between Christianity and Islam for control of Europe.

The battle followed the crushing of a revolt by the Moriscos, "the little Moors," or Muslims forced to convert to Catholicism when Granada, the famous capital of Muslim Andalusia, fell to the Catholic monarchs, Isabella and Ferdinand, in early January 1492. You see, after almost 50 years of conquest between 711 and 756 A.D., Muslim kingdoms ruled the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal today) between 756 and 1492. When these so-called Moriscos revolted against Philip II's royal decree forbidding them from using their language, their dress, their food, their festivals and even the public baths (and owning black slaves), they were brutally crushed in the War of Alpujarras (1568-1571). That war was also under the leadership of Don Juan of Austria, King Philip's illegitimate half-brother, and Latino's friend and patron, the duke de Sessa, who enslaved all of the surviving Moriscos in the areas that had rebelled, and expelled almost the entire Morisco population from Granada, relocating them to other parts of Spain. As Fra-Molinero remarks in an email, "All of this was occurring as Juan Latino was writing his famous poem."

'An Aethiopian Christian'

What is most fascinating to us about Juan Latino is his insistence on referring to his African ancestry, and his obvious pride in his blackness. In his first book, he identifies himself as "an Aethiopian Christian," cleverly linking himself to the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch by the disciple Philip, also the name of the king who led the Battle of Lepanto, as both Baltasar Fra-Molinero and J. Mira Seo point out. Latino leaves no doubt about his pride of his blackness by stressing it in his own epitaph, sadly no longer extant:

Scholar of glorious Granada, and teacher of its youth, a reverent speaker and singular in his learning and character, a son and most dusky offspring of Aethiopian forebears, as an innocent child dedicated to the catechism of salvation, Latinus sang the deeds of Austria's prince: he rests under this marker: he will rise with his wife.

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He also identifies himself specifically as "black" in various places in his first book, including this humorous signifying riff about white skin being displeasing to black Africans (as translated by J. Mira Seo):

And if my black face displeases your ministers, o King,
a white one is not pleasing to the people of Ethiopia.
There, the white man visiting from Aurora is the sullied one.
Officials are black, and the king there too is dark.

Similarly, he tells King Philip to "Let centuries of rulers, let the Roman empire, rightly envy you, Philip, your black bard," showing that he had a very healthy ego and sense of his own worth. Latino was also what we might think of as a 16th-century "race man," admonishing the king to reject antiblack racism, presciently anticipating later American abolitionist rhetoric, as Seo suggested to me in an email:

You will live, Emperor Philip, a son of the Church, if your doors
indeed lie open to all for pious petitions.
No lord of the world is he who does not admit everyone,
who tries perhaps to exclude my race from his mansion.
May Philip deem it proper to donate a man to his realms;
may he now wish there to be a writer of his brother.
If Christ, the author of life, does not despise dark people,
rightly recognize, o Catholic one, your bard.

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How this black man could rise from race-based slavery and thrive, reaching the highest levels of Spanish academia and society, in what Seo rightly calls "the violently anti-Islamic environment of 16th-century Granada," when hundreds of thousands of black Africans were being purchased and shipped into perpetual slavery in the New World, is one of the most curious and fascinating episodes in black history during the European Renaissance.

As always, you can find more "Amazing Facts About the Negro" on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.