Scholars at the City University of New York are using clues left in 16th-century manuscripts and Spanish records to track the lives of the earliest black Africans in the Dominican Republic.
An exhibition now on view of letters and other documents from the archives of CUNY’s Dominican Studies Institute and the General Archives of the Indies in Seville, Spain, provides a window onto the lives of the often ignored black Africans of La Española, the island of Hispaniola.
In the exhibition, “16th-Century La Española: Glimpses of the First Blacks in the Early Colonial Americas,” 25 panels display photos of an original letter or record, along with an English translation, that explain or question situations involving formerly enslaved Africans on the island.
When searching the archives, Anthony Stevens-Acevedo, the assistant director of the Dominican Studies Institute, focused on keywords like “mulatto,” “negro” and “negra,” he said.
In a letter from the Seville archives, an archbishop in Santo Domingo responded to a letter he had received from King Carlos II of Spain. The archbishop described a hut or shack where a black woman “took in the sick people and attempted to heal them or cure them,” Mr. Stevens-Acevedo said.
The woman was described as pious and poor, and the archbishop wrote that before she opened her hut there were no hospitals in Santo Domingo. Later, where her hut had stood, the San Nicolas of Bari Hospital was erected. The hospital, a two-story structure, was impressive at the time, Mr. Stevens-Acevedo said.
Another artifact, a page from a judiciary record filed by a prosecutor in 1694, documents colonists who were selling commodities smuggled into what is now the Dominican Republic.
One of those “commodities” was a black man, Sebastian, described as “Ladino,” which meant he was “knowledgeable of the Spanish culture,” Mr. Stevens-Acevedo said. He had been working as a sailor on a Portuguese ship that was seized by pirates, and he was considered property.
Sebastian testified that he should not be enslaved, that he was a free man in Africa. He claimed to be the son of a king in Guinea.
Other accounts are requests from people who described themselves as having black skin for licenses to travel from Spain to the Dominican Republic “to attend to their parents and their hacienda,” said Lissette Acosta Corniel, a postdoctoral fellow who worked on the exhibition. Some of the requests were approved, and many freed black Africans were allowed to return to Hispaniola.
Ms. Corniel said she hoped the exhibition “nurtures the consideration that above all Dominicans have a common history of blackness.”
“Both nations share a common history for liberation and struggle for social justice,” Ms. Corniel said. “The realization of this is going to take generations to come.