Juan Garrido (c. 1480-c. 1550) was a black African-Spanish conquistador. African by birth, he went to Portugal as a young man. In converting to Christianity, he chose the Spanish name, Juan Garrido ("Handsome John"). Unlike his fellow conquistadors, Juan Garrido appears to be the first free black person in the Americas, and he was the first person to grow wheat in the New World.
In the early 1500’s, Garrido led a life that was uncharacteristic of a black man in that time.
Juan Garrido (c. 1480-c. 1550), the Black Spanish Conquistador
In 1503, Garrido went on his first expedition to Hispaniola and was present for the 1508 expedition with Ponce de Leon against Puerto Rico and Cuba. He was paid well for his deeds with money and land. Garrido would travel with De Leon again in 1513 and 1521. Like the other conquistadors, he was in search of fortune, or at the very least, a comfortable life for his family. He did win some spoils and farmland from conquered natives. He even owned African and Indian slaves. Nevertheless, like most of the treasure-hunting conquistadors, he died poor. There are 16th century paintings depicting Juan Garrido, in which he was mistaken as a slave, like one in which he is holding a pike, standing next to a horse belonging to Hernan Cortes.
Garrido and other blacks were also part of expeditions to Michoacán in the 1520s. Nuño de Guzmán swept through that region in 1529-30 with the aid of black auxiliaries.
In 1538, Garrido provided testimony on his 30 years of service as a conquistador:
"I, Juan Garrido, black in color, resident of this city [Mexico], appear before Your Mercy and state that I am in need of providing evidence to the perpetuity of the king [a perpetuad rey], a report on how I served Your Majesty in the conquest and pacification of this New Spain, from the time when the Marqués del Valle [Cortés] entered it; and in his company I was present at all the invasions and conquests and pacifications which were carried out, always with the said Marqués, all of which I did at my own expense without being given either salary or allotment of natives [repartimiento de indios] or anything else. As I am married and a resident of this city, where I have always lived; and also as I went with the Marqués del Valle to discover the islands which are in that part of the southern sea [the Pacific] where there was much hunger and privation; and also as I went to discover and pacify the islands of San Juan de Buriquén de Puerto Rico; and also as I went on the pacification and conquest of the island of Cuba with the adelantado Diego Velázquez; in all these ways for thirty years have I served and continue to serve Your Majesty--for these reasons stated above do I petition Your Mercy. And also because I was the first to have the inspiration to sow maize here in New Spain and to see if it took; I did this and experimented at my own expense."
Juan Garrido is recorded to been have born in 1487 on the West Coast of Africa and moved to Lisbon, Portugal as a young man. His freedom among slavers is still a mystery. Historian Ricardo Alegria suspects Garrido's father was a king who traded with the Portuguese. This theoretical African king may have set young Juan up as a commercial liaison, sending him for a Christian and Portuguese education.
Other historians such as Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., presume Garrido was either “sold to Portugese slave traders or somehow traveled on his own to Lisbon.” This theory comes from the coincidence of his name matching a Spaniard's on his first voyage to the New World. The fifteen-year-old African boy traveled from Lisbon to Seville, Spain, and in 1503 he joined the convoy to Hispaniola with the island's newly appointed governor. A Spaniard on the ship with him was named Pedro Garrido. Pedro might have been Juan's master and Christian namesake. Either way, Juan's name surely was not Juan in Africa.
However, these foreign researchers missed a major point as their research could have been narrowed down to Gold Coast (Ghana) and the Bight of Benin (Nigeria) in West Africa to get the possible place Garrido was coming from. It is well known that the Portuguese first reached what became known as the Gold Coast in 1471 and that in 1472, the Portuguese captain Ruy de Siqueira brought a sailing ship as far as the Bight of Benin under the reign of Oba (king) Ewuare. If the first assumption that Garrido could be son of a King then he might be a son of the Edo (Bini) Oba but Edo people has no record of that. That leaves Elmina as possible origin of Garrido and there are historical accounts to support the expert fishmen people of Elmina. According to Dr Kwamena Esilfie Adjaye "Elmina people recounts that the Portuguese explorers who first visited their land took some Elmina sailors to the town of Moguer (in Huelva, Andalusia, Spain), Seville and Lisbon in Portugal." Local Elmina history claim the three sailors include a man later named Nino who sired four famous sailor children. The children were Pedro Alonso, Francisco, Juan and one other Niño. The most famous was the navigator, Pedro Alonso Nino also known as El Negro (the Black). The four Niño brothers became sailors with prestige and experience in Atlantic journeys before playing a distinguished part in Columbus's first voyage to the New World. Their friendship with the Pinzón Brothers, and especially with the oldest of them, Martín Alonso Pinzón, influenced their participation in Columbus's project. The participation of the Pinzón Brothers in the Columbian enterprise was the key to overcoming the doubts among the region's sailors; the help of the Niño Brothers made it possible to defeat the opposition among the men of Moguer to taking on an enterprise of uncertain outcome.