When I was little girl, I somehow believed that most Black people came to California when my parents did—somewhere between the 50s and the 70s, during, the Chicano Movement, the Watts Riots, Helter Skelter and the Pasadena Plan. Of course, over time I came to understand that our recorded history in America reached back a lot farther. I just didn’t realize how far back until this past month.
“California” is credited with being found in 1542 by Spanish Conquistador Herman Cortes—the dude who brought down the Aztec Empire by exploiting local tribal conflicts. But Cortes and other Spanish explorers might not have settled the western part of North America had it not been for a Black man called Estavanico.
This man whose actual name was Mustafa Azemmouri, had many aliases including Esteban the Moor, Stephen Dorantes, Esteban Dorantes and Stephen the Black. Born sometime around 1500 in Morocco during the Portugal’s African coast slave trading hey days, Estavanico (who was believed to be of West African descent) was sold into slavery in 1522 and eventually acquired by Spanish explorer Andrés Dorantes de Carranza. The young North African man accompanied Dorantes who was appointed as a co-captain on Pánfilo de Narváez’s expedition to conquer all things lying west of Florida in 1527.
That expedition began with high hopes—five vessels and 600 travelers—but it didn’t go too well. Launching from Spain, the fleet made it to Cuba and would have proceeded to Mexico had it not been for fierce winds and storms. They diverted to Florida’s western coastline and split into two teams; one on foot and the other remaining at sea in search of a large harbor. The boats and their passengers were wiped out by Caribbean hurricanes while many of the land-based team died by way of disease or attacks from the native population.
The group decided to build rafts to sail to Mexico. Of course, that did not work. Eighty men including Estavanico washed up on the shores of the Texas barrier islands. Fifteen survived the winter there before being taken captive by a native tribe and held for four years. Estanvanico and three Spaniards were able to fled capture by posing as medicine men to establish a positive rapport with other native groups and pass safely between various settlements.
Estanvanico communicated with Native Americans by using hand signals and being an all-around charismatic dude. Because he was a Moor, I’m guessing he also used his knowledge in modern medicine to perform “miracles” for the people. Two years later, Estavanico and his three surviving Spanish companions were rounded up by slave traders and taken to Mexico City.
Ruler of “New Spain,” Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza bought Estavanico after learning of all that the Morrocan and his traveling companions had seen and experienced. He tasked the wilderness-savvy Black man to guide further expeditions throughout the northern reaches of New Spain which stretched from Florida in the east and Mexico in the South to Washington in the North and California in the West. Estavanico disappeared during his travels in 1539 –-the circumstances of his sudden absence and actual death having never been confirmed.
Some say that Native Americans killed him because of his association with the Spaniards. Others believe he was killed for impersonating a healer. But I’d like to think that he ducked the Spaniards to live his life on his own terms and no longer as anyone’s slave.
No matter what ultimately became of him, I can’t have love for California without having love for Mustafa Azemmouri