The Haitian Refugees and Mother Africa

Spanish General Georges Biassou. Engraving, Juan López Cancelada, 1806

[Link to “Surprising History in Yucatán” — Introduction to the Series]

The refugees arrived in Campeche on Wednesday, February 10, 1796 aboard the merchant vessel La amable María Rosa — 63 men, 35 women, 6 children, and 11 infants.  All were former slaves, most of them born in Africa.  The men were soldiers in the Spanish army.  The governor had orders to settle them in Yucatán.

The soldiers had fled the chaos we know as the Haitian Revolution.  Although ultimately a slave revolt — the only successful one in history — during its course it was a bewildering anarchy in which French republicans, royalist counterrevolutionaries, wealthy white planters, poorer whites, free people of mixed race, and British and Spanish invaders as well as black slaves all fought for their own interests amid shifting alliances and objectives.  Out of this confusion came the Africans who had been French slaves and Spanish soldiers, now to be citizens of Yucatán.


Santo Domingo, or Hispaniola, was Spain’s oldest colony in the New World.  As a consequence of a little-remembered European War, Spain lost the western third of the island to France in 1697.  Spanish Santo Domingo languished as a neglected backwater of the empire while French Saint-Domingue became fabulously wealthy, driven by slave-powered plantation agriculture.  By the late 1700s, Saint-Domingue was the world’s leading producer of both coffee and sugar — half the world’s coffee and as much sugar as Jamaica, Cuba, and Brazil combined — fully half of France’s overseas trade, the object of international envy.

With the French Revolution, things in the wealthy colony began to unravel.  French citizens won equality with the Declaration of the Rights of Man, but its application to white colonials was problematic, slavery remained in place, and free gens de couleur were in limbo.  Fighting between various factions began in 1790.  Slaves rose to liberate themselves the next year.

In 1793, the Revolutionary Convention in Paris tried and executed Louis XVI, cousin of Spain’s King Carlos IV, and the European powers declared war on France.  Seeing opportunities to seize wealthy Saint-Domingue, Britain and Spain both invaded, adding to the appalling carnage.  Desperate rebelling slaves sought an alliance with the Spanish, and in a daring experiment Spain accepted them as auxiliary troops, promising freedom and land.  As many as 14,000 rebels entered into this mésalliance, fighting for slave-holding Spain.


Leaders of the auxiliary forces were Jean-François Papillon and Georges Biassou, who became generals in the Spanish army, and Toussaint Louverture, with the rank of colonel.  By early 1794, the auxiliaries had occupied much of northern Saint-Domingue in the name of the King of Spain.  Then, in a turning point of the conflict, Republican France abolished slavery.  Toussaint went over to the French side and attacked his former friends.  France later reinstated slavery, but Toussaint fought on against all foes, winning final victory and recognition as one of the greatest military leaders of the era.

Generals Biassou and Papillon stayed with the Spanish, to their ultimate regret.  Loss of the War of the Pyrenees in Europe forced Spain to yield Santo Domingo to France in 1795.  Spain selectively honored its commitment to its loyal soldiers, resettling at least the officers and their closest followers.  About eight hundred evacuated to Havana.  The Governor of Cuba refused to admit them, concerned that their revolutionary ideas might infect his own large slave population.  Spanish authorities then dispersed the refugees to other places in its empire.  Biassou and his associates went to San Agustín, Florida; Jean-François and a few of his officers to Cádiz, Spain.  The rest headed for new homes in Trinidad, Honduras, and Panama — and to Campeche.  And there began an episode unique in the history of Yucatán, outside of the dominant Spanish-Maya narrative.

Spanish General Georges Biassou. Engraving, Juan López Cancelada, 1806
Spanish General Georges Biassou. Engraving, Juan López Cancelada, 1806

[Here we must pause to consider terminology.  Modern sensibilities have stigmatized racial terms many considered acceptable only a few generations ago.  Seeking to avoid offense while maintaining historical accuracy, we will use the terms of the period here, always italicized.  Outrageously complex systems of racial classification developed in the colonial era.  The most elaborate Mexican casta schemes contained some two dozen different categories, and the French Caribbean colonies had as many as sixty.  How widely used these bizarre constructions actually were is debatable.  For us the term “black” (negro in Spanish) is still acceptable, referring to persons of African ancestry.  Persons of mixed European and African heritage were pardos or mulatos in Yucatán and gens de couleur or mulâtres to the French.  A child with one Native American parent and one with African ancestry was a lobo in much of Mexico but usually a pardo in Yucatán.  Mixed European-Indian offspring were — and are — mestizos.  In late-colonial Yucatán, the terms blanco, indio, mestizo, negro, and pardo usually covered things, and these terms were surprisingly flexible.  In fact, the categories for all the “middle” people between Spaniards and Maya were not at all rigid but could shift with individuals, communities, socioeconomic status, and situations, becoming increasingly vague over time.]

Continuing with the fate of our refugees, the Governor of the Intendancy of Yucatán, Arturo O’Neill de Tyrone y O’Kelly, had little choice but to obey his King’s edict and accept them.  A refugee delegation met with the Governor and his advisors in Mérida on February 26 and asked to be settled on fertile land where they could become farmers.  Worried about contacts with his large and frequently rebellious Maya population, O’Neill offered them land in the remote, isolated northeastern part of the province.

On March 1, the refugees’ leaders accepted his offer, which included a small cash allowance, a supply of axes, machetes, picks, and hoes — made by melting down several old cannons from the fortress of San Benito — plus seeds, chickens, provisions, cookware, and two mills for grinding corn.  They were to be free of civil and religious tribute payments and labor requirements.  O’Neill’s expectation was that the new settlers would quickly become self-sufficient and might introduce the cultivation of sugarcane and coffee that had built wealth in Saint-Domingue.  Their presence as experienced military men might also help repel a British invasion, considered possible at the time.


O’Neill sent a French-speaking commissioner, Luis Ojeda, to oversee the refugees’ welfare and settlement.  His more important mission was to act as a spy, see that they did not stray from their assigned location, and monitor them carefully for any signs of “the pernicious maxims of equality, liberty, or lack of subordination.”

In the spring of 1796, the refugees traveled by ship from Campeche to Río Lagartos, then walked to the site selected for them.  Authorities placed the new settlement amid the ruins of a Maya city, abandoned in late 1500s, called San Fernando de Aké.  They renamed it San Fernando de los Negros.

The settlers’ leader was Commander Jean-Pierre Marceau, whom the Spanish called Marcos, with subordinates we know only by the Spanish-ized names Juan Casimiro Domínguez, Juan Pedro, and Ambrosio Sasy.  Most of the settlers had been born in Africa, some in Saint-Domingue, and a few in Jamaica and English-speaking North America.  They spoke various West African languages and a smattering of several European ones.  The leaders certainly knew French and some Spanish.  Creole was the lingua franca.

San Fernando was a formal pueblo, laid out on a rectangular grid in the plaza of the Maya ruins.  It quickly became a village of farmers, while retaining characteristics of a military organization.  Most houses were pole-and-thatch.  An administration building, militia quarters, and a jail were high priorities and solidly built.  A church begun in 1798 was never completed, probably because of official graft.  It still had a temporary thatched roof in 1809.


Although San Fernando was a unique settlement of negros, Yucatán had a substantial African presence from the earliest days of the Spanish conquest, when Francisco de Montejo had a license to import slaves.  One of them, Sebastián Toral, fought as a conquistador and became a free settler in Mérida at the time of its founding.  There was never a large population of plantation slaves as was common elsewhere in the Americas.  Most were personal servants, individual dependents of a household, working beside mestizo and indio servants.  Some served in militias, became skilled artisans, supervised Maya workers, had independent business interests, or became Mayanized agriculturists.  Manumission was common.  Late in the colonial era, freemen far outnumbered slaves among the pardos and negros that made up ten percent of Yucatán’s population.

City neighborhoods were segregated by race.  In Mérida, for example, the center was reserved for the buena gente, Santa Lucía was mostly negro, and Santiago, La Mejorada, and San Cristóbal were indo.  The separation became less and less rigid and broke down with expansion of the European core into surrounding areas.  The society that evolved was multiracial and ethnically highly complex.

The same blending of cultures took place in San Fernando.  This happened despite the official policy of isolating the community, efforts by its leaders to assert racial solidarity, and the language barriers — Creole continued as the common language for a long time, with Mandinka, Kongo, French, English, and Portuguese within various groups.  The town’s population doubled in its first decade, augmented by intermarriage with neighboring Maya people, acceptance of free blacks from within Yucatán, and immigration of escaped slaves from British logging settlements.  In 1806 the inhabitants included forty-four individuals of mixed race and four Indians.  Sources say the 853 residents in 1840 were 40% Maya, although the legendary explorer John Lloyd Stephens noted the town was “chiefly Africans.”

Numerous internal problems plagued San Fernando, complicated by issues of military hierarchy and language.  A French-speaking officer class dominated the village.  Relations with the Yucatán government were sometimes strained.  The ex-slaves harbored an abiding dislike for whites, which the blatantly racist attitudes of commissioners did nothing to diminish.

The settlers underwent a gradual process of Mayanization, adopting typical Maya occupations such as corn farming, hunting, cattle ranching, and bee-keeping.  The governor’s dreams of cash crops and military defense were not realized.  The original African settlers became a minority but maintained leadership for decades, safeguarding the town’s identity as a militia settlement because of the privileges and autonomy it gave them.

In the 1840s the settlers became caught up in the Caste War, trapped in a no-mans-land between Maya rebels and government forces.  Like thousands of other Yucatecans, some fled to Belize.  Others went to safer towns or into Maya villages to tend milpas.  By 1848, only a few elderly and infirm residents remained in San Fernando.  The town deteriorated and fell into ruins.

When the rebels had been driven into the eastern forests, the government sought to repopulate the abandoned areas for economic development.  They remembered the San Fernando refugees as successful, valued agriculturists and tried to bring them back by offering transportation and other inducements.  Apparently none returned.  The site was still deserted in 1862 and had only three inhabitants in 1900.

After Independence, and especially after the Revolution, Mexico eliminated the legal notion of race.  Questions about race vanished from the census.  A national identity based on the mestizaje of its indigenous and European past came to dominate modern Mexican history.  Mexico presented an alternative to the racial discrimination that afflicted other American nations.  And the Africans seemed to disappear.

But Yucatán’s diverse, multiracial population persists today.  Recent studies show West African genetic make-up ranges from 6% (Mérida) to 28% (Ciudad del Carmen).  Where are all these African descendants?  In an area perceived as entirely Spanish and Maya, the African element seems invisible, little documented or discussed.  Perhaps we just refuse to see the many Afro-Yucatecan workers and shopkeepers and elected officials.

In the 1990s, the Mexican government began officially affirming the existence of Afro-Mexicans, acknowledging Africa as Mexico’s “third root.”  We can now recognize that the African diaspora has brought diversity and cultural enrichment to the Americas — and to the world.

Bienvenido, Madre África.  Bienvenue, Mère Afrique.  Byenveni, Manman Lafrik di.  Welcome, Mother Africa, welcome to Yucatán.


 by Robert D. Temple



Today the site of San Fernando Aké is in a large cattle ranch about 35 miles north of Tizimín, 15 miles northeast of the village of Loché, six miles from the seacoast.  Ruins of the pre-Hispanic city include a hundred scattered mounds, an acropolis structure 100 feet high, and a pyramid 60 feet high.  Traces of buildings built by the Haitian refugees can be found just west of the center of the overgrown Maya structures.  Foundations of four or five buildings are visible.


(San Fernando Aké is not to be confused with the better known archeological site called Aké located in the municipality of Tixkokob, 25 miles east of Mérida.)


After winning independence, Saint-Domingue demonstrated its complete break with Europe by selecting a Taíno word for its new name:  Haiti.



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