A History of Native American and African Relations from 1502 to 1900

By Smallwood, Arwin D. | Negro History Bulletin, April-September 1999 | Go to article overview

A History of Native American and African Relations from 1502 to 1900


Smallwood, Arwin D., Negro History Bulletin


There is a historic relationship between Indians and blacks from their earliest contact in the 1500s to the early twentieth century. This contact has resulted in the development of communities of blacks who are part African and Indian or part African, Indian, and European like the people who for the last 400 years have lived in a small rural community in northeastern North Carolina, known as Indian Woods. Communities like Indian Woods are scattered throughout the South and all over America. Many of these mixed-blooded people passed for Indian or white. Many others, who could not pass, became part of the African-American community. Sill others isolated themselves in various areas around the nation considering themselves neither Indian, white, nor truly black.(1)

A number of scholars including Charles Joyner, Richard S. Price, and Gary Nash have documented the cultural blending and inter-mixing of Native Americans and Europeans or Europeans and Africans. Nevertheless, few focus on the widespread mixing that occurred between Native Americans and Africans, the impact each had on the other, and how people like those in Indian Woods continue to survive as bi-racial and tri-racial people who have retained much of their Native American and African culture.(2)

According to a number of scholars, Africans and Native Americans have a long history of interaction that predates European contact. They argue that the Spanish were not the first explorers to establish contact with the indigenous populations of the Caribbean and Central America. In Africa and the Discovery of America (1920), Harvard professor Leo Wiener was one of the first to put forth this argument. His position has subsequently been supported by a number of noted scholars, including Ivan Van Sertima, Cheikh Anta Diop, and Michael Bradley. These scholars contend that long before the arrival of the Spanish, Africans were already trading with, warring with, and inter-mixing with the native peoples of the Western Hemisphere.(3)

Columbus' own logs, along with archeological evidence, reinforce the contention that Africans explored and traded with the Americas long before the Spanish. Columbus noted that when he established communication with the natives, they indicated that the Spanish had arrived from the South, while the Africans who preceded them arrived from the Southeast. Furthermore, Columbus and his crew reported that when they arrived in the Americas they found Africans already there. They also reported that on their arrival on Hispaniola they saw ports already established. Finally, Columbus wrote in his journal that while on his third voyage to the Americas, he observed a ship loaded with goods leaving the coast of Guinea headed west in the direction of the Americas. West African records also document African efforts to cross the Atlantic and trade with the Americas. Arabic documents reveal that from 1305 to 1312, Abu Bakari II, the king of Mali, sent two expeditions across the Atlantic. The first expedition numbered more than 200 ships, only three of which returned. The second numbered over 2,000, which Abu Bakari personally led after relinquishing his throne to Mansa-Musa, who would become one of Africa's greatest leaders.(4)

There is archeological evidence that supports the presence of East Africans even before the Malian expeditions. According to the evidence, Central American civilization was heavily influenced by East African culture, specifically from Ethiopia, Kemet, or Meroe. It is believed that one or more of these civilizations crossed the Atlantic between 1200 and 400 B.C. Upon arriving in Central America, these early explorers significantly altered the developing cultures of the Maya, Teotihuacan, Monte Alban, and Aztecs by introducing the technology used to create pyramids, Olmec heads, and hieroglyphics. In many ways, structures found in Central America were similar to those of the Nile River Valley and the renowned East African empires of Egypt, Nubia, Ethiopia, Kemet, and Meroe. …

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