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.
Castas Painting "De Negro y d India, China-Cambuja" 1763
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.
It is of my humble educated opinion that judging from the involvement of people taken from Elmina as sailors and Columbus in his second voyage stopped in Elmina and ask for some black crews support the view that Garrido might be a Fante man from Elmina.
It is said that upon arrival in Seville, he joined an expedition to the New World, possibly traveling as Pedro Garrido's servant. Garrido with as a member of the Spanish expedition arrived in Santo Domingo (Hispaniola) about 1502. Garrido spent six years at Hispaniola watching explorers pillage the New World. The Spanish government allowed the conquistadors to take land, people, and treasure; it was the Crown's attempt to convert the world to Catholicism. Garrido signed on for the Conquest. In 1508, he joined Juan Ponce de Leon with about fifty conquistadors to look for gold in Puerto Rico and Cuba. They found it, and Garrido's life became a thirty-year adventure of exploring, fighting, and looting.
Ponce de Leon settled Puerto Rico and became its governor. Garrido settled there too, and fought against the natives when they revolted in 1511. When Ponce lost his position to Diego Columbus in 1513, he took Garrido and other soldiers to look for another treasure island. Instead, they found the huge peninsula of Florida. They were not equipped to take on the Florida natives. They claimed it, named it, and planned to return later to conquer it.
Duty called back in the Caribbean. The Carib Indians were launching ferocious revolts against the Spanish. Garrido scouted the islands with Ponce, "pacifying" (fighting) and enslaving Native Americans. Then it was back to Puerto Rico. Ponce's wife died and he spent time raising his daughters. Meanwhile, Garrido assisted other small expeditions and mined for gold.
By 1519 he had joined Cortes' forces and invaded present-day Mexico, participating in the siege of Tenochtitlan. He married and settled in Mexico City. He continued to serve with Spanish forces for more than 30 years, including expeditions to western Mexico and to the Pacific. He is credited with the first cultivation of wheat in the New World. Juan Garrido explored a final expedition in 1533 with Cortes to Baja California before he passed away in 1536.