Gaspar Yanga, also simply known as “Yanga” or “Nyanga,” was born circa 1545. He was said to be of chiefly ancestry and a member of the YangBara people of the modern country of Gabon. He was captured in war and sold into slavery, eventually being forced to work against his will in New Spain, part of which is now called Mexico.
During this time, he was given the name Gaspar. Mexico and New Spain had the largest African population anywhere in the Americas, outside of Brazil. It also had the largest amount of free blacks, who often intermarried with Europeans or indigenous peoples.
In 1570, Yanga led a group of slaves to revolt and rebel outside of modern day Veracruz, escaping to the highlands near this city. In these highlands, the liberated slaves built a free colony for themselves, which lasted for over 30 years and survived by expropriating passing caravans loaded with goods in transit between Mexico City and Veracruz.
In 1609, 550 Spanish soldiers, adventurers and militia led by Pedro González de Herrera set out from Puebla to re-enslave Yanga and his people. The free forces, commanded by an Angolan named Francisco de la Matosa, used superior knowledge of the terrain and guerilla tactics that developed in centuries of African combat to outwit and inflict disproportionate harm on the invading Spaniards. This was after Yanga presented terms of peace to the Spaniards, which included the right to self-rule, the guarantee of return of slaves that fled to the area controlled by Yanga’s forces, and promises to support the Spanish if they were attacked, which were denied and resulted in a battle.
This battle, during which the maroon community was burned, which led them to flee even deeper into the highlands, drew the Spaniards to the negotiating table after a long stalemate. They ultimately agreed to Yanga’s terms and signed a treaty in 1618.
The community founded after this battle was called San Lorenzo de los Negros de Cerralvo, and today is known as Yanga in tribute to the main leader and founder of the city. In 1871, Yanga was declared to be a Mexican National Hero and the First Liberator of the Americas (El Primer Libertador de las Americas) after the discovery of records of his struggle and subsequent account by Mexican historian Vicente Riva Palacio.