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http://www.jstor.orgThe Americas 57:2 October2000, 247-267 Copyrightby the Academy of American FranciscanHistory
'POR QUE NO SABEMOS FIRMAR': BLACK SLAVESIN EARLYGUATEMALA*
born the Spanish Juan,a literateblack slavefive and raisedin 1560s in the town of laboredfor at least the
Honduran CQiceres, years during mines of Guayape.Finally, growing tired of the arduouswork of gold placer mining and takingadvantageof his isolation, he made a bid for freedom. Upon hearing of Juan's flight, his owner, a wealthy Santiago-based merchant named Santos de Figueroa, immediately began the process of securingJuan'srecovery.EventuallyJuanmade his way to Santo Domingo where unfortunatelyhe was capturedand Figueroa notified of his whereabouts.' It remainsunknownif Juan was actually returnedto Santiago or ifFigueroainsteadpreferredto sell him, a rathercommon occurrencein cases of runawayslaves. Juan serves to illustrateseveral aspects of African slavery in early Santiago. First, while literacyamong slaves was rare,Juanwas not uniquein this regard;in his case, literacyundoubtedlywas one of the importantskills that permittedhim to achieve a position of some trust. Second, the Honduran silver and gold minesused substantialnumbersof African slaves.2Juan's
* Researchfor this article was made possible by a fellowship from the Del Amo Foundation.Writing was made possible in part by a First Year Assistant Professor Summer Research Grant from the Florida State University (FSU). Completionwas permittedby a sabbaticalfrom the Departmentof History at FSU. I am gratefulto Jane Landers,Matthew Restall, LisaSousa and the anonymousreviewers for their comments on earlier drafts. "Por que no sabemos firmar"(because we are unable to sign) appearsoften in notarialdocumentsinvolving illiteratepeoples. Literacyduringthe period, a topic as of yet not deeply studied,proved somewhat rare.While few people could completely read and write, more could sign their names and many more could at least manage a roughrubric.Those that could not write at all usually asked the notaryor a witness to sign for them. The use of this phrase,thus, seems apropos given that literacy was extremely rareamong Black slaves. Additionallyin every single documentconsulted involving the need for Black slaves to sign, someone else inevitably did so in their place. Consequently the historical voice of Black slaves living in...