In 1997, the National Congress of Ecuador declared October 2, the national day of Black Ecuadorians giving formal recognition to Alonso de Illescas (pronounced O-lone-zo Day EE-yes-cahs) a native of Senegal, West Africa.
At the age of about 10 years, he was captured by slave traders and taken as a slave to Spain. He was baptized and confirmed in Seville with the name of Enrique. He later took the name of his master, the merchant Alonso de Illescas.
He lived in Seville for seventeen years before he was sent to the Caribbean to assist his owners. He first spent time on the island of Santo Domingo where his owners established a merchant enterprise which included clothing, cured meats, swords, horses, olive oil, wine, and the selling of Africans
In contrast to the lives of other Africans who were brought to the Americas as slaves, Illescas more than likely never worked on a sugar plantation or in a rice field. Instead, he was a trusted personal servant expected to perform many duties for his owners and probably served as elder Illescas’ personal servant during his youth in Seville. From the Indies he traveled to Panama and then to Peru, the silver-producing capital of the early Spanish Empire. Records indicate that he and Alvaro, one of his owners, were active in Peru by 1551. In 1553, he along with twenty-three “Guinea slaves” departed the port of Panama on the southbound journey to Lima, Peru. The journey proved to be typical in that the ship’s pilot had to contend with north and westerly Pacific Ocean currents and therefore decided to seek harbor in San Mateo Bay on the Esmeraldas coast. In spite of this, the ship ran aground inside the bay and stranded the crew, passengers, and slaves onshore. They were forced to travel along ragged shorelines to reach the nearest settlement, Puerto Viejo. In the course of the journey, Illescas and the other slaves decided to seize the moment to head into dense forest and claim their freedom.
Illescas, along with his fellow escapees, struggled to survive at first, making alliances with and attacks against native communities. The first leader of the group was an African named Antón.
Anton later died and Illescas eventually rose to a position of leadership by way of alliances that he struck with the local Nigua indigenous communities. He officially became the leader of his Maroon community in the late 1560s. Throughout the rest of the sixteenth century under his leadership, the community came to include Amerindians and even a few Europeans.
Allonso was a skilled negotiator and knew how to win the friendship of the Indians, making appropriate partnerships, particularly with the tribe of the chiggers. An account by Miguel Cabello de Balboa has it that Alonso was once invited to a great feast with the powerful Indian chief Chilianduli and his people in the village of Dobe, surprisingly at the end of the party Alonso and the marrons killed 500 Indians, and Alonso de Illescas therefore became the new lord of the people.
For the Indians there was no choice but to agree and accept the newcomers.They therefore supported Alonso and his free blacks in the fight against enemy tribes, especially the dreaded Campaces. As a sign of alliance the Indians awarded their women as a trophy to the black warriors of Allonso to marry, many formed polygamous partnerships, and their offspring at first were referred to as mulattoes by the Spanish and by the 1590s as zambos, giving rise to a new breed of people in South America “the zambo of Esmeraldas.”
Alonso was cunning, brave in war, with his quite literary abilities in Spanish language also quickly learned the local languages. With the Spanish colonizers he maintained a relationship that could define as “hate and love,” in order to preserve their autonomy while leveraging their friendship.
He established his people in the headwaters of Atacames, called San Martin de la Campaces, the place of which was the historic meeting with the priest Miguel Cabello de Balboa, in the month of September 1577.
In the 1570s Illescas’ Maroon community also began trading with Spanish ships that periodically stopped on the Esmeraldas coast.
The region’s remote geography with dense forests and mangroves and the indigenous inhabitants’ (Campazes who lived south of the Bay of San Mateo) prolonged resistance to Spanish rule helped to enable the Maroon community to survive for generations.
Illescas never took bribes, and even rejected the title of governor when many politicians gave up their properties to take on the title of governor of Esmeraldas. Alonso IIlescas trained new leaders starting with his son Alonso Sebastian de Illescas and his grandson Jerónimo (Geronimo) so that they be loving of justice and liberty and keep their territory free of Spanish rule. Although, Esmeraldas was the first province invaded by the Spanish, it was the alliance between Blacks and Indigenous people that kept the Spanish from taking full control.
Near the end of Illescas’ life, he ruled his community with the help of two sons, Sebastián and Antonio There is no historical record of Alonso de Illescas after the 1590s. Therefore, he must have died in the Esmeraldas region at some point between 1587 and 1596. While Illescas did not live long enough to witness a peace agreement with the Real Audiencia of Quito, it was achieved. His son Sebastián obtained the title of Don and was recognized as leader over the Illescas Maroons by 1600. In addition, Sebastián received the sacrament of confirmation by Quito’s bishop in 1600 and he took Alonso as his confirmation name. Illescas’ family ruled Esmeraldas for at least two more generations.
Miguel Cabello de Balboa a Spanish priest openly acknowledged in his letters to the King of Spain that Alonso de Illescas was a man of superior qualities. He wrote to King telling him that it was not so easy to subdue a man who was so well prepared and knew how to defend in all fields.