The Newsletter 88 Spring 2021

IIAS Fellow in the spotlight: Norah Gharala

Norah Gharala

From Mozambique to Mexico: forced journeys in the early modern Iberian world.

I began my fellowship in February and feel very fortunate to be here. The flexibility of IIAS has been generous, as has my digital reception from scholars in the Netherlands. I am working on a book manuscript about the forced movements of people from Southeastern Africa to Mexico in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, using a central story as a focal point. So far, I have found Leiden an ideal place for reflection and am grateful for the opportunity to research and write. I have online access to relevant materials through the Leiden University Libraries: maps of Southeast Asia; travel accounts; and cutting-edge volumes like Being a Slave: Histories and Legacies of European Slavery in the Indian Ocean (edited by Alicia Schrikker and Nira Wickramasinghe of Leiden University, 2020).

Brief references to enslaved people from ‘Mozambique in the Indies of Portugal’ in Mexican archives caught my attention a few years ago. Because the mentions were brief, my process of understanding this term has necessitated engagement with archives and libraries beyond Mexico. Part of the first chapter of my book explores early modern European descriptions of the Indian Ocean World and Southeast Asia. These texts collectively contributed meaning to the labels applied to enslaved people. Gold mining, maritime knowledge, loyalty, rebelliousness, and military prowess were some of the practices and traits associated with the term ‘mozambique’ in Iberian worlds.

Beyond analyzing how Portuguese and Spanish vocabularies incorporated Indian Ocean Africa, my project explores how Africans and Afrodescendants deployed labels. Men sometimes made oblique references to Southeastern Africa by claiming relationships with each other within Spanish colonial institutions. In Mexico City, Juan Bartolo told a priest that he had maintained a friendship with another enslaved man “from the time he was a young Mozambique where they are from”. The two traveled “to China by boat” and then on to Mexico around 1588 (Mexican National Archive, I.V. 1356 exp. 12). Such a rare friendship must have meant a great deal to both men as they were trafficked halfway around the world. A handful of these remarkable stories persist in fragments throughout the archives of the former Iberian empires. My first task while in Leiden is analyzing these fragments in order to draw out as much meaning from them as possible. People of East African origin or descent in Mexico had little opportunity to describe their homelands in the historical record. My research must reckon with those gaps in our historical knowledge and contextualize the clues East Africans left to their experiences of an interconnected world.

Norah Gharala,
University of Houston, Texas, USA