“Chocolate City, Chessboard City”: Black Vitality in Renaissance Seville

Libro de juegos [Book of Games], Alfonso X (The Learned).
Seville, Spain at the height of the Renaissance bustled like a chocolate city–to borrow from Marcus Anthony Hunter and Zandria F. Robinson‘s masterful work that defines “chocolate cities” as Black enclaves and neighborhoods. Seville embodied this definition extremely well. The city’s cosmopolitan atmosphere, global economic glory, and, at other times, its rampant structural corruption, earned it the ignominious epithet of the “Great Babylon.” For example, literary works such as Lope de Vega’s play Servir a señor discreto (1610/1615) and Luis Vélez de Guevara’s prose work El Diablo cojuelo (1641) refer to Seville as the “Gran Babilonia de España.” The short-skit interlude Los mirones (attributed to Cervantes, 1623), for instance, casts Seville as the ancient Assyrian “Nínive,” another kind of Babylon, whose infinite Black population’s African diasporic cultural presence and languages reverberated in the streets of the Santa María de la Blanca neighborhood.1

When historicizing the demography of Seville’s sub-Saharan African population under the reign of Philip II (1556-1598) and thereafter well into the late-eighteenth century, I see a clear correlation between the artistic, historical, historiographical, and literary representations of Seville’s Black population that captures what Zora Neale Hurston called “the black backside” of small towns and other forms of Black community thriving in Seville’s public and private spaces. As a chocolate city, Seville also represented a chessboard tray, whose voluminous Black African and African-descended populations reached a height of eleven percent. In a one-year period, between 1569-1570, 1,100 slaves were sold annually, of whom more than eighty-five percent were purchased by neighboring cities across Andalusia. Seville’s Black African population was ethnically diverse, originating from Angola and the Congo Basin, the Cape Verde Islands, the Kingdom of Dahomey, the Senegambia and its Rivers of Guinea, as well as Mozambique and neighboring Portuguese outposts in East Africa and Goa. The overwhelming presence of Blacks and their descendants in Seville gave way to the city’s alias as the tablero de ajedrez, or chessboard table.

Lope de Vega’s play Servir a señor discreto, for example, references the metropolis’s black-and-white chessboard demographic, while the merchant Alonso Carrillo observes how “Seville looked like chess pieces, black as much as white.” Luis de Peraza in his sixteenth-century Historia de Sevilla renames the city’s Barrio Santa Cruz district as the Varrio del Atambor because it was the place where Black Africans—enslaved and free—gathered on Sundays to play music and sing.

Seville’s ethnically diverse sub-Saharan African populations also manifests in the Spanish historical drama TV series La Peste (Alberto Rodríguez and Rafael Cobos, 2018). In my view, the show, a dark thriller in many ways, recognizes this overlooked history and its diasporic imprint on the Iberian Peninsula.2 Starting around the timestamp 6:53, we are shown an auction block where Black Africans of different ethnic groups are sold on the steps of the Cathedral of Seville. What remains fascinating to me—and clearly indicative of African diasporic artistic, cultural, religious, and spiritual retentions—are the necklaces of bone, minerals, and roots worn by the newly-arrived Blacks in the scene.

The Black confraternity known as Los negros (or Los Negritos for others)—considered by many as the first Black confraternity in Western Europe under the official patronage of Our Lady of Angels—is also important to my commentary here, for the scene in which the confraternity appears shows Black men rehearsing for a Holy Week procession while a wooden statue of West-Central African origin, illuminated by candle light, sits high-up in a corner watching over the men as if it were a Catholic saint. The character Nubla—former slave of Martín de Valle and freed after his master’s death—works as an active member of the confraternity in the TV series. He represents a repository of a situated knowledge of West-Central African cosmologies and religious traditions from what could be traced to the Kingdom of Kongo. His house, located on the banks of the Guadalquivir River, further embodies and preserves an overlooked archive and history that reveal a sector of sub-Saharan African life in early modern Spain. The Los negros confraternity still exists today, but since the eighteenth century, the brotherhood consists exclusively of men of European descent.

A similar history—of erasure and whitening—also belongs the confraternity of Los mulatos in Seville, in which I have family members. For both present-day European and North American audiences, La Peste renders visible the invisible: the ultra-peripheral marginality of Blackness in early modern Spain that then becomes re-centered in popular culture. Alberto Rodríguez and Rafael Cobos as well as their team working on La Peste invite us to connect the present with the past, thereby seeing sub-Saharan Africa in Spain as a viable category and concept that has existed there forever.

Historical documents and literary sources evidence Seville’s cartographic blueprint and genealogical DNA imprint as both chocolate city and chessboard city. Even nowadays, one can claim the existence of twenty-first century Iberian chocolate cities such as Barcelona, Lisbon, and Madrid. In each of these urban centers—where both continental Africans, U.S.-Black Americans, as well as African-descended folks from the Spanish-speaking Caribbean and Brazil have migrated—I have witnessed the demographic reassembling of diasporic Blackness across each of these cities’ suburbs and urban African diaspora landscapes. For instance, African women own their own hair salons where one can get a lace-front wig or even a sewn-in human-hair weave 30” in length. In each of these cities, locals and tourists alike can expect to rub shoulders with Senegambian men generically calling themselves “Boubakar” on their business cards, who provide spiritual services to dispel evil hexes, return lost lovers, and even assist in winning favorable results in immigration cases. And on the food scene, none the less, it is more common to see Portuguese and Spaniards across all generations dine at Ethiopian, Senegalese, and/or Mozambican restaurants. To say the least, the Iberian culinary lexicon and palate have been elevated.

When you look—and know where to look—the chocolate-city and chessboard-city imageries I manufacture for Iberia permeate many of the peninsula’s major cities. In the case of Seville, similar to the lived experiences of U.S.-Black Americans, many Black folks living in Iberian metropolises have survived due in part to these African diasporic and immigrant communities reminding us that Black people have always created these global chocolate cities for themselves since the age of time. As Marcus Hunter and Zandria F. Robinson astutely remind us: “here, there, and everywhere, we as Black folk can both survive and be liberated with this time’s fire.”

  1.  Don Adolfo de Castro, ed., Varias obras inéditas de Cervantes (Madrid: A. de Carlos é Hijo, 1874), 29-30.
  2. Refer to Isidoro Moreno, La antigua hermandad de “Los negros” de Sevilla: etnicidad, poder y sociedad en 600 años de history (Sevilla: Universidad de Sevilla/Junta de Andalucía, 1997)
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Nicholas R. Jones

Nicholas R. Jones is Assistant Professor of Spanish and Africana Studies at Bucknell University. His research agenda explores the agency, subjectivity, and performance of black diasporic identities in early modern Iberia. He is co-editor of 'Early Modern Black Diaspora Studies: A Critical Anthology' (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) with Cassander L. Smith and Miles P. Grier. His first solo-authored monograph, 'Staging Habla de negros: Radical Performances of the African Diaspora in Early Modern Spain,' will be published with Penn State University Press in 2019. He is currently at work on his second monograph that examines the role of material culture in the archival and literary history of black women in early modern Portugal and Spain. Follow him on Twitter @Bibliophilenick.

Comments on ““Chocolate City, Chessboard City”: Black Vitality in Renaissance Seville

  • Great post! But why didn’t you cite George Clinton/Parliament for coining the term “Chocolate City”?

  • This is a fabulous post. Thanks for the great links as well. The Museo de Cadiz has a terracotta “Negro” mask dated between the 4th and 3rd century BCE. Moscati’s book, “The Phoenicians” presents several other depictions from that time period and before. It’s really amazing to see the continuity and discontinuity of various Africoid populations in Iberia over the course of several millenia. Thanks again for sharing. Outstanding!!!!

  • Great post.

  • Thank you for the article Mr jones . I am now living in Spain.. I go to Granada as least once every 2 weeks. I have family on the wife side who lives in Sevill and have been there 20 or more times.. I love that I can speak to my brother sister form Africa and love to share with them the things about America, the Bad and the good. Where I live there is a 2 hour boat ride to North Africa and working to get to mid Africa soon..

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