In Venezuela’s early history, between 1552 to 1555, lies the first and most famous historical account of a slave revolt in the new world. This rebelli
In Venezuela’s early history, between 1552 to 1555, lies the first and most famous historical account of a slave revolt in the new world. This rebellion was led by Miguel de Buria, who not only won his freedom through conflict but won the hearts and minds of all who were shackled henceforth. However, much of the historical archive related to his life appears to border the supernatural. This leads to interesting questions regarding the power of narrative to galvanize oppressed peoples to a cause.
King Miguel and His Cumbe Kingdom
Little is known about de Buria’s origins except that he was a Christianized African slave from San Juan, Puerto Rico, brought to Venezuela by Damien del Barrio. The few historical accounts that exist state that Miguel was born sometime in 1510. Though he was a slave, it was said he carried an aura of royalty, unlike others in his situation. He was brought to the province of Yaracuy and put to work in the Real de Minas de San Felipe de Buria gold mine, where he was expected to work the rest of his natural life. But it wasn’t meant to be.
The first slave revolt was born in the Buria mines, whereby Miguel convinced both his fellow African slaves and a few Jirajara indigenous people to break free and build a maroon settlement called a cumbe, or rebel slave settlement, which became his kingdom by the San Pedro river. Against all odds, Miguel de Buria led a successful rebellion and proved that freedom was attainable.
Shortly after his insurrection, he established maroon towns and proclaimed himself the first African king of Buria, Venezuela. It was in this cumbe kingdom that self-proclaimed King Miguel wished to enact the African customs he remembered from before his enslavement. He also established draconian rules to maintain order within his new freeperson settlement. Many slaves seeking asylum flurried to his kingdom, causing an increase in its population.
Miguel the Black of Venezuela ( Lino37 / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Though these settlements may have appeared to be safe havens, Buria was far from being paradise. Most of the terrain was arid and mountainous, meaning that certain supplies could only be acquired by raiding smaller, and less guarded, plantations in the region. This tension furthered the urgency for the Spanish colonial government to intervene.
Though his reign was short lived, and unfortunately saturated with three years of constant battles against the Spanish, the legend of Miguel de Buria, also known as Miguel the Black, inspired thousands of slave revolts over the next three hundred years. But, exactly how important was his legend when it came to inspiring people to rebel against their oppressors?
Miguel de Buria entered the pantheon of Latin American rebel leaders when he fought back against his Spanish oppressors and proclaimed himself king of Buria.( Public domain )
Slave Rebellion Against the Spanish at San Felipe Mines
In the 16th century, slaves, bought by the Portuguese and used by the Spanish, were transported all over the New World. In Venezuela specifically, the anthropologist Angelina Pollack surmised that somewhere numbering 100,000 slaves were imported from Africa to work on cacao, sugar, and indigo plantations, as well as mines operated by the Spanish crown. Among those mines was the famed Real de Minas de San Felipe de Buria, which used both African slaves and indigenous Jirajara natives for the purpose of extracting precious metals from the ground.
Miguel’s first signs of defiance came when a Spanish foreman, Diego Hernandez de Serpha, attempted to make an example of him to other potentially disobedient slaves. The incident ended with Miguel grabbing his sword and subduing him. He made his escape to the Cordillera de Merida mountains, accompanied by other slaves he had helped to free. After establishing their cumbe kingdom, Miguel helped organize and arm the slaves successfully enough to return to the San Felipe mines and rise up against the Spanish.
In a form of poetic justice, most of the Spanish guards were killed in the attack, which enacted revenge on the Spanish by replicating the cruel punishments they had inflicted on their slaves. A few were left alive so they would live to tell the tale of Miguel’s actions. But they were also left with a warning: if they came to hunt Miguel and his freed slaves, he would personally burn their towns and force their beloved mothers, wives, and daughters into forced prostitution.
When his Spanish foreman attempted to make an example of him, Miguel grabbed his sword and fought back, managing to escape and establish his kingdom. ( Library Company of Philadelphia )
Miguel the Black as Champion of the Oppressed
Some historic accounts estimate that Miguel’s forces numbered 1,500 freed Africans, mulattoes, zambos, and Jirajara indigenous Americans. Historians have been unsuccessful in giving the exact location of Miguel’s Kingdom of Buria, but many believed that it was located somewhere near the current city of Barquisimeto, or near the municipality of Nirgua in the state of Uaracuy. Other accounts describe it as strategically constructed near a cove, thus taking advantage of natural barriers such as untraversable rock formations locking any other ways in to Miguel’s city. Within his fortified walls, Miguel was the self-proclaimed king, his lover Guiomar was his queen, and his son was made prince. The companions liberated during the beginnings of his campaign, became the administrators and governors of his newfound city, and within those ranks, he hoped to build a civilization in accordance to his own vision.
The reputation of King Miguel grew throughout the region, as he and his freed followers continued to lead successful raids on other plantations and mines across the Yaracuy province. To the Spanish, he was a vicious terrorist bent on murder and chaos. But to the enslaved and oppressed Indians and Africans, he was their liberator leading them to salvation.
Due to his championship of both Jirajara and African peoples alike, he built firm alliances with indigenous populations all over Venezuela. Together, they attempted the impossible by planning the most ambitious attacks ever undertaken. King Miguel, his freedmen, and his Jirajara allies attempted to take Barquisimeto and El Tocuyo to strike a crucial blow to the Spanish and cripple their hold within the region. But alas, as Miguel mobilized his freedom fighters for their last push, Captain Diego de Lozada, accompanied by a small contingent of soldiers, was on his way to thwart Miguel’s plans.
Latin America was the destination of millions of African slaves. ( Public domain )
Death of the Rebel King
With every act of liberation, the Spanish colonial government in Venezuela became increasingly irate. Miguel’s tactics adapted swiftly to the growing pressures of the Spanish armies dedicated to destroying his kingdom. Miguel led forces through Nueva Segovia de Barquisimeto, this time utilizing newfound techniques adopted from the Jirajara and other indigenous tribes of the region, one of which included face painting and sneak attacks designed to harass Spanish squadrons.
A majority of the weapons used by Miguel’s forces were indigenous blow darts and spears made from the metals confiscated and repurposed from liberated mines. Other armaments consisted of sabers, bows and arrows. In 1554, King Miguel was successful in attacking the town, resulting in the killing of the priest Toribio Ruiz, six settlers, and the destruction of a church.
Hearing of these successes, the Spanish at Yocuyo sent reinforcements to Nueva Segovia de Barquisimeto for the purpose of launching an attack against Miguel’s Kingdom of Buria. Led by Captain Diego Losada, the expedition into Miguel’s territory led to the capture of a freed slave who Losada forcefully used as a guide through the jungle. He also captured several women in the process. However, this act alerted Miguel’s guards, leading to the full armament of Miguel’s settlement.
The Spanish colonial government sent reinforcements to attack Miguel’s Kingdom of Buria. In 1555 Captain Diego Losada’s expedition entered battle with King Miguel and his freed slaves. ( Public domain )
King Miguel and his freed slaves armed themselves for battle against Losada’s men. Both groups met at the gates of his kingdom. Losada and his men proved able against King Miguel’s army, inevitably causing Miguel’s forces to retreat inside their city. Losada breached the city’s gates and pursued the retreating freedom fighters. Accounts of how the battled ensued differ amongst scholars of the era. What is known is that in the year of 1555, after many clashes between the forces of King Miguel and Captain Losada, Miguel was killed by a crossbow during the heat of battle.
Immediately after Miguel’s demise on the battlefield, his allies and freed slaves lost hope in winning against the Spaniards. Though most kept the battle going, many others fled the warring city. In the end, Miguel’s city fell and the Spanish were victorious. Most of the slaves were hunted down and recaptured by Losada’s forces, while the rest were executed that day. All men who resisted were killed, while the women and children were redistributed throughout plantations of Venezuela. Amongst those returned into slavery was Miguel’s queen, Guiomar, and his son. Despite their losses, the Jirajara continued their resistance against the Spanish for decades after Miguel’s death, resulting in the eventual Spanish abandonment of other mines and plantations in that region.
King Miguel, the self-proclaimed King of Buria, built strong alliances with the indigenous peoples of Venezuela and has inspired future rebellions of oppressed peoples of Latin America. ( Public domain )
Legacy of King Miguel Inspires Future Slave Revolts
King Miguel has gone down in history as the first African monarch to successfully lead a revolt in Latin America. Within the three-year span of his rule, he successfully constructed a maroon city cumbe, which most referred to as his kingdom. He not only freed fellow Christianized African slaves, but also built strong alliances with the local indigenous Jirajara people.
His legacy went on to inspire future rebellions, which imitated his leadership strategy. Historians have speculated about him being of African royal ancestry, and legend used this to explain why he was destined to be king. Furthermore, his wife Queen Guiomar, carried a name connected to Arthurian legend as one of King Arthur’s vassals. Was his “royal family” purposefully built on a foundation of myth, and was Miguel’s self-proclamation designed to maintain order and structure in the settlement he created?
As Pollak-Eltz mentions in her 1977 analysis of Venezuelan slave revolts:
“The ‘cumbes’ were tightly organized and well-guarded by keeping discipline. This was the only way to survive. Magicoreligious concepts played an important part in the founding of ‘cumbes’ and sorcerers often headed conspiracies or became political leaders in the settlements .”
A majority of maroon cities in later years were founded in a similar fashion to King Miguel’s. Slave revolts were usually led by those believed to carry supernatural powers. In 1603, a slave revolt occurred in a pearl diving operation by Margarita Island, during which a sorceress obtained supernatural powers that gave her and whoever believed in her strength to overthrow their oppressors. In the years to come, more leaders would rise by way of supernatural divinity. They would lead further raids and create techniques that led to the development of uncontrollable guerrilla warfare within the region. However, as Pollak-Eltz explains, “rebellions were usually short-lived and rarely successful.”
Miguel de Buria’s legend joins the ranks of other Latin American heroes including the liberator and revolutionary hero Simon Bolívar. (Antonio Marín Segovia / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Inspiring the Enslaved and Downtrodden: Slave Rebellions in Venezuela
Though King Miguel’s resistance lasted for only three years, his legacy continued in oral folklore. He not only inspired the enslaved, but also the indigenous of that region for many generations to come. Because of his acts, continuous rebellions occurred throughout the next few hundred years within Latin America . Even after Miguel’s demise, by the 17 th century up to 20,000 to 60,000 runaway slaves had fled from mines and plantations to form their own maroon cities. Other heroes would emerge thanks to the legend of King Miguel, including Guillermo Rivas who founded the freed settlement of Ocoyta in 1770. He too led raids to free slaves from plantations and mines, only to reach a similar unfortunate end.
Statue at Plaza Negro Miguel, El Cuadrado, Barquisimeto, Venezuela. (Simonplanas-lara)
King Miguel has been defined as something akin to a fallen king, while his soul has been added to the pantheon of Latin American heroes including the likes of Simon Bolivar , Guaicaipuro, and fellow black slave Felipe. King Miguel has also become synonymous with the cult of Maria Lionza, as many scholars have alluded to her being Miguel’s companion Queen Guiomar. Miguel’s legend continues to inspire people today, his story giving rise to poems by Manuel Rugeles, Jose Antonio de Armas Chitty, Alejo Carpentier, as well as the dramatic adaptation of Miguel’s life by Guillermo Meneses in Espejos y Disfraces .
Perhaps a little supernatural narrative is necessary in order to portray larger than life characters. After all, being able to lead a successful rebellion against any oppressor is always a herculean task that rarely ends well for those leading the fight. Those living in chains and dreaming of freedom need something to believe in. A story portraying a slave-turned-king, becomes essential for inspiring lasting movements for the sake of social change.
Top image: African slave turned king. Credit: Max / Adobe Stock
By B.B. Wagner