As part of Black History Month, celebrated every February, the US Embassy in Morocco has commemorated Mustafa Zemmouri, known as Estevanico or Estevan the Moor. Zemmouri is believed to be the first Moroccan to ever set foot in America.
Using the story of Estevanico as an illustration of historical links between Morocco and the US, the diplomatic mission celebrated the two centuries of friendship binding the two countries.
“Zemmouri’s story is just one example of the Moroccan presence in the US from over 200 years of friendship,” the embassy wrote.
While he is nearly absent in Moroccan history books, Estevanico is known as a famous explorer and adventurer in Spanish and American books about the expeditions to the “New World.”
Mustafa Zemmouri was born in the port city of Azemmour, on Morocco’s Atlantic coast, in the early 16th century. At the time, the Portuguese Empire controlled the city and sold many locals, including Zemmouri, into slavery in Europe.
The Portuguese sold Zemmouri in the early 1520s to Spanish explorer Andres Dorantes de Carranza. In Spain, the Moroccan man was baptized and given the Christian name Estevanico.
In 1527, Estevanico and Dorantes joined the Narvaez expedition that sought to establish Spanish colonial settlements and garrisons in Florida, southeasternmost modern-day US.
Upon arriving in Florida, Estevanico and Dorantes were among a group that included famous Spanish explorers Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca and Alonso del Castillo Maldonado.
The four men are known as the last survivors of the Narvaez expedition, out of 300 men that arrived in Florida. All the others lost their lives while exploring the rainforests and encountering native tribes.
During their travel along the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico, Estevanico and his small group were captured and enslaved by native Americans. One tribe in modern-day Texas imprisoned the four survivors for five years.
In 1534, the group escaped inland towards the southwest of modern-day US. For several years, Estevanico and the three Spanish explorers lived among native tribes, serving as “healers.”
The men were known among native Americans as “The Children of the Sun” because they were traveling from the east to the west.
Estevanico was especially gifted in languages. He became fluent in several local dialects and made friends with many native Americans.
It is uncertain how Estevanico died, but many history books suggest he was killed by warriors from a native American tribe called Zuni, located in modern-day New Mexico.
While he began his journey as an unknown slave, Mustafa Zemmouri is today remembered as a brave explorer and as a symbol of the historic roots of relations between Morocco and the US.