At Calle Recaredo, 19 in Seville, Spain you will find a building that was built sometime around 1550. It belongs to La Hermandad de los Negritos (English: The Brotherhood of the Blacks) a Catholic brotherhood from Seville, Andalusia, Spain. Founded in 1393 by Cardinal Gonzalo de Mena y Roelas to care for the Blacks of Seville, the Brotherhood has a remarkable story.
We first heard of them from historian, author and journalist Joel Augustus Rogers. In his book “100 Amazing Facts About The Negro With Complete Proof,” it seems Rogers left the best for last. For the 100th proof he tells how the Brotherhood has been wearing their garb since 1460 A.D., if not earlier, as part of the Corpus Christi or Holy Week festival. Rogers quotes Arturo Schomburg, namesake of Harlem’s Schomburg Library, as saying of the order in 1927:
“It was only human to wish to examine the garments of the Brotherhood of the Negroes after observing the similarity to the white robes and cowls used by the Ku Klux Klan of our country (USA). To all appearances the American organization copied the dress of those believers in Christ. Not even in garments, it seems, is the American order original. They are evidently copied faithfully from a very sacred brotherhood whose devotion won them the love and gratitude of the Spanish people from King to peasant, Pontiff to believer.”
Rogers goes on to describe the contemporary descendants of the “Spanish Negroes” to be “quite bleached.”
Let’s examine their garments more closely. The mask or hood worn by the brotherhood was originally called a capirote. It is known as a cornet in Linares and a caperuz in Torredonjimeno. The capirote began to be used during the Spanish Inquisition. It was worn during the auto-da-fé or “act of faith,” a ritual conducted during the penance of condemned heretics and apostates where their sentence was decided and executed. In addition to the capirote, a habit called a sanbenito is also worn. Saint Benedict of Palermo, the Sicilian black saint has been venerated as the third titular name of the brotherhood – although not included in the official title of the order – from his beatification in the XVII century.
If St. Benedict is the patron saint of La Hermandad de los Negritos, isn’t it entirely possible the name of the habit, sanbenito, is taken from his Spanish name “San Benito?” Isidoro Moreno Navarro mentions San Benito de Palermo at least twenty-two times in his Spanish language book “La antigua Hermandad de los Negros de Sevilla: etnicidad, poder y sociedad en 600 años de historia” [English: The ancient Brotherhood of the Blacks of Seville: Ethnicity, power and society in 600 years of history.]
Another book ‘Época colonial: México viejo, noticias históricas, tradiciones, leyendas y costumbres‘ by Luis González Obregón provides a description of the punishment, clothing and symbolism of each as pertains to the Inquisition:
No less outrageous than these punishments were the penitential insignia of the prisoners judged by the Holy Office which can be seen in the curious engravings we reproduce from a work printed in Amsterdam in 1692 under the title of Inquisitionis Historia and written by Felipe A. Limborch
In these engravings are found the three kinds of sambenitos, a kind of scapular of cloth or yellow cloth or incarnate(?), which were known successively with the names of Samarra, Fuego revolto and simply Sambenito, the latter name which was later common to all.
The Samarra was carried by the relaxed or the prisoners surrendered to the secular arm to be seized or burned alive. Samarra had then painted dragons, devils and flames between which the portrait of the inmate was burning. The habit known as Fuego revolto (Raging Fire) was that of those who had shown repentance and therefore the flames were painted in reverse to mean that they had escaped from burning by fire.
In short, the Sambenito who wore the common penitentiary was an incarnated sack with a cross or San Andres. The species of miter worn on the head of the prisoners was called Coroza, a cap of bonded paper sometimes finished in tip like a cornet of more than a rod high with flames snakes or demons painted according to the category of the culprit. They also carried rosaries and yellow or green candles; lit for the reconciled and extinguished for the impenitentes and when they were blasphemous they were gagged.
Over time, those shameless insignia were seen as indifferent as any dress and in Mexico gave way to a curious anecdote. It happened that a reconciled walked in the streets of the city and as he brought sambenito seeing the Indians that was new clothes of clothes thought one that the Spaniards wore those clothes by devotion in the Lent and soon went to his house and made his sambenitos very well made and very painted and goes out to Mexico to sell his clothes among the Spaniards and said in the language of Indians “Tic cohuaznequi sambenito” that means want to buy sambenito. It was the thing so laughed by all the earth that I think it arrived in Spain and in Mexico it was as a saying that I wanted to benito. Hitherto the ancient and true chronicler. The people concluded by losing the fear of such scarecrows and defined the Inquisition in this way.
The auto-da-fe ritual came into existence sometime after the 1 November 1478 granting of permission to Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain from Pope Sixtus IV to name Inquisitors and protect the faith of Catholicism throughout their domain. The Hermandad, however, conduct their procession as part of the Semana Santa, or Holy Week festivities.
By wearing garments directly descended from the Spanish Inquisition, is the Ancient Brotherhood of the Blacks telling a part of their history, through actions, which words can only begin to describe?