Thursday, November 30, 2017

Juan Bautista Retana (1663-?)

kindred roots,  alava spain
Landa, Alava, Spain
It was the year 1663, during the final years of Philip IV's reign in Spain, on the 30th of October; a baby was born in Villa de Landa (Village of Landa) in the Alava region of Spain. Born to Mateo Fernandez de Retana and Maria Gonzalez de Urune, Juan Bautista Retana no doubt was raised in an agricultural family; possibly growing barley, wheat, and sugar beets which were the common crops grown in that region. 

Juan Bautista Retana, Kindred Roots
Alava, Spain
The Alava region in Spain is home to the Basques, an indigenous people from Spain and France.  The basques over time have assimilated with the Spaniards, yet managed to keep some of their traditions, culture, and language. They were known to be excellent sailors, gaining experience in the open waters by whaling. Numerous Basques sailed with Christopher Columbus on his voyages to the Americas. In fact, it was the Basque, Juan Sebastian Elcano, that took the helm of Magellan's voyage around the world after Magellan's death. 

Charles II of Spain
It seemed that Juan Bautista was destined to follow in his Basque ancestors footsteps by sailing and settling in Costa Rica. It is unclear as to his reason for leaving family and friends behind in Spain to move to a sparsely settled land across the ocean. One could speculate that times were tough for Spaniards during the reign of Charles II. Spain's economy was weak at this time and the monarch was not mentally stable to devise ways to repair it. Charles was born disfigured and feeble-minded from generations of inbreeding and was in no way capable of ruling a country. The stress of governing enhanced his mental instability and his inability to properly rule.

Costa Rica

In 1502, Christopher Columbus landed on the east coast of Costa Rica and claimed the land for Spain. Believed to be a land rich with gold, Columbus named it Costa Rica, or "Rich Coast." Spain began colonizing Costa Rica in 1524. The first settlers were conquistadors who not only had to clear land, build settlements, and look for gold and other riches for the monarchy, but they also had to defend themselves from the natives of the land. 

These early settlers found themselves in a land that, contrary to belief, had no gold or riches. The indigenous people were sparsely populated, so the conquistadors could not use them as a labor force. Because of this, the crown tended to overlook Costa Rica and settlement migration was very slow. For centuries this would be a poor, unpopular colony.

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By the late 1600's, Juan Bautista Retana found himself in this unpopular land working a small farm for himself in Matina, a settlement not far from the port of Limon on the east coast. His main crop was cacao, which was used as currency in Costa Rica at that time. Since there was no gold, silver, or gems to be found; cacao was much easier to use as a form of currency than minted coins that would have to be imported into the country. 

Church Ruins in Cartago, Costa Rica
Juan Bautista Retana married Maria Bernarda Sandoval Rojas in the capital of Cartago around 1687. She was the 2nd great grand daughter of the conquistador, Juan Lopez de Ortega. Her ancestral line would derive from the Salamanca region of Spain. 


On the 4th of March, 1710, the Dutch slave ship Christianus Quintus along with the Fredericus Quartus wrecked off of the coast of Matina; having already left the coast of Africa with a new shipment of slaves that were to be delivered to the Americas. Six days later, movement was spotted nearby from a lookout tower. It appeared to be two figures running on the beach. The next day, Juan Bautista Retana and a few other men were dispatched to inspect the movement. The Spaniards believed the figures to be native Miskito tribesmen from the north. The two figures were tracked down, and much to their surprise, they were not Miskito, but of a completely different race. They had much darker skin and spoke an unknown language.

The two African women motioned to the Spaniards and drew in the sand to explain there were others like them south along the coast. Juan Bautista was sent with a crew of men to inspect. They found remants of camps along the coast with fish carcasses indicating that someone had been there. It appeared the women were telling the truth.  After a 3 day hike, more African slaves were discovered. After several expeditions over the next few months, a total of 103 Africans were rescued by Captains Gaspar de Acosta Arevalo, Antonio de Soto y Barahona, and Juan Francisco de Ibarra y Calvo. Some of the Africans rescued were from the Miskito's. Most of the Africans were taken to Cartago and sold as slaves to cacao farmers. 

Costa Rican of African Descent
Although most of the shipwrecked slaves were apprehended, a small percentage of them were taken by the Miskito. Over time, the slaves and their descendants assimilated with the Spaniards and Miskitos; as the natives assimilated with the Spaniards. By the 1800's, it was common to find mulattoes and mestizos (Spaniard and Indian mix) living in Costa Rica. Together they would form the population base of Costa Rica along with other Central American countries. 

Juan Bautista Retana had at least 4 children with Bernarda, 3 girls and one boy. It was with this son, Antonio Miguel Retana Sandoval, that the name Retana would be carried on for generations in Costa Rica. Life for Juan Bautista and Bernarda is unknown after the discovery of the slaves on the beaches of Matina. One can assume he continued on with life as it was before, as a simple cacao farmer in Matina; a far cry from his childhood in Villa de Landa, Alava, Spain.

Costa Rica would become one of the world's most popular tourist destinations for it's temperate climate, beautiful landscapes, and tropical wildlife. Costa Ricans, or Ticos, welcome everyone visiting with their motto, Pura Vida!

For a detailed account of the shipwrecks and the slave trade that ensued afterwards, click here. Also, more information can be found here.

For more on the history of Costa Rica, click here .

Descendants of Juan Bautista Retana:


Jesus Retana Cervantes (1855-1919)

Jesus Retana Cervantes and his family (about 1897)

Abrahan Retana Alvarez and Eduviges Rojas Castro

Angela Retana Rojas, Matilde Alvarez Castro, Zaida Barahona Retana,
Abrahan Retana Alvarez
(about 1933)

Eida Barahona Retana, Angela Retana Rojas, Zaida Barahona Retana
(about 1941)

Zaida Barahona Retana
(about 1950)

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