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Chapter 17

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Spain in America

by
Edward Gaylord Bourne

in the
Barnes & Noble edition,
New York, 1962

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 19

p269 Chapter XVIII

Negro Slaves
(1502‑1821)

The introduction of negro slavery into the New World dates from the year 1502, and its history in the Spanish dominions illustrates more than one phase of their colonial policy. The instructions to Ovando in 1501, which prohibited the passage to the Indies of Jews, Moors, or recent converts, authorized him to take over negro slaves that had been born in the power of Christians.1 This permission indicates that there were negro slaves in the peninsula that had been born there, and that at first it was thought best to allow only Christian slaves to go to the Indies. Yet even this restricted importation Ovando found unwise, and he requested the next year that no more should be sent, averring that they ran away and demoralized the Indians.2 Isabella gave ear to Ovando's protest and withdrew the permission to import negroes.3 p270After her death, however, Ferdinand reverted to the plan of 1501, and in 1505 sent Ovando seventeen negro slaves to work in the copper-mines.4 Apparently the regulation excluding any but Christianized negroes was evaded, for Ovando received orders in 1506 to deport all Berber slaves.5

The severity of the labor in the mines proving destructive to the Indians, Ferdinand directed the Casa de Contratacion in 1510 to send over immediately fifty slaves, and later on others, up to two hundred, to be sold to the settlers. In April of that year over a hundred were bought in the Lisbon market. This is the beginning of the African slave-trade to America. The change of climate and the hard work caused a very rapid death rate, which perplexed the king.6 Notwithstanding their mortality the negroes were so much more efficient than the Indians that Ferdinand took measures in 1511 to develop the transportation of negroes direct from Guinea.7

The problem of labor in tropical colonies where nature's bounty relieves man from the necessity of hard work for food and clothing has never yet been solved in a way that has satisfied at once the demands of economic production and humane feeling. The Spanish government tried to accomplish both ends, p271in a measure, by sparing the Indian at the expense of the African. In 1517 this policy commended itself to the Dominican clergy in Española,8 to the special commission of Jeronimite friars sent out to take charge of Indian affairs,9 to the lawyer Zuazo, who accompanied the Jeronimites,10 to the proctors of the towns in Española, to Justice Figueroa,11 president of the audiencia, and to Las Casas, the ardent champion of the Indians.12 Las Casas, however, still adhered to the policy of importing negroes from Spain, while the Jeronimites and Zuazo urged the importation of the bozal negroes, those direct from Africa.

The government, convinced by Las Casas' arguments, which apparently antedated somewhat those of the Jeronimite friars, decided in 1517 to ship four thousand negroes to the islands, and thus initiated what became the historic policy of Spain in controlling the slave-trade — the letting it out by contract, or asiento as it was called; which, however, did not prevent the crown from granting limited licenses to other courtiers and to settlers. The first contractor, Lorenzo de Gomenot, the governor of Bresa, agreed to introduce four thousand negroes p272in eight years, and he immediately sold his contract to some Genoese for twenty-five thousand ducats.13 The development of the sugar industry and the growth of slavery were dependent upon each other, especially after the mines in the Antilles gave out. Each trapiche, or sugar-mill, run by horses or mules, required thirty or forty negroes, and each water-mill eighty at the least.14 Had the commerce of the islands been reasonably free, plantation slavery on a large scale would have rapidly developed, and the history of Hayti and the English islands would have been anticipated a century by the Spaniards.

The number of negroes to be imported under the various contracts and the size of the bonus paid for the privilege rose steadily. The asiento made with the Germans Ciguer and Sailler in 1528 provided for a bonus to the government of twenty thousand ducats, in consideration of which the contractors were allowed to take four thousand negroes to the Indies in four years, to be sold at not more than forty-five ducats apiece. The Germans sublet the contract to some Portuguese, who supplied slaves of so poor a quality that many protests came to the Council of the Indies from the islands.15 In consequence no new asiento was made for several years.

In 1536 contractors offered the government twenty-six thousand ducats down for a new asiento to import four thousand in four years, but they were outbid p273by others; neither proposal was accepted. In 1552 a contract was made with one Ferdinand Ochoa, by which he was to buy licenses to introduce twenty-three thousand negroes, paying eight ducas per license, or one hundred thousand down and twelve thousand per year for seven years. This contract was annulled before it was entirely carried out.16

The personal union between Spain and Portugal from 1580 to 1640 led to the practice of awarding slave-trading contracts to Portuguese, since the trading stations on the African coast belonged to Portugal. The contract of 1595 with Gomez Reynel was the most elaborate and extensive up to that date: it provided for the exclusive privilege of importing during nine years thirty-eight thousand two hundred and fifty negro slaves at the rate of four thousand two hundred and fifty per annum, of whom at least three thousand five hundred must be landed alive in America. In return, the enormous bonus of nine hundred thousand ducats was payable in annual instalments of one hundred thousand. For every negro short of the yearly quota the contractor was to forfeit ten ducats. The negroes must be fresh from Africa, with no mulattoes, mestizos, Turks, Moriscos, or any other nation mixed in.17 Owing to Reynel's death in 1600, the contract was transferred to one Juan Rodriguez Cutiño and extended p274till 1609.18 After that date the business was carried on in the name of the king till 1615, when Rodriguez Delvas agreed to pay one hundred and fifteen thousand ducats a year for the privilege, under which he might import up to five thousand, but never less than three thousand five hundred annually.19

The foregoing examples illustrate the nature of the asientos, or contracts for importing slaves, made by the Spanish government. The chief changes in the later years may be briefly indicated. In 1696 the Portuguese Royal Guinea Company secured the contract, but its business was interrupted by the European war and the company was dissolved in 1701.20 The alliance between Spain and France and the establishment of the French Royal Guinea Company led to the asiento being granted to this company in 1701, which undertook to import three thousand to four thousand eight hundred a year for ten years.21 The results of the War of the Spanish Succession cut short the experience of the French with the asiento, which the English obtained for the South Sea Company as one of the spoils of war by the treaty of Utrecht. The new asiento was to last thirty years and to secure the importation of one hundred and forty-four thousand negroes at the rate of four thousand eight hundred per year. For four thousand a duty of 33⅓ pesos [dollars] was to p275be paid (the odd eight hundred being exempt from duty). The company agreed to pay the king $200,000. This arrangement lasted, with interruptions caused by wars, until 1750.22

It will be seen that our date for estimating the annual importation of slaves into Spanish America are far more numerous and satisfactory than for the immigration of Spaniards. For the two hundred years, 1550 to 1750, we may estimate the importations of the asientists at an average of at least three thousand a year. Besides these were the illicit forced importations of the English and French corsairs, who, like Sir John Hawkins, would market kidnapped Africans with guns trained on reluctant customers.23 Such illicit importations we can only guess at, but perhaps five hundred a year is not far wrong. This would give a total of seven hundred thousand for the two centuries. In 1808 Humboldt estimated the negro population of Spanish America at seven hundred and seventy-six thousand.24 It would seem from these figures that the negro population barely held its own from generation to generation and increased solely by importation.25 At the beginning of the nineteenth p276century the annual death rate of the newly imported Africans in Cuba was seven per cent.26 Hence, as the Spanish were on the whole easy masters, one may well doubt whether the prevalent view is correct that the negro was readily acclimated in the New World.27 Under the earlier asientos the slave-ships were to go to America with the annual fleets, but of the size of the ships and the conditions of the voyage we have few particulars. Sandoval, in his work on the negro, reports one captain as confessing his misgivings about the business; he had just suffered a shipwreck in which only thirty out of nine hundred on board escaped.28

In the earlier days of slavery in the colony it was felt to be necessary for the sake of security not to have the ratio between slaves and whites higher than three to one, though some were ready in 1532 to risk five to one. Prices varied at this time from fifty to seventy pesos on the islands, and from one hundred to one hundred and fifty on the isthmus. Twenty years later a scale of prices fixed by law p277varied from one hundred ducats in the West Indies to one hundred and eighty in Chili.29

There is hardly any trace in the whole history of the Spanish system of anything analogous to the indented servants of the English colonies or the engagés of the French islands. The only parallels which have been noted are the following instances in the earlier period of the carrying of white slaves to the Indies; and these white slaves seem to have been chattel slaves and not temporary bond servants. In 1504 Ojeda was authorized to take five white slaves, and in 1512 Peralta received permission to take two white Christian slaves to Porto Rico. In the same year the king instructed the Casa de Contratacion to send over white Christian slaves to become wives of the colonists, as they would be preferable to the Indian women. Twenty years later, in 1532, the Council of the Indies granted twenty licenses to Spaniards to take white slaves to the Indies.30

We are accustomed to think of the Pennsylvania Quakers and Judge Sewall as uttering the first public protest in America against negro slavery; but the Jesuit Alphonso Sandoval, born in Seville, but educated in Peru, where his father with the king's treasurer, in his work on the history and customs of the negroes, lifts his voice clearly against slavery and the slave-trade, and brings out the point that p278the constant market for slaves on the coast is a prolific cause of wars in the interior of Africa.31

Slavery never became deeply rooted in Spanish America outside of the Antilles and the northern coast region of South America, for reasons in the main similar to those which limited its extent in the middle and northern English colonies. The altitude in New Spain was unfavorable to the negro, and the work was mainly done by the Indian peasants. Humboldt estimated that not more than a hundred negroes were imported annually into Mexico. In the census of 1793 only six thousand negro slaves were returned.32 That independent Mexico abolished slavery came about as naturally as the abolition of the institution in New York.

In Peru negro slavery was most conspicuous in Lima as a phase of the luxury that characterized the lives of the Spaniards and creoles. The total number of negroes in Peru, while much greater than in New Spain, was small compared with Venezuela and Cuba. In a statement of the population drawn up towards the end of the eighteenth century the number of free colored people is placed at forty-one thousand four hundred and four and the number p279of slaves at forty thousand three hundred and thirty-seven.33 In the captaincy-general of Caracas, Depons estimated the number of slaves at two hundred and eighteen thousand and the descendants of freedmen at two hundred and ninety-one thousand, the two outnumbering the whites as seven to two.34 In 1775 the number of slaves in Cuba was about forty-six thousand and the number of free colored about thirty thousand.35

With the relaxation of the trade laws the economic development of Cuba went forward by leaps, and the average importation of slaves for the ten years, 1790‑1799, was over five thousand.36 In spite of the great increase of the slave population Cuba never became so extreme a type of the old plantation colony as the English and French West Indies. A comparison of Cuba and Jamaica in 1823, when the number of slaves had been rapidly increasing beyond what had been the relative proportions of the population under the earlier régime, will illustrate the point.

Total population

Whites

Free colored

Slaves

Cuba

715,000

325,000

130,000

260,000

Jamaica

402,000

25,000

35,000

342,00037

In Jamaica the ratio of slaves to whites was about p280thirteen and a half to one. In Hayti, in the French part, the ratio between slaves and whites was about eleven to one.38

A comparative study of the status and treatment of slaves in the Spanish, French, and English colonies reveals the fact, surprising to‑day, so widespread is the view that the Spanish colonial system was pre-eminently oppressive, that the Spanish slave code was far more humane than either the French or the English slave laws. In law the Spanish slave had a right, if ill treated, to choose a master less severe if he could induce him to buy him, to marry a wife of his own choice, to buy his liberty at the lowest market rate, and to buy his wife and children. If he were cruelly treated he could appeal to the courts and might be declared free, In fact, the Spanish laws and the administration favored emancipation at every turn.39 If negroes questioned the legality of their enslavement the courts were to hear their cause.40 Sandoval mentions such a case in which the audiencia of Mexico liberated a claimant on rather slight evidence.41 Charles III laid down the principle in 1789 that fugitive slaves who by just means obtained their liberty were not to be restored.42 In Peru the slaves p281were permitted to work for themselves five or six hours a day.43

The beneficent consequences of this humane legislation appear in the large number of free colored people everywhere in the Spanish colonies. In Peru they slightly exceeded the slaves in number; in Caracas the excess was larger, the free constituting four-sevenths of the colored population; in Cuba, in 1775, the slaves stood to the free as four and six-tenths to three. In Jamaica, on the other hand, the number of free colored persons was less than one-tenth the number of slaves, and in Hayti, less than one-sixteenth.44

On the relative humanity of the Spanish laws in regard to slavery there can be no doubt; but, whether Spanish slaves were more kindly treated than French or English is a different and more difficult question. Prevalent public opinion, Depons tells us, believed they were, but he expresses his dissent in some respects. In his view the slaves suffered from neglect rather than severities. The Spanish masters were very solicitous in Caracas that the slaves should say their prayers, but unconcerned as to whether they had enough to eat and to wear. Shiftlessness and not harshness was the cause of their sufferings.45


The Author's Notes:

1 Docs. Ined. de Indias, XXXI, 23. Ovando set sail in February, 1502.

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2 Herrera, Historia General, dec. I, lib. V, chap. XII.

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3 Saco, Historia de la Esclavitud, 62.

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4 Saco, Historia de la Esclavitud, 63.

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5 Ibid., 63; Herrera, Historia General, dec. I, lib. VI, chap. XX.

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6 Saco, Historia de la Esclavitud, 67.

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7 Herrera, Historia General, dec. I, lib. IX, chap. V.

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8 Saco, Historia de la Esclavitud, 89.

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9 Docs. Ined. de Indias, I, 284. Cf. also Helps, Spanish Conquest (Oppenheim's ed.), I, 362‑365.

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10 Docs. Ined. de Indias, I, 326.

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11 Saco, Historia de la Esclavitud, 92.

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12 Historia de las Indias, IV, 380. Saco reviews the discussion as to Las Casas' suggestions, Historia de la Esclavitud, 99‑109.

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13 Saco, Historia de la Esclavitud, 111.

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14 Ibid., 128.

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15 Ibid., 146, 147.

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16 Saco, Historia de la Esclavitud, 210.

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17 Ibid., 240‑245.

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18 Saco, Historia de la Esclavitud, 247.

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19 Ibid., 250.

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20 Ibid., 289.

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21 Ibid., 292.

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22 Saco, Historia de la Esclavitud, 295‑311. In the eighteenth century the peso is the familiar Spanish dollar.

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23 Hakluyt, Voyages, XV, 146.

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24 Humboldt, Travels, VI, 835.

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25 Humboldt notes that in the eighteenth century in Cuba the number of males greatly exceeded the females. — Travels, VII, 142.

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26 Humboldt, New Spain, I, 236; cf. also Travels, VII, 153.

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27 Shaler, The Neighbor, 131‑132. "The negro endured such a transition without any perceptible shock," etc. In Humboldt's time the English West Indies contained seven hundred thousand negroes and mulattoes, free and slave, while the custom-house registers proved that from 1680 to 1786 two million one hundred and thirty thousand negroes had been imported from Africa. Travels, VII, 147.

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28 Sandoval, De Instauranda Aethiopum Salute (Madrid, 1647), 102.

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29 Saco, Historia de la Esclavitud, 144, 159, 164, 173, 12.

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30 Ibid., 62, 73, 80, 164.

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31 Sandoval, De Instauranda Aethiopum Salute, part I, lib. I, chaps. XXII, XXVII; extracts in Saco, Historia de la Esclavitud, 253‑256. Sandoval, p100, quotes a letter of Padre Luis Brandaon, rector of the College of São Paulo de Loanda in 1611, estimating the annual export of slaves from São Paulo de Loanda at ten thousand to twelve thousand.

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32 Humboldt, New Spain, I, 236, 237. The total number of slaves was not more than ten thousand.

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33 Markham, in Winsor, Narr. and Crit. Hist., VIII, 321.

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34 Depons, Voyage, I, 105.

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35 Humboldt, Travels, VII, 111, 112.

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36 Ibid., 146.

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37 Ibid., 101.

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38 Humboldt, Travels, VI, 824.

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39 Ibid.VII, 276‑278; Humboldt, New Spain, I, 241; Depons, Voyage, I, 164‑166, summarizes a royal ordinance of 1789, which demanded so much for the slaves that the local authorities nullified it.

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40 Recopilacion de Leyes, lib. VII, tit. V, ley 8.

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41 Sandoval, De Instauranda Aethiopum Salute, 103.

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42 Saco, Historia de la Esclavitud, 361.

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43 Tschudi, Peru, 76.

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44 See above, p281,º and Humboldt, Travels, VI, 820, 824.

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45 Depons, Voyage, I, 159‑164.


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