Slavery in the Spanish New World colonies
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of the Americas
Slavery in the Spanish American colonies was an economic and social institution central to the operations of the Spanish Empire - it bound Africans and indigenous people to a relationship of colonial exploitation. The Spanish colonists provided the Americas with a colonial precedent for slavery and influenced the development of modern racial ideologies, such as limpieza de sangre. Early on, however, opposition from the enslaved and from influential Spaniards moved the Crown to limit the bondage of indigenous people, and initiated debates that challenged the idea of slavery based on race. Spaniards regarded some indigenous people as tribute under the encomienda system during the late 1400s and part of the 1500s.
Spanish slavery in the Americas did not diverge drastically from that in other European colonies. It reshuffled the Atlantic World's populations through forced migrations, helped transfer American wealth to Europe, and promoted racial and social hierarchies (castas) throughout the empire. Spanish enslavers justified their wealth and status earned at the expense of captive workers by portraying them as inferior beings and holding them as personal properties (chattel slavery), often under barbarous conditions. In fact, Spanish colonization set some egregious records in the field of slavery. The Asiento, the official contract for trading in slaves in the vast Spanish territories was a major engine of the Atlantic slave trade. When Spain first enslaved Native Americans on Hispaniola, and then replaced them with captive Africans, it established unfree labor as the basis for colonial mass-production. The tale of Spanish exploits in the Americas, amplified for propagandistic reasons, earned such notoriety that European rivals called it the Black Legend. And in the mid-nineteenth century, as most countries in the hemisphere moved to disallow chattel slavery, Cuba and Puerto Rico - the last two remaining Spanish American colonies - maintained slavery the longest.[a]
Enslaved people challenged their captivity in ways that ranged from introducing non-European elements into Christianity (syncretism) to mounting alternative societies outside of the plantation system (Maroons). The first open black rebellion occurred in Spanish plantations in 1521. Resistance, particularly to the enslavement of indigenous people, also came from Spanish religious and legal ranks. The first speech in the Americas for the universality of human rights and against the abuses of slavery was also given on Hispaniola, a mere nineteen years after the first contact. Resistance to Amerindian captivity in the Spanish colonies produced the first modern debates over race and the legitimacy of slavery.[b] And uniquely in the Spanish American colonies, laws like the New Laws of 1542, were enacted early in the colonial period to protect natives from bondage. To complicate matters further, Spain's haphazard grip on its extensive American dominions and its erratic economy acted to impede the broad and systematic spread of plantations similar to those of the French in Saint Domingue or of the British in Jamaica. Altogether, the struggle against slavery in the Spanish American colonies left a notable tradition of opposition that set the stage for current conversations about human rights.
- 1 Iberian antecedents to slavery in the Americas
- 2 Indigenous People
- 3 Africans during the Spanish Conquest
- 4 Spanish enslavement of Africans
- 5 Liberation of British and American slaves in Spanish Florida
- 6 Ending of slavery
- 7 See also
- 8 Further reading
- 9 External links
- 10 Notes
- 11 References
Iberian antecedents to slavery in the Americas
The Spanish had established precedents for regimes of forced labor prior to their encounter with New World peoples. Over centuries in Iberia, Muslims had enslaved Christians, and with the Christian reconquest, the victors enslaved the Moors. Slavery was an institution that was economic in function, but it had strong social dimensions as well. Enslaved persons were outsiders of some kind, by ethnicity, language, or religion or some combination. In Iberia, slaves were considered human and possessed some rights, but were at the bottom of the status hierarchy. There were some Muslim slaves remaining in Christian Spain after 1492, but increasingly enslaved Africans via the Portuguese slave trade became part of Spain's social mosaic. Black slaves in Spain were overwhelmingly domestic servants, and increasingly became prestigious property for elite Spanish households. Artisans acquired black slaves and trained them in their trade, increasing the artisans' output.
Both the Spanish and the Portuguese colonized the Atlantic islands off the coast of Africa, where they engaged in sugar cane production following the model of Mediterranean production. The sugar complex consisted of slave labor for cultivation and processing, with the sugar mill (ingenio) and equipment established with investor capital. When plantation slavery was established in Spanish America and Brazil, they replicated the elements of the complex in the New World on a much larger scale.
Another form of forced labor used in the New World with origins in Spain was the encomienda, the award of the labor to Christian victors over Muslims during the reconquest. This institution of forced labor was employed by the Spaniards in the Canary Islands following their conquest. The institution was much more widespread following the Spanish contact and conquest of indigenous in the New World, but the precedents were set prior to 1492.
Prior to the Spanish colonization of the Americas, some indigenous peoples had been practicing various forms of slavery and serfdom. The Spanish conquest and settlement in the New World quickly led to large-scale subjugation of indigenous peoples, mainly of the Native Caribbean people, by Columbus on his four voyages. Initially, forced labor represented a means by which the conquistadores mobilized native labor and met production quotas, with disastrous effects on the population. Unlike the Portuguese Crown's support for the slave trade, los Reyes Católicos (English: Catholic Monarchs) at first opposed the introduction of slavery in the newly conquered lands on religious grounds. When Columbus returned with indigenous slaves, they ordered many of the survivors to be returned to their homelands. The papal bull Sublimus Dei of 1537, to which Spain was committed, also officially banned enslavement of indigenous people, but it was rescinded a year after its promulgation. The other major form of coerced labor in their colonies, the encomienda system, was also abolished, despite the considerable anger this caused in local criollo elites. It was replaced by the repartimiento system.
After passage of the 1542 New Laws, the Spanish greatly restricted the power of the encomienda system. The statutes of 1573, within the "Ordinances Concerning Discoveries," forbade certain kinds of coerced labor and regulated treatment of the local population. It required appointment of a "protector de indios", an ecclesiastical representative who acted as the protector of the Indians and represented them in formal litigation. Later in the 16th century, in the viceroyalties of New Spain and Peru, thousands of indigenous people were forced to hard work as underground miners in the mines of Potosi, Guanajuato, and Zacatecas, in Peru, by means of the continuation of the pre-Hispanic Inca mita tradition.
Africans during the Spanish Conquest
In 1501, Spanish colonists began importing enslaved Africans from the Iberian Peninsula to their Santo Domingo colony on the island of Hispaniola. These first Africans, who had been enslaved in Europe before crossing the Atlantic, may have spoken Spanish and perhaps were even Christians. About 17 of them started in the copper mines, and about a hundred were sent to extract gold. As Old World plagues decimated Caribbean indigenous populations in the first decades of the 1500s, enslaved Blacks from Africa (“bozales”) gradually replaced their labor, but they also mingled and joined in flights from slavery, creating mixed maroon communities in all the islands where Europeans had established chattel slavery The newly enslaved workers continued to arrive in Spanish colonies as colonials imported them directly from Portuguese traders, who in turn purchased them from African traders on the Atlantic coast. With the increased dependency on enslaved Blacks developed also distinctive racial hierarchy and the hardening of racial ideologies, buttressed by prior ideologies of differentiation as that of the Limpieza de Sangre (en: Blood Purity). In the vocabulary of the time, each enslaved African who arrived at the Americas was called “Pieza de Indias” (en: a piece of India). Asiento (en: chair) was the name for the agreement between the Spanish authorities and slave traders. During the 16th century, the Spanish colonies were the most important customers of the Atlantic slave trade, claiming several thousands in sales, but the Dutch, French and British soon dwarfed these numbers when their demand for enslaved workers began to drive the slave market to unprecedented levels.
Some of the earliest black immigrants to the Americas were "Atlantic Creoles", as the charter generation is described by the American historian Ira Berlin. Mixed-race men of African and Portuguese/Spanish descent, some slaves and others free, sailed with Iberian ships and worked in the ports of Spain and Portugal; some were born in Europe, others in African ports as sons of Portuguese trade workers and African women. African slaves were also taken to Portugal, where they married local women. The mixed-race men often grew up bilingual, making them useful as interpreters in African and Iberian ports.
Estevanico, recorded as a black slave from Morocco, survived the disastrous Narváez expedition from 1527 to 1536 when most of the men died. After the ships, horses, equipment and finally most of the men were lost, with three other survivors, Estvanico spent six years traveling overland from present-day Texas to Sinaloa, and finally reaching the Spanish settlement at Mexico City. He learned several Native American languages in the process. He went on to serve as a well-respected guide. Later, while leading an expedition in what is now Mexico in search of the Seven Cities of Gold, he was killed in a dispute with the Zuñi local people.
Miguel Henríquez, known as the "Black Demon", was a prominent black Spaniard who served as a buccaneer at Spain's service during the 17th century in the Caribbean waters. He was known for his brutality against British and Dutch prisoners.
Spanish enslavement of Africans
Bartolomé de las Casas (1484–1566) recorded the effects of slavery on the Native populations and argued for an end to it and for the rights of the people. He acquiesced to the Crown's decision to replace Natives with imported African slaves. Its counselors insisted on a source of labor to develop Caribbean plantations. However, he later spoke against African slavery as well, once he saw it in action.
In 1501 the Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, granted permission to the colonists of the Caribbean to import African slaves. Opponents cited the weak Christian faith of the Africans and their penchant for escaping to the mountains. Proponents argued that the rapid decline of the Native American population required a consistent supply of reliable workers. The Spanish population at the time was much too small to carry out all the labour needed to assure the economic viability of the colonies. The first years of Spanish presence in the Americas were marked by an outbreak of a tropical epidemic flu; it decimated both the native and Spanish populations. In 1501 the first shipment of African-born slaves was sent to the West Indies (Hispaniola). The Spaniards chiefly purchased the slaves from the Portuguese and English traders in Africa. They did not engage directly in the trade and overall imported fewer slaves to the New World than did the Portuguese, British or French.
The Spanish used enslaved Africans as workers to develop their agriculture and settlements. They also used them in defense of the colonies. Originally the Crown relied on private initiative and resources to protect colonial shipping and settlements. In some cases, colonists hired out their slaves or donated them for this purpose; in other cases, the Crown bought the slaves. Building forts and defense works relied on slave labor, but most were privately owned.
The slave populations were extremely low on Cuba and Puerto Rico until the 1760s, when the British took Havana, Cuba, in 1762. After that, the British imported more than 10,000 slaves to Havana, a number that would have taken 20 years to import on other islands. They used it as a base to supply the Caribbean and the lower Thirteen Colonies. This change is almost directly related to the opening of Spanish slave trade to other powers in the 18th century. Spain and Great Britain made a contract in 1713 by which the British would provide the slaves. The Spanish outlawed its own slave trade of Africans.
While historians have studied the production of sugar on plantations by enslaved workers in nineteenth-century Cuba, they have sometimes overlooked the crucial role of the Spanish state before the 1760s. Cuba ultimately developed two distinct but interrelated sources using enslaved labor, which converged at the end of the eighteenth century. The first of these sectors was urban and was directed in large measure by the needs of the Spanish colonial state, reaching its height in the 1760s. As of 1778, it was reported by Thomas Kitchin that "about 52,000 slaves" were being brought from Africa to the West Indies by Europeans, with approximately 4,000 being brought by the Spanish.
The second sector, which flourished after 1790, was rural and was directed by private slaveholders/planters involved in the production of export agricultural commodities, especially sugar. After 1763, the scale and urgency of defense projects led the state to deploy many of its enslaved workers in ways that were to anticipate the intense work regimes on sugar plantations in the nineteenth century. Another important group of workers enslaved by the Spanish colonial state in the late eighteenth century were the king's laborers, who worked on the city's fortifications.
The Spanish colonies were late to exploit slave labor in the production of sugarcane, particularly on Cuba. The Spanish colonies in the Caribbean were among the last to abolish slavery. While the British colonies abolished slavery completely by 1834, Spain abolished slavery in Puerto Rico in 1873 and in Cuba in 1866. On the mainland of Central and South America, Spain ended African slavery in the eighteenth century. Peru was one of the countries that revived the institution for some decades after declaring independence from Spain in the early 19th century.
Liberation of British and American slaves in Spanish Florida
Since the beginning of the 18th century, Spanish Florida attracted numerous African slaves who escaped from British slavery in the Thirteen Colonies. Since 1623 the official Spanish policy was that any and all slaves that touched Spanish soil and asked for refuge would be made a free man, alphabetized if he wasn't, helped to establish his own workshop if he had a trade or given a lot of land as his own to cultivate as a famer. In exchange they would be required to serve for a number of years in the Spanish National Guard and convert to Catholicism. Menéndez escaped from South Carolina and traveled to St. Augustine, Florida for freedom.
Once the slaves reached Florida, the Spanish freed them if they converted to Roman Catholicism. Most settled in a community called Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, the first settlement of free slaves in North America.
The former slaves also found refuge among the Creek and Seminole, Native Americans who had established settlements in Florida at the invitation of the Spanish government. In 1771, Governor John Moultrie wrote to the English Board of Trade, "It has been a practice for a good while past, for negroes to run away from their Masters, and get into the Indian towns, from whence it proved very difficult to get them back." When British government officials pressured the Native Americans to return the fugitive slaves, they replied that they had "merely given hungry people food, and invited the slaveholders to catch the runaways themselves."
After the American Revolution, slaves from the State of Georgia and the Low Country escaped to Florida. The U.S. Army led increasingly frequent incursions into Spanish territory, including the 1817–1818 campaign by Andrew Jackson that became known as the First Seminole War. The United States afterwards effectively controlled East Florida. According to Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, the US had to take action there because Florida had become "a derelict open to the occupancy of every enemy, civilized or savage, of the United States, and serving no other earthly purpose than as a post of annoyance to them.". Spain requested British intervention, but London declined to assist Spain in the negotiations. Some of President James Monroe's cabinet demanded Jackson's immediate dismissal, but Adams realized that it put the U.S. in a favorable diplomatic position. Adams negotiated very favorable terms.
As Florida had become a burden to Spain, which could not afford to send settlers or garrisons, the Crown decided to cede the territory to the United States. It accomplished this through the Adams–Onís Treaty in 1820.
Ending of slavery
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Support for abolitionism rose in Great Britain. Slavery was abolished under the French Revolution, including in the French Caribbean colonies, but was restored under Napoleon I. Slaves in Saint-Domingue established independence, founding the republic of Haiti in 1804.
Later slave revolts were arguably part of the upsurge of liberal and democratic values centered on individual rights and liberties which came in the aftermath of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution in Europe. As emancipation became more of a concrete reality, the slaves' concept of freedom changed. No longer did they seek to overthrow the whites and re-establish carbon-copy African societies as they had done during the earlier rebellions; the vast majority of slaves were creole, native born where they lived, and envisaged their freedom within the established framework of the existing society.
The Spanish American wars of independence emancipated most of the overseas territories of Spain; in Central and South America, various nations emerged from these wars. The wars were influenced by the ideas of the Age of Enlightenment and economic affairs, which also led to the reduction and ending of feudalism. It was not a unified process. Some countries, including Peru and Ecuador, reintroduced slavery for some time after achieving independence.
In the treaty of 1814, the king of Spain promised to consider means for abolishing the slave trade. In the treaty of September 23, 1817, with Great Britain, the Spanish Crown said that "having never lost sight of a matter so interesting to him and being desirous of hastening the moment of its attainment, he has determined to co-operate with His Britannic Majesty in adopting the cause of humanity." The king bound himself "that the slave trade will be abolished in all the dominions of Spain, May 30, 1820, and that after that date it shall not be lawful for any subject of the crown of Spain to buy slaves or carry on the slave trade upon any part of the coast of Africa." The date of final suppression was October 30. The subjects of the king of Spain were forbidden to carry slaves for any one outside of the Spanish dominions, or to use the flag to cover such dealings.³
The Assembly of Year XIII of the United Provinces of the Río de la Plata declared the freedom of wombs. It did not end slavery completely, but emancipated the sons of slaves. Many slaves gained emancipation by joining the armies, either against royalists during the War of Independence, or during the later Civil Wars. For example, the Argentine Confederation ended slavery definitely with the sanction of the Argentine Constitution of 1853.
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- Differently from Puerto Rico, which abolished slavery definitely in 1873, chattel slavery remained in Cuba and Brazil, in one way or another, until the 1880s. A series of legal procedures (e.g., Moret Law) and apprenticeships imposed on those supposedly freed, delayed the complete abolition of slavery. Meanwhile, slavery was gradually replaced with similarly barbarous forms of labor, like peonage and the harsh use of Asian migrant workers. See, Ferrer, Insurgent Cuba, UNC, 1999, p 18.
- In 2007, Castro challenged the position of Bartolomé de las Casas as a central human-rights figure: "rather than viewing him as the ultimate champion of indigenous causes, we must see the Dominican friar as the incarnation of a more benevolent, paternalistic form of ecclesiastical, political, cultural and economic imperialism rather than as a unique paradigmatic figure". See: Castro, The Other Face, Duke, 2007, p 8.
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This constitutes the first documented mention that we know of, in a primary source of that time, of acts of resistance by enslaved blacks in La Española after the uprising of December 1521 across the south-central coastal plains of the colony, an event first reflected in the ordinances on blacks of January, 1522, and much later in the well-known chronicle by Fernández de Oviedo.
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