Slavery in Latin America

Slavery in Latin America was a system of forced labor that pressed large numbers of Native Americans and Africans into service to undertake domestic household chores, agricultural production, mineral extraction, and industrial manufacturing. African slaves accompanied the initial voyages of Spanish discovery to the Americas. When Christopher Columbusspotted land in the Bahamas in 1492, slavery was already a widely known and practiced institution in Europe, Africa, and the Americas. African slavery took root in Spanish America in the early 1500s as an indispensable part of the colonization process. It grew slowly in the sixteenth century and reached its greatest numeric extent during the second half of the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth century. Slavery was finally eclipsed in the hemisphere between the 1820s and 1860s, replaced by more efficient and less costly forms of free wage labor.

Among the many privileges Spain’s king granted Christopher Columbus and his compatriots as conquering lords was the right to exploit Indian labor under a number of institutional forms equated with slavery. At the time of the conquest the most dominant way to accomplish this was through the allocation of entire Indian communities to specific Spanishconquistadores as encomiendas. Encomenderos, the Spanish holders of encomiendas, were entrusted with the protection of their Indian charges in return for indigenous tribute and labor. Rotational labor levies known generically asrepartimientos and more locally as mita in Peru and as cuatequil in Mexico were next in importance. For centuries before the Spanish conquest, natives, particularly in Mexico and Peru, had had to supply labor to state authorities for public works. Repartimiento drafts were likened to these older traditional forms of servile labor. Finally, throughout the Americas, an indigenous trade in captives and prisoners of war existed. Colonialism accelerated this market in two ways. First, the Indians began selling captives to Europeans for guns, ammunition, liquor, and manufactured products. Known in Spanish as rescates, this commerce only led to higher levels of indigenous warfare aimed at obtaining human chattel with which to barter for coveted European goods. Under the doctrine of “just war” the Spanish themselves also staged raids into enemy territory to capture Indian slaves. Spanish law maintained that those who resisted conversion to Christianity and the call for allegiance to Spain’s monarch could be killed or enslaved. Indian enslavement was thus rationalized as justified because of native heathenism, resistance to Spanish authority, and, in some cases, the putative practice of cannibalism.

By the early 1500s it became crystal clear that Indian slavery simply would not work as an extensive institution in Spanish America. The island of Hispaniola, which today comprises the countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, is a good case in point. In 1492 Hispaniola boasted a native Taino population of some 400,000. By 1508 this group had dwindled to 60,000, by 1519 only 3,000 remained, and by 1540 they had all but disappeared. By the end of the sixteenth century the indigenous population of the entire Caribbean had met a similar fate; it was virtually wiped out. The same thing happened to Brazil’s Indians in the seventeenth century.

To curtail the level of Indian depopulation, the Spanish Crown instituted the New Laws of 1542, which curtailed the extent of the encomienda system and constrained the levels of the repartimiento‘s use. Spanish colonists intensely resisted the New Laws, and it was not until 1720 that the encomienda was finally abolished. Nevertheless, the legal enslavement of Indians and their exploitation through encomiendas, repartimientos, and rescates was allowed to flourish into the nineteenth century in peripheral areas of the empire, like the Amazon, Chile, Colombia, and what is now the American Southwest. Spanish authorities rationalized that without slavery as a human spoil of war and conquest, few colonists would brave the settlement of marginal areas of Spanish control where “wild” Indians deterred settlement.

As the supply of Indian slaves disappeared in the Caribbean and on the continent’s coastal lowlands, the European colonizers turned to Africa for labor, on which they had depended only sparingly because of its prohibitive cost since 1441. By 1550 all this had changed. Europeans by then had developed a taste for cigars, coffee, chocolates, and sweets, making the cultivation of tobacco, coffee, cacao, and sugar on lowland plantations in the Americas much more profitable and the cost of importing African slaves much more feasible. African slaves became the principal labor sources throughout the Caribbean, as well as those tropical and semitropical coastal lowland areas of the Americas where the aboriginal population was sparse, nomadic, and completely unaccustomed to intense field labor or traditional labor drafts.

In the highlands of Mexico and in the Andes where formerly the Aztecs and Incas had ruled, the Spanish conquistadores found dense settled indigenous populations. Although the number of Indians declined precipitously here too because of the violence of the conquest and its aftermath, the sheer density of indigenous peoples guaranteed that they were not wiped out. These peoples had long been accustomed to state-extracted labor drafts devoted to agricultural, architectural, and mineral production before the conquest. Such systems of peasant labor were kept intact by the Spanish, organized, as they had always been, around kinship and residential affiliations and administered by native bureaucracies and indigenous lords. African slavery did not become a major institution in highland areas of dense Indian population because forced labor levies (encomienda, repartimiento) accomplished the same end.

Between 1502 and 1867 more than 10 million African slaves were imported into the Americas. Roughly 4 million went to Brazil, 1.7 million to what is now Haiti, 1.7 million to the Spanish American colonies, 1.7 million to the British West Indies, 600,000 to the United States, and 500,000 to the Dutch colonies of Guyana and Surinam.

Sociologist Orlando Patterson maintains that three essential features have characterized the slave condition. First, slavery rather universally has been culturally explained as a substitute for violent death in warfare. Imagined as a benevolent act of ransom, slavery nevertheless rendered the individual socially dead. Second, as socially dead individuals who had social personalities only through their masters, slaves were humans who had been alienated from their natal group, ripped from the fundamental fabric of kinship based on ties to family, ancestors, and blood relations. Finally, because slaves were pressed into slavery through a violent act of domination and lacked the most rudimentary kinship ties to a community, the slave condition was one of dishonor. These three characteristics were what made slaves highly coveted as laborers. They could be moved around easily at the will of their master at slight cost because their lives were not enmeshed in the ties of reciprocal obligation that were common among even the lowest free persons of Indian descent.

The massive importation of African slaves into the Americas owes its origins to the development of large-scale plantation agriculture devoted to the cultivation of tobacco, which became the area’s first major commercial crop. In time indigo became a major plantation crop because of its importance as a European textile dye. Finally came sugar, which became the most lucrative and extensive crop in the Americas. The techniques, capital, tools, and African slaves that ultimately transformed the islands of the Caribbean—British, French, and Spanish—into major sugar-producing areas were drawn largely from the experiences and resources amassed by Dutch planters and merchants through the Dutch West Indies Company in Brazil in the early 1600s. From there the Dutch introduced modern sugar-milling and production techniques in Barbados, Martinique, and Guadalupe in the 1640s and rapidly transformed these islands. By 1680 British Barbados had some 350 sugar estates, worked by 37,000 black slaves; similar levels of labor and production were eventually found on Martinique, Guadalupe, and the western half of the island of Santo Domingo, which the French claimed as Saint Domingue in the 1650s.

Most of the plantations that evolved on the Caribbean islands during the seventeenth century were in the 200-acre range, worked by 100 or so slaves. This acreage and number of slaves climbed significantly in the eighteenth century. By 1750, for example, about two-thirds of all plantations in the Caribbean were more than 1,000 acres in size, and some reached much greater expanse, each worked at times by as many as 15,000 slaves. Blacks dominated the population ten to one, and well over 80 percent of them worked in the rural cultivation of sugar. By the middle of the eighteenth century sugar was the single crop most extensively cultivated by African and African American slave labor.

Before the Industrial Revolution plantation slavery was the most productive form of labor available. All the major tasks involved in planting, cultivation, and harvesting were undertaken without regard to the sex of the worker. Only age mattered, with the old tending to infants and to livestock and the young working at weeding and other minor chores until they were old enough to join field gangs. Slaves were constantly supervised and frequently disciplined with whips and other forms of corporal punishment. Plantations were highly productive units, making use of 80 percent of all slave labor available and of the entire age spectrum of the slave population.

African and African American slavery ended in the Americas largely because the institution was increasingly seen as immoral, illegitimate, and economically anachronistic by many of the leading European thinkers of the Enlightenment. In the late 1740s, for example, in his book The Spirit of Laws, Montesquieu questioned the legitimacy of slavery. In The Wealth of Nations (1776) Adam Smith concluded that free labor was simply more competitive than slavery. Beginning first with the Quaker clergy and then influential political theorists, the abolitionist movement gained more proponents in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Then countries like Portugal, England, and France enacted legislation that abolished slavery on the Continent. By the time of the American Revolution in 1776 some states less dependent on slaves, like Vermont (1777), Pennsylvania (1780), Massachusetts (1780), and Rhode Island and Connecticut (1784) enacted gradual abolition laws that began by freeing newborns. The French Revolution of 1789 accelerated the pace of abolition. The Revolution’s egalitarian ideals clashed with the reality of slavery and eventually led to the emancipation of slaves in Guadeloupe and Saint Domingue in February 1794.

The end of the slave trade was mainly championed by the English Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. By 1820 it had largely managed to stop the transport of African slaves to the Americas, though not without some intense resistance from the Spanish and Portuguese traders. Finally, in the 1860s, through effective blockades by the United States and England, the slave trade to Cuba and Puerto Rico was ended.

The end of the slave trade did not automatically mean the emancipation of all slaves. Emancipation was more gradual, beginning first with the passage of “free womb” (children born to slave mothers would be free) laws in 1821 in such newly independent Spanish American republics as Ecuador, Venezuela, and Colombia, which guaranteed that slavery would persist into the 1850s. Other countries, like Chile in 1823 and Mexico in 1832, completely emancipated their slaves. Cuba and Brazil were slavery’s last bastions, finally abolishing it in 1883 and 1888, respectively.
Ramón A. Gutiérrez

MLA Citation

Gutiérrez, Ramón A. “Slavery.” The American Mosaic: The Latino American Experience. ABC-CLIO, 2011. Web. 28 Mar. 2011