Modern history

6

The Best and Strongest Slaves Available

King Ferdinand the Catholic ordering that two hundred Africans be sent to the New World, 1510

THE GREAT DREAMER Christopher Columbus lived for a time on Portugal’s plantation island of Madeira, with its then ample population of slaves. He married the daughter of Bartolomé Perestrello—an elderly fellow Genoese who had been a protégé of Prince Henry and was the governor of the second-largest island of the archipelago, Porto Santo. Columbus had also worked as a sugar buyer for the Genoese banking family of the Centuriones; and he had visited the Portuguese fort of Elmina, on the coast of Guinea, probably in 1482, soon after its foundation—ten years before he made his first crossing of the “Green Sea of Darkness.” Columbus must have seen slaves in the Canary Islands, working on the sugar plantations which he himself knew well, as also in Seville and Lisbon.

Columbus, therefore, was a product of the new Atlantic slave-powered society, and made evident his knowledge of the trade in Africans in a letter to the Catholic kings in 1496, in which he pointed out that, when he was in the Cape Verde Islands, slaves had sold at eight thousand maravedís a head. So it would not have been surprising if he had carried a few black slaves to the Caribbean on his first or second voyage. But there is no indication that he did so, though Alonso Pietro, the pilot of his favorite ship, Niña, on which he returned from the first voyage, is said to have been a mulatto; and a free black African is sometimes said to have accompanied Columbus on his second voyage, in 1493. On his third voyage to the Caribbean, Columbus sailed via the Cape Verde Islands, and he might easily have picked up an African or two from that entrepôt. Some unrecorded black slaves are certainly supposed to have reached the New World before the end of the fifteenth century but, again, there is no evidence of it.

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Meantime, in 1493, Pope Alexander VI, a nephew of the first Borgia pope, Calixtus III, drew a line across the world to indicate the zone of influence of Spain as opposed to that of Portugal. So what one Borgia began, another completed. The subsequent Treaty of Tordesillas divided the world in a way which influenced it forever, though its division, setting a line 270 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands, was disputed till 1777.

Determined to show some reason for his explorations, and with gold in short supply in the Caribbean, Columbus sent back from Santo Domingo to his Florentine friend in Seville, Juanotto Berardi, associate of Marchionni, the first known cargo of slaves to cross the Atlantic: Taino Indians, and in a west-east direction. These men and women were not natives of Hispaniola, but captives from other islands whom Columbus considered, merely because they resisted him, to be cannibals, though they ate the flesh of their captives merely in order to appropriate their valor to themselves, as they believed. Of this consignment, carried to Spain by Antonio de Torres,I nothing more seems to be known, but Torres returned to the Caribbean and, the following year, brought back another, larger, consignment, of four hundred slaves. Half of these died when the ships entered Spanish waters: “The cause I believe to be the unaccustomed cold,” wrote Michele Cuneo, a Genoese on board. The rest were received by Amerigo Vespucci, then still working with Berardi. The king ordered these slaves to be sold in Seville on April 12, 1495, but next day the sale was annulled, because of doubts about the legality of the scheme. Cuneo thought, “They are not people suited to hard work, they suffer from the cold, and they do not have a long life.”1

In 1496, Columbus himself returned to Spain with thirty Indians whom he hoped to dispose of as slaves. They were sold at 1,500 maravedís each, but the queen ordered Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca, a young deacon of good family in Seville, already her chief adviser on matters relating to the Indies, to delay the sale once more, till the legal implications could be settled. All the same, a few slaves from these boatloads were sent to row on the royal galleys. In the late 1490s, Columbus was thinking of sending back to Spain four thousand slaves a year, which would bring in twenty million maravedís, he thought, with an outlay of only three million. That Columbus thought that Hispaniola could continue to produce so many slaves regularly suggests that the Indian population had not yet begun anything in the way of vertiginous decline.

The trade in the Indians never reached the dimensions promised by Columbus but, all the same, three hundred disappointed Spanish immigrants to Hispaniola returned to Seville in 1499, each with an Indian slave as a leaving present from Columbus. The queen was annoyed: “What power from me has the admiral to give anyone my vassals?” she is supposed to have asked in anger.2 In 1500, the survivors were released and sent home, on the queen’s order.

Three years later, Isabella, though repeating that no Indians under her dominion were to be hurt or captured, decreed nevertheless that, “a certain people called ‘cannibals’ ” might be fairly fought and, if captured, enslaved, “as punishment for crimes committed against my subjects.”3 This was not the first nor the last time a ruler would seem to be influenced by two separate sets of advisers. The queen obviously had been told a series of tales about the evil of cannibals, who were said not only to eat her subjects but to resist their Christian teaching. That designation “cannibals” must have covered the slaves whom Alonso de Hojeda and Amerigo Vespucci brought back from the Bahamas after their journeys of discovery along the north coast of South America in 1499. (“We agreed to seize shiploads of the inhabitants as slaves, and to load the ships with them and turn toward Spain. We went to certain islands and took by force two hundred and thirty-two persons and set course for Castile.”4 Two hundred survived the journey, to be sold in Cádiz.) Cristóbal Guerra also “took and killed certain Indian men and women in the island of Bonaire . . . and sold many of them in the cities of Seville and Cádiz and Jerez and Córdoba and other places.”5 Vespucci brought back slaves from his voyage along the coast of Brazil, and these Cristóbal Guerra sold as well, in Cádiz, Jerez, and Córdoba.

Among those who remembered these “Indians” in Seville was the future apostle of the Indies, Bartolomé de Las Casas, whose father had been to Hispaniola on Columbus’s second voyage, and who came home at this time.

Very slowly, black slaves also began to be seen in the new Spanish imperial possessions. But this occurred without fanfare, and with false starts. Thus a decree of 1501 forbade imports to the Indies of slaves born in Spain, as well as Jews, Moors, and New Christians—that is, converted Jews. The purpose of this, the first of many Castilian prohibitions on the subject in the Indies which were not fulfilled, was to prevent the contamination of the natives by people who already knew the language of empire. All the same, some merchants and captains privately gained permission to carry to the Indies occasional black slaves, from the large stock of them available in Seville or elsewhere in southern Spain. The first such merchant seems to have been a rich converso, a silversmith, Juan de Córdoba, a friend of Columbus, and later of Cortés, who in 1502 sent a black slave with some other agents to sell goods on his behalf—clothes, no doubt—in Hispaniola. With Luis Fernández de Alfaro, a former captain of merchant ships, Córdoba would found the Yucatán company which traded to the newly discovered Spanish dominion of New Spain (Mexico). Both were friends and allies of the conquistador Hernán Cortés. A black, Diego, served as a cabin boy on Columbus’s disastrous fourth voyage beginning in 1502, but it is unclear if he was a slave.

That same year, an efficient and farsighted, if ruthless and hardhearted, governor-general, Nicolás de Ovando, was sent to the Caribbean. He was ordered to compel the natives of the islands to work: “Because of excessive liberty,” his instructions curiously said, “the Indians flee from the Christians and do not work. They are, therefore, to be compelled to work . . . to be paid a daily wage, and well treated, as the free persons such as they are, rather than as slaves.”6 Ovando was also allowed to carry with him black slaves born in the power of Christians—that is, those born in Spain or Portugal; and we must presume that some of them arrived because, a few months later, the new governor, already in Santo Domingo, changed his mind about them. He asked that their import be suspended, since they not only seemed to be taking every opportunity to run away but were encouraging the Indians to rebellion; and when, in 1504, the Spanish Crown allowed ten years’ free commerce with Hispaniola, the trade in slaves was excepted, along with gold, silver, arms, and horses—all presumably because they were needed in Europe.

The issue of whether or not to allow African slaves to the Indies dogged the governorship-general of Ovando, and there were several more changes of policy. In 1504, for example, Alonso de Hojeda was permitted to take across five white slaves (that is, Muslims). In 1505, seventeen black slaves were permitted to be sent to Hispaniola, with a promise of more; yet, the next year, Ovando was ordered to expel “Berber and pagan slaves.”7 In 1509, the example of Juan de Córdoba was followed by Dr. Diego Alvarez Chanca, an erudite royal physician from Seville who had accompanied Columbus on his second voyage: he, too, commissioned a black slave, Juan de Zafra, to sell goods in the New World on his behalf. Ponce de León, meantime, took some Africans with him in the conquest of Puerto Rico in 1508; and, two years later, Gerónimo de Bruselas, presumably a Fleming, who worked as a founder of precious metals on that island, was given authority to import two black slaves there to assist his labors.

Sugar cane seems to have been already brought, incidentally, in a very modest way, to the Caribbean: perhaps even by Columbus, on his second voyage, in 1493. A colonist named Aguilón was apparently growing cane in Concepción de la Vega, Santo Domingo, as early as 1505; he is said by Las Casas to have ground the cane with “certain wooden instruments which obtained juice.”8 No doubt these were brought from Madeira or the Canary Islands.

A decisive change of strategy occurred in respect of slaves in the New World soon after Ovando left his governorship in 1509. Diego Colón, Columbus’s son, amiable and intelligent but weak and improvident, succeeded him in command of the “empire,” an enterprise which still consisted only of Santo Domingo and Puerto Rico, even if it already had pretensions to control the north coast of South America. The native Indians were by then in rapid decline, less from the diseases brought by the Europeans (the first epidemic was that of smallpox in 1518) than from loss of faith in the future and from the overwork to which they were submitted in the mines and fields. Whatever the original population of Hispaniola in 1492, there were in 1510 only about twenty-five thousand people able to work. These Indians had already shown themselves to be nothing like such workers as black Africans, many of whom were accustomed to domestic animals and who also resisted diseases well. Africans, too, were better able to work with horses than were indigenous Indians, for the Mandingo, the Fula, and the Wolof peoples, at least, had an equestrian tradition. A 1511 report to the king would declare that the work of one black slave was equal to that of four Indians. The gold mines, especially those in the Sierra Cibao and San Cristóbal, both in the center of the island, also preoccupied the Spanish Crown. Diego Colón wrote to King Ferdinand about the shortage of labor at the end of 1509, explaining that the Indians found it very hard work “to break the rocks in which the gold was found.”9 The king was annoyed. Only in May, he had given carte blanche to Colón to import all the natives from the neighboring islands that he wanted: they could be kidnapped in, say, the Bahamas, “in the manner [in] which they have been brought on other occasions, so that those needed will be placed in our enterprises, and the others be given in allotment, in Hispaniola, in the manner that has been used until now.”10 A commercial partnership in Concepción fitted out ships for the kidnappings. But Indian slaves did not constitute the answer to the problem of labor in Santo Domingo, even if their price went up from 5 to 150 gold pesos. Many Lucayans, as the natives of the Bahamas were then called, died on the journey to Hispaniola. Other Spanish kidnappings in the still-unconquered island of Cuba were no more profitable. The only part of the newly discovered territories where the Spaniards restrained themselves from stealing slaves was the island of Margarita, where they wanted the indigenous people to continue diving for pearls.

So it was not surprising that, in Valladolid, on January 22, 1510, King Ferdinand should have given authority for, first, fifty slaves to go to Hispaniola for the benefit of the mines—they had “to be the best and strongest available.”11 Then, three weeks later, on February 14, in Madrid, the king asked the Casa de Contratación—the new bureaucracy in Seville which managed Spanish maritime activities—to send another two hundred slaves as soon as possible, to be sold in Santo Domingo “little by little” to whosoever desired to buy them. The documents signed by the king do not specify that these slaves should be Africans, so in theory they could have been Moorish or even Canary Islanders, but there is no doubt that Africans, and Africans already in Europe, were intended. Henceforth, the sale of all such captives would be regulated, as would the payment of taxes (two ducats per head to the Crown) for a license. Regulation, as always, led to contraband. But the requirement to buy this permit would become an important source of income for the Crown.

This was the beginning of slave traffic to the Americas. Gold in Hispaniola was the lure.

King Ferdinand was not a man to hesitate over the fate of slaves or the slave trade. Despite his grand titles of “athlete of Christ” and “Catholic king,” awarded him by Pope Alexander VI, he was a practical politician, not an idealist. As such, he was as much admired by Machiavelli, his contemporary, who saw him as having risen to “being for fame and glory the first king of Christendom,” as he would be by Spanish Carlists in the twentieth century, one of whose polemicists, Victor Pradera, would end a description of what he hoped for from a “new state” with the hollow expectation that it would resemble the Spain of the Catholic kings.12 In regard to human beings, Ferdinand had already deported substantial sections of the Jewish and Moorish populations of his realm, and enslaved many of the latter. He had approved slaving expeditions in the Caribbean for “Carib” or “cannibal” Indians. His treatment of his unfortunate daughter, Juana, who was too sensitive to be a princess of that era, was coldhearted. He would have remembered the participation of Castilians in the trade to Guinea during the war with Portugal in the 1470s and, probably, he had employed some of the slaves then made.

In 1510, Ferdinand was in truth concerned less with the New World than with the conquest of Tripoli, on which he had embarked in order to remove the threat of piracy from the western Mediterranean. He mentioned that engagement in his first letter to Diego Colón about the slaves. He was also disturbed that his unpopular if attractive second wife, Germaine de Foix, had not produced a male heir for him. Ferdinand would have spent little time considering the fate of a few hundred black slaves being moved, as he probably thought would be the case, from one part of his dominions to another. Being surrounded by slaves in Spain, he would have seen no reason why such captives should not be sent to the Americas. Three hundred and eighty-two Muslim slaves had been sold in Valencia the previous year, most of them deriving from Cardinal Cisneros’s conquest of Oran; indeed, the capture of that city had even produced for Spanish masters a number of Jewish slaves. “Indian” ones were also still to be found in Spain, including in these days some from Brazil.

The chief influence with the king, virtually the minister for the Indies, was that perplexing bishop and bureaucrat, Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca. Fonseca, then bishop of Palencia, was empowered to act almost independently in matters concerning the new empire. A protégé of Queen Isabella, but an enemy of Columbus as of Cortés, he was a man who put every obstacle in the way of imaginative ventures in the New World, yet who sought to get as much money for the crown from it as he could. He was cultivated and intelligent, for he had been a student of the great humanist Lebrija at Salamanca, and he encouraged many Flemish artists to go to Spain. A master of detail, with a remarkable memory, Fonseca would have recalled how, in 1496, Queen Isabella had asked him to arrange for some of the Tainos brought back from the Caribbean by Columbus after his second voyage to row in the royal galleys; and how few had survived. He must have known from personal experience in Seville—he had been archdeacon there at the beginning of his swift rise to preferment—that black slaves were different.

It would be foolish to make this dedicated public servant into a villain, to blame for all that went wrong in the Spanish Indies during the first years after Columbus’s voyage; all the same, while he was a power in Spain, the instruction of the late queen, his patroness, that only cannibal Indians should be enslaved was interpreted very broadly: one had only to declare such-and-such an island as “Carib” to ensure that the slave trade there was approved.

There were others concerned in these fateful decisions. For example, an Aragonese secretary of Ferdinand’s, Lope Conchillos (his signature is on both the documents approving the dispatch of slaves, along with that of the king), a converso, worked closely with Fonseca, and he probably saw that the slave trade might be a method of increasing royal revenue; perhaps his own, too. After all, the king of Portugal had made two million réis in 1506 from the slave trade, from taxes and duties; and that news must have been known at the Spanish Court.

Both Fonseca and Conchillos, as well as the king, incidentally had a direct interest in the dispatch of these slaves, since all would, two years later, have groups of Indians personally allocated to them in a new division carried out in Hispaniola which meant—in effect if not in law—land and mines, since the properties concerned were in the main districts where gold had been found.

The senior official of the Casa de Contratación, the chief pilot, was now the imaginative and much-traveled Florentine Amerigo Vespucci. He would also have given his advice on all these matters, for he knew the shortcomings of the indigenous Indians of the Caribbean at first hand. Just a year before, Vespucci had advised Archbishop Ximénez de Cisneros on the question of taxation of commerce with the New World: should goods shipped to the Indies be managed exclusively by a single individual? Or should there be unrestricted trade, in which case how would the taxes be collected? The argument would later affect slaves as much as cloth.

One man who would have been pleased at the king’s decision, and was concerned in the execution of the policy, was the present representative in Seville of Bartolommeo Marchionni, Piero Rondinelli, another Florentine, who had succeeded Juanotto Berardi as the most influential merchant in Seville. Rondinelli by now had interests in sugar in the Canary Islands, in silk, in velvet and English cloth, as well as in supplying the Indies with dried beef, clothing, and slaves. He probably obtained most of the slaves made possible by Ferdinand’s license from Marchionni in Lisbon: a document in the Archivo de Indias shows that, to carry out the king’s plans, a hundred black slaves were bought in Lisbon and sent to Diego Colón in Santo Domingo, for he was to organize the sale there. Another hundred were sent direct from Seville on the Trinidad, as part of an expedition led by Diego Nicuesa, a conquistador who was lost at sea off Panama—though not before he had delivered his slaves.

After this decision by Ferdinand, a few black Africans were sent every year to the Americas—perhaps fifty annually, and usually in ones and twos. For example, a permit was given to a certain Gaspar de Villadiego for ten slaves, to a colonist named Alonso de Rueda for three, to Ponce de León for another six. There were obviously some remaining doubts about the desirability of this innovation: in July 1510, the king asked Luis de Lizarazo, a conquistador who already held a property with fifty Indians, to explain “what point there was in carrying more slaves to the New World.”13 Surely those first four hundred granted in 1510 were enough. The king also wondered why the blacks whom he had had sent had died so fast: “Look after them well,” he added.14 One or two more white (Muslim) slaves were also sent, as requested by a conquistador, Hernando de Peralta, in 1512 and by Ponce de León in 1515.

The advent of black slaves did not mean an end to the local Indian slave trade. Thus King Ferdinand gave approval, in a new ordinance of June 1510, to more seizures from other islands of Indians, who were to be brought to work in Santo Domingo; and indeed a steady flow of these unfortunates continued to Hispaniola, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. The governor of Cuba, Diego Velázquez, sent an expedition to the Bay Islands off Central America in 1516 and, after some setbacks onshore, brought back four hundred slaves. One such enterprise went badly wrong, however: while their boat was lying offshore of what is now Havana, the Indians rebelled, killed the Spanish crew, and sailed themselves home—an early example of a successful slave rebellion though the rebels seem to have been killed later. The island of Barbados probably got its name from these activities, since the slaves found there, and sometimes sent to Madeira, were, unlike the other Tainos, bearded.

A few of the first generation of black slaves in the Americas played a part in the next wave of conquests. Diego Velázquez had had a few African slaves with him in 1511-12, in his occupation of Cuba, an island which would eventually develop a black culture more profound than anywhere else in the Spanish empire. Vasco Núñez de Balboa had a black slave, Nuflo de Olano, with him (as well as a dog) when he first saw the Pacific, and he soon had thirty building boats on that ocean. Pedrarias probably had Africans with him when he established the first European colony on the American mainland, in Panama. Cortés was accompanied by two or three slaves in his conquest of Mexico, as a picture of him in Fray Diego Durán’s book suggests. Survivors of ancient Mexico living in the 1550s later assured Fray Bernardino de Sahagún that there were indeed a number of “curly-haired” black men among the first five hundred conquistadors who came with “Don Hernando.”15 African slaves also went to “New Spain” with Pánfilo de Narváez, the conquistador who sought unsuccessfully to supplant Cortés, and one of them, Francisco de Eguía, seems to have been the first to carry smallpox to that country, in 1519. The most famous black African in Cortés’s expedition was, however, a free man, Juan Garrido, who was later known as the first “European” to plant wheat in Mexico, on his farm at Coyoacán. Later a “black Moor” from Morocco, Estebán, accompanied Cabeza de Vaca on his heroic walk from Florida to Mexico between 1528 and 1536—the first serious exploration of North America. Pedro de Heredia also had a substantial body of slaves from Africa when he founded Cartagena de Indias in the early 1530s. So did Diego García, Sebastian Cabot, and Domingo Martínez de Urala in the first Spanish approaches to Buenos Aires. In 1521 El Cano stopped at Santiago, the biggest of the Cape Verde islands, to buy slaves to help his ship, the Victoria, reach home.

During these years, following a denunciation of the colonists of Hispaniola from the pulpit by the Dominican Fray Antonio de Montesinos in 1511, a complicated controversy was beginning about the treatment of the indigenous peoples of America. The arguments lasted forty years, and it is much to the credit of Spain that there was such a debate. What other empire can boast such a discussion, and at so high a level? During the years 1511–13, the most searching questions that any imperial nation can ask of itself were at least posed. But the discussion as to whether the Indians were men, and whether it was permissible to enslave them, completely ignored the status of black African slaves, with their greater experience of agriculture, their greater endurance, and their longer connection with Europe.

In Spain, meantime, the licenses to carry African slaves to the Americas continued to be granted. One was given in 1517 to Jorge de Portugal, son of Alvaro de Portugal, the Portuguese ambassador to Spain (an illegitimate son of the Portuguese royal duke of Braganza), and a close friend of the late Queen Isabella, to import four hundred black slaves to the Indies. No taxes were to be paid. But it does not seem that this nobleman did much about the matter: Jorge de Portugal was at the time the commander of the castle of Triana in Seville, and was preoccupied with local politics there. His father, incidentally, had been a business associate of Marchionni, so perhaps the idea of his son’s entering the slave trade derived from him.

Soon the complete collapse of the population of the Caribbean changed the African slave trade to the Americas into a major enterprise. The great efforts made to substitute the labor of the population of the islands by enslaving people on the mainland, in the Bahamas, and elsewhere was proving unsuccessful, though some slaving expeditions of the conquistadors in these years continued: Juan Bono, a Basque shipmaster, one of the hardest men in the Spanish Indies, who afterwards took part in Pánfilo de Narváez’s expedition against Cortés, mounted a particularly scandalous raid in Trinidad in 1517; and the first Spanish expedition to Mexico, that of Hernández de Córdoba the same year, was sent at least partly to find slaves, perhaps from the Bay Islands. A substantial trade in Indian slaves from the mainland, from what is now Nicaragua, would do something to make up for the shortages of labor in the Spanish Caribbean in the 1530s; but that terrible chapter in the history of America was only just beginning. Some Indians were also shipped to the Caribbean in Spanish vessels from Brazil.

At all events, early in the reign of the new King Charles, soon to be the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, in 1518, the Spanish colonists requested their government to permit the dispatch of more black slaves, to compensate for the loss of the indigenous population. These requests came both from the hard-bitten leaders of the deeply distressed colony on the main Spanish island, Hispaniola, and from those who might, at first sight, have seemed to be among the most liberal of Spaniards. For example, in January 1518, Judge Alonso Zuazo, who was seriously concerned about the fall in the Indian population, wrote to Charles V about ways to increase the workers of the New World. He said that the land there was the best in the world, “where there is neither cold nor too much heat nor anything to complain of. Everything is green, and everything grows, just as when Christ, in the great Augustan peace, came to redeem the old world.” Now, the judge went on unctuously to say, there was something similar in the arrival of Charles, who could redeem the New World. Zuazo’s recommendation was that a general license should be given for the “import of negros, ideal people for the work here, in contrast to the natives, who are so feeble that they are only suitable for light work.” It was foolish, Zuazo added, to suppose that, if brought there, “these blacks would rebel: after all, there is a widow in the isles belonging to Portugal [Madeira, no doubt] who has 800 slaves. Everything depends on how they are governed. I found on coming here that there were some robber blacks, others having fled to the mountains. I whipped some, cut the ears off others and, in consequence, there are no more complaints.” Zuazo added that already there were excellent plantations of sugar cane. Some grew cane as thick as a man’s wrist. How wonderful it would be if large factories for making sugar could also be built!16

A similar request for black slaves was made by the four Jeronymite priors, who were, most surprisingly, the Crown’s governors in the islands at that time. One of these holy men, Fray Manzanedo, wrote to Charles V that “all the citizens of Hispaniola demand your majesty to give them a license to be able to import blacks, because the Indians are insufficient to sustain them in the island.”17 He argued that as many women should be sent as men, and they had to be bozales—that is, slaves straight from Africa—for slaves bred in Castile might turn out rebellious. They had to come from “the best territories” in Africa, by which he meant anywhere south of the river Sénégal, in order to avoid any Muslim taint.

These requests were strongly supported by Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas, already the self-constituted advocate of the interests of the indigenous population. His desire to protect the Indians from ill-treatment blinded him for many years to the need to guard against similar mistreatment of Africans. Like all enlightened men of his time, he believed that an African enslaved by Christians was more fortunate than an African in domestic circumstances.

At first, Las Casas was concerned to send a few—twenty only—of the slaves who were already in Seville to the Americas, rather than pursue new ones in Africa, as recommended by his colleagues. Later, however, he would suggest larger numbers: thus, in 1535, he sent a letter to the king saying that “the remedy of the Christians is this, that His Majesty should think it right to send to each one of the islands 500 or 600 blacks or whatever other number seems appropriate.”18 Only later still, in the 1550s, when writing hisHistoria de las Indias, he explained that he had realized that it was wrong to seek to replace one form of slavery with another—though the book was not published for another 350 years.19

King Charles accepted the recommendations of Zuazo, Las Casas, and the priors. The Court was then at Saragossa, the king being eager to placate the Aragonese. Subsequently the most conscientious of Holy Roman Emperors, Charles was at that time only eighteen years old. So far as policy in the Americas was concerned, he was in the hands of his advisers. Of these, the closest with regard to the Indies was still the implacable, ubiquitous, meticulous, and indefatigable Rodríguez de Fonseca, who had by now become bishop of Burgos.

The consequence was that, on August 18, 1518, permission to import black slaves into the New World was granted to a friend of the king’s, one of those clever Flemish courtiers who inspired such suspicion among Spaniards, Lorenzo de Gorrevod (Laurent de Gouvenot, or Garrebod), governor of Bresse in Burgundy, and the emperor’s majordomo.20 He was a Savoyard, having been brought, with other counselors of the Crown, to the Low Countries by the emperor’s aunt, the regent Margaret, who had previously been married to Count Philibert of that Alpine territory. “The second most avaricious of the Flemings,” as he was considered by the Spaniards, he had wanted to receive, as a perpetual fief for himself, the whole of the new territory of New Spain, Mexico, which Cortés was about to offer to the emperor. But, as a compensation for not receiving that grant, he was to be allowed to import no fewer than four thousand blacks, brought direct from Africa, if need be, into the new territories of the Spanish empire. A subsequent document (signed by the king, Fonseca, and secretaries Cobos and García de Padilla) told the royal officials not to collect taxes on the import of these slaves.

The background of this decision, like that of King Ferdinand in 1510 to allow four hundred slaves to be taken to the New World, is difficult to reconstruct. No surviving document describes any discussion, no chronicler dwells on the matter, nothing suggests that any courtier or adviser, nobleman or merchant, disagreed.II There was certainly some opposition among Spaniards such as Las Casas to the grant of such a license to a foreigner; but not about the principle of the policy. The king signed the document approving Gorrevod’s contract, but if he thought twice about the matter, he would have considered that he was acting to save the lives of American Indians by agreeing to the petitions of the eloquent Las Casas and of the Jeronymite priors.

Gorrevod was interested in the money to be made from his license, not in the actual consequences, good or evil. He immediately sold his privilege to Juan López de Recalde, the treasurer of the Casa de Contratación in Seville. That official resold it in turn to others, using Alonso Gutiérrez, treasurer of Madrid, as an intermediary. The final buyers were, predictably, a firm of Genoese merchants established in Seville, by now so experienced in Spanish commerce. They bought the rights for twenty-five thousand ducats—that is, six ducats a slave. These Genoese were Domingo de Forne (Fornes) who acquired the right to carry a thousand slaves, Agustín de Ribaldo (Vivaldo) a nephew of the rich Cypriot Ribaldos, and Fernando Vázquez, who were jointly able to carry three thousand slaves. These merchants named as their agents Juan de la Torre, of Medina del Campo, the greatest of Castilian internal markets; Gaspar Centurione (another Genoese, though a Castilianized one); and Juan Fernández de Castro, of Seville.

This first major consignment of slaves for the Americas was thus in every sense a European enterprise: the grant of the Flemish-born emperor was to a Savoyard, who sold his rights, through a Castilian, to Genoese merchants—who, in turn, would, of course, have to arrange for the Portuguese to deliver the slaves. For no Spanish ship could legally go to Guinea, the monarchs of the two countries were then allies, and anyway, only the Portuguese could supply slaves in that quantity.

This grant was not for an absolute monopoly: many minor licenses to carry slaves to the Indies continued to be given; for example, Alvaro Pérez Osorio, marquis of Astorga, also obtained a license in 1518 to send four hundred black slaves to the New World—which permission he, too, sold to Genoese bankers.

Some of these slaves were destined for the new sugar farms. The planter Aguilón, who already had such a farm on Santo Domingo in 1505, had been by now joined by others, assisted by sugar masters from the Canary Islands; the historian Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo had brought back some sugar to show to King Ferdinand in 1515, on his deathbed; for it was beginning to be found that sugar cane could be grown in the Caribbean as easily as the indigenous crops of the country. Cristóbal de Tapia (Cortés’s enemy in 1522) applied from Santo Domingo to import fifteen slaves to work on his new sugar mill there—a vertical three-roller mill, powered by oxen.III By the 1530s, Santo Domingo would have the luxury of thirty-four such mills, all worked primarily by Africans and three owned by Genoese (Vivaldo Fornes, Jacome de Castellón, and Esteban Justiniani), all of whom had been concerned in trading slaves also.

Later grants allowed the sugar industry to start up in Puerto Rico: the first mill was built there in 1523 by Tomás de Castellón, a brother of the pioneer in Santo Domingo, in what was then called the plains of San Germán, now Añasco, which was from the beginning worked by slaves. (By 1530, there were nearly 3,000 slaves on that island, and only 327 whites.) There was at least one sugar mill in Jamaica by 1527, founded by the second governor, Francisco de Garay, while the first mill in Mexico seems to have been established by Hernán Cortés in 1524. Again, Genoese were concerned in both furnishing the slaves for this property and in selling the sugar produced.

Mines also demanded slaves. In 1524, permission was granted to import three hundred African slaves into Cuba to work in the gold mines at Jagua. That the Church of Rome was as interested in importing Africans as any conquistador can be seen from a petition of the bishop of Puerto Rico and inquisitor-general of the Indies, Alonso Manzo, for permission to bring in twenty blacks. This was granted. Their task was to dig for gold, required to finance the projected Cathedral of San Juan (which they would also help to build). Franciscans and priests also often had black slaves as servants. So did simple conquistadors. Time and again we hear how this or that adventurer arrived with “his horses and slaves,” ready for some unexpected homeric contest.

Another important colonial enterprise which involved the use of black slaves was a fantastic scheme of Las Casas for the north coast of South America. The plan was that forty Spanish colonists should set off with ten black slaves each, to avoid any temptation of misusing Indians. The idea was approved, but most of the settlers were dispersed in the Caribbean before they reached the intended site of the colony. Those who did go were all slaughtered, with their slaves, by Indians who had not yet learned to distinguish between good and bad Spaniards.

Gorrevod’s grant for the transport of slaves ran out in 1526. The Spanish Crown’s preference was still to give licenses to specific merchants, along with, sometimes, the benefit of not paying the usual taxes. So Charles V granted his new secretary, Francisco de los Cobos, a license to send to the Indies, including to New Spain, two hundred black slaves, exempt from all import charges. Of course, no one expected that that permission would be taken advantage of by Cobos in person. Sure enough, he sold it to two German merchants then in Seville, Jerónimo Sayles (Hieronymous Seyler, or Seiler) and Enrique Guesler (Heinrich Ehinger), both of Constance; to the representatives of the famous bankers of Augsburg, the Welsers; and to three more Genoese (Leonardo Cataño, Bautista Justiniani, and Pedro Benito de Bastiniano). The two Germans were also the beneficiaries of a new, larger license granted by the emperor in February 1528, to import four thousand further slaves over the next four years to be sold at forty ducats each. That was the year when the Welsers also received a commission to govern the territory known as New Andalusia, now Venezuela, as a partial repayment of the emperor’s debts to them.

Sayles and Guesler paid twenty thousand ducats for this second privilege, but the usual Portuguese middlemen (the principal being a factor in Santo Domingo, Andrea Ferrer) delivered Africans whom the Spaniards thought inferior, and there were not enough of them. Licenciado Serrano wrote in 1530: “The Germans bring in very bad blacks, so much so that, despite the great necessity that we have for them, no one buys.”21

This setback was followed by a monopoly contract granted to one only of the two Germans, Guesler, though he was soon associated with a citizen of the mercantile city of Medina del Campo, Rodrigo de Dueñas. But his deliveries still did not satisfy the settlers of Santo Domingo. The bishop of the colony wrote in 1530 to the king in Castile that the survival not just of his island but that of Puerto Rico and Cuba depended on the availability of African slaves; he suggested that the colonies be allowed to import them without licenses.

For a time there was no attempt to limit the market. Already in 1527, Alfonso Núñez, a merchant of Seville, in the name of Comendador Alonso de Torres of Lisbon, undertook to sell to Luis Fernández de Alfaro, a friend of Hernán Cortés, one hundred black slaves, of whom four-fifths had to be men, the rest women. They would be procured in Santiago, in the Cape Verde Islands and, after being taken to Spain, sold in Santo Domingo. Two years later, Fernández de Alfaro himself sent to buy slaves in the Cape Verde Islands, for he had a contract with Juan Gutiérrez of San Salvador, Triana, to supply another hundred blacks for Santo Domingo. Actually, a Portuguese decree of 1512 had ordered that all slaves procured in the Cape Verde Islands or elsewhere had to be sent direct to Lisbon, but that rule, like so many emanating from Lisbon, was often ignored, as innumerable licenses issued at the Casa de Contratación in Seville suggest. Then, in 1527, a well-known lawyer from Seville, himself experienced in the Caribbean, Alonso de Parada, proposed to the king a new policy: that he should regularly arrange to buy from his brother monarch in Portugal all the slaves who were needed in the Spanish empire (to begin with, about four thousand slaves) and ship half of them to Hispaniola, fifteen or sixteen hundred to Cuba, and the remainder to Jamaica. Half of the total should be women, so that the men should feel at home and perpetuate themselves in the New World.

Nothing was decided, and so the way was open for a series of slave merchants based in Seville. The first of these was Juan de la Barrera, who, returning from the Indies to Seville about 1530, already wealthy from the sale of cloth and food, became, after the collapse of the German monopoly, one of the richest men in his home city, with factories (that is, deposits) for slaves as well as other goods, in Cartagena de Indias, in Peru, Honduras, Cuba, and New Spain. Unlike nearly all other slave merchants, he himself made the regular Seville-Cape Verde-Veracruz journey in one of his own boats.

De la Barrera’s itineraries point to an important change. Up till now, most African slaves were taken from Africa to Europe and from there to the Americas. But one ship, Nuestra Señora de Begoña, belonging to the Genoese Polo de Espindola of Málaga, left São Tomé in 1530 with three hundred slaves direct for Hispaniola, and there were no doubt others. Characteristically for a significant innovation relating to the slave trade, there was a lawsuit about details of the matter: Espindola sued Esteban Justiniani, the local representative of the Genoese Agustín de Vivaldo, one of the residuary buyers of Gorrevod’s license, who took the matter to the Council of the Indies.22 This case concerned rich men: Vivaldo was by then the Crown banker in Seville; and Justiniani was a pioneer of sugar in Santo Domingo.

From then on, the slaves taken to the Spanish empire usually came direct from Africa. King João III of Portugal gave explicit permission to captains to ship slaves both from the Cape Verde Islands and from São Tomé to the Americas. He does not seem to have hesitated a moment before agreeing to this, any more than Ferdinand had vacillated in 1510 about arranging for slaves to be sent to Hispaniola. In 1533, nearly 500 slaves were so taken, direct from São Tomé to the Spanish Indies and, in 1534, about 650 traveled thus, even though, at that time, the royal factor at São Tomé was still sending over 500 slaves a year to Elmina and 200 or 300 a year to Lisbon. These voyages were carried through, even though rules had been written against the shipment of slaves born in Europe to the Spanish Indies, since those slaves were now supposed to be potentially a liability.

Thereafter, black slaves, linked to their masters, would play an even more decisive part in European ventures in the Americas. Diego de Ordaz, before his journey to the river Orinoco, received formal permission to carry slaves with him; his onetime comrade in Mexico, Francisco de Montejo, obtained a license for a hundred slaves for use in his conquest of Yucatan. When Francisco Pizarro received royal backing for his expedition to Peru, he had a license to take two African slaves for his personal use, and to carry with him fifty African slaves (a third to be women). One of these was Juan Valiente, who rose to become a commander in the conquest; and an African assistant master of artillery was allowed the title of captain. Titu Cusi, son of the Inca Manco, thought that, in the Incas’ determined effort to set fire to the thatched roof of their palace of Suntur Huasi in Cuzco, during the siege of 1536, African slaves stationed on the roof extinguished the flames, even if others thought that the Virgin Mary herself was responsible, with the help of the Archangel Michael.

Between 1529 and 1537, the Crown gave over 360 licenses to import slaves to Peru from Africa, most of them to Pizarro and his immediate family. When Pedro de Alvarado went down to Peru from Guatemala in 1534, to try to share in the plunder of the new zone of opportunity, he took with him two hundred Africans, and probably most of them stayed there after he had been bought out of the adventure by Diego de Almagro. In 1536, four hundred new slaves from Africa were reported to have embarked for Peru in the previous six months; 150 Africans accompanied Diego de Almagro to Chile in 1535; and one or two at least were with Pedro de Valdivia on his later journey there. In 1536, when the president of the Audiencia (Supreme Court) in Hispaniola was prevailed on to send help to the Pizarros, who were besieged by the Inca Manco, “200 Spanish-speaking blacks” who were “very good at fighting” were sent.23 The same year, we find the ex-vicereine María de Toledo receiving a license for 200 slaves, of whom a third were to be women: that seems to have been the largest single consignment until then, though the next year two bankers, Cristóbal Franquesini (born in Lucca) and Diego Martínez (a Portuguese) secured licenses for 1,000 slaves and 1,500 respectively.24

Another Peruvian conquistador, Hernando de Soto, received a license to take fifty slaves on his doomed journey to Florida in 1537. (Menéndez de Aviles would take five hundred in 1565, on his successful one.) Coronado also had African slaves with him on his journey to the “seven cities of Cibola” in 1540.

The provision of slaves for the New World was now becoming what it was to be, in ever-increasing dimensions, for the next 350 years: a source of profit for the merchant as well as for the Crown. One could buy slaves in Europe or Africa for forty-five or fifty pesos, and sell them in America for at least double that. Prices were increased in the New World because of the taxes; but, despite denunciations of frauds by the Court in Spain, merchants and local officials turned a blind eye to the regulations, making the numbers of slaves imported as difficult to establish for the Crown as, later, for the historian. In consequence, Hispaniola seemed “a new Guinea” to Fernández de Oviedo in the 1530s: there were more people of African blood there than Spanish.25

Friendships of a kind were sometimes formed, in these early days of the history of European America, between the Spaniards and their African slaves. For in Peru, as in Mexico, the blacks sometimes identified themselves with their Spanish masters, who came to rely on them in many battles against the Indians. The slave of Almagro, Margarita, was wonderfully loyal to her master who freed her on his death. When Francisco Hernández Girón rebelled against the viceroy in Peru in 1553, his first recruits were also African slaves. In the Caribbean, an understanding of a sort was created between black and white in consequence of the fierce attacks made, particularly in Puerto Rico, by Caribs from the Lesser Antilles. Raids by French “pirates,” on towns and farms near the coasts, in Cuba as in Santo Domingo, also inspired good relations between masters and slaves.

There were, however, several dangerous signs. The first major slave rebellion of black Africans in the New World took place in Hispaniola in 1522. The slaves were then seeking to escape rather than to overthrow the Spanish community. More radical motives were to be found among the black slaves who sought to inspire the Zapotecs in Mexico to fight the Spaniards in 1523. These rebels were justly celebrated by romantically minded Spaniards, such as the poet Juan de Castellanos, as excellent fighters:

Clever are these Wolofs and brave,

With the vain hope of becoming knights

There was another rebellion in Santo Domingo in 1533, when the few surviving local Indians rose against the Spaniards under a chief known as Henríquez, and many Africans joined them. The subsequent guerrilla war lasted ten years. There was a similar revolt in Puerto Rico in 1527. In 1529, the new city of Santa Marta, founded by Rodrigo de Bastidas, on what is now the coast of Colombia, was destroyed in a revolt of African slaves. A conspiracy of blacks in New Spain in 1537 led the Viceroy Mendoza to demand a suspension of the dispatch of the new slaves whom he had earlier requested. Smaller revolts were reported at Cartagena in 1545, Santo Domingo again in 1548, and Panama in 1552. All these rebellions were in the end crushed, brutally, but in all these instances a few Africans escaped into the forests of America, eventually to mix, or fight, with the indigenous people. By 1550, in Mexico, a well-known group of escaped slaves lived as robbers in forests near the mines of Tornacustla, thus beginning a long history of banditry in Mexico.

The indigenous people of the New World did not find the concept of slavery an innovation: slaves, with something close to the European definition of the term, were well known in Mexico, Peru, and most of the other major societies. It was one of the many, to the conquistadors, comforting similarities between the two systems of living. Slaves in old Mexico, for example, may have constituted a tenth of the population, almost all obtained by capture in war. These captives were primarily required for human sacrifice. They also played a part in agriculture in the coastal regions, rather than in the valley of Mexico. True, there were no slaves on the large islands of the Caribbean. But the Caribs, in the Lesser Antilles, employed their captives as slaves; and, when some of them began, after 1530, to attack the Spanish settlements in, for example, Puerto Rico, they often carried off black slaves and used them in their own communities. Perhaps there were in consequence as many as two thousand African slaves in Carib hands in 1612.

Some of the peoples in Brazil and Central America, such as the Tupi or the Cueva Indians, had slaves, too, always secured as captives in war.

Still, and despite the use of slaves for human sacrifices, the conquistadors knew perfectly well that there was a difference between the way the Indians and they themselves thought of slaves: the first judges in the Audencia of New Spain in 1530 pointed this out in a letter to Charles V when they wrote that servitude in ancient America was very different from what it was in Europe: for “they treat slaves as relations, while the Christians treat them as dogs.”26

The shortage of available slaves in the Americas meant that, despite the regulations, and the preference for Africans, a few “white slaves,” Moors, were also shipped. Licenses to import females of this people were indeed granted in the 1530s: to Rodrigo Contreras, governor of Nicaragua in 1534; to a certain Rodrigo Zimbrón in Mexico; to the widowed sister-in-law of Bartolomé de Las Casas; and to Hernando, brother of the conquistador Pizarro.

•  •  •

As for Portugal in America, Pedro Alvares Cabral had in 1500 discovered Brazil on the second Portuguese voyage to India; Marchionni, who owned one of the ships in the fleet, wrote that Cabral had “discovered a new world.”27

Brazil was at first not much appreciated, for it was considered unimportant in Portugal, offering nothing but slaves and redwood. Still, the first were perfectly acceptable: thus the ship Bretoa, returning to Portugal from Brazil in 1511, listed thirty-five indigenous slaves along with the parrots, jaguar skins, and brazilwood. Naturally, Marchionni was a partner, with a New Christian, Fernão de Noronha, in the ship’s oufitting. Eighty-five Brazilian slaves were sold in Valencia in 1515-16 by a specialist in such men, Juan Miguel Dabues, as well as a few slaves from the real India, not the Indies, brought back from round the Cape of Good Hope by Portuguese shippers. Sebastian Cabot, then sailing on behalf of the king of Spain, also kidnapped the four sons of a chief of the Carijó Indians in the region of the river Plate and maintained them as slaves in his house in Seville in the late 1520s.

Still, the pattern of the future of the great dominion was being established, for a little sugar was grown in Brazil before 1520, the first sugar technician had been ordered for Brazil by 1516, and there may even have been two or three small mills there by then.

Only after 1530, however, did the Portuguese begin to contemplate conquering Brazil. King João III might well have taken no initiative to promote settlements there, based on captaincies allocated to individual leaders, had he not been afraid of French involvement, much as the British established Nigeria in the late nineteenth century, in order to avoid French colonization. In Brazil, France did tenuously establish herself at Rio de Janeiro, during the 1540s, in a colony which she curiously named “La France Antarctique.” French traders in redwood, such as captains serving the viscount of Dieppe, the remarkable shipbuilder Jean Ango, were as common a sight on those coasts for a time as their Portuguese colleagues, for the red dye obtained from brazilwood was fashionable at the cultivated Court of François I. But, in 1530, King João, by one of those extraordinarily impudent actions of which Europeans were capable in the sixteenth century, divided the three thousand miles of coast in Brazil, to which he thought he was entitled under the Treaty of Tordesillas, between fourteen grantees, who would establish there their captaincies; as indeed they did.

The import of Africans into the “Land of the True Cross,” as Brazil was first known, was in the early days tiny: the Portuguese had at their disposal during this period native Indians, who cut the logs for the small-scale commerce in redwood with great energy, entranced by the contact with metal tools. There was a flourishing “factory,” where Indian slaves were sold; these were mostly reserved for use in Brazil, however, and, after 1530, a decree forbade any of the new grantees to send back to Europe more than twenty-four slaves a year—an indication that higher numbers had probably been sent.

•  •  •

The continuing “Old World trade” in slaves from Africa remained more important than the Atlantic one in Africans or Indians during the first quarter of the sixteenth century. It seems possible that over twelve thousand slaves may have been exported by the Portuguese in these years to Europe, and five thousand to the North Atlantic islands, such as Madeira, the Azores, and the Canaries. Portuguese coastal trading in Africa also continued: slaves taken from, say, Arguin or Benin to Elmina were exchanged for gold. The advantage was considerable: the African gold merchants still paid higher prices for slaves than they fetched in Lisbon. The stealing of captives direct from the coast of Africa by Spaniards based on the Canary Islands also went on: every year in the early sixteenth century, two or three journeys seem to have been made. In 1499, Alonso Fernández de Lugo, the Spanish captain-general of the Canary Islands, even went so far as to speak of Las Palmas as “the most important market for human beings.”28 The new Treaty of Sintra of 1509 gave over the stretch of the African coast between Cape de Aguer and Cape Bojador to Portugal which had for the previous thirty years been reserved to Spain but allowed Spaniards to continue trading there. Canary Islanders andsevillanos alike went to buy slaves from the Portuguese in the Cape Verde Islands and a few others, more intrepid, went farther south, illegally, and bought slaves in Guinea, or from the settlers of São Tomé. Alongside this, the Portuguese maintained a small export of Moorish slaves from Agadir, an Atlantic Moroccan port which they held for much of the early sixteenth century.

The Portuguese tried to meet the Spanish demands for slaves for their empire. But there were difficulties. Thus the trading post at Benin, or its port Ughoton, on the Benin River, failed to work well, for the death rate was high among the Portuguese, and the conventional trade there (in pepper, ivory beads, and muslin) did not prosper. The people of Benin had not become Christians, and the magical King Prester John remained elusive. Still, all kinds of Portuguese slave buyers, and some Genoese or Florentines—with licenses, of course—were still regularly putting into one or another of the “five rivers,” and carrying off slaves, though the three annual galleons bound for Elmina were now surpassed in importance by those of São Tomé, whose governor in the early 1500s, Fernão de Melo, arranged with Lisbon that, in return for a monopoly of buying slaves in the “slave rivers,” his island should also supply Elmina with all the slaves whom they needed. Perhaps a hundred a year would be a reasonable estimate. Usually these slaves of Benin would be paid for in copper or brass manillas: twelve to twenty-five a slave in the 1490s, fifty-seven by 1517. The metal would often be melted down and turned into something more beautiful.

The oba of Benin responded slowly to these requests, and arranged that male and female slaves should be bought in different parts of the market and, exceptionally in the history of the African slave trade, he sought to restrict the sale of males, eventually banning their export.

The island next door to São Tomé, Principe, was settled by Portugal soon after 1500. The governor there in 1515 was Antonio Carneiro, who had been secretary to the king, and who eventually won for himself Governor Melo’s monopoly of slave exports from the “five rivers” to Elmina. He probably traded a thousand slaves a year between 1515 and 1520, of whom half went to Elmina, though his rivals in São Tomé, Melo’s heirs, sought to outmaneuver him.

Carneiro abandoned his contract in 1518, and the settlers of São Tomé recovered it. By then the place had become a plantation island of its own: there were probably about five or six thousand slaves concentrated there, working on sixty or so sugar mills. But the settlers consistently failed to deliver the necessary number of slaves to Elmina, and there was a consequent falling off in deliveries of gold to Portugal—which had reached a peak of nearly six hundred kilos a year in the 1490s. So, though São Tomé was still the base for its arrangements, the Portuguese Crown began to engage directly in the trade in slaves. A royal official in São Tomé henceforward gathered slaves from all over West and Central Africa, including some from the Congo. Though he was also charged to buy camwood (a hard red wood, ideal for making the cabinets which the nouveau riche in Lisbon needed to house their new possessions), ivory, Benin cloth, muslin, and beads, his instructions show that his main concern was to find slaves (for each of whom he was not to pay more than forty manillas): the document was indeed entitled “Our Slave Trade in the Isle of São Tomé.”

Yet the king was to be as much outmaneuvered as Carneiro had been, in this case by interlopers from São Tomé.

Elmina did not, however, depend uniquely on the region of Benin for its slaves, for shipments from there were often too slow and too few. Thus, in 1518, a Portuguese wrote from that castle to Arguin asking for the delivery of forty or fifty slaves, preferably all men, and the best young ones available, for use as porters in the mines of the forests of Akan. Yet by 1535, such demands were beginning to be unnecessary, since “great caravans of blacks” would usually arrive at any port frequented by the Portuguese, “bringing gold and slaves for sale. Some of the slaves have been captured in battle, others are sent by their parents, who think they are doing their children the best service in the world by sending them to be sold in this way to other lands where there is an abundance of provisions.”29

By then, the always uneasy friendship between the king of Portugal and the oba of Benin was waning. In 1514, the oba sent two courtiers to Lisbon in order, on the one hand, to request cannon; and, at the same time, to offer to become a Christian. To finance this journey, he gave the emissaries twelve slaves to live on by selling them as and when they needed money.

After many disagreeable adventures, these men reached Lisbon. There King Manuel I of Portugal (the Fortunate) undertook to send missionaries and other clergy to Benin; “and, when we see that you have embraced the teachings of Christianity,” he said, “there will be nothing in our realm with which we will not be glad to favor you, whether it be arms, or cannon, and all other weapons of war for use against your enemies. . . . These things we are not sending you now . . . because the law of God forbids it.” Manuel also asked the oba to open his markets in order to allow trade to be carried on freely.30

Though some priests and monks did go to Benin, the negotiations came to nothing, for the oba died, being killed by his own soldiers during a war with neighbors. By then, though the slave trade from São Tomé was expanding, that from Benin was in decline: slaves reaching the former colony were coming from other parts of the African coast. High prices in Benin made those other sources more attractive; and the rigid determination of the next oba to refuse to export male slaves, except in unusual circumstances, was having an effect, since the Portuguese, their Spanish clients, and the gold miners in Elmina all wanted “prime male slaves,” not women.

The beneficiaries of the change (if the matter can be so stated) were the Congolese. In 1512, King Manuel of Portugal sent an embassy under Simão da Silva to his “brother,” the Christian King Afonso of Congo, who had succeeded to the throne after a battle with his brother in 1506—in which, it was said, Santiago miraculously appeared on his side: the first appearance of that legendary inspiration on African soil. Da Silva’s embassy was charged to bring back information, copper, ivory, and slaves—the last item being the most important.

King Afonso was a convinced but eccentric Christian and, in his capital, now rechristened São Salvador, 150 miles up the Congo, he was busy reading volumes of theology as well as Portuguese law. Afonso had given his councilors the titles of dukes, marquises, and counts; and many of them had also taken Portuguese surnames (Vasconcelos, Castro, Meneses, even Cortes). Schools were open for the teaching of both Portuguese and the Christian religion. A son of Afonso, Enrique, had also become bishop of Utica (that is, Carthage), but was permitted to live in Funchal, Madeira; the diocese included Congo.

That appointment led Pope Leo X, in his declaration Exponi Nobis, to enable other Christian “Ethiopians” (by the word he intended to include West Africans) to become priests or monks, assuming that they exercised their functions in their own homelands. During the middle of the sixteenth century, several blacks and mulattoes availed themselves of these opportunities. All were, of course, freemen; and some were ex-slaves.

Under King Afonso’s direction, the Congolese were inspired to adopt a Western style of life, and the Portuguese set up a trading post at Mpindi, at the mouth of the river Congo, which became their main port in the region, and where they also expected to draw on the Congo’s copper. At first, Afonso was delighted by the new openings for trade. The copper under his control was of a high quality, and Afonso exported about five thousand manillas between 1506 and 1511, comparable in quality to those made by the Bavarians; many of these were used in the slave trade in the Gulf of Guinea.

This monarch also saw that he, too, could make money from the slave trade, provided that he controlled it himself; and he therefore appointed a special factor charged to supply the Portuguese, and gave him nzimbu shells with which to buy the slaves. But the Portuguese demand for these captives, after the decline of their source in Benin, soon began to seem excessive. Afonso had only a few slaves available, those being obtained in wars with the neighboring Tio state of Makoko, higher up the river Congo, near Malembo Pool. So the Congolese began to raid their neighbors, the Mbundu. Yet Portuguese demand, because of the insatiable desires of the settlers of São Tomé, and because some local Portuguese insisted on being paid their wages in slaves, still outran supply. After a while, Afonso was persuaded to abandon his royal monopoly and henceforth, as if he had been a European monarch, sought merely to tax the exports of slaves, not to control them. Other African peoples apart from the Congolese began to adapt to the new conditions of trade. Thus the Pangu a Lungu, a people who had seized a stretch of the north coast of the river Congo, were beginning to raid its south bank specifically to obtain slaves. By 1526, King Afonso was complaining that the slave dealers, whom, of course, he initially had encouraged, were leaving his realm depopulated: “There are many traders in all parts of the country. They bring ruin. . . . Every day people are kidnapped and enslaved, even members of the king’s family”31—the kidnapping being done by Congolese, not Portuguese, who only constituted the market.

Eventually, this problem was resolved by the establishment of regular slave markets near Malembo Pool. The Tio people who were there, having, to begin with, constituted the slaves for Afonso, soon controlled this commerce, drawing captives from the far interior and selling them to Portuguese or, in the next generation, to their mulatto agents, the so-called pombeiros, men who went deep into the interior and constructed a quite new pattern of commerce.

These arrangements suited all parties concerned. The Tio received payment for their services in nzimbu shells, which the Portuguese bought from Afonso. That king imposed his tax on the trade at Mbanza Kongo (São Salvador), through which all caravans of slaves had to pass. The increasing abundance of slaves in the market also reduced the inclination of Portuguese traders to kidnap Congolese subjects. By 1540, Afonso was boasting to the king of Portugal: “Put all the Guinea countries on one side and only Congo on the other, and you will find that Congo renders more than all the others put together. . . . No king in all these parts esteems Portuguese goods as much as we do. We favor the trade, sustain it, open markets, roads, and markets where the pieces are traded.” (The word “pieces” signified “pieces of Indies”: “prime” male slaves, with no faults.)

There had been a slave trade to Congo, and slaves in the kingdom, before the Portuguese arrived. But the Portuguese market transformed matters and caused an upheaval in the interior of Africa.

Perhaps twenty-five thousand slaves were carried to São Tomé between 1500 and 1525: say seventeen hundred a year.32 Many were thereafter sent on to Portugal, and some on to the Spanish Caribbean and this traffic probably exceeded that from the Senegambia and Cape Verde region by 1525. In 1530, about four to five thousand slaves were being exported every year from Congo and, if there were no more, that was because there were too few ships to carry them. In 1520, a Portuguese pilot visited São Tomé and found there planters owning as many as three hundred slaves each. These were obliged to work the whole week, he reported, save for Sundays and holy days, “when they work on their own plots—growing millet, yams, or sweet potatoes, also many vegetables. They drink either water or palm wine or sometimes goats’ milk. They just have a small piece of cotton cloth which they wrap round themselves.” It seems that, on those days of “rest,” the slaves were obliged to grow what they needed to maintain themselves (including clothing) for the rest of the week. Carmelite monks protested at these conditions in the 1580s, but to little avail. There was one way in which life at São Tomé seemed benign, however: these slaves were not required to live in barracks, as would so often be the case in the New World; they could live with their wives in houses which they had built themselves.

Everything conspired to ensure prosperity in São Tomé. Slave captains from Portugal were, in the mid-sixteenth century, obliged to leave a proportion of their cargo on the island as a tax—unless they were going to Brazil, in which case they merely paid a tax in cash. But few as yet did: the first Brazil-bound African slaves were taken from the Cape Verde Islands, an easy stop on the way to South America, as well as to India.

The Portuguese converso merchant who had brought slaves back from Brazil with Marchionni, Fernão de Loronha, now had obtained the monopoly of supplying slaves and wine to Elmina, as well of the trade from the same rivers in the Bight of Benin which Marchionni had once owned, and he also controlled the pepper trade from both Brazil and Guinea.

Loronha was able to extend his monopoly for several years, but there were soon others associated with him, such as José Rodrigues Mascarenhas, also a converso, who held a monopoly of slaves from the river Gambia from 1500 onwards, and was succeeded by his son António. King Manuel I approved of converted Jews and afforded them benefits wherever he could.

Despite the developments in the Congo, Elmina remained the keystone of Portuguese activities in Africa. There was now a town beneath its walls: inhabited by half-Europeanized Africans, “the Mina blacks,” it became a self-governing republic at the disposal of the Portuguese governors. Those officials included three remarkable men in the 1520s: Duarte Pacheco Pereira, later author of a famous chronicle about the Portuguese empire, Principio do Esmeraldo “de situ orbis”; Braz Albuquerque, illegitimate son of the architect of Portuguese dominion in the East, who used his ample leisure in Elmina to edit his father’s commentaries; and also João de Barros, who wrote his histories there, gaining for himself the designation “the Portuguese Livy.” All of them traded slaves as well as gold, and grew rich on them. Daily they heard a mass for the soul of Henry the Navigator, and sought to use Saint Francis as the motor of conversion of Africa: a picture of him, painted with white lead, was said to have mysteriously turned black when it reached Elmina.

East Africa should not be forgotten. As a part of the remarkable Portuguese thalassocracy stretching to the Far East, Sofala (Beira), a hundred miles south of the mouth of the Zambezi, was already an important Portuguese trading post in the early sixteenth century. The Zambezi in those days seemed to the Portuguese to be an artery of wealth, perhaps running up to Ophir (the Faro Mountain), believed to be governed by a legendary monarch, held to live at what is now Harare. In 1507, the Portuguese established themselves even more substantially on Mozambique Island, a malaria-ridden spot which served, all the same, as the main stopping place between Lisbon and Goa. Later, Lourenço Marques and Antonio Caldeira, after having made their fortunes in São Tomé, founded an ivory trade in the region of the Bay of Delagoa, a preparation for a substantial slave commerce to Brazil and elsewhere in America.

The continuing popularity of slaves of all colors was one of the obvious characteristics of those days in both Portugal and Spain, above all in Lisbon and in Seville. In Lisbon, King Manuel I, for example, had incorporated many slave provisions in his Ordenaçoes Afonsinas, a revision of the Portuguese code, in contrast with his uncle King Afonso V’s code of 1446, which had little to say of the matter. Black slaves were still plainly preferred by the Portuguese to Muslim ones, on the ground that they were less likely to rebel or run away. In Seville, Vespucci when he died had five slaves in his household, of whom two were African, one Canary Island, and two mixed Spanish and Canary (the two last may have been Amerigo’s bastards). One indication of the popularity of slaves is that the painter of The Virgin of the Sailors (La Virgen de los Navegantes), Alejo Fernández, thanks to his good husbandry, was able to endow his sons grandly—he had his own house, with black and Indian slaves as well as servants.33 Nor were all the slaves black: a “white slave,” Juana de Málaga, evidently a Moor, was sold to Diego Velázquez, the first governor of Cuba, in 1516, though it is unclear whether she was packed off to Santiago, the capital at that time of Cuba, or whether she remained waiting for her master in Seville. In 1514–22, the baptismal books in Sanlúcar de Barrameda show that 420 slaves were baptized at the parochial church, Our Lady of the O.IV Two hundred and twenty of these were Africans, six (Caribbean) Indians, three Canary Islanders, and the rest“blancos”: that is, Moors. Possession of slaves in Sanlúcar, as in Seville, was not a privilege: blacksmiths, carpenters, tailors, and most town councilors enjoyed the use of slaves and, only a few years before (in 1496), the lord of the place, the duke of Medina Sidonia, had had as many as fifty-two Canary slaves: the Medina Sidonias had for a time owned three of the Canary Islands. Many of these were domestic slaves; but some of them were employed to carry wheat and other supplies to the ships bound for the Americas.34

Nor were Portugal and Spain alone as slave countries: the institution was still flourishing in Italy and in Provence, where Marseilles held a large slave market.

•  •  •

So it was that the old institution of slavery was revived in the New World. The Renaissance in Europe had no humanitarian pretensions. Its “hard, gemlike flame” reburnished the ideas and practices of antiquity, the institution of slavery among them. It was entirely logical that the discovery of the New World should be attended by a rebirth of the idea of forced labor. A Flemish diplomat, Ogier-Ghislaine de Busbecq, en route for Constantinople, in the mid-sixteenth century, even regretted the shortage of slaves in his day: “We can never achieve the magnificence of the works of antiquity,” he sighed, “and the reason is that we lack the necessary hands, that is, slaves.” He also went on to deplore the absence of “the means of acquiring knowledge of every kind which was supplied to the ancients by learned and educated slaves.”35 The Spanish historian and statesman of the nineteenth century Cánovas, however, wrote: “The idea of servitude, so opposed to Christianity, was thus fortified amongst us and, with it as its sister and comrade, the justification of tyranny entered into all spirits. . . . From philosophy, the nation, far from receiving doctrines of progress and sentiments of humanity, gathered nothing more than the resignation of stoics . . . and a greater sum of intolerance.”36Almost the only adverse comment to be found in the first years of the sixteenth century about the lavish renewal of slavery then under way was that of another Fleming, Clenard, who went to Portugal as tutor to a sixteenth-century Prince Henry, that slavery made the masters idle; a fact which, in his opinion, explained “the pompous radish-eaters” who “paraded indolently in the streets of Lisbon, accompanied by an army of slaves whom they could not afford.”37


ITorres was a brother of Pedro de Torres, cupbearer to Prince Juan, and son of Juan Velázquez, cupbearer to the king: one of the many prominent members of the Velázquez family active at the Court of Spain. Another was Diego Velázquez, first governor of Cuba.

IIIn addition to the signatures indicated in the text, there is in the note following the Yo el Rey; “Señaladas [signed by] de Obispo y de Don García de Padilla . . .” The obispo (bishop) must be Fonseca, and in similar documents that is made explicit.

IIIIt seems probable that this three-roller mill was invented by Pietro Speciale in Sicily.

IVThe designation apparently derives from the exclamation of surprise of the Virgin when the angel announced to her that she was to bear the baby Jesus.

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