Modern history


For the Love of God, Give Us a Pair of Slave Women

“For the love of the Lord God, give us a pair of slave women as alms, because we are spending the pittance we have entirely on hired girls.”

An abbess to the queen of Portugal, sixteenth century

THE TRANSACTIONS of the Portuguese on the periphery of West Africa in the early sixteenth century must be considered in continental perspective. As yet, the traffic in African slaves to Europe, or the Indies, was small in comparison with the ever-flourishing trade across the Sahara. In 1519, while Charles V was granting his slaving license to 4,000 slaves to his friend Gorrevod, the great emperor of the Songhai on the Middle Niger was offering a gift of 1,700 slaves to Cherif Ahmed Es-Segli, when he established himself at Gao, on a higher bend of that river. Most of the black slaves bought in Sicily in the sixteenth century were Bornus, from what is now Nigeria, who had been carried to North Africa across the Sahara. Only at the end of the sixteenth century did the trans-Saharan traffic decline, as merchants and monarchs alike began to succumb to Atlantic temptations.

All the same, in the second quarter of the sixteenth century, about 40,000 slaves were probably shipped from Africa to the Americas or to Europe and to the Atlantic islands, perhaps 1,800 a year; between 1550 and 1575, the figure may have reached 60,000, or nearly 2,500 a year.

The Old World was still the largest importer of these African slaves until about 1550—that is, if the island of São Tomé, which received about 18,000 slaves between 1525 and 1550, is included. Five thousand went to the North Atlantic islands and 7,500 to Europe. Probably a mere 12,500 went to Spanish America and a trickle only to Brazil. But many of the São Tomé slaves were eventually taken to the New World; and, after 1550, the first market in the Atlantic slave trade was undoubtedly Spanish America—an empire which, between 1550 and 1575, probably received twice what it took in the previous quarter-century, or 25,000. São Tomé, then still enjoying a sugar boom, perhaps once more took 18,000, but again many of those were shipped onwards; for it was then that Brazil began to be seriously interested. That last territory perhaps received as many as 10,000 slaves in the third quarter of the century: sugar cane had begun to be planted there on a large scale.

Europe, with a purchase of probably no more than 2,500 over the twenty-five years after 1550, and the Atlantic islands, also with 2,500 or so, were then falling back. A few Moorish slaves continued to be taken to the New World in the mid-sixteenth century, but the Crown did what it could to prevent it, on the ground as usual that as Muslims they would be intractable.1

Every encouragement, meantime, was given by the Spanish Crown to those who wanted to carry slaves to the New World. In 1531, a decree in Castile permitted loans on easy terms to settlers there who wanted to buy slaves in order to found sugar mills.

The Portuguese were responsible for most of these shipments from Africa, the work being carried out by a series of enterprising merchants, in the tradition of Marchionni or Foronha, who regularly obtained licenses for trading.

During this era of the High Renaissance in Europe, the pattern for the entire history of the Atlantic slave trade was set. First, the initial bartering—or still, in a few cases, kidnapping—of slaves was the work of Portuguese captains, in the estuaries of one or another of the rivers of the West African coast. These men, in ships of about one hundred tons, would carry their slave cargoes, along with gold and other goods, to some important entrepôt of the Portuguese African enterprise: São Tomé; Santiago, in the Cape Verde Islands; or, now less and less important, Elmina. All those colonies were well established, their nursery gardens had expanded to include shrubs and fruit trees from the East as well as the West: yams, oranges, tamarinds, coconuts, and bananas from the first; pineapples, sweet potatoes, groundnuts, papayas, and above all maize (which took some time to become popular) from the second; the modern staple food of Africa, cassava or manioc, came later, from Brazil. Despite the regulations against them, the half-Portuguese, half-African lançados, who remained on the upper Guinea and Senegambian coasts, increased in wealth and numbers and, in the end, received a grudging if informal acceptance from the Crown. The Church approved, since their existence seemed to make possible the conversion of Africa. The lançados (some were of Spanish, Greek, or even Indian origin) were still the only foreigners to be settled permanently in Africa.

Many slaves in those days had a roundabout journey to the Americas. Thus some who were first quartered at São Tomé or Elmina might eventually be transferred to Santiago, in the Cape Verde Islands. There they might be sold to other merchants, including Spanish ones, especially from the Canary Islands. They might then go to Lisbon or to Seville, to Madeira or the Azores; or they might be carried directly across the Atlantic on Portuguese or, possibly, Spanish ships to the important ports of the empire; either to Cartagena, in what is now Colombia, or Portobelo in Panama, for shipment south to Peru, or to Santo Domingo, Havana in Cuba, or Veracruz in Mexico. By the end of the sixteenth centujry, the direct route from across the Atlantic from São Tomé to Brazil or, even more adventurously, to Buenos Aires, a small new Spanish settlement on the river Plate was the rule. The sugar kings of late-sixteenth-century Brazil were beginning to send directly across the South Atlantic to obtain what they wanted from the region of the Congo. Some of those last planters would club together to send a little fleet of, say, six ships across the South Atlantic. Such ventures enabled the people concerned to procure slaves at a lower price than if they bought them direct from merchants in Brazil.

Some slaves were also carried to the Americas in these years from East Africa, where the fatally romantic King Sebastian of Portugal was dreaming of founding an African empire comparable to the Spanish dominions of New Spain and Peru.

The monarchy of Benin had ceased to be the main provider of slaves. After 1553, the royal factor in São Tomé prohibited all Portuguese trade with the place. A few Portuguese captains did continue to slip up the river Benin for illegal trade but, more important, on the next-door river Forcados, the merchants in still-prosperous São Tomé had made friends with a new polity, the monarchy of Ode Itsekiri, whose leaders became at the same time enthusiastic Christians and ardent slave traders.

Captains from Portugal not only carried most of the slaves from Africa north to the Cape Verde Islands, to São Tomé, or to Europe, but they took most Spanish slaves across the Atlantic, and often sold them in Cartagena or Veracruz. Portuguese traders were, too, to be found in viceregal Peru. Most sales involved one or two slaves, with a maximum of ten to twenty, yet, all the same, the overall numbers rose steadily.

An indication of the geographical origin of slaves in Spanish America is to be seen in an inventory of the possessions of Hernán Cortés in 1547. Cortés owned 169 indigenous Mexican slaves; he also left sixty-eight black slaves from a wide variety of places: Gelofe (Wolof, in Senegambia), Mandingo (Malinke, in the Gambia Valley), Bran (Bram, in Guinea-Bissau), Biafra, and even Mozambique. Many of these were negros ladinos: that is, they were Spanish-speaking and had either been born in Spain or had spent some time there. Fifty-six of these slaves worked at Cortés’s experimental sugar mill at Oaxaca in southern Mexico. It is in some ways surprising that there were not more black slaves on that estate, for, in 1542, Cortés had contracted in Valladolid with the Genoese, Leonardo Lomellino, to import five hundred black slaves, a third women, from the Cape Verde Islands at seventy-six ducats each. Perhaps, though, one of Cortés’s agents sold the surplus in the Mexico market.

Much the same geographical origin can be read in notarial registers, a little later, of slaves in Lima and Arequipa. These suggest that 80 percent (1,207) were African-born and the rest came from Spain of, of course, enslaved African parents. Like those on Cortés’s property, three-quarters of those from Africa came from the “Guinea of Cape Verde”—Senegambia and Guinea-Bissau. But there were also some from the Congo, and five from Mozambique.2

The most important merchant of Portugal concerned in the slave trade in the mid-sixteenth century was Fernando Jiménez who, though based in Lisbon, had close relations living in Italy, and others in Antwerp. Despite his Jewish ancestry, the powerful reforming Pope Sixtus V was so appreciative of his services that he gave him the right to use his own surname, Peretti. Jiménez’s descendants were among the largest contractors in Africa—above all, eventually, in Angola. The Jiménezes were run close in wealth and influence by another New Christian, Emanuel Rodrigues, and his family—including Simón, a dominant figure in the trade from Cape Verde. Other conversos in the slave trade included Manuel Caldeira, whose commercial great days were in the early 1560s, and who then became chief treasurer of the realm. In Lisbon in the mid-century there were altogether about sixty to seventy merchants in slaves, though only three large-scale ones—Darnião Fernandes, Luis Mendes, and Pallos Dias—seem to have survived into the 1570s. In the mid-century, Clenard not only noticed that the birth of a slave child in Portugal was greeted enthusiastically, but that some masters did business by encouraging female slaves to breed, “as they do pigeons, for purposes of sale, without being in the least offended by the ribaldries of the slave girls.”3 The same judgment was made by Giambattista Veturino when he visited the palace of the duke of Braganza at Vila Viçosa: the slaves were treated, he said, “as herds of horses are in Italy,” the aim being to create as many slaves as possible for sale at thirty or forty scudi each.4

The mid-sixteenth century also saw for the first time the emergence of a number of Spanish slave merchants of significance. In those days, the market was an open one, there were no monopolists, and the Spanish empire took in more slaves than the Portuguese one. Of course, the Spaniards still had, as a rule, to buy from the Portuguese, though sometimes they carried the slaves which they had obtained across the Atlantic in their own ships. About thirty Spanish ships were licensed for Africa in the 1550s, but they usually went to buy in the Cape Verde Islands—no farther. Those who broke the law and tried to buy in Guinea were few and far between. One such trader who did finance an expedition to the African mainland met with disaster, for the seamen who had expected to buy slaves from Muslim traders found themselves enslaved by them.

The slave merchants of Seville also included New Christians, as was the case in Lisbon. For example, prominent in the 1540s was Diego Caballero, a converso from Sanlúcar, who began to make his fortune in Hispaniola in 1510 or so and much increased it when he went to Seville. Portraits by the fashionable painter Pedro de Campaña (Pieter de Kempeneer) of him and of his brother Alonso (probably the same Alonso Caballero who acted as “admiral” to Hernán Cortés at Veracruz) can be seen in the Chapel of the Mariscal in the Cathedral of Seville, which Diego presented to that great church.

In the 1550s, the outstanding mercantile family in Seville were the Jorges, also conversos. This dynasty was founded by Alvaro, in the 1530s, and his sons Gaspar and Gonzalo, and then his grandsons, Gonzalo and Jorge, carried on the business. They had five ships which regularly made the Seville-Cape Verde-America voyage. The Jorges seemed the most powerful consortium in Spanish-American commerce for a time, their interests embracing wax, clothes, mercury (for use in the silver mines), wine, and olive oil as well as slaves. Some of these things came from their haciendas at Cazalla de la Sierra (wine) and Alamedilla (olives), in the sierra to the north of Seville and near Granada, respectively. Ironically, these “New Christians” were in the habit of referring to their old Christian rivals, solid old Castilian families without a drop of Jewish blood, as “negros.” The Jorges never seem to have recovered from one of the periodic forced loans levied by the Crown on merchants in Seville returning from America: seizing from them the then vast sum of 1.8 million ducats of gold in return for an annuity of a mere 3 percent.

Old Christians were also engaged in the slave traffic in Seville: there was, for example, not only Juan de la Barrera, mentioned in the last chapter, but Rodrigo de Gibraleón of Seville, who was concerned with pearls as well as slaves. His son Antonio acted as his agent in Nombre de Dios, where he stayed till 1550, when his father died. In the 1560s, the first merchant of the city was probably Juan Antonio Corzo, who was of Italian origin (though he did not derive from the old Genoese sevillano oligarchy). He first accumulated a fortune in Peru, selling linen, oil, saffron, and above all slaves. He returned to establish himself in Seville in 1558, when he had a network of trading posts, all run by members of his family. By 1566, his fortune was worth 31 million maravedís.5

By 1568 Corzo had been overtaken by Pero López Martínez, whose principal activity was certainly the sale of slaves, though, like most of the other entrepreneurs mentioned, he was also interested in other goods: mercury, cochineal, linen, and wine. With Gaspar Jorge and Francisco de Escovar, López Martínez is found agreeing to supply a hundred slaves for the building of the fortress at Havana in the 1570s—the famous La Cabaña, subsequently scene of so many miseries, and not only for black prisoners.

Evidently, many people dabbled in the slave trade in Seville in the mid-sixteenth century. It was the new fashion. For example, the famous doctor of Genoese origin Nicolás de Monardes bought shares in slave ships. As usual, there were Italian merchants involved, in addition to Corzo: Juan Fernando de Vivaldo and Germino Cataño of Genoa and Seville, Tomás de Marín (Marini) of Sanlúcar, and Leonardo Lomellino, and there were also Jerome and Giovanni Battista Botti (of Florence), the latter a creditor of Hernán Cortés. These merchants were more or less law-abiding in that they paid the regulation fee per slave on shipment. But extra slaves beyond those provided by the rules were often hidden on board the ship by the captain or the owner, and many more slaves were carried than are indicated by the official figures. Many captains carried cargoes of slaves across the Atlantic without registration and sold them profitably. Nor was the law of 1526 banning the import of Spanish-born slaves maintained. Heavy fines did not prevent these and other illegalities; and, after a while, even admirals stocked their ships with slaves, so much so that the first line of cannon was sometimes submerged when naval vessels entered the harbors of the New World.

There were, naturally, more African slaves in Portugal than in any other European country. In 1539, twelve thousand black slaves were sold in Lisbon alone—many of them, admittedly, to be exported later to Spain. In 1550, Lisbon boasted ten thousand resident slaves, in a population of a hundred thousand, and Portugal as a whole probably had over forty thousand. In 1535, Clenard wrote, “In Evora, it was as if I had been carried off to a city in hell; everywhere I only meet blacks.” He added that, when a gentleman of Evora went out on his horse, two slaves might go in front, a third would hold the bridle, a fourth would be available to rub down the horse; and other slaves would carry the master’s hat, cloak, slippers, clothes brush, and comb.6

Such slaves were often bought almost as decorations as continued to be the case throughout Europe till the eighteenth century. African slaves, however, still performed many services in sixteenth-century Portugal. King João III, father of the Brazilian empire, had a black slave as a jester; the naval foundry employed slaves; and so did the palace kitchens and gardens.

Portugal seemed indeed to be a veritable Babylon. Portuguese viceroys in the East sent back slaves from wherever they could, some from Malacca, some from China. When, in 1546, Baltasar Jorge d’Evora of Lisbon made his will, he left two captives from Gujarat in India, and two Chinese slaves, of whom one was a tailor and one from the old Genoese art of Kaffa in the Crimea. In 1562, Maria de Vilhena, in Evora, Portugal, in her will, freed ten slaves, of whom one was Chinese, three were New World Indians, two were Moorish, one was white from Eastern Europe, one was black, one brown, and one mulatto.

Spaniards also still employed slaves on a large scale. In the early sixteenth century, every family of means in Andalusia had at least two slaves, black or white, African or Moorish, preferably the first. When the record states that the conquistador Juan Ruiz de Arce lived, during his retirement in Seville, a life of luxury on his Peruvian fortune, “surrounded by horses and slaves,” we can be sure that those last were mostly African slaves, not American ones.7 In 1565, Seville was the home of over six thousand slaves out of a population of about eighty-five thousand, blacks by then outnumbering Berbers or “white slaves” (7 percent of the population, compared with Lisbon’s 9 percent). The authorities in that city tried conscientiously to mitigate the harshness of the life of slaves by allowing them to gather on feast days to dance and sing, and to have their own steward (mayoral) to protect them, and defend them if necessary in the courts. The Church of Our Lady of the Angels established a hospital for blacks, and it received many donations—for example, from the duke of Medina Sidonia, one of the two leading aristocrats in the city. Free blacks retained their own religious confraternity.

Slaves were sold in Seville by being advertised publicly in the streets. They were used as kitchen maids and as doorkeepers, as nursemaids and as porters, as valets, waiters, and cooks, as escorts when riding, and as entertainers, in singing and dancing. Sometimes, slaves were better treated than regular servants were. The religious life of the slaves sometimes did concern their masters in Seville, and children of domestic slaves were usually baptized. Female slaves were often close to their mistresses: thus, in the plays of Lope de Vega, such as Amar, servir y esperar, they appear often as confidantes and go-betweens in love affairs (as in those of Plautus of Rome). They might even be buried in family vaults.

In the mid-sixteenth century, African slaves were to be found in the silver mines of Guadalcanal, to the north of the Jorges’ property at Cazalla de la Sierra. The Franciscan friary of Las Cuevas in Seville, where Columbus’s body remained for thirty years after his death, used Africans to look after their beautiful gardens.

Some slaveowners leased out their slaves and lived on the proceeds. Many of these worked as stevedores in the Seville docks, in the soap factories for which the city was famous, or in public granaries, while others earned a living as porters, or street vendors, or bearers of sedan chairs, in print shops and in swordmakers’ shops, even as agents for traders. Some served as constables for the municipality.

Blacks might often be mocked in the street, but they mixed easily, marriage between black and white was not forbidden, sexual relations were frequent, and slaves in Seville were received as full members of the Church. Prominent free blacks, of whom Juan Latino (who claimed to be a real Ethiopian by birth) was outstanding, played a full part in the intellectual life of Andalusia, such as it then was. Several mulattoes also distinguished themselves (Juan de Pareja the painter, for example, and Leonardo Ortiz, a well-known lawyer), even if a few crafts prohibited blacks from entry.

In the middle and late sixteenth century in southern Spain, there were also one or two signs of what might be called a slave trade in reverse: the criollo slave—that is, a slave born in the empire but brought back to Spain—began to be popular in Andalusia. One such was Elvira in Lope de Vega’s Servir a un señor discreto, the witty maid of Doña Leonor, daughter of a merchant with interests in the New World. Rich merchants of the Americas, such as Leonor’s father, often brought back their slaves from the colonies: Don Alvaro, in Castillo Solórzano’s novel La niña de los embustes, was caused to return from Lima to Seville with four black slaves.8

Sometimes, such criollo slaves could gain their freedom in Castile, in which case they might even return to America (as, for example, occurred in the case of Ana, a freed slave of the Pineda family in 1538). The archives of the Casa de Contratación in the sixteenth century give evidence of several black freedmen and women who were determined to return across the ocean to seek employment in the New World, where they had been born as slaves.

Given the survival of the Canary Islands as a producer of sugar—there were seven mills at work—it was understandable that the modest trade in Berber slaves between Africa and the Canary Islands should have continued throughout the sixteenth century, the ships averaging 150 slaves each voyage, with the Canary Islanders mostly keeping to the geographical limits between the designated capes prescribed by the Spanish-Portuguese treaties; though, in 1556, the Portuguese navy carried back to Lisbon as prisoners a group of Canary Islanders who had tried to trade slaves at Arguin. Las Palmas, in Gran Canaria, remained a significant slave market, and slaves, both black and Berber, were sold from there to Seville or Cádiz at profits of almost 100 percent. African slaves were also shipped from the Canaries to the Indies on a small scale.

The institution of slavery survived elsewhere in Europe. In 1538, a Greek, bought as a slave by an Italian and carried to France, was declared free, “selon le droit comun de France.” That phrase expressed, actually, a pious hope, not a reality: for, when, in 1543, Khaïr-ed-din Barberousse, admiral of the Caliph Selim I, arrived in Marseilles as an ally of Francis I, he brought with him slaves kidnapped in a raid on Reggio di Calabria, and put them forward for sale. He found a market with no difficulty.

In Italy, Genoa, moved by a desire to avoid too many Africans in the city, in 1556 established rules against the sale of slaves but, all the same, in a statute of 1588, when making arrangements for the division of goods lost at sea, the rules spoke of slaves as among the frequent merchandise. In 1606, a Florentine traveler said that he did not need to go abroad to buy slaves because he could obtain a diversity of them at a modest price in his own city.

In the New World, conditions were always harsher than those in Europe, since the slaveowners were often more nervous, and perhaps less experienced, than those at home: further, the king in Spain explicitly provided for a change in the laws of Alfonso the Wise, the “Siete Partidas,” whereby slaves were proclaimed free to marry whom they liked; that generosity was not to be afforded to Africans in the New World. Already the complexities of black slaves’ marrying free Indians had begun to weary state lawyers. In the Americas, however, Africans were also beginning to be seen everywhere: as pearl-divers off New Granada, as dock-workers at Veracruz in New Spain, in the new silver mines at Zacatecas, as cowboys in the region of the river Plate; in gold diggings in Honduras, Venezuela, and Peru; and as blacksmiths, tailors, carpenters, and domestic servants almost everywhere. African slaves worked for viceroys and for bishops, for private entrepreneurs in urban sweatshops making textiles, and on farms, while female slaves were often established as planters’ maids, mistresses, wet nurses, or prostitutes. The pattern was established of assigning to black Africans any difficult or demanding task.

We catch a glimpse of what these first North American Africans were doing in the first years after the Spanish conquest of Mexico: for example, in the new textile workshops which sprang up in the late 1530s, at first in the city of Mexico, then in the new city of Los Ángeles (Puebla), and finally in Antequera (Oaxaca) and Valladolid (Yucatán), founded to make up for the shortage of clothes brought over from the mother country. Some of these little factories employed Indians, but black slaves were sought after from the earliest days. Africans also helped to open up agriculture: for example, in the Valle de Mezquital, to the north of the Valley of Mexico, the largest group of immigrants as early as the 1530s were African slaves. They came first to work on the local sheep stations, and then in the mines at Ixmiquilpan and Pachuca.

The first work of these early American Africans was usually as herdsmen, in which capacity they were so active that they infuriated the Indians, who knew nothing of domesticated animals. Brutality was normal, and Indian villagers were often bullied or even killed by Africans: one Indian who went to the help of his wife who had been attacked by an African was tied to the tail of a horse and dragged to his death.

Other recollections of the first Africans in the New World sometimes placed them in an unattractive light in relation to the indigenous peoples. The well-intentioned Judge Alonso de Zorita, for example, recalled, in his Lords of New Spain, that, about 1560, he saw “a great number of Indians hauling a long heavy beam to a construction site. . . . When they stopped to rest, a black overseer went down the line with a leather strap in his hand whipping them all from first to last to hurry them on and keep them from resting. He did this not to gain time for some other work, but simply to keep up the universal evil habit of mistreating the Indians. . . . The black struck with force and they were naked.”9

The Indians all the same made clear that they supported the introduction of African slaves. For example, in the 1580s, a group of indigenous people in Mexico told the viceroy, Alvaro Manrique de Zúñiga (a cousin of Cortés’s second wife), that they were themselves quite unable to work in sugar plantations, and that that “difficult and arduous work” was “only for the blacks and not for the thin and weak Indians.”10

A fillip to the African slave trade was naturally given by the trend towards the outlawing of Indian slavery in the Americas, as a result of the agitation of Bartolomé de Las Casas and other Dominicans. An indication of the mood in 1544 is shown by a letter of Cristóbal de Benavente, public prosecutor of the Supreme Court in Mexico, to the king: “Every day the gold mines are giving less profit, because of the lack of Indian slaves. In the end, if Your Majesty abolishes local slavery . . . ,” wrote Benavente, “there will be no alternative to allowing blacks into the land, at least in the mines.”11

The plantations now established in Brazil and in the Spanish Caribbean were beginning to show all the signs of the familiar commercial enterprise of later days: a greater number of men than women; other obstacles offered to the male slaves to prevent them from founding families; excessive work, especially during harvest; harsh punishments for minor offenses; and deaths because of machinery working badly. Similar judgments could be made of conditions in the many mines opened in the sixteenth century from Mexico to Venezuela to Peru.

There seemed always to be a shortage of workers. In 1542, the town council of Mexico requested of the Crown in Madrid that, because slaves were needed in “the mines and other services,” the king “might be moved to give anyone license and general permission in order that they may bring slaves over to this New Spain, paying in its ports the almojarifazgo [port duty], without having the need to get any other license, because the existing arrangements are the source of much vexation.”12 Permission was not granted: “general permissions” without payment of taxes were not in the tradition of the Spanish Crown.

By the mid-sixteenth century, Brazil had already begun its long life as a producer of sugar for the European market. A pioneer was the first Portuguese expeditionary, Martim Afonso de Sousa, to whom King João III had allocated the captaincy of São Vicente, to the south of Rio de Janeiro. His largest interest was the Engenho (Sugar Mill) São Jorge dos Erasmos, of which he was a shareholder along with a German, Erasmo Schecter, and which was administered from the beginning by German and Flemish overseers. More important still was the northern captaincy of Pernambuco, where Duarte Coelho, the king’s captain there, reported five sugar mills in operation by 1550. One of them, Nossa Senhora da Ajuda, was the property of Coelho’s brother-in-law, Jerónimo de Albuquerque, “the Pernambucan Adam,” who had greatly helped good relations with the local Brazilians by marrying a Tobjara princess and setting up several of her relations as his mistresses.

The main labor force on these mid-sixteenth-century Brazilian plantations were still, admittedly, indigenous Brazilians: slaves certainly, but at least not as yet Africans, or at least not yet Africans on a large scale. Indian slaves were then seen by the new conquerors as essential: “If a person comes to this land and contrives to get hold of a couple of them (even if he has nothing else he can call his own) he then has an honorable [!] means of supporting his family; for one of them will fish for him, another will hunt for him, and the others will cultivate and harvest his plantings; and in this way he is at no expense for food, either for them or for his family.” Yet, by 1570, disenchantment about Indian labor had set in. The Portuguese captains sought slaves outside their captaincies. But still there were shortages; and Duarte Coelho wrote to the king in 1546 that, whereas in the past, “when the Indians were needy,” they used to come and work for practically nothing, now they wanted “beads and feather caps and colored clothing that a man could not afford to buy himself.” In the good old days, a Jesuit remembered, some tribes would sell “an [Indian] slave for a chisel.”13 But that was no longer the case in 1570.

So, little by little, in the new cities of the new empire, African slaves began to work much as they had done for a hundred years in Portugal—as servants, gardeners, cooks, seamen, and as symbols of wealth, and finally on plantations, with some of the attitudes of the Portuguese at home being emulated by colonists in dealing with the Africans.

•  •  •

There was still little criticism of slavery and the slave trade in these days of the High Renaissance. After all, antiquity continued to be the fashion. Michelangelo designed a monumental Dying Slave—a Slav, it would seem—now in the Louvre, but it is obvious that he worried less about the slavery than the mortality. Sir Thomas More had provided for slavery in 1516 in his Utopia. He thought it “a suitable station in life for any prisoner of war, for criminals and also for the hard-working and poverty-stricken drudge from another country.”14 More’s friend Erasmus said nothing of the matter. Machiavelli was also silent. How should it be otherwise? The cultivated and wise Pope Leo X, the greatest Renaissance head of the Church, did, it is true, remark that, with regard to the enslavement of Indians, “not only the Christian religion but nature herself cried out against a state of slavery.”15

But Leo was not talking of Africans, and there would certainly have been one or two slaves from the coast of Guinea in the Vatican in his day.

Even more explicitly concerned with the Indians was Pope Paul III (Alessandro Farnese). Influenced by yet another Dominican friar engaged in humanitarian matters, Fray Bernardino de Minaya, Paul, in a letter to Cardinal Juan de Tavera, archbishop of Toledo, forbade conquistadors in the New World to reduce Indians to slavery; and then, in a bull, Veritas Ipsa, he proclaimed the complete abolition of slavery, stating firmly that all slaves had the right to free themselves. Indians were to be deprived neither of their liberty nor of their property, even if they were still pagans. The penalty for disregarding these injunctions was excommunication.

The declaration disturbed the Emperor Charles, for it seemed that the pope was moving into the temporal sphere. But it is obvious that Paul’s mind was still centered on Indians in the New World, not blacks. Indeed, his subsequent bull, Sublimis Deus, of 1537 shows that he was merely trying to insist that “the Indians are true men,” even if he did make the (to the slaveowners, dangerous) concession that “all are capable of receiving the doctrines of the faith.”16

No serious study of slavery in antiquity was written in the sixteenth century. The first consideration of the matter seems to have been in 1613, when Lorenzo Pignoria of Padua published De Servis et Eorum Apud Veteres Ministeriis, about the urban lives of Roman slaves, a work “unsurpassed in its scope till the late nineteenth century.” But he sought to draw no modern moral.17 Pignoria would no doubt have agreed with his contemporary Giles of Rome, when he recalled, in 1607, that Aristotle had “proved” that some people are “slaves by nature and that it is appropriate for such people to be placed in subjection to others,” a view that found general support.18

Neglect of the African dimension was not reserved to the Church of Rome: when certain serfs in Swabia appealed for emancipation in 1525 on the argument that Christ had died to set men free, Luther was alarmed. He believed that the earthly kingdom could not survive unless some men were free and some were slaves.19

All the same, some concerns were expressed by Portuguese and Spanish writers in the middle of the sixteenth century. The Portuguese, the major traders in slaves, even sought to lay down conditions in which slaves were to be transported. Thus, in 1513, a decree limited the number of slaves who could be carried in a single ship (an echo of an old Genoese law). In 1519, another decree sought to govern conditions on the short journey from Africa to São Tomé. It also insisted that captains should maintain gardens on the latter island to feed slaves properly before they were embarked for the Americas. The best slaves were henceforth to be retained to work the plantations and grow the provisions of the future.

Even the Spanish Crown intervened in favor of humane treatment of slaves who, Charles V remarkably required in 1541, should be subjected to an hour every day of instruction in Christian precepts, and should work on neither Sundays nor feast days—regulations which were surprising even if they were very rarely observed.

The famous public contest at Valladolid in 1550 between Bartolomé de Las Casas, the apostle of the Indies, and the classicist Ginés de Sepúlveda, on the subject of how the Catholic faith could be preached and promulgated in the New World, was judged by a board of notables. Among these fifteen wise men was a Dominican theologian, Fray Domingo de Soto, of Segovia. De Soto was the most distinguished of the pupils of the recently deceased jurist Francisco de Vitoria, with whom he had lived for many years in the same Dominican monastery in Salamanca. A professor at Segovia as well as at Salamanca, de Soto served the Crown at the Council of Trent and is generally held, with Vitoria, to be the creator of international law. He was also a confessor of the Emperor Charles V.

De Soto was asked to make a résumé of the proceedings at the debate at Valladolid. That document supported Las Casas. But there was, as usual in such congresses, no discussion at all of black Africans.

A few years later, however, in 1557, de Soto published his Ten Books on Justice and Law (De Iustitia et de Iure), in which he argued that it was wrong to keep in slavery a man who had been born free, or who had been captured by fraud or violence—even if he had been fairly bought at a properly constituted market. In speaking thus, de Soto must have been thinking in terms of black or Moorish slaves, of whom there were then certainly some in Salamanca. De Soto could not have been more influential. His work was dedicated to the heir to the Spanish throne, Don Carlos. Yet his words on slavery, written clearly in the greatest Spanish university, struck few chords at the time.20

One who did listen to him, though, was Alonso de Montúfar, archbishop of Mexico, another Dominican, who wrote to King Philip II in 1560: “We do not know of any just cause why the negroes should be captives any more than the Indians, because we are told that they receive the gospel in goodwill and do not make war on Christians.” Philip does not seem to have replied.21 He had a little earlier, when still prince not king, asked a committee which included a Dominican, a Cistercian, and two Franciscans about the benefits of granting a certain banker, Hernando Ochoa, the right to carry 23,000 slaves to the Americas at 8 ducats each. The discussion did not touch on whether it was legal or illegal to treat Africans in such a way but whether such a large contract would damage other businessmen.22

At much the same time, a Portuguese captain and military writer, Fernão de Oliveira, also criticized the slave trade, in his Art of War at Sea (Arte da Guerra da Mar). His criticism is a real anticipation of the abolitionist movement, and the captain should receive due credit for such a pioneering work. He pointed out that the African monarchs who sold slaves to the Europeans usually obtained them by robbery or waging unjust wars. But no war waged specifically to make captives for the use of the slave trade could possibly be just. Oliveira denounced his countrymen for being the inventors of “such an evil trade” as the “buying and selling of peaceable freemen as one buys and sells animals,” with the spirit of a “slaughterhouse butcher.”23

Oliveira’s work was published in 1554 at Coimbra, a city where, a few years later, in 1560, yet one more Spanish Dominican, Martín de Ledesma, wrote, in his Commentaria, that all who owned slaves gained through the trickery of Portuguese traders (thelançados, for example) should free them immediately, on pain of eternal damnation. He also pointed out that Aristotle’s comments about wild men living without any order could not be held to apply to Africans, many of whom lived under regular monarchies.24

These arguments in Portugal were not quite without consequences. The Crown did try to persuade traders not to buy slaves who had been kidnapped but, on most occasions, the distinction between kidnapping and war was an indistinct one; and the traders themselves continued to maintain that, in buying slaves, they were serving the best interests of humanity.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!