“One day the white men arrived in ships with wings, which shone in the sun like knives. They fought hard battles with the Ngola and spat fire at him. They conquered his salt-pans and the Ngola fled inland to the Lukala river. . . .”
Pende oral tradition
IT HAD BEEN AGREED between the new Christian king of Congo, Diogo I, and Portugal that the settlers on São Tomé should only trade in the former’s realm; and, as a result, ten leading Portuguese merchants (such as Fernando Jiménez, Emanuel Rodrigues, and above all Manuel Caldeira) took up the slave trade there, twelve to fifteen ships arriving every year to carry off four to seven hundred slaves each. These ships were still too few to carry the slaves available; captains overloaded, often causing revolts. The Portuguese being unable to fulfill all the details of this treaty, King Diogo of the Congo broke off relations in 1555 and expelled the seventy or so Portuguese living in his realm, even though many had by then been established there, mostly with African women, for many years. His position had been adversely affected since, in recent years, the Tio slave traders at that cosmopolitan, overcrowded spot known as Malembo Pool had been coveting European goods more than the nzimbu shells which he offered them. Thus the king’s income in European goods had declined. But, in 1567, the old relationship was restored with a new king of Congo, Álvare.
Next year, in 1568, a savage, cannibalistic, and nomadic people, the Jaggas, who originated on the southern banks of the river Kwango (which now forms part of the boundary between the states of Angola and Congo), invaded Congo, and drove Don Álvare to take refuge on Hippopotamus Island, in the Congo estuary. The Jaggas had been disrupted by the intensive slave raids of the Tio in their territory in the mid-century. In his refuge, Don Álvare’s shortage of food became so severe that he and his counselors sold slaves for bread. Some of his advisers were also constrained to sell their children as slaves to secure a day’s subsistence. The king sent some emissaries as slaves to Lisbon, and asked King Sebastian to dispatch an army to restore him, which he did; and four hundred Portuguese from São Tomé, led by Francisco de Gouveia e Sotomayor, a member of one of the most distinguished families in Portugal, re-established King Álvare in São Salvador. The use, and perhaps even more the sound, of gunfire was especially effective in this campaign.
The grateful Álvare thereupon sent to Lisbon to buy back his nobles, though a few of these, disappointingly, preferred to remain in Portugal “for the love of God.” The actions of the Jaggas long remained, meantime, a terrible warning in the minds of the Portuguese, for it had been a shock to find a monarchy which they had supported, and which they thought had become Christian, overthrown so easily by ruthless nomads. Gouveia, on the other hand, was ordered by his master in Lisbon, to build at the expense of Álvare, a fort where the king, and the Portuguese residents of Congo, could find shelter, if there were to be future attacks by the Jaggas.
The Congo as a result fell more and more under Portuguese tutelage. Álvare avoided direct vassalage but, once he had used Portuguese troops to restore his authority, they remained. For Portugal, Congo was a dependency worth having: Pacheco Pereira wrote that in that realm “they make some cloths of palms, with a surface like velvet, and some with fancy work like velvetized satin, so beautiful that there is no better work in Italy.”
There was, however, every year a greater emphasis on slavery within Congo, the only Christian monarchy of any importance in Africa, and the only one where literacy made any headway. King Álvare now used slaves as soldiers and servants, messengers and mistresses, builders and bearers, as well as workers on the land. In the short term, this strengthened the monarchy, reducing its previous reliance on chiefs and noblemen. King Álvare even felt so powerful that he could designate a son by a slave wife as his heir (but that son was in the event set aside when Álvare died in 1614, being supplanted by a half-brother, Bernardo II, who was also the son of a slave mother).
Mulatto traders were now to be found in all the most important Congo ports. Though trade between villages and between neighboring peoples had existed for generations, the coming of the Portuguese had the consequence of creating, for the first time, a long-distance commerce, in which European goods (and some American ones) were carried along new routes.
The Portuguese in São Tomé were also making friends with Angola—that is, with the ngola, the king of another Bantu state named Ndongo, composed of Mbundu people, whose small monarchy stretched from the river Dande (which runs into the sea north of what is now Luanda) to the river Coanza (the river on which Luanda would soon be built), and which had been loosely under the dominion of the kings of Congo. Ndongo had been, from the early sixteenth century, a minor source for slaves for the Congo in raiding expeditions. By the terms of the Congolese-Portuguese treaty, these slaves could only be traded through the Congo port of Mpinda but, more and more, Portuguese interlopers would obtain these slaves directly, at the mouth of the Coanza, just to the north of the Luanda islands; for the traders of São Tomé found the arrangements at Mpinda unsatisfactory, for they could never obtain enough slaves there.
As early as the 1550s, there had been some rivalry between the kings of Congo and Ndongo as to who should be the main suppliers of slaves to the Portuguese; and, though Portugal was obliged formally to support Congo, her interests were becoming more and more concerned with Ndongo.
In 1559, Paulo Dias de Novães, a grandson of Bartolomeu Dias, the explorer of the Cape of Good Hope, left Lisbon with three ships, accompanied by two Jesuits and two lay brothers. He made for the island of Luanda in the estuary of the Coanza and dispatched a cousin, Luis Dias, with the Jesuits up the river itself to Pungo-Andungo, the then capital of Ndongo. There the Portuguese explained that their king wanted the new monarch, Ndambi, to convert to Christianity, as had occurred in Congo. Ndambi was cautious, and the negotiations on the matter were long-drawn-out. One of the Jesuits died, along with others among the explorers. So Paulo Dias, on the coast, lost patience and set out himself, with a small expedition. Having traveled 120 miles by river, and then perhaps 50 miles on land, he reached the capital. Ndambi thereupon imprisoned Dias and several colleagues, including Frei Gouveia, seized such European goods as he could find, and dispersed or killed other Europeans.
Frei Gouveia, a kinsman of the first proconsul of Angola, died in captivity, though not without sending an important letter to his superior, in which he insisted that the only way seriously to convert heathen people was to conquer them.1 Paulo Dias was released after six years. In 1575, he returned to Angola—with a permit from the king of Portugal at least, if not from the ngola—to colonize. The terms of his contract gave him vast powers. He seems to have been convinced that, with so many slaves available, the Portuguese in Angola would be able to build a civilization comparable to that of Rome in the Mediterranean. As a first step on this notable enterprise, Dias set about building what became São Paulo de Loanda, the first Portuguese fortified town in West Africa south of Elmina, at the mouth of the Coanza, first on the island of Luanda, then on the mainland, near what is now the fortress of São Miguel.
A new ngola, Quiloanage, understandably took exception to these encroachments, though his capital was the local capital of the slave trade for many Portuguese buyers, and though the island of Luanda was not actually his, since it had been looked on as belonging to the king of Congo. After years of diplomatic maneuvering, during which the slave trade to São Tomé and to Brazil flourished as never before, the ngola was convinced by several local Portuguese traders, who distrusted Dias, that that proconsul planned to overthrow him. The ngola thereupon killed his Christian slaves and thirty Portuguese. The result was war. After further setbacks, in a long campaign beginning in 1580, the Portuguese, with 350 Europeans “mostly rogues and cobblers,” according to one chronicler, and many African mercenaries (including slave bowmen and slave lancers), using terrorism as much as open war, eventually defeated the ngola, and established their colony on the coast firmly. But, by then, Dias was dead and many of his countrymen had also died, more of disease than in battle, as usually was the case in tropical wars. In the interior, the ngola glowered in temporary impotence, though relatively easy to restrain.
Luanda soon became the headquarters for all Portuguese operations south of Nigeria. By 1590, three hundred Portuguese were settled there. The colony attracted merchants from Portugal, especially those who, like some converted Jews, had been unable to secure opportunities in Portugal itself. The Crown sought to control such immigration but, in the long run, it was quite unable to do so.
With this good base at Luanda, a lovely port, and with relative peace established with both the king of Congo and the ngola, there was nothing to prevent the slave trade from prospering, and it soon became the economic mainstay of Angola as well as of Congo. The best historian of Portuguese-African race relations, C. L. R. Boxer, saw the slave trade as a reason, along with the high incidence of malaria, why a responsible Portuguese colony was not founded in Angola in the sixteenth century. Yet one of the main purposes of this entity was precisely to undertake a slave trade to Brazil.
Already in 1576, Frei Garcia Simões, S.J., had written: “Here one finds all the slaves which one might want and they cost practically nothing. With the exception of the leaders, almost all the natives here either are born in slavery or are reduced to that condition without the least pretext. . . . After his victories the king gives entire villages over to his subalterns, with the right either to kill or to sell all the inhabitants.”2 For the tail of an elephant, it was even said, one could buy three slaves. An English prisoner, Andrew Battel (in Angola from 1589 to 1603), described seeing thousands of slaves in Portuguese hands.3 Between 1575 and 1592, over fifty thousand may have been taken from Angola. In 1578, Duarte Lopes visited Luanda, and remarked that there was “a greater Trafficke and Market for slaves that are brought out of Angola than in any place else. For there are yearly brought by the Portuguese above five thousand head of Negroes, which they afterwards conveigh away with them, and so sell them to divers parts of the world.”4 Thomas Turner, an English captain, reported: “Out of Angola is said to be yearly shipped 28,000 slaves and there was a rebellion of slaves against their masters, 10,000 making a head and barricading themselves but by the Portugals and Indians chased and one or two thousand reduced. One thousand belonged to one man who is said to have ten thousand slaves, eighteen sugar mills etc. his name is John de Paüs . . . and here prospering to this incredibilitie of wealth. . . .”5 In 1591, one official assured the Crown that Luanda could expect to supply slaves to Brazil “until the end of the world.”6
The Portuguese Crown naturally maintained a financial interest in all these undertakings. The African coast had been divided into several zones of exploitation. In these, the collection of royal taxes or duties was farmed out to individuals, who in turn made arrangements with the traders and collected the dues concerned, in return for licenses.
The Portuguese influence on Africa had, of course, positive sides. By then, they had introduced into Congo and Angola not only—at a certain superficial level, to be sure—Christianity, but many European techniques, and several important European or West Indian crops—rice, oranges, coconuts, onions, and above all manioc (cassava). The last-named crop would inspire a veritable agricultural revolution in the seventeenth century, enabling the population to grow to previously unattainable levels, therefore indirectly no doubt making available more candidates for the Atlantic trade. Another American transplant was maize, which had similar consequences a little later.
Nevertheless, there can be no doubt whatever that the main impact of the Portuguese in this part of Central Africa was the encouragement of the commerce in slaves. Though these things meant that São Tomé and Portugal itself (and the Spanish empire) could continue to be well supplied with the workers they coveted, the real beneficiary was Brazil.
• • •
In 1570, the Brazilian black population was only two or three thousand. Most slaves were still Indians. But these indigenous captives were becoming less easy to acquire because of the diseases brought by the Portuguese (the epidemic of dysentery, combined with influenza, of the 1560s was as destructive in Brazil as the smallpox had been in 1520 in Mexico and the Caribbean). It is true that Indians still accounted for two-thirds of Pernambuco’s labor force on sugar plantations in the 1580s. But these Indians were poor workers, for they were quite “unused to such continuous and back-breaking toil. In addition to the diseases which these inferior races always acquire upon contact with the whites, the ill treatment which they received was a cause of illness and death, notwithstanding the laws against it which were continuously promulgated.”7 The “expenditure in human life here in Bahia in these past twenty years,” wrote a Jesuit in 1583, “is a thing that is hard to believe; for no one could believe that so great a supply could ever be exhausted, much less in so short a time.”8 But, from this time, because of the Angolan connection, blacks, above all to work on the new sugar plantations, were every day more available.
Between forty and fifty thousand African slaves, nearly all from Congo or Angola, seem to have reached Brazil between 1576 and 1591. The population of black slaves in 1600 was probably about fifteen thousand, mostly in sugar mills, whose laborers were by then 70 percent black—though, ten years later, in 1610, a Frenchman named François Pyrard de Laval visited Bahia and estimated that, though the administrative region round that city boasted two thousand whites, and three or four thousand black slaves, there were another seven thousand black or Indian slaves on the sugar estates. But Indians were certainly playing less and less of a part in the plantations. In 1573, there had been an understanding among the Jesuits, the governor of Brazil and Maranhão, and the auditor-general. The enslavement of an Indian would only be possible if the person concerned were to be captured in a just war, or if he had fled from his village and had remained absent for over a year. Although the arrangement was not adhered to, its existence increased the need for black slaves. Later, it was laid down that a just war was one which was so declared by the king. In fact, the Crown and the settlers continued to quarrel over the issue of Indian slaves for many years more—the monarch taking a moral position, and insisting eloquently that enslavement damaged the chance of converting slaves to Christianity while the settlers argued that, in capturing Indians, they were saving them from becoming cannibals.
The discrepancy between the figures for the population of slaves and for their import shows the position in all its brutality: slaves were expected to die after ten years or so and, therefore, on any effective property, had to be replaced, from Angola or Congo. From the very beginning, it was thought essential on these sugar estates to replenish the slaves by making new purchases rather than by encouraging breeding: as a witness (the future admiral Sir George Young) in a British inquiry in 1790 put the matter, “All I ever understood was that purchasing slaves was much the cheapest method of keeping up their numbers; for . . . the mother of a bred slave was taken from the field labour for three years, which labour was of more value than the cost of a prime slave or new Negro.”I,9
Angola or Congo and Brazil were thus more and more linked. Currents and winds intensified the relationship: ships leaving Portugal for Angola had virtually to pass by Brazil, and those leaving Angola had to sail close to Rio.
In these years, Brazil was showing herself to be São Tomé’s successor as Europe’s most important sugar supplier, just as São Tomé had succeeded Madeira, the Canaries, and the Mediterranean islands. Brazil—that is, a narrow coastal strip of it—had about 120 sugar mills by 1600 and was probably the richest European colony. She was also an international enterprise: Italian sugar equipment was to be seen, artisans from the Canary Islands and Madeira had been deliberately brought out and, as early as the 1540s, Cibaldo and Cristóvao Lins, Lisbon representatives of the Fuggers of Augsburg, were marketing as well as producing sugar. Dutch merchants often provided the ships to carry the sugar home to Europe, as well as the capital for many of the plantations. Then it was the great market of Amsterdam which sold much of the sugar—still principally considered as medically desirable, rather than as a sweetener, since tea, coffee, and chocolate, which seemed in their early days of fashionableness to need sugar for taste, had not appeared on the European scene.
However, sugar was already sometimes coveted for the pleasure it gave, especially among the rich. A German traveling in England thought that, though the queen was majestic, her teeth were unfortunately black: “a defect to which the English seem subject, from their too great use of sugar.”10
These developments in Brazil mark the beginning of the American sugar revolution. It is usually thought that that occurred in the Caribbean, in the mid-seventeenth century. But the typical sugar plantation, with its characteristically male population, its slaves who were expected to die so young and who remained more African than American in their ways, was developed in Brazil three generations earlier.
As has been mentioned, sugar had already been known in the Caribbean earlier in the century. But in the haciendas of Hispaniola and Cuba, as in Mexico, that crop was grown alongside others, with cattle and tobacco. The modern sugar estate, producing nothing but sugar, for export and on a large scale, was an invention of Brazil.
Sugar is not a complicated crop: all that is necessary is fertile and well-irrigated land, and the digging with hoes of shallow holes in which a few pieces of stalk from mature sugar canes can be placed. The holes are covered with earth and, within about fifteen months, the new cane is ready for harvest. In Brazil, the cane would then be cut by slaves with machetes (that was the heavy work) and carried by ox cart to mills driven either by water, oxen, mules, horses, or wind. These would grind the juice out of the cane. That juice would be boiled, skimmed, and cooled. The brown crystals of the rough sugar would be separated from the viscous parts, molasses, which could be used to make rum or second-rate sugar. The good sugar would be held for a time in countinghouses before being placed in hogsheads, carried down to the nearest port or river and put on ships. The crushed stalks of the cane could, meantime, be used as fuel. A little over a year later, a second harvest, from the stumps of the old canes, could be reaped; and, although the cane produced would be less good than it was at the first harvest, the process could be repeated three or four times.
Occasionally the raw sugar was refined in the tropics, but usually that was done in Europe. The division of function had nothing to do with climate nor with labor: the home countries were determined to prevent colonial manufacturing.
The ideal sugar plantation seemed to be about 750 acres, certainly not less than 300 acres. The enterprise was best carried out with, say, 120 slaves, 40 oxen, and a great house in the center, surrounded by the specialist buildings and slaves’ quarters. On such properties, slavery, black African slavery, appeared the best kind of labor. In the late eighteenth century, a British inquiry into the sugar industry would explain that “to cultivate annually 100 acres of cane requires 150 working negroes at least in the field.”11White laborers were less amenable than Africans, less strong, and were considered less suitable for tropical conditions: “It is plain to demonstration that hot countries cannot be cultivated without negroes,” George Whitfield, the Calvinistic Methodist, would stiffly write in the eighteenth century.12 In 1848, a British planter, M. J. Higgins, a sugar merchant, would tell another British inquiry, of the House of Commons, that “the labour which I have seen exacted from the slaves in Cuba [for which read “Brazil” anytime after 1570] would have been quite fatal to Europeans if that amount of labour had been exacted from them in that climate.”13
These were widely held views, but they were myths: many white men have worked hard in heat, even in cane fields, in the South of the United States and Queensland, as well as in Puerto Rico, Barbados, and elsewhere in the Caribbean. In the eighteenth century, the same British report already quoted about the working of the sugar industry asked, “Would it be possible to cultivate to advantage the West Indian islands by the labour of Europeans or free negroes?” The reply was: “It would be possible to cultivate cane by negroes gradually rendered free and when taught the experience of being paid in money . . . and Europeans, inured to the common labour of digging and carrying burdens, whose pride was not to be excited and inflated by a condition of men legally unprotected and too much below them, might also cultivate these lands very well, especially [but] for cotton, the labour of which bears no comparison with that required for canes. . . .”14
In late-sixteenth-century Brazil, neither white slaves nor white laborers were easily available, even if a few Slavs or Turkish slaves might have been still found in the Mediterranean. Slaves from China, India, or elsewhere in the East were in theory an alternative, for the Portuguese could have brought them from their Asian outposts, but they would have been expensive to ship, and neither the trade nor the men were fully tried out. For the silver mines at Potosí in Peru, the idea was once suggested of recruiting “Chinese, Japanese, and Javanese, who come from the isles of the Philippines,” and who, it was said, were “a people more domesticated than the blacks, and very suitable for any kind of work.” In New Spain (Mexico), the scarcity of slaves from Africa did for a time lead colonists to use the Philippines as a source for a few workers: the Manila galleons which made their regular journeys across the Pacific from Manila to Acapulco after 1565 rarely failed to bring one or two slaves. But planters in Brazil were not interested: they were finding black slaves both hardworking and resilient, in every way adequate. Their value was reflected in relative costs: twenty-five dollars per African slave in 1572, only nine dollars per Indian.
Blacks were also reliable in skilled positions of authority on the estates, for many Africans had experience of agriculture, even of dealing with cattle. There was another side to the matter. The harvesting of sugar cane was laborious and repetitive. The typical Indian of the Brazilian forest had been used to hunting and fishing, as well as fighting. A semi-nomad, he had left the modest cultivation carried out (of manioc, above all, but also of tobacco, maize, and yams) to women. He served the Portuguese well as a soldier, but the Africans, with their remarkable reserves of toughness and good humor, were far more effective in the cane fields; and so they would remain for the next three centuries; while African women made good cooks, nurses, mistresses, and wet nurses.
Anyone black in a strange country, obvious by his features as well as his color, often ignorant of the language of the Portuguese, could also be easily kept isolated.
The region of Brazil which acted as the host for these important changes was the northeast, the two northern captaincies of Pernambuco and Bahia. The latter was the capital of the colony from 1549, the most important port, and a growing center for sugar: the Recôncavo, a beautiful strip of land about sixty miles long and thirty wide behind the Bay of All Saints, was the most sought-after district for the mills. There the most energetic of sixteenth-century governors, Tomé de Sousa, built a sugar mill for the Crown. The most successful undertaking, however, was probably the Engenho Sergipe, set up by the most effective of Sousa’s successors, Mem de Sá, on the north shore of the bay. In 1601, the Jesuits built their first sugar mill nearby, and other religious orders followed.
Here began that curious society summed up in Brazil by the word bagaceira, or “a life built round cane waste,” so brilliantly described in Gilberto Freyre’s Great House and Slave Quarters, with “the Great House” built of mud and lime, covered by straw or tiles, with verandas on the sides, sloping roofs to give protection against tropical rains and sun, at once “a fortress, a bank, a cemetery, a hospital, a school and a house of charity,” all protected, at least in the sixteenth century, by a palisade against savage Indians.15
The men and women who created this first great sugar boom in the world lived well. Many stories are told of the opulence of the planters in old Brazil, their tables laden with silver and fine china bought from captains on their way back from the East, doors with gold locks, women wearing huge precious stones, musicians enlivening the banquets, beds covered with damask; and an army of slaves of many colors always hovering. These fortunes rested on sugar, and sugar on African slavery, but it was no less real for all that.
A few of these first sugar mills of Brazil were owned by converted Jews. Let us not exaggerate: of about forty mills in the region of Bahia whose owners can be identified in 1590, twelve were apparently New Christians. Yet the Inquisition thought that, in 1618, twenty out of thirty-four mills were so owned. Some of these individuals were probably still practicing Jews: the Holy Office discovered a synagogue on a plantation on the river Matoim, no distance from Bahia, in the 1590s. But they were adept at finding what they wanted to find: much more important, these conversos stayed in touch with their equivalents elsewhere, in Amsterdam, especially, and in Brazil itself; the most famous of them all, Diogo Lopes, the so-called count-duke of Brazil, remained most influential despite countless denunciations by the Inquisition.
It was not surprising, meantime, that, by 1618, the phrase “a new Guinea” was once more used, this time to speak of the northeast of Brazil.16
These plantations represented substantial investments. All the same, one must keep a sense of proportion here also: in the late sixteenth century, the value of the slave trade to the Portuguese Crown was, through taxes per slave and so on, 280,000 cruzados, but the Eastern trade of Portugal yielded two million.
• • •
Spain’s slave trading, in the last era when that country and Portugal were alone in the New World, had many upheavals. Thus the 1560s saw an economic collapse in Spain. Both Crown and private merchants, slavers and silver kings alike, were ruined. One disaster followed another. A regular merchant ship belonging to the Jorges burned; in it they had loaded clothes for the New World, and there were other losses at sea. The Jorges were especially damaged. Then the Crown repudiated its debts. Since Philip II had borrowed so much from so many, and had paid so little interest, several great men lost all they had. The slave trade to the empire lurched to a temporary stop. Between 1566 and 1570, only nine ships were licensed for Africa (they carried a mere thirteen hundred slaves). A few continued to take slaves on the short journey to the Canaries from Africa, but these too were few. The price of slaves in Cartagena reached the record height of sixty thousand maravedís a head.
In order to try and save something from the wreck for which he himself was partly responsible, King Philip II sought in 1568 to reach an agreement with his cousin and ally, Sebastian, king of Portugal, whereby that monarch, or his agents, would supply annually two thousand slaves to be handed over to Spanish merchants in the Cape Verde Islands. The idea had been proposed by Alonso de Parada forty years before. The aim was both to supply labor to planters in the West Indies, who needed it, and to gain a secure royal income from the issue of licenses. But the Portuguese seemed little interested. The only merchants to put themselves forward, Jimeno de Bertendona and Jerónimo Ferrer, offered inadequate terms. So, throughout the 1570s, the slave trade to Spanish America continued in the doldrums: between 1571 and 1575, a mere sixteen Spanish ships were licensed for slaves from Africa, of which four went direct to Guinea, most of the rest, as heretofore, to Santiago in the Cape Verde Islands, carrying a little over 2,000 slaves in all. The king made matters worse in 1574 by establishing a capitation tax on all slaves held in America. In the late 1570s, only two ships were licensed by the Spanish Crown for Africa or the Cape Verde Islands (responsible for only about three hundred slaves).
In 1576, another bank failed: that directed by Pedro de Morga. That failure dragged down several more sevillano shippers, such as Alonso and Rodrigo de Illescas and the brothers Sánchez Dalvo, who were all linked to American commerce, above all in gold and silver, but had some interests in mercury, linen goods, cochineal, and slaves.
Demand for African slaves continued all the same. Planters in Peru, for example, wanted to make use of blacks on a regular basis. A few Genoese bankers continued to make money from trading slaves. Yet the Crown was deaf to suggestions by viceroys and others that Africans should be bought specially to work building bridges in tropical territory, where Indians from the highlands were ineffective. The viceroy of Peru, the determined and ruthless Francisco de Toledo, tried to compensate for the shortage of labor by impressing all free blacks, mulattoes, and ungainfully employed Spaniards into work in the silver mines which opened in 1545 in Potosí, or in the mercury mines establishd a little later at Huacavelica. But this compromise failed, for black Africans could scarcely survive at the high altitude of Potosí.
By 1580, Spanish officials in both Peru and Mexico came to decide that a constant supply of black African labor was the only way of satisfying the motherland’s appetite for precious metals.
• • •
The goddess Fortune turned a kindly eye on King Philip II after 1580. The royal line of Portugal died out, and King Philip “bought, inherited and conquered” the country (as he put it himself). Easily disposing of a patriotic protest in Lisbon, the two realms were united. Though they remained separate entities, Philip, or the Council of the Indies, merged their policies towards commerce, especially towards the matter of trading slaves. Spain also took over the fort of Arguin, the oldest Portuguese trading post in Africa.
The benefit of this association to Spain cannot be overemphasized. By the 1580s, Spain had already, through bureaucracy and perseverance, ensured the security of her colossal empire. Castile controlled most of the world’s silver, as well as a large proportion of tropical America’s indigo, tobacco, cochineal, and dye woods. After 1580, with Portugal subservient, the Spanish Crown dominated international trade, the world’s gold supply, the production of marine salt and of pepper, spices from the East Indies and, with Brazil, most of sugar, too. One of the main aims of Spanish policy became to impose an embargo on foreign trade, especially Dutch and English trade, and much of the history of the next sixty years was concerned with that ultimately vain endeavor.
King Philip II decided to use the experienced Portuguese merchants to provide the Indies with slaves, including the Spanish Indies, and he therefore signed contracts with two of them, Juan Bautista de Rovelasco, a great capitalist of a Flemish family, and Francisco Núñez de Vera, to take slaves from São Tomé to certain designated ports in the New World. Afterwards, he turned to Pedro de Sevilla, and Antonio Mendez de Lamego, both conversos, residents of Lisbon, who had been already concerned with slave trading for the Portuguese Crown. These two merchants obliged themselves, by a contract of 1587, to pass a specified number of slaves every year to the Spanish Indies, usually five hundred but sometimes more, from their three main points of assembly: Santiago in the Cape Verde Islands, though it was sacked by Francis Drake in 1585 and by Antony Shirley (fellow of All Souls, Oxford; spy; and traitor) in 1596; second, São Tomé, still prosperous (despite a destructive slave revolt in 1574); and, third, Luanda, which, being more remote, was more secure, and which would provide more Africans for the Americas than anywhere else in the coming century (84 percent, according to one estimate, of those sent between 1597 and 1637).
Though Sevilla and Mendez de Lamego could conduct trade themselves, they also had to sell licenses to anyone who asked for one. Their position was immensely powerful, since they had already a similar contract to carry slaves to Brazil. The two also agreed to provide the monarch, free of all charges every year, with two choice black slaves, whom the king could pass on to whomsoever he liked. A subcommittee of the Council of the Indies, a Junta de Negros, a mixed commission of eight men from the Council of the Indies and the Treasury, was set up to resolve all the problems relating to the slave trade. It was usually composed of powerful noblemen or bureaucrats known in other parts of the administration, for whom the activity provided a useful extra income.
The consequence was a reinvigoration of the slave trade to the Spanish as well as to the Portuguese empire. It was much needed, or so it seemed: as early as 1570, Fray Diego de Salamanca, the bishop of Puerto Rico (where there were about eleven sugar mills), had sent a familiar-sounding report in the form of a letter to the king saying that “the most important cause of the decay and decline of this island is the lack of slaves.”17 But New Spain’s production of sugar, though never so important as that of Brazil, was thriving, the Jesuits’ plantation at Xochimalcas near Guanajuato having two hundred slaves in 1600. The equipment invested in such mills was considerable: one plantation, La Santísima Trinidad, also in New Spain, owned by a certain Hernández de la Higuera, had, about 1610, not only a casa grande on two floors, a chapel, and a mill, but a boiling house with seven boilers and two refineries, tended by two hundred slaves, the whole being valued at seven hundred thousand pesos, a colossal sum for that time. Almost all the sugar equipment came from heretical Holland. At Tlaltenango, about half the black slaves were born on the property in the early seventeenth century, incidentally a level of reproduction rarely repeated in the history of European sugar growing in the New World.
The contractors Sevilla and Mendez de Lamego took their task seriously. They obliged themselves to carry to the empire three thousand slaves in six years, or five hundred slaves a year. Their investors seem to have included the Medicis and the Strozzis of Florence. But they failed to fulfill their commitments.
In the 1590s, after several years of further generous agreements with other Portuguese merchants to carry slaves to his empire, the king revived the monopoly system which had been tried so unsuccessfully by his father, Charles V, in his youth. As with Charles, the Crown’s desire to make money played an important part in the decision. Several schemes had already been devised to secure new monopoly arrangements. Thus, in 1552, as has been mentioned, the Crown contemplated contracting with Hernando Ochoa for twenty-three thousand slaves to go to the Indies over seven years, with the payment of eight ducats’ tax a head to the Crown. But Ochoa did not carry the plan through, partly because of the opposition of the merchants of Seville to the idea: they believed that they as individuals could perform the task better. Then, in 1556, the famous Manuel Caldeira of Portugal secured a contract to dispatch two thousand blacks to whatever part of the Indies that he desired, to be carried in Portuguese or Spanish ships. Perhaps the high royal share of this scheme prevented it from working (each license was to cost taxes equivalent to two-fifths the value of each slave).
In 1595, a new monopoly contract was at last concluded between the Spanish Crown and Pedro Gomes Reinel, a Portuguese merchant who was already the king of the slave trade in Angola. Gomes Reinel bought this favor for a hundred thousand ducats a year for nine years. He agreed to arrange for the carriage of 4,250 blacks a year to the Spanish Indies, of whom, it was coldly stated, 3,500 had to be landed live. The slaves were to be fresh from Africa, and none could be mulatto, mestizo, Turkish, Moorish, or of any blood other than black African. The king reserved the right to grant licenses for another nine hundred to one thousand slaves to other people. So Gomes Reinel’s was not exactly that of a full monopolist: and he, too, could sell licenses at thirty ducats to merchants—in practice, nearly all Portuguese slave traders—who desired to enter the trade. He could not reasonably refuse anyone. He himself kept, however, what he hoped would be a monopoly right to carry slaves to the new port of Buenos Aires. All the ships which he licensed had to be registered in either Seville, Cádiz, the Canaries, or Lisbon. (Buenos Aires, incidentally, had presented herself as a new city needing slaves more than anything: a sad letter forwarded by the superior of the Franciscans there told the king in 1590 that the inhabitants believed: “We are so poor and needy that we could not be more in want, in proof of which we do our plowing and digging with our own hands. . . . Such is the need from which the settlers suffer that their own women and children bring their drinking water from the river. . . . Spanish women, noble and of high quality, because of their great poverty, carry their drinking water on their shoulders . . . as if it were the tiniest village in Spain.”18)
What, of course, they thought they needed were—African slaves.
Though Gomes Reinel was to be the contractor, some slaves would still be brought by other Portuguese, from São Tomé and the Cape Verde Islands. Gomes Reinel had also to pay a fine of ten ducats a slave for every license not used. All the same, he expected to make a fortune, for there was a large difference between what he had paid for his contract and the sum for which he could, separately, sell licenses. Yet his costs were great, too: he had to pay agents in Spain, Africa, and the Indies; he had to make appropriate presents or bribes to officials throughout the empire; the costs of the slave journeys were greater than he supposed that they would be; and he had to pay taxes. Then there was much bureaucracy: for example, during the time that this contract lasted, all the licensing, of all ships and cargoes, had in theory to be performed in Seville, and the final checking of all ships had to be done in Bonanza, the little port on the Guadalquivir, just next to Sanlúcar de Barrameda.
This first important state slaver of the new era, Gomes Reinel, was probably a converso. He seems to have been more a typical courtier than a merchant, one of the few Portuguese who spoke and wrote Castilian to perfection. On the other hand, he was audacious. Thus he had coolly ruined the famous banker Cosme Ruiz Embite by recalling a loan actually contracted in the slave trade.
At all events, Gomes Reinel at first seemed to have solved the problems of providing slaves for the Spanish and Portuguese crowns. The years of his monopoly saw a new peak of licensed trade to Africa: 188 boats were approved. About half (90) went to Guinea, and thence carried over 25,000 slaves, or 5,500 a year. In Gomes Reinel’s day, the Spanish Crown, no doubt impressed by the Portuguese experience, made a famous concession to the sugar planters of the empire, by granting that sugar mills could not be attached for debt or for unpaid mortgages. This “privilegio de ingenios” lasted several hundred years—almost as long, indeed, as the Spanish empire itself.
Of course, there was a substantial contraband trade in slaves, particularly between the Caribbean ports. Many ships sailed directly from Africa to the Caribbean without having registered in Seville, though sometimes sailing northwest to take on water in the Canaries. Those vessels traveled outside the protection of the Spanish Crown. There were also many small smuggled imports to secondary ports—for example, Havana, Puerto Rico, Santo Domingo, and Jamaica—by the captains of slave ships and of naval vessels (including admirals). Captains would continue to stock more slaves than they registered (and were taxed) for, and sell the surplus where they could. For example, in 1574, the caravel San Sebastián, master Diego Rodríguez, carried from the Cape Verde Islands as many as four hundred slaves, but with only 145 licenses. Both naval vessels and cargo ships would often enlist Africans in Guinea as “cabin boys” and sell them in America. Sometimes masters would register small boats and exchange them for big ones capable of carrying larger numbers of slaves. Port officials and even viceroys would often turn a blind eye to such infractions, provided they themselves profited: Luis de Velasco, viceroy in Mexico in 1591, thought that, instead of seizing slaves carried illegally, the authorities should merely collect the extra tax owed.
In 1600, Gomes Reinel died, and the contract for trading slaves was transferred to João Rodrigues Coutinho, who was then governor of Angola, and extended to 1609. The contract was the same as that afforded to his predecessor, except that anyone who broke any of the rules would be fined a hundred thousand maravedís, of which penalty two-thirds would go to the contractor. No foreigner was to be allowed into the trade, and Rodrigues Coutinho had to sell licenses openly in both Lisbon and Seville. He was also required, in order to hold the slave contract for Angola, to build forts at such places as the Kisama salt mines, at Cambambe (both far inland), and at the Bay of Cows, in Benguela, to the far south.
This new monopolist was an aristocrat, born at Santarém, a knight of Henry the Navigator’s Order of Christ, and he lived in Madrid, where he was a member of the King’s Council of Portugal. He was one of the few major Portuguese slave dealers of this era who were not conversos, and several of his brothers and sisters were monks or nuns. When appointed governor of Angola, he had undertaken to take 2,500 horses there, and to equip the troops which were helping to pacify the place after the death of Dias. He had also lived in both Elmina and Panama, a colony that, as he knew, needed its black slaves for the backbreaking carriage of goods across the isthmus. Rodrigues Coutinho invested all the money which he made from the slave trade in seeking to complete the conquest of Angola, a task which obsessed him.
When he died, in 1603, a long way up the river Coanza, in pursuit of the ever-elusive final victory over the kingdom of Ndongo, his brother Gonzalo Vaz Coutinho succeeded him with the slave contract. He had been responsible for much of the detailed work in his brother’s time; he, too, was a caballero of Henry the Navigator’s Order of Christ; and he had been governor of the island of São Miguel in the Azores. He was a man with many interests. Thus he offered himself to develop the copper mines near Santiago de Cuba, taking with him 250 Castilian colonists and nine hundred slaves. To do this, he asked to be named adelantado (military commander) of Cuba, and governor of Santiago, Bayamo, and Baracoa, and for the titles to pass to his descendants for three lives. This extravagant suggestion by a Portuguese adventurer was not approved.
In the first quarter of the seventeenth century, the total number of slaves exported from Africa probably approached 200,000, of which about 100,000 went to Brazil, over 75,000 to Spanish America, 12,500 to São Tomé, and only about a few hundred to Europe. The average per year must thus have been about 8,000.19
The African element in the population of New Spain was beginning to seem the dominant one in most big towns where Europeans lived—even outnumbering the mestizos. The blacks were also important in all mines, and dominant in all sugar properties, particularly in supervisory roles: indeed, in 1600, King Philip III finally forbade the use of any Indians in plantations. Since there were never enough African slaves to keep the sugar estates in being, that was tantamount to a royal discouragement of business in New Spain.
The Casa de Contratación in Seville, with a bureaucratic insistence worthy of the twentieth century, was still determined to guarantee that all imports, including human ones, should enter the Spanish empire via Cartagena or Portobelo where their own representatives were. This rule was, however, an inspiration for a considerable smuggling trade in which most royal officials participated with enthusiasm, as Francisco de Salcedo, archbishop of Santiago de Chile, complained to the king. The episcopal démarche seems to have been the explanation why, in 1622, the Crown established an internal customhouse four hundred miles inland from Buenos Aires, at Córdoba.
• • •
Africa was not, in these years, just a silent participant in the supply of slaves to two distant European empires. The overthrow, at the battle of Tondibi, of the great Songhai empire by a Moorish army sent down the main western caravan route by the sultan from Marrakesh had immeasurable consequences for the international market in slaves. Despite their victory, Berber control was far from certain, even of the main Songhai cities of Gao and Timbuktu, and internecine disputes disturbed the completeness of the pashas’ triumph. The consequence was that, quite independent of the growing European demand, every day there were more slaves available in the interior of Africa. The victors after Tondibi may themselves have limited their loot to twelve hundred prisoners, as well as forty camel loads of gold dust. But the Sahara slave trade thereafter much increased.
On the coast of West Africa, these were the years when, in consequence of the Atlantic trade, several fishing villages at the estuary of the Niger began to turn into city-states, their economies based on trading slaves to the Europeans. A famous hunter, Alagbariye, on an expedition for game to the coast, is said to have come upon the site in Nigeria on which Bonny now stands and, aware of the potentialities for trade, brought his people there, much as Huitzilopochtli the Mexican warrior god was held to have seen in Tenochtitlán the ideal site for a city. Such developments led to the villages on the delta of the Niger becoming important slave markets in the seventeenth century, though they were never as important as Angola or Congo. Once Bonny and the city-states had been established, there was little room for free men there; slaves abounded, and not just for the benefit of the Europeans.
Some of these cities eventually became strong monarchies: Bonny, to begin with, but also New Calabar and Warri as well as Bell Town and Aqua Town, in the Cameroons; and there were some strong commercial republics, such as old Calabar and Brass. But the powers of the Bonny kings were always limited: “Although in many respects they appear to exercise absolute power, unrestrained by fixed principles,” wrote one English slave captain, “they may be properly termed heads of an aristocratic government. This is evinced by having a grand palaver [consultation] house, in which they themselves preside, but the members of which, composed of the great chiefs and great men, . . . [are] convened and consulted upon all matters of state urgency.”20
Imports of African slaves to Europe and the Canaries were coming to an end. The explanation was that the high birthrate of the sixteenth century satisfied the demands for labor in Spain, Italy, and southern France; and, when the population declined in the seventeenth century, the economies in those countries were in poor condition. Brazilian sugar farmers could afford black slaves; Lisbon noblemen could do so less and less. Yet indigenous Indian slaves were still to be found in Portugal in the early seventeenth century, and the slaves of Lisbon in 1620 may still have been over ten thousand, about 6 percent of a total population of 165,000. Perhaps, too, a tenth of the population of the Algarve were slaves at this time. In 1600, Catalonia and the Mediterranean coast of Spain were still importing slaves as a result of maritime raids against Arab towns, and the authorities there were often occupied by the flight of slaves to France. (But this dimension diminished during the seventeenth century, when naval engagements were won by Moors more often than by Spaniards.) In Seville, there was actually an increase in the population of the black quarter of San Bernardo. The parish had even to be divided into two (the new section was San Roque, whose church was finished in 1585). Perhaps there was here, as there had been in Portugal, a deliberate encouragement of black births for a time; in Palos, at least, masters apparently sought to persuade slave women to have a child every two years.
• • •
Meantime, another firm declaration against the slave trade then so vigorously under way had been made in Seville by Tomás de Mercado, a Dominican friar who had been, when young, to Mexico. He wrote an account of the commerce between Spain and the New World. He knew from personal observation in what vile conditions slaves were carried on ships. So he could be more direct on the matter than de Soto and others had been. In his Suma de tratos y contratos, published in Salamanca in 1569, he admittedly accepted the institution of slavery. He recognized too that prisoners captured in war had, throughout history, been enslaved, and even considered that slaves were, usually, better off in America than they were in Africa. But he also described vividly how so many slaves were obtained through kidnapping or trickery, even if the kidnappers and tricksters were usually Africans. The high prices offered for slaves by Europeans, he pointed out, also encouraged the African monarchs to raid each other’s land, and even persuaded fathers to sell their children, sometimes out of spite. Overcrowding on slave ships while crossing the Atlantic was so atrocious that the smell alone was enough to kill many: 129 slaves on a recent ship, he said, had died the first night of the voyage. No official regulations about loading slaves, such as the Portuguese had tried to introduce, could be expected to work. So, he argued, indulgence in the slave trade to the Americas automatically caused men to incur deadly sin. Those who engaged in the trade in Seville, such as the Jorges and other distinguished merchants, should discuss the matter with their confessors.21
These stern words had no effect. The Arenal in Seville remained full of ships clearing for the Cape Verde Islands, if not for Africa.
A few years later, Bartolomé Frías de Albornoz, a lawyer born in Talavera in Spain who had emigrated to Mexico and lived there, went further than Mercado had done, in his Arte de los contratos, published in Valencia, in 1573. Frías de Albornoz was the first professor of civil law in New Spain and is now considered “the father of Mexican juriconsultants”: a paternity which has certainly had an extended progeny. In his book, he doubted whether prisoners of war could ever be legally enslaved. Unlike Mercado, he thought that no African could benefit from living as a slave in the Americas, and that Christianity could not justify the violence of the trade and the act of kidnapping. Obviously, he thought, clergy were too lazy to go to Africa and act as real missionaries.22
Clearly these expressions of doubt needed a reply; and they came, in the form of a revelation. A Dominican friar, Fray Francisco de la Cruz, told the Inquisition in Lima, that an angel had told him that “the blacks are justly captives by reason of the sins of their forefathers, and that because of that sin God gave them that color.” The Dominican explained that the black people were descended from the tribe of Aser—he must have meant Isacchar—and they were so warlike and indomitable that they would upset everyone if they were allowed to live free.23
Similar views to those of Frías de Albornoz were nevertheless expressed by a Jesuit, Fray Miguel García who, arriving in Brazil about 1580, and being among the earliest members of the order to reach that dominion, was horrified to find that his society owned Africans who, as he thought, had been illegally enslaved. He decided to refuse to hear confession from anyone who owned African slaves. He and a colleague, Frei Gonçalo Leite, returned to Europe in protest. But nothing more was heard of them. A comparable protest was expressed in 1580 by the historian Juan Suárez de Peralta, a nephew by marriage of Hernán Cortés, who wondered why no voices were raised on behalf of the black Africans when so many were so raised in favor of the Indians: “There is no difference between them other than that one is darker in color,” he sensibly pointed out.24 But his book, like Las Casas’s History of the Indies, in which that author spoke similarly, was not published till the nineteenth century.
A ferocious attack on the slave trade was also made at the end of the sixteenth century by the Portuguese bishop of the Cape Verde Islands, Frei Pedro Brandão. He tried to end the traffic and proposed that all blacks should be baptized and then declared free.
These disparate challenges to the ancient institution, like all others, fell on deaf ears. Spain, and Portugal with her, was entering an intellectually dead period. The assumption was that the status quo had to be maintained. The age of adventure was over, and that of considerate philanthropy had not arrived. Printing had come, but there was no method of general communication. Albornoz’s book was condemned by the Inquisition as being unduly disturbing. Anyway, what was written in a Dominican monastery, however important, could not be expected to be read by merchants on the waterfronts.
All the same, these isolated denunciations enable the Catholic Church to present herself as a prefigurement of the abolitionist movement more plausibly than is often allowed. Throughout the seventeenth century, letters of protest on the matter of the slave trade continued to arrive at the sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome from Capuchins, Jesuits, and bishops.
Mercado and Albornoz might have no effect, but they had successors. Thus, in the early seventeenth century, a Jesuit named João Álvaras wrote—privately, of course—“I personally feel that the troubles which afflict Portugal are on account of the slaves we secure unjustly from our conquests and the lands where we trade.”25 Fray Alonso de Sandoval, a great Spanish Jesuit traveler who was born in Seville but educated in Lima, asked some embarrassing questions in his book Naturaleza . . . de todos los etíopes, which was published in his birthplace in 1627. He concluded that slavery was a combination of all evils. In 1610, he had written to Frei Luis Brandão, the rector of the newly established College of Jesuits in Luanda, to ask if the slaves whom he had himself seen in Brazil had been legally procured or not. Brandão replied delphically: “ . . . there have been fathers in our order eminent in letters, [and] never did they consider this trade as illicit. . . . We and the fathers of Brazil buy these slaves without any scruple. . . . If anyone could be excused from having scruples, it is the inhabitants of those regions for, since the traders who bring those blacks do so in good faith, those inhabitants can very well buy them from such traders without any scruple, and the latter . . . can sell them.” He then warned Sandoval, “I find that no black will ever say that he has been captured legally . . . in the hope that they will be given their liberty.” He added: “In the fairs where these blacks are bought, there are always a few who have been captured illegally, because they were stolen, or because the rulers of the land order them to be sold for offenses so slight that they do not deserve captivity; but these are few in number and to seek, among the ten or twelve thousand who leave this port every year, for a few who have been illegally captured is an impossibility. . . .”26 Sandoval published this letter, but the exchange seemed surprisingly to have convinced the Jesuits of the legality, grosso modo, of the trade in slaves.
The only tangible consequence of all these discussions was a decision by Philip III, king of Spain as of Portugal, to insist that all slave ships carry priests.
Despite this official neglect of criticism of the new trade in black slaves, it is hard not to feel that there were, by 1600 or so, enough hostile voices to have brought the trade to an end within the next generation or so had it not been for the entry into the business of the Northern European Protestants, as will be discussed in the next chapter.
There were also in these years just a few indications that the institution of slavery itself was not accepted as a permanent state of affairs. In 1571, for example, the parliament of Bordeaux declared that “all blacks and Moors which a Norman merchant [probably from Honfleur] has brought to this town to sell should be placed at liberty: France, mother of liberty, does not permit any slaves.”27 A little later, a slave traveling between Genoa and Spain with his master was set free in Toulouse on the ground that any slave who entered that city was automatically free. Jean Bodin, the philosopher of sovereignty, was personally present on the last occasion, and he used what he saw to support his argument, in his Six Livres de la République, that an all-powerful sovereign could abolish slavery altogether.28 But the decisions at Bordeaux and at Toulouse were isolated events of little significance. Whatever was said by Bodin, slavery persisted sporadically in France; and Frenchmen were quite ready to participate in the international slave trade, if they could only find a way.
There was, in the early seventeenth century, just one expression of uncertainty about the slave trade emanating from West Africa itself. Thus an ex-slave captured by the Moroccans at the great battle of Tondibi, Ahmed Baba, established himself as a lawyer in Tuat, a large market town of North Africa. Some of his admirers approached him, shocked by the increasing quantities of “ebony” passing through their oases in the Sahara trade. To be sure, they were worried not about the slave trade as such but, rather, that there just might be some “brothers,” Muslims, included by mistake in some of these caravanserais. Ahmed Baba then wrote a study concluding that slavery was certainly permissible if the slaves were captured in a just war, but all captives had to be asked before being enslaved whether they would accept Islam.29 If they did they should be freed. A free man, therefore, might have supposed in 1620 that Islam was a more tolerant faith than Christianity.
IIn the same inquiry in London, the question was put, “Can any cause be assigned which impedes the natural increase of Negroes?” The answer was: “the lascivious abuse of authority in white servants over the immature and unprotected females. . . . The women . . . have in general a sense of decency and decorum in their fidelity. . . . The men have none; they follow the examples of the white servants. . . . To their loose amours, many of them are sacrificed. Both sexes are frequently traveling all night going to or returning from a distant connection. . . .”