African Slavery in the Americas

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African Slavery in the Americas

Slavery, a fairly universal development across many of the world's ancient and early modern societies, took myriad forms reflecting a number of variables within a given historical setting. The enslavement of both Native American and African peoples in the Americas was no different, in this respect, from previous developments. Yet slavery in the Americas was exceptional as the transatlantic slave trade developed concurrently with a nascent capitalist system that touched much of the Western world. During this transformation, older forms of slavery—where enslavement was often a temporary status mediated by tribal customs or protective legal codes—were transformed into an institution in which the enslaved were marked as chattel, that is, personal property, and of inferior racial status.


Spain and Portugal led Europe's initial efforts to colonize the Americas and first introduced African slavery to the hemisphere. Given their late medieval history, both powers were uniquely suited for experimenting with African slavery in the Americas. While the institution of slavery declined in importance throughout much of Europe following the collapse of the western half of the Roman Empire during the fifth century CE the institution was revitalized in Iberia (the peninsula now occupied by Spain and Portugal) with the invasion of the Moors in 711 and the intermittent Christian campaign to retake lost territory over the subsequent seven centuries. As Christian and Muslim kingdoms collided and competed with one another, raids and warfare led to the occasional enslavement of captives and subjugated populations.

The Portuguese Crown completed its campaign of reconquest by the mid-thirteenth century, which led within a few decades to a shift of commercial aspirations and the crusade impulse into the Atlantic. Portuguese maritime activity involved the exploration of the western coast of sub-Saharan Africa and various uninhabited Atlantic islands (e.g., Madeira, the Azores, and the Cape Verdes). The Portuguese sought to tap into the lucrative, preexisting trade network of the West African coast, bringing to Lisbon cargoes of ivory, peppers, gold, and some African slaves.

European demand for enslaved Africans during the fifteenth century was relatively small compared to later developments and probably exerted a negligible influence on sub-Saharan slave markets. The impact of the slave trade was soon noticeable in Iberia, however; by the start of the sixteenth century, several thousand enslaved and freed people of African descent resided in such Iberian cities as Lisbon and Seville. The expulsion of the Moors from the Christian kingdoms of Spain took longer, but Spanish ships soon joined their Portuguese counterparts in plying the Atlantic. Spanish efforts concentrated on the conquest of the Guanches, the original inhabitants of the Canary Islands, at the close of the fifteenth century.

Following earlier Portuguese precedent, particularly on Madeira, plantations were established to cultivate sugar for the insatiable European market. Throughout these Atlantic islands, and eventually São Tomé off the African coast, various enslaved groups were shipped to the plantations, including conquered Moors from Spain, the Guanches of the Canaries, and finally Africans purchased along the western coast of Africa. These initial experiments with sugar plantations and imported African slaves served as a harbinger for later developments in the Americas.


While the Portuguese developed trade relations along the western and central African coast, Spain benefited from the fortuitous discovery of the American hemisphere through its support of the Genoese navigator Cristóbal Colón (Christopher Columbus, 1451–1506). Columbus made landfall in late 1492 in the Lesser Antilles and eventually Hispaniola (the island comprising the modern nations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic). While he famously searched for the "Great Khan" of China, Columbus also sought potential commercial opportunities for his royal sponsors, including the traffic of Indian slaves. He noted the servile and peaceful nature of the Arawak inhabitants of the Caribbean, who might be coerced into laboring in the gold mines that he rightly guessed would be discovered on Hispaniola.

Slave arrivals in the Americas, 1451–1870
Source: For the period 1451 to 1700, Philip D. Curtin, The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1969), p. 268; for the period 1701–1870, David Eltis' revision of Curtin's figures, Eltis, Economic Growth and the Ending of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (New York, 1989).

Spanish colonization of the Caribbean began in earnest with Columbus's second voyage in 1493. Discipline and work were concepts difficult to instill in a colonist population seeking fortune and a quick return home. Spanish-Indian relations thus turned sour as colonists demanded greater access to native labor and provisions. A version of the Iberian encomienda, through which non-Christians were placed under the vassalage of a Christian lord, was adapted to the Caribbean context to satisfy these demands. In its various guises, the encomienda would serve as the initial instrument for tapping indigenous labor and goods as the Spanish expanded their control over new lands and peoples.

Old World diseases and exploitation decimated Hispaniola's native population, spurring colonists to begin raiding much of the Caribbean basin for substitute labor. Such actions were commonly justified by the Spanish perception of the existence of hostile, man-eating Caribs (from which the term cannibalism originates). Slave raiding emptied out the Bahamas by 1513, while the military conquest of Puerto Rico in 1508 and Cuba in 1511 supplied even larger numbers of war captives.

This initial experimental phase raised profound questions for Spanish jurists concerning the nature of the colonial enterprise, Spanish obligations to autochthonous groups, and eventually a rationale for importing African slaves. Spain's initial claim to sovereignty over the Americas rested largely on a series of papal bulls (decrees) and treaties promulgated after the return of Columbus's first voyage to the New World. Pope Alexander VI (1431–1503) had effectively divided the world into two spheres of influence, providing Spain a monopoly over most of what would become the American continents while setting aside Africa and the Far East for rival Portugal. This decision, however, rested upon the moral obligation of the crown to evangelize newly discovered pagan peoples and to establish a protective tutelage over them.

These early ideological underpinnings of the colonial enterprise brought significant consequences for how the Spanish monarchy approached its indigenous subjects and the topic of slavery. Facing a demographic catastrophe in its Caribbean colonies by the second decade of the sixteenth century, the crown responded with decrees that restricted conditions for waging "just war" against hostile Indians and limited enslavement to known cannibals. Enforcement proved difficult, however. The invasion of Central America in 1500, for example, led to a half century of Indian slaving that resulted in the export of tens of thousands of captives out of the region. In response to the precipitous decline of indigenous groups throughout the mainland, the so-called New Laws of 1542 banned definitively Indian slavery, although the practice persisted well into the eighteenth century in precariously held frontier zones in northern Mexico, Chile, and Argentina. As the legality of Indian slavery became more nebulous and their numbers dwindled, the demand for compliant labor took a different direction.

The introduction of slaves of African descent to the Americas took place within this larger juridical conversation regarding the crown's obligations to the indigenous population. Small numbers of black slaves had been present since the earliest stages of the colonization of the Caribbean. Originating from Iberia, many of these individuals were considered ladino, a term indicating they had assimilated elements of Hispanic culture and spoke Spanish. Concerns regarding the presumed fragility of the New World's population, coupled with a desire to maintain the economic viability of the Caribbean colonies, led to an escalation of African slavery as a replacement for various forms of coerced indigenous labor. Simultaneously, with the opening of the transatlantic slave trade in the 1530s through the Portuguese-held trade factory of São Tomé off the African coast, a growing number of Africans were shipped to the New World who had very little or no Hispanic acculturation. They were called bozales.


Spanish colonization and African slavery took an enormous step forward with the conquest of mainland indigenous societies, beginning in 1521 with the fall of the Aztec state in central Mexico and that of the Inca in the Andes in 1532. While success is often attributed solely to Spanish conquistadors, slaves and freedmen of African descent played a crucial role as auxiliaries and porters. Despite their contributions to these campaigns, few "black conquistadors" received significant compensation for their efforts, spurring many to participate in further conquests in more marginal zones of Central and South America, or to accept minor positions in newly established cities.

Slave Populations in the Americas, ca. 1770
RegionSlave PopulationTotal Population
Source: Adapted from Robin Blackburn, The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776–1848 (London: Verso, 1988), p. 5.
Spanish America290,00012,144,000
British Caribbean428,000500,000
British North America450,0002,100,000
French Caribbean379,000430,000
Dutch Caribbean75,00090,000

Colonial exploitation in these core areas rested on coerced but nominally free Indian labor. As they had in the Caribbean, Spanish settlers turned to the encomienda as the principal motor of enrichment and economic development. Preexisting tribute and labor levies inherited from the conquered native polities enabled a fairly rapid transition to a new colonial regime. Indian tributaries were to provide the Spanish elite with marketable goods and new urban zones with foodstuffs. While some forms of indigenous slavery existed prior to the arrival of Europeans and carried over into the early colonial era, most Indian labor was organized and channeled through indigenous lords and their subject communities via the encomienda.

State labor drafts of indigenous tributaries began to overshadow the private encomienda by the second half of the sixteenth century. This was particularly the case once significant deposits of silver were discovered starting in the 1540s in sparsely populated zones (northern Mexico and the high Andes of Bolivia).

African slavery complemented Indian labor from the very inception of these mainland viceroyalties. Slaves were particularly important in urban economies, filling various labor niches as skilled artisans, truck gardeners, and household servants. Early colonists also considered slaves effective foremen of their Indian tributaries, which helped give rise to a reputation of blacks as abusive and threatening to native people, an image that only recently has been challenged and at least partly debunked.

African slavery in Spanish America accelerated after the mid-sixteenth century due to two principal factors. First, the indigenous population of newly conquered areas suffered a demographic catastrophe similar to that which had befallen the Caribbean. As the tributary population declined due to disease and exploitation, and the demands of the Spanish sector expanded due to its own demographic growth, colonial entrepreneurs and the state again looked to replace the Indian laborers with African slaves. The fortuitous union of the Spanish and Portuguese crowns (1580–1640) provided the colonies a more reliable source of slaves that coincided with the nadir of indigenous population levels.

African slavery reverted to a more supplemental role in Mesoamerica and the Andes during the second half of the seventeenth century as Spain and Portugal split politically and the native population began to recover. The Spanish maintained the so-called asiento (monopoly contract), however, which licensed select European powers with access to the coast of Africa to transport and market slaves in Spain's American ports of entry.

Meanwhile, the Portuguese discovery of Brazil in 1500 opened up additional possibilities for colonization and African slavery. Unlike the populous societies Spain conquered in Mesoamerica and the Andes, the Portuguese encountered stateless, semi-sedentary groups living along the coast in a near incessant state of tribal warfare. Brazil was considered a less promising opportunity than the lucrative trade networks the Portuguese were tapping into along the coast of Africa and later in the Indian Ocean and Far East. The colonization impulse was therefore dampened for several decades in Brazil, while early Portuguese-Indian relations centered on the relatively peaceful Brazil wood trade.

Efforts by the French to initiate their own colonies in Brazil (between 1555 and 1615) compelled the Portuguese Crown to sponsor a more serious colonization effort that eventually centered on sugar cultivation in the northeast. Planters tried to gather Indian men, either voluntarily or not, to supply the necessary labor, but encountered serious difficulties. Decimated by disease and facing a harsher labor regime than they were accustomed to, native laborers fled the plantations in droves. Further complicating matters were indigenous attitudes that associated agricultural work with women. Planter demands for labor led to a deterioration in tribal relations and an escalation in frontier violence.

The relative proximity of Brazil to advanced agricultural societies in Africa made feasible the decision to seek alternative labor. During the early seventeenth century, African slaves replaced Indian workers as the principal motor of plantation production throughout the Brazilian northeast. Nevertheless, raids into the Brazilian interior for Indian slaves continued. Of these efforts, the most famous were the bandeirantes of the southern city of São Paulo, themselves a multiethnic and polyglot group, who opened up territory deep in the continent for later settlement by the Portuguese.

Over the course of the seventeenth century, northern Europeans began encroaching on territories claimed by Spain and Portugal and experimenting with African slavery. Of particular significance were the Dutch, who revolted against Spanish rule in 1572 in a protracted conflict that eventually embroiled the Portuguese. Founded in 1621, the Dutch West Indies Company sought over the next two decades to wrest away from Portugal its sugar zones in Brazil and slaving ports along the African coast.

Although the Dutch were ousted from Brazil in 1654, the interim period proved decisive in the subsequent development of American slavery. Dutch planters who had gained expertise in the production of sugar and its mill technology began colonizing Caribbean islands (Barbados, Martinique, and Guadeloupe) as early as the 1640s. Like Brazil, much of the Caribbean remained vulnerable to colonization efforts by Iberia's imperial rivals. Joining the Dutch were increasing numbers of British and French planters who benefited from their nations' own efforts to gain a foothold on the African slave trade. By the eighteenth century, this multinational experiment ended Brazil's dominance of the international sugar market while also drawing significant numbers of African slaves to the region.


Labor demands in British North America also fostered the growth of an African slave population. Until the late seventeenth century, however, labor demands throughout much of the American eastern seaboard were met through a combination of family members, indentured servants, and only a scattering of African slaves. This initial "charter" generation of slaves tended to be drawn from those already living in this emerging Atlantic world, and like the early ladinos of the Spanish colonial world, these individuals benefited from a familiarity with diverse European languages, cultures, and institutions. Often working in small numbers and alongside white servants and even their masters, the social distance between enslaved and free was smaller than that which would develop under the plantation regime. While brutality and coercion were not absent, the possibility existed for manumission and some degree of social mobility through market participation, the purchase of land, and affiliation with Christian churches.

Similar to developments in the Hispanic world, the transition to a plantation system throughout much of the North American colonies (e.g., tobacco in the Chesapeake and rice and indigo in South Carolina) by the early eighteenth century led to a predominance of African-born slaves and fewer opportunities for manumission or social mobility for those already freed. For half a century, the slave population in these zones was characterized by the retention of African languages, culture, and religion before being outpaced by the gradual development of an African-American generation with its own culture, informed by both its ancestral roots and that of the European colonists.


Slavery also continued to evolve in much of Latin America. New commercial opportunities, such as cacao in Venezuela, produced variations in the plantation model. Despite its decline relative to the Caribbean plantation systems, Brazil remained the single largest destination for African slaves. As the sugar industry suffered from international competition, new demands for African slaves emerged.

Indian slave raiding by the bandeirantes led to the discovery of gold and diamond mines in the interior of central Brazil in 1693 to 1695 and in 1729 respectively. Miners, slaves, and royal tax collectors followed in the wake of these bonanzas, stimulating the creation of new urban zones and market demands. Extraction took two principal forms. In some areas, large gangs of supervised slaves worked in placer mines created through elaborate and costly hydraulic works and sluices. Those with less capital established agreements whereby largely unsupervised slaves prospected in return for a share of the findings.

Within decades, a substantial freed population emerged as slaves were able to purchase their freedom from the surpluses they retained. Similar developments occurred in areas of Spanish America, such as the gold mines of the Chocó (the Pacific coastal lowlands of modern Colombia). African slaves were preferred over intransigent Indian groups, leading to an increasingly African and freed population by the end of the eighteenth century.

As these examples suggest, the impact of the slave trade varied widely across space and time given the diverse conditions of different regions of the New World. Despite an early prominence in the traffic of bondsmen, the viceroyalties of New Spain and Peru, for example, remained heavily indigenous due to the vast size of the pre-Hispanic population, even after the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century collapse. While slavery persisted as an institution, over time it played a diminishing role in the lives of most individuals of African descent. High rates of manumission and interracial sexual unions led to an African-based population creolized in culture and with free people outnumbering the enslaved.

Where the indigenous population was initially much thinner, the demographic results varied. In what became the viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata in 1776 (comprising mostly modern Argentina), both the European and African presence was sparse. Nevertheless, the port of Buenos Aires continued to contain a discernible black population well into the nineteenth century. In the Spanish Caribbean, in contrast, Puerto Rico and Cuba witnessed a dramatic rise in slavery during the eighteenth century, which left a pronounced African presence that persists to the present day. Much of Brazil and parts of British North America, which contained lower population densities than Mesoamerica and the Andes, also developed discernible African-based (and creolized) populations by the end of the eighteenth century.


The relative numerical strength of African populations throughout the Americas was in turn shaped by each region's relationship to the Atlantic slave trade. Estimating the volume of the trade remains a difficult and contentious exercise. Philip Curtin (1969) offered the first systematic scholarly effort to measure the slave trade, concluding that as many as 11.8 million Africans were shipped to the Americas and approximately 9.4 million reached its shores.

Since Curtin, other scholars have tested his analysis, suggesting various revisions. The tentative consensus today is that some 11 million slaves left Africa over the course of three and a half centuries. Of this number, about 15 percent (over 1.5 million) may not have survived the infamous Middle Passage, a horrific experience marked by inhuman conditions of transport, insufficient food, and disease. Mortality rates incurred from the point of capture in the African interior to transfer to a slave ship along the coast may have been even higher, suggesting the tremendous toll on human lives that slave trafficking exacted.

The vast majority of slaves (around 10 million) were shipped after 1660 following the expansion of the sugar plantation complex, with regions most associated with this regime receiving the largest number of slaves. Thus, between 1662 and 1867 Brazil obtained some 40 percent of all slaves shipped to the Americas, while the British, French, and Spanish Caribbean combined received over 47 percent of the total.

A better understanding of the historical contours of the Atlantic slave trade has allowed scholars to examine more closely what happened to African cultural practices, languages, and beliefs under American slavery. To summarize a complex discussion, historians dispute the extent to which African culture carried over and persisted in the Western Hemisphere. Stanley Elkins (1959), building on the work of Frank Tannenbaum (1947) and others, posited that slavery was so extreme and brutal an experience in the capitalistic regimes of British America that those held in bondage were essentially stripped of their previous identities.

This position has fallen out of favor. The debate today revolves more around the issue of cultural survival versus creolization. On the one hand, some scholars have pointed to the experience of the Middle Passage and bondage as leading to a blurring of African cultural divisions and the creation of a unique African-American culture that borrows from a diverse set of origins. Others have countered that various regions of America tended to draw slaves from distinct zones of Africa, which resulted in a concentration of individuals from similar cultural backgrounds for generations, reinforcing African rather than creolized cultures.

Scholars who emphasize the continuities of African culture in the Americas often point to the profound demographic impact of slavery to support their position. Slave populations throughout the Americas tended to depend upon continued imports from Africa since slave mortality rates usually outpaced birth rates. Indeed, it has long been noted that the only significant exception to this rule was the antebellum United States, although the reasons for this fact are complex and still only partially understood. Part of the problem involves the skewed gender ratios of the slave trade itself, which favored young adult males. Scholars are divided whether this was due more to the market demands of American planters or a refusal of African merchants to sell female slaves, who were highly coveted in domestic slave markets.

Clearly, though, a separate issue involved the appalling conditions under which most slaves lived. While disease did not spare owners, slaves were much more vulnerable due to the poor nutrition, abysmal living conditions, and extreme work hours that characterized their daily existence. Critics within the Brazilian Catholic Church, for instance, often berated planters who would rather pay for a new African slave than assume the costs involved in the proper care of those already owned. Unproductive infants and young children likewise required years of maintenance before they could begin to compete with the productivity levels of newly acquired adults shipped directly from Africa.

The issue of rising enslaved birth rates in the United States, and the reasons for why it seems to have been so exceptional, relates to another point of contention in the comparative history of American slavery. In the 1940s Tannenbaum argued the treatment of African slaves in Latin America was better than in British America. He suggested that centuries of contact with Moors and Africans had provided Spain and Portugal with a relatively humane system of laws and attitudes concerning the treatment of slaves and racial difference, arising from legal and cultural sensibilities that northern Protestant countries lacked given their more isolated historical development. Iberian law, based on Roman precedent, recognized the human personality of the slave, placed constraints on the owner's ability to dole out punishment, and offered the possibility for manumission through self-purchase or the release from service upon the owner's death. The regulatory power of the Catholic Church, which likewise recognized the humanity of the enslaved, made for a decidedly different slave system than that of Protestant colonies.

While it is true that Iberian colonial law and institutions offered a modicum of concern for African slaves, the reality was more problematic, as the absence of American-born slave populations throughout much of Latin America might attest. Legal protection, for one matter, was rarely proactive and always inconsistently enforced. In contrast to Tannenbaum's effort to distinguish systems of slavery across broad cultural divides, more recent scholarship tends instead to emphasize other determinant factors related to the particular economic roles slavery fulfilled in a given colony or region. Throughout most slave societies, for example, treatment and living conditions declined in situations where slavery became the dominant institution and economic pressures for profit were most severe. In contrast, where slavery played a less important economic role, levels of coercion and abuse might be less extreme.

The evolution of slavery in Cuba is a good example of this phenomenon. Long a backwater of the Spanish empire, Cuban agriculture (tobacco, sugar, coffee, and livestock) rested on a mix of free and slave labor. In 1763 the island was seized by England and underwent a rapid transformation as a result of an opening up of international trade. The Spanish continued these efforts after retaking the island, and as a result Cuba was transformed into a major plantation-based economy with a typically oppressive labor regime based on the use of slave gangs. What had changed in Cuba, in other words, was the economic regime rather than the cultural or legal framework theoretically guiding slave-owner relations.

While slavery was undoubtedly an oppressive system, those held in bondage often sought to resist or minimize its pernicious influence on their lives. Resistance began during the Middle Passage itself, which witnessed numerous revolts on slave ships. Bondage in the Americas also offered its own range of opportunities for slaves to oppose the will of owners and overseers. Acts of passive resistance, such as work slowdowns, the destruction of property, or theft, are common throughout the historical record.

Escape was also an early and persistent tactic that slaves employed to resist oppression. Plantations located along frontier zones or inaccessible terrain offered potential safety for those who could reach it. The phenomenon of flight could take on an individual or temporary dimension, or become a permanent and collective act of resistance. The famed community of Palmares in Brazil, for example, endured for decades (1630–1697) despite repeated efforts by the Portuguese to crush it militarily. Elsewhere, imperial frontiers offered the possibility of freedom. Runaway slaves from South Carolina and Georgia, for example, found sanctuary in Spanish Florida, where they formed free communities and militias that supported the defense of St. Augustine.

Less frequent were slave rebellions in which violent resistance to the regime took a collective dimension. The potential for such an outbreak was never far from the minds of owners and state authorities alike, although actual instances are probably outnumbered by alleged discovered conspiracies. Whether instances of the latter were actual plots or simply the paranoid fantasies of slave-owners remains uncertain and no doubt depended on the individual case. Armed resistance at a collective level did occur, however. The 1835 revolt in Bahia, Brazil, by Muslim slaves is one notable example, as is the more famous and ultimately successful slave revolt that culminated in Haitian independence (1791–1804).

Finally, slave resistance contributed significantly to the eventual abolition of slavery over the course of the nineteenth century in various American republics. The activities of abolition societies, the Underground Railroad, and regiments of freedmen who fought in the American Civil War (1861–1865) are perhaps the best known examples. Like their brethren to the north, slaves participated in the wars of independence in mainland Spanish America (1808–1821), often in response to the promise of freedom. The abolition of slavery in much of Spanish America during the 1840s and 1850s was encouraged not only by the enforcement of the British ban of the slave trade and the transformation of domestic economies, but also by the actions of slaves and freed people alike, who fought and clamored for the rights promulgated in the republican constitutions of the era.

But legal freedom, although a tremendous achievement, did not ensure parity or full citizenship despite the efforts and political mobilization of freed people in the fledgling American republics. Indeed, the legacy of slavery and the racism it had fostered remained pressing concerns in postabolition societies, as it does in today's continuing struggle for equality and civil rights across the American hemisphere.

see also Abolition of Colonial Slavery; Export Commodities; Haitian Revolution; Mining, the Americas.


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