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The asiento was a contract granted by the Spanish crown to an individual or company allowing the holder exclusive rights in the slave trade with Spain's American colonies; it constituted the principal legal means of supplying slaves to Spanish America. These monopolistic arrangements specified the number of piezas de Indias (standard slave units, each pieza being equivalent to a prime male slave) to be delivered annually, ports of entry, and lump sums and head taxes to be paid to the Spanish monarchy. The asientistas, holders of the asiento, rarely provided their full complement of piezas de Indias so that contraband trade in slaves and other goods flourished, often with the complicity of asientistas and their agents.

The asiento apparently emerged in the 1590s, although similar contracts date from the early 1500s. The Portuguese dominated the asiento until Portugal's assertion of independence in 1640 undermined the arrangements. Spain refused to offer commercial rights to "rebels," "heretics," or enemies—categories that seemed, in the mid-1600s, to encompass all possible contractual partners. Not until 1662 did the Spanish, striving to boost royal revenues, revive the asiento.

Because Spain lacked adequate commercial and maritime resources and access to the African coast, foreigners continued to dominate the trade. European powers so coveted the contract as an opportunity to penetrate the commerce of the Spanish empire, that the asiento, its actual fiscal importance greatly exaggerated, became an instrument of foreign policy and diplomacy. The contract fell to the Dutch in 1675, to the Portuguese in 1694, to the French in 1701, and, finally, to the English in the Peace of Utrecht (1713) as a spoil of war. The Anglo-Spanish agreement survived until 1750, but the monopolistic character of the asiento slowly passed into eclipse, and Spain abrogated the system in 1789.

See alsoSlave Tradexml .


Colin Palmer, Human Cargoes: The British Slave Trade to Spanish America, 1700–1739 (1981).

James A. Rawley, The Transatlantic Slave Trade (1981).

Additional Bibliography

Cáceres Gómez, Rina. Rutas de la esclavitud en Africa y América Latina. San José: Editorial de la Universidad de Costa Rica, 2001.

Landers, Jane, and Barry Robinson. Slaves, Subjects, and Subversives: Blacks in Colonial Latin America Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2006.

Vila Vilar, Enriqueta. Aspectos sociales en América colonial: De extranjeros, contrabando y esclavos. Bogotá: Instituto Caro y Cuervo: Universidad de Bogotá "Jorge Tadeo Lozano," 2001.

                                              Cara Shelly

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