Black History Month
EARLY IMMIGRATION AND SLAVERY
Most of the earliest black immigrants to the Americas were natives of Spain and Portugal—men such as Pedro Alonso Niño (1468-1505), a navigator who accompanied Columbus on his first voyage, and the black colonists who helped Nicolás de Ovando (1460?-1518) form the first Spanish settlement on Hispaniola in 1502.
The name of Nuflo de Olano (b. 1490?) appears in the records as that of a black slave present when Vasco Núñez de Balboa sighted the Pacific Ocean in 1513. Other black men served with Hernán Cortés when he conquered Mexico and with Francisco Pizarro when he marched into Peru.
Estebanico (c. 1500-38), one of the survivors of Pánfilo de Narváez's unfortunate expedition to Florida in 1527, was a black man. With three companions, he spent eight years traveling overland to Mexico City, learning several Indian languages in the process. Later, while exploring what is now New Mexico, he lost his life in a dispute with the Zuñi Indians. Juan Valiente (d. 1553), another black man, led Spaniards in a series of battles against the Araucanian Indians of Chile between 1540 and 1546. Although Valiente was a slave, he was rewarded with an estate near Santiago and control of several Indian villages. Between 1502 and 1518, Spain shipped out hundreds of Spanish-born Africans, called Ladinos, to work as laborers, especially in the mines. Opponents of their enslavement cited their weak Christian faith and their penchant for escaping to the mountains or joining the Indians in revolt. Proponents declared that the rapid diminution of the Indian population required a consistent supply of reliable workhands.
Free Spaniards were reluctant to do manual labor or to remain settled (especially after the discovery of gold on the mainland), and only slave labor could assure the economic viability of the colonies.
Beginning of the African Slave Trade
By 1518, the demand for slaves in the Spanish New World was so great that King Charles I of Spain (who, as Holy Roman Emperor, was known as Charles V), sanctioned the direct transport of slaves from Africa to the American colonies. The slave trade was controlled by the Crown, which sold the right to import slaves (asiento) to entrepreneurs.
By the 1530s, the Portuguese were also using African slaves in Brazil. From then until the abolition of the slave trade in 1870, at least 10 million Africans were forcibly brought to the Americas: about 47 percent of them to the Caribbean islands and the Guianas; 38 percent to Brazil; and 6 percent to mainland Spanish America. About 4.5 percent went to North America, roughly the same proportion that went to Europe.
The greatest proportion of these slaves worked on plantations producing sugar, coffee, cotton, tobacco, and rice in the tropical lowlands of northeastern Brazil and in the Caribbean islands. Most of them came from the sub-Saharan states of West and Central Africa, but by the late 18th century the supply zone extended to southern and East Africa as well.
Impact of Slavery
Slavery in the Americas was generally harsh, but it varied from time to time and place to place. The Caribbean and Brazilian sugar plantations required a consistently high supply of labor for centuries. In other areas—the frontiers of southern Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, and Colombia—slavery was relatively unimportant to the economy.
To tame the wilderness, build cities, establish plantations, and exploit mineral wealth, the Europeans needed more laborers than they could recruit from among their own metropolitan masses. In the early 16th century, the Spanish tried unsuccessfully to subjugate and enslave the native populations of the West Indies. Slavery was considered the most desirable system of labor organization because it allowed the master almost absolute control over the life and productivity of the laborer. The rapid disintegration of local indigenous societies and the subsequent decimation of the native Indians by warfare and European diseases severely exacerbated the labor situation, increasing the demand for imported workers.
African slaves constituted the highest proportion of laborers on the islands and circum-Caribbean lowlands where the native population had died. The same was true in the northeastern coastlands of Brazil—especially the rich agricultural area called the Reconcavo, where the seminomadic Tupinamba and Tupiniquim Indians resisted effective control by the Portuguese—and in some of the Leeward Islands such as Guadeloupe and Dominica, where the Caribs waged a determined resistance to their expulsion and enslavement. In areas of previously dense populations, such as parts of central Mexico or the highlands of Peru, a sufficient number of the Indian inhabitants survived to satisfy a major part of the labor demands of the new colonists. In such cases African slaves supplemented coerced Indian labor.