Spain’s Slavery Contract

Spain was building its empire in the newly discovered lands of the Americas. It needed people to work in the mines and on the plantations that were developing. At first, the local people, Indians, were used as free labour. They had been in the Americas long before the Spanish and other Europeans arrived. The Indians were often enslaved and forced to work by the newcomers. But, the Indian population decreased rapidly after the Europeans arrived in the Americas. The Europeans came with swords and guns, as well as dogs and horses. The Indians had bows and arrows and spears, but were no match for the newcomers. They did not have horses to escape on or dogs to protect them. The Europeans also brought diseases such as measles and the flu. The Indians were not used to these new diseases, and they died in great numbers. In 1500, it is estimated that there were about 50 million Indians in the Americas. By 1600, after 100 years of European warfare, disease and forced labour, this number had been reduced to about 8 million.

The Spanish authorities were alarmed at this decline in the local Indian population. New laws made by the Spanish in 1542 put an end to them being taken as slaves. Indians could no longer work in mines and on the land. Instead, a new system was introduced called the encomienda system. Under this system, the Indians were obliged to do a certain amount of work for the Spanish landowner on whose land they lived. It was not enough to keep up the output of the mines or the plantations. The local Indian labour had to be replaced. Enslaved Africans were brought in to do the hard labour of the new Spanish colonies. At first they were brought from other colonies owned by Spain, like the Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean. Later slaves were brought in greater numbers from across the Atlantic Ocean from West Africa.

In 1442, the head of the Catholic Christian church, Pope Eugenius IV gave the Portuguese the right to explore Africa. This right was ‘exclusive’, which meant that no other countries were allowed to explore and exploit Africa. The Portuguese were exploring the coastline of Africa, but it was costing them money. They wanted to protect their new discoveries, especially from the Spanish, who were also starting to explore Africa. At this time, leaders of the Catholic Church in Europe were opposed to the Islamic religion, practiced by Muslims. Southern Spain was occupied by Muslims, and the Catholic Church felt threatened by this. Pope Nicholas V in 1452, as part of the fight against Islam, gave the Portuguese king the right to enslave people who were not Christian. This was used by the Portuguese to enslave Africans. In 1454, the Pope then gave the Portuguese control over trading with Africa. Some European traders ignored this. Spanish merchants were trading with Africa for gold, ivory and a type of pepper, and English merchants were keen to get involved.

In 1493 Pope Alexander VI divided the world between Spain and Portugal. A line was drawn on the map down through the Atlantic Ocean. Portugal was allowed to explore and trade on one side, in the ‘old’ world and Spain on the other, in the ‘new’ world. This was designed to stop the two European countries from competing over parts of the world that they wanted to explore and trade with. Spain had the Americas, where Africans were needed to supply the labour. The Spanish could not go to Africa to buy enslaved Africans. The agreement stated that only Portugal was allowed to trade with Africa. Spanish landowners in the Americas had to buy from Portugese or other slave traders. The first slaves were intended for the goldmines on the Spanish-owned Caribbean island of Hispaniola (which is now divided into the countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic).

The Spanish government in 1518 introduced the asiento, to supply the new colonies with slave labour. The asiento was a licence to supply a given number of slaves. The Spanish authorities sold the asiento to the highest bidder, and the money went to the Spanish king and queen. The merchant who bought the licence could buy slaves in Africa and sell them in the Spanish Americas. They hoped to get back the money they spent on the licence, and make a good profit. The merchant could also make money by selling shares in the licence to other merchants. Any Spanish licence holders had to arrange delivery of the enslaved Africans by Portuguese traders. This was because Spanish ships could not legally go to Africa, as only the Portuguese could trade there. As Spain and Portugal were at that time on good terms, arrangements for the purchase and sale of slaves were easily made between the two countries.

The asiento, or licence to sell slaves, was often sold to foreign merchants rather than Spanish. It went to whoever was prepared to pay most money to get the licence. Often this meant that Portuguese, Dutch, German, British or Genoese merchants were supplying slaves to the Spanish colonies. From 1550 to 1595, the official records show that 36,300 enslaved Africans were imported into the Spanish-owned parts of South America. The number was probably much higher, as more were smuggled in by slave traders who did not hold a licence to supply slaves.

The numbers of enslaved Africans needed rose as the new colonies developed. More land was cleared for sugar plantations, new areas were found where gold and silver could be mined.

Often, the merchants who bought the asiento were, for some reason, unable to supply the slaves required. In 1676 a group of merchants in Seville in Spain (including women investors) bought the asiento or licence. They found that they could not supply the number of slaves agreed and withdrew early from the contract. The Cadiz Slave Company, from Spain, bid for the asiento in 1767. They agreed to supply 8,000 slaves per year to the Spanish plantations. They also found that they could not buy enough slaves each year to fulfil the contract.

In 1713, war between Britain and Spain was ended. By the terms of the peace agreement, Britain took over the asiento. Britain was given the contract to supply the Spanish colonies in South America with slaves for 30 years. The contract was later sold by the British government to the newly-formed, British-owned, South Sea Company. This company had been formed to sell merchandise to the Spanish colonies. The contract was to supply 4,800 slaves each year for 30 years. They also had to pay the King of Spain 33½ pesos (the peso was worth about 4/6d or 22 pence)for each slave supplied, plus an advance of 200,000 pesos. The Company was made up entirely of London merchants. Bristol’s merchants were put out by this exclusion from a profitable trade. There were Bristol people who invested money into the South Sea Company though. One was Mary Baker, who owned £300 worth of the company (about £ 15,000 today). Another Bristol investor, Abraham Elton II, also owned shares.

Bristol merchants felt excluded by the South Sea Company’s contract to supply slaves to Spanish-owned colonies in the Americas. However, they were still involved in this part of the slave trade. The demand for slaves in Spanish-owned South America helped to set the level of Bristol’s slave sales in the 1730s and early 1740s. The British-owned Caribbean island of Jamaica was a convenient place for slaves to be brought to and sold from. British slave traders would supply slaves from Africa to the Spanish colonies in South America, via the island of Jamaica. Many Bristol merchants traded with Jamaica. This meant that many enslaved Africans were shipped to Jamaica in Bristol-owned ships, and later sold on to the Spanish colonies in South. The Bristol merchants were probably selling slaves to Spanish America illegally, because the South Sea Company was supposed to be the only supplier.

In the 1730s, sugar prices were low. If sugar was not selling well, plantation owners were not likely to be buying more slaves. Yet Bristol slave traders were importing record numbers of enslaved Africans into Jamaica. This suggests that selling slaves on to Spanish merchants through Jamaica, kept Bristol involved in the slave trade.

Some Bristol ships traded directly with South America, without selling their slaves in Jamaica. The Pilgrim in 1787 left Bristol for Africa and Buenos Aires, in Argentina. At Bonny, or along the west African coast, the captain purchased 421 slaves. The Pilgrim then sailed directly from Africa to Montevideo in Uruguay and Buenos Aires and returned to Bristol via Santander in Spain.

In the late 18th century, Britain acquired the colony of Demerara, now part of the country of Guyana, on the north coast of South America. Merchants in Bristol joined the new trade to Demerara’s sugar plantations. Between 1770 and 1807, twelve Bristol ships took slaves to Demerara. The ship the Alert made 3 voyages in 1796, 1800 and 1804, taking a total of about 900 enslaved Africans. The ship the Swift also made three voyages between 1800 and 1804, landing about 850 slaves in total. The Minerva in 1802 was reported to have 218 prime Chantee (Asante), Fantee and Coromantee slaves on board. The ship the Lapwing had 330 slaves on board and was estimated to be worth £43,800, (just over £2,000,000 today). The Lapwing was taken by a Spanish privateer, or licensed pirate, off the coast of Demerara in 1801.

It is estimated that about 11, 000,000 enslaved Africans arrived alive in the Americas over the whole period of the transatlantic slave trade (from the 15th century to 1807). Of those 11, 000,000, it is estimated that 4,000,000 were sold to Brazil, and 2,500,000 to the Spanish colonies. Portuguese slave traders took over 4,500,000 of them to their new homes. Spanish traders took over 1,500,000.