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Americans of African Ancestry

This article was contributed by Hollis R. Lynch, Professor of History and Director of the Institute of African Studies, Columbia University.

Black people make up one of the largest of the many racial and ethnic groups in the United States. The black people of the United States are mainly of African ancestry, but many have non-black ancestors as well.

Negro Slavery In America, Its Introduction By Law
Author: Helps, Sir Arthur


Negro Slavery In America, Its Introduction By Law
1517

In 1442 the first negro slaves were imported into Europe. They were
taken from Africa to Portugal in ships of Prince Henry, the "Navigator." From
that time there was little traffic in negroes until after the discovery of
America. Then there was great destruction of American Indians by war,
disease, and killing work, and the importation of negroes into Spanish America
was begun in order to fill the void in the labor market.

Influenced by the spirit of Bartolome de las Casas, a Spanish monk,
celebrated as the defender of the Indians against his own countrymen who
conquered them, the monarchs of Spain prohibited Indian slavery. "It is a
very significant fact that the great 'Protector of the Indians,' Las Casas,
should, however innocently, have been concerned with the first large grant of
licenses to import negroes into the West India Islands."

We first hear of the introduction of negro slaves in those islands
through the instructions given in 1501 to Nicolas de Ovando, who in the
following year succeeded Columbus as governor. During the nine years of his
governorship negro slavery in the Spanish possessions of the New world was
greatly extended. A few years later, as shown by Helps, official license gave
it a legal sanction. Helps' account begins with an abstract of Las Casas'
memorials to the King of Spain looking to a remedy for the bad government of
the West Indies.

The outline of Las Casas' scheme was as follows: The King was to give to
every laborer willing to emigrate to Espanola his living during the journey
from his place of abode to Seville, at the rate of half a real a day
throughout the journey, for great and small, child and parent. At Seville the
emigrants were to be lodged in the Casa de la Contratacion (the India House),
and were to have from eleven to thirteen maravedis a day. From thence they
were to have a free passage to Espanola, and to be provided with food for a
year. And if the climate "should try them so much" that at the expiration of
this year they should not be able to work for themselves, the King was to
continue to maintain them; but this extra maintenance was to be put down to
the account of the emigrants, as a loan which they were to repay. The King was
to give them lands - his own lands - furnish them with ploughshares and
spades, and provide medicines for them. Lastly, whatever rights and profits
accrued from their holdings were to become hereditary. This was certainly a
most liberal plan of emigration. And, in addition, there were other
privileges held out as inducements to these laborers.

In connection with the above scheme, Las Casas, unfortunately for his
reputation in after-ages, added another provision, namely, that each Spanish
resident in the island should have license to import a dozen negro slaves.

The origin of this suggestion was, as he informs us, that the colonists
had told him that, if license were given them to import a dozen negro slaves
each, they, the colonists, would then set free the Indians. And so,
recollecting that statement of the colonists, he added this provision. Las
Casas, writing his history in his old age, thus frankly owns his error: "This
advice, that license should be given to bring negro slaves to these lands, the
clerigo Casas first gave, not considering the injustice with which the
Portuguese take them and make them slaves; which advice, after he had
apprehended the nature of the thing, he would not have given for all he had in
the world. For he always held that they had been made slaves unjustly and
tyrannically; for the same reason holds good of them as of the Indians." The
above confession is delicately and truthfully worded - "not considering"; he
does not say, not being aware of; but though it was a matter known to him, his
moral sense was not watchful, as it were, about it. We must be careful not to
press the admissions of a generous mind too far, or to exaggerate the
importance of the suggestion of Las Casas.

It would be quite erroneous to look upon this suggestion as being the
introduction of negro slavery. From the earliest times of the discovery of
America, negroes had been sent there. But what is of more significance, and
what it is strange that Las Casas was not aware of, or did not mention, the
Hieronymite Fathers ^1 had also come to the conclusion that negroes must be
introduced into the West Indies. Writing in January, 1518, when the fathers
could not have known what was passing in Spain in relation to this subject,
they recommended licenses to be given to the inhabitants of Espanola, or to
other persons, to bring negroes there. From the tenor of their letter it
appears that they had before recommended the same thing. Zuazo, the judge of
residencia, and the legal colleague of Las Casas, wrote to the same effect.
He, however, suggested that the negroes should be placed in settlements and
married. Fray Bernardino de Manzanedo, the Hieronymite father, sent over to
counteract Las Casas, gave the same advice as his brethren about the
introduction of negroes. He added a proviso, which does not appear in their
letter - perhaps it did exist in one of the earlier ones - that there should
be as many women as men sent over, or more.

[Footnote 1: Spanish monks, followers of St. Jerome (Hieronymus).]

The suggestion of Las Casas was approved of by the Chancellor; and,
indeed, it is probable there was hardly a man of that time who would have seen
further than the excellent clerigo did. Las Casas was asked what number of
negroes would suffice? He replied that he did not know; upon which a letter
was sent to the officers of the India House at Seville to ascertain the fit
number in their opinion. They said that four thousand at present would
suffice, being one thousand for each of the islands, Espanola, Porto Rico,
Cuba, and Jamaica. Somebody now suggested to the Governor, De Bresa, a
Fleming of much influence and a member of the council, that he should ask for
this license to be given to him. De Bresa accordingly asked the King for it,
who granted his request; and the Fleming sold this license to certain Genoese
merchants for twenty-five thousand ducats, having obtained from the King a
pledge that for eight years he should give no other license of this kind.

The consequence of this monopoly enjoyed by the Genoese merchants was
that negroes were sold at a great price, of which there are frequent
complaints. Both Las Casas and Pasamonte - rarely found in accord suggested
to the King that it would be better to pay the twenty-five thousand ducats and
resume the license, or to abridge its term. Figueroa, writing to the Emperor
from Santo Domingo in July, 1500, says: "Negroes are very much in request;
none have come for about a year. It would have been better to have given De
Bresa the customs duties - i.e., the duties that had been usually paid on the
importation of slaves - than to have placed a prohibition." I have scarcely a
doubt that the immediate effect of the measure adopted in consequence of the
clerigo's suggestion was greatly to check that importation of negro slaves
which otherwise, had the license been general, would have been very abundant.

Before quitting this part of the subject, something must be said for Las
Casas which he does not allege for himself. This suggestion of his about the
negroes was not an isolated one. Had all his suggestions been carried out,
and the Indians thereby been preserved, as I firmly believe they might have
been, these negroes might have remained a very insignificant number in the
general population. By the destruction of Indians a void in the laborious
part of the community was being constantly created, which had to be filled up
by the labor of negroes. The negroes could bear the labor in the mines much
better than the Indians; and any man who perceived that a race, of whose
Christian virtues and capabilities he thought highly, were fading away by
reason of being subjected to labor which their natures were incompetent to
endure, and which they were most unjustly condemned to, might prefer the
misery of the smaller number of another race treated with equal injustice, but
more capable of enduring it. I do not say that Las Casas considered all these
things; but, at any rate, in estimating his conduct, we must recollect that we
look at the matter centuries after it occurred, and see all the extent of the
evil arising from circumstances which no man could then be expected to
foresee, and which were inconsistent with the rest of the clerigo's plans for
the preservation of the Indians.

I suspect that the wisest among us would very likely have erred with him;
and I am not sure that, taking all his plans together, and taking for granted,
as he did then, that his influence at court was to last, his suggestion about
the negroes was an impolitic one.

One more piece of advice Las Casas gave at this time, which, if it had
been adopted, would have been most serviceable. He proposed that forts for
mercantile purposes, containing about thirty persons, should be erected at
intervals along the coast of the terra firma, to traffic with merchandise of
Spain for gold, silver, and precious stones; and in each of these ports
ecclesiastics were to be placed, to undertake the superintendence of spiritual
matters. In this scheme may be seen an anticipation of subsequent plans for
commercial intercourse with Africa. And, indeed, one is constantly reminded
by the proceedings in those times of what has occurred much later and under
the auspices of other nations.

Of all these suggestions, some of them certainly excellent, the only
questionable one was at once adopted. Such is the irony of life. If we may
imagine superior beings looking on at the affairs of men, and bearing some
unperceived part of the great contest in the world, this was a thing to have
gladdened all the hosts of hell.

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