1902 Encyclopedia > Slavery > Modern Slave Trade - Introduction. Spanish Colonies. England.

(Part 13)


Modern Slave Trade - Introduction

But not very long after the disappearance of serfdom in the most advanced communities comes into sight the new system of colonial slavery, which, instead of being the spontaneous outgrowth of social necessities and subserving a temporary need of human development, was politically as well as morally a monstrous aberration, and never produced anything but evil.

Spanish Colonies

In 1442, when the Portuguese under Prince Henry the Navigator were exploring the Atlantic coast of Africa, one of his officers, Antam Gonsalves, who had captured some Moors, was directed by the prince to carry them back to Africa. He received from the Moors in exchange for them ten blacks and a quantity of gold dust. This excited the cupidity of his fellow-countrymen; and they fitted out a large number of ships for the trade, and built several forts on the African coast. Many negroes were brought into Spain from these Portuguese settlements, and the colonial slave trade first appears in the form of the introduction into the newly-discovered western world of children or descendants of these negroes. When Ovando was sent out in 1502 as governor of Hispaniola, whilst regulations, destined to prove illusory, were made for the protection of the natives of the island, permission was given to carry to the colony negro, slaves, born in Seville and other parts of Spain, who had been instructed in the Christian faith. It appears from a letter of Ovando in 1503 that there were at that time numbers of negroes in Hispaniola; he requested that no more might be permitted to be brought out. In 1510 and the following years King Ferdinand ordered a number of Africans to be sent to that colony for the working of the mines.

Before this time Columbus had proposed an exchange of his Carib prisoners as slaves against live stock to be furnished to Hispaniola by Spanish merchants. Infidels, he represented, would thus be converted, the royal treasury enriched by a duty on the slaves, and the colonists supplied with live stock free of expense. He actually sent home in the ships of Antonio Torres, in 1494, above 500 Indian prisoners taken in wars with the caciques, who, he suggested, might be sold as slaves at Seville. But, after a royal order had been issued for their sale, Queen Isabella, interested by what she had heard of the gentle and hospitable character of the natives and of their docility, procured a letter to be written to Bishop Fonseca, the superintendent of Indian affairs, suspending the order until inquiry should be made into the causes for which they had been made prisoners, and into the lawfulness of their sale. Theologians differed on the latter question, and Isabella directed that these Indians should be sent back to their native country, and that a policy of conciliation should be followed there instead of one of severity.

Bartolomé de las Casas, the celebrated bishop of Chiapa, accompanied Ovando to Hispaniola, and was a witness of the cruelties from which the Indians suffered under his administration. He came to Spain in 1517 to obtain measures in their favour, and he then made the suggestion to Charles that each Spanish resident in Hispaniola should have licence to import a dozen negro slaves. Las Casas, in his Historia de las Indias (lib. iii. cap. 101), frankly confesses the grave error into which he thus fell. "This advice that licence 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." Other good men appear to have given similar advice about the same time, and, as has been shown, the practice was not absolutely new; indeed the young king had in 1516, whilst still in Flanders, granted licences to his courtiers for the importation of negroes into the colonies, though Ximenes, as regent of Castile, by a decree of the same year forbade the practice. The suggestion of Las Casas was no doubt made on the ground that the negroes could, better than the Indians, bear the labour in the mines, which was rapidly exhausting the numbers of the latter. [Footnote 138-1] He has sometimes on this plea been exonerated from all censure; but, as we have seen, he did not exculpate himself; and, though intitled to honour for the zeal and perseverance which he showed on behalf of the nativeis of the New World, he must in justice bear the blame due from posterity for his violation or neglect of moral principle. His advice was unfortunately adopted. "Charles," says Robertson, "granted a patent to one of his Flemish favourites, containing an exclusive right" of supplying 4000 negroes annually to Hispaniola, Cuba, Jamaica, and Porto Rico. "The favourite sold his patent to some Genoese merchants for 25,000 ducats"; these merchants obtained the slaves from the Portuguese; and thus was first brought into a systematic form that odious "commerce betweea Africa and America which has since been carried on to such an amazing extent," the action of the Spaniards being "imitated by all the nations of Europe who have acquired territories in the warmer climates of the New World."


The first Englishman who engaged in the hateful traffic was Captain John HAWKINS (q.v.). The English slave traders were at first altogether occupied in supplying the Spanish settlements. Indeed the reign of Elizabeth passed without any English colony having been permanently established in America. But in 1620 a dutch ship from the coast of Guinea visited Jamestown in Virginia, and sold a part of her cargo of negroes to the tobacco-planters. This was the first beginning of slavery in British America; the number of negroes was afterwards continually increased—though apparently at first slowly—by importation, and the field-labour was more and more performed by servile hands, so that in 1790 the State of Virginia, which is only a small part of the original colony so named, contained 200,000 negroes.

The African trade of England was long in the hands of exclusive companies ; but by an Act of the first year of William and Mary it became free and open to all subjects of the crown. The African Company, however, continued to exist, and obtained from time to time large parliamentary grants. By the treaty of Utrecht the asiento,[Footnote 138-2] or contract for supplying the Spanish colonies with 4800 negroes annually, which had previously passed from the Dutch to the French, was transferred to Great Britain ; an English company was to enjoy the monopoly for a period of thirty years from 1st May 1713. But the contract came to an end in 1739, when the complaints of the English merchants on one side and of the Spanish official on the other rose to such a height that Philip V. declared his determination to revoke the asiento, and Sir Robert Walpole was forced by poplular feeling into war with Spain. Between 1680 and 1700 about 140,000 negroes were exported by the African Company, and 160,000 more by private adventurers, making a total of 300,000. Between 1700 and the end of 1786 as many as 610,000 were transported to Jamaica alone, which had been an English possession since 1655. Bryan Edwards estimated the total import into all the British colonies of America and the West Indies from 1680 to 1786 at 2,130,000, being an annual average of 20,095. But this, he admits, is much less than was in his time commonly supposed. The British slave trade reached its utmost extension shortly before the War of American Independence. It was then carried on principally from Liverpool, but also from London, Bristol, and Lancaster ; the entire number of slave ships sailing from those ports was 192, and in them space was provided for the transport of 47,146 negroes. During the war the number decreased, but on its termination the trade immediately revived. When Edwards wrote (1791), the number of European factories on the coasts of Africa was 40; of these 14 were English, 3 French, 15 Dutch, 4 Portuguese, and 4 Danish. As correct a notion as can be obtained of the numbers annually exported from the continent about the year 1790 by traders of the several European countries engaged in the traffic is supplied by the following statement :—"B y the British, 38,000 ; by the French, 20,000 ; by the Dutch, 4000 ; by the Danes, 2000; by the Portuguese, 10,000; total 74,000." Thus more than half the trade was in British hands. "At present," said Robertson, writing in 1791, "the number of negro slaves in the settlements of Great Britain and France in the West Indies exceeds a million; and, as the establishment of servitude has been found, both in ancient and modern times, extremely unfavourable to population, it requires an annual importation of at least 58,000 to keep up the stock." The slaves in the Spanish dominions and in North America, he thought, probably amounted to an additional million.


138-1 The Spaniards, in the space of fifteen years subsequent to the discovery of the West Indies, had, as Robertson mentions, reduced the natives of Hispaniola from a million to 60,000.

138-2 The Spaniards were prevented from forming establishments on the African coast by the Bull of Demarcation ("Inter caetera") of Pope Alexander VI. (1493), which forbade their acquiring territory to the east of the meridian line of 100 miles west of the Azores. They could therefore supply their American possessions with slaves only by contracts with other powers.

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