Atlantic History and the Slave Trade to Spanish America

Saturday, January 3, 2015: 8:30 AM
Empire Ballroom West (Sheraton New York)
David Eltis, Emory University
The two central purposes of this essay are first to reevaluate the slave trade to the Spanish colonies and second to explore some of our surprising findings for Atlantic history. This reassessment leads to a new appreciation of not only the African presence in the Spanish Americas, but also –given the links between slavery and economic might before abolition– the durability and importance of the whole Spanish imperial project. Scholars have foregrounded the British and French role in Atlantic History at the expense of the Spanish. References to a “second Atlantic” have recently appeared, denoting the period dominated by Northwestern Europe (England, France, and to a lesser extent the Netherlands) in contrast to the Iberian-led “first Atlantic.” Spanish decline, this implies, began sometime between the defeat of the Armada (1588) and the War of Spanish Succession (1703-1713) and continued almost to the present.

The slave trade was not just pivotal for the first colonization of the Spanish Americas, when varied regional economies emerged in both highlands and lowlands. It was also of key importance throughout the eighteenth century when the Spanish transformed their empire. After the independence of the mainland, moreover, it sustained the rise of export-oriented sugar and coffee plantations in Cuba and Puerto Rico. This paper argues that overall, more enslaved Africans permanently entered the Spanish Americas than whole British Caribbean, making the Spanish Americas the most important political entity in the Americas to receive slaves after Brazil.

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