The Early Iberian Slave Trade to the Spanish Caribbean, 1500–1640

Saturday, January 3, 2015: 9:10 AM
Empire Ballroom West (Sheraton New York)
Marc V. Eagle, Western Kentucky University
David Wheat, Michigan State University
The transatlantic slave trade began around 1500 with the first shipments of African captives to the Spanish island colony of Hispaniola. Nevertheless, the subsequent development of slave imports to the Spanish Caribbean in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries remains severely understudied, with a few important exceptions. In this paper, we offer a new periodization of this early human traffic from the early 1500s up to 1640, when the rupture between the Spanish and Portuguese crowns produced a sharp decline in slave imports to Spanish territory. In addition to the main ports of Cartagena and Veracruz, our study addresses insular and mainland ports throughout the Caribbean region. Rather than simply listing holders of individual licenses and monopoly contracts to import slaves to Spanish America (asientos), we consider shifts in royal legislation, changes in the relative importance of African provenance zones, and the rise and fall of specific slave trade routes and destinations. Previous studies of this era have ignored the degree to which both licit and illicit methods of disembarking slaves evolved over time, and fail to adequately convey the transnational character of early Iberian slaving networks. While Portuguese merchants often predominated, even before the union of the Iberian crowns in 1580 or the acquisition of the slave trade asiento by Portguese merchants beginning in 1595, the relationship between Spanish and Portuguese individuals and empires was often far more fluid than is commonly assumed. With these factors in mind, we also survey extant sources available for different periods between 1500 and 1640 that can help us more accurately estimate the volume of this trade, and suggest new directions for research on this formative period.
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