“Trading Slaves as If This Port Were Open”: Buenos Aires and the South Atlantic Slave Trade, 1580–1700

Saturday, January 3, 2015: 10:30 AM
Beekman Parlor (New York Hilton)
Kara Schultz, Vanderbilt University
According to a 1595 Royal CÚdula, trade of “metals, slaves, or any other goods from Brazil, Angola, Guinea, or any other part of the crown of Portugal or the East Indies” in the Río de la Plata was strictly forbidden unless authorized by the Casa de Contratación. But Buenos Aires’ location at the confluence of several rivers, relative proximity to Brazil and Angola, and distance from Spain made it, in the eyes of its residents, an ideal entrepôt for American and African trade. Contemporaries frequently commented upon how slaves were traded “as if [the] port were open.” During the period of the Portuguese asientos (1595-1640), an estimated 30,000 African slaves disembarked at Buenos Aires, making it the third largest point of disembarkation in Spanish America.

In spite of Buenos Aires’ significance as a major slave destination of the Americas, the early slave trade to the port has received little scholarly attention. As Toby Green, David Wheat, and others have noted, port entry records and slave licenses—sources traditionally used to study the slave trade—provide little information about the illicit commerce of Buenos Aires. This paper draws upon diverse sources, including baptismal records, investigations of contraband slave trading, and ecclesiastical correspondence to provide an overview of the transatlantic commercial, familial, and political networks that fed the 17th-century slave trade to Buenos Aires. Beyond reappraising the volume and dimensions of the 17th-century trade, this paper suggests the trade’s influence on urban life. This paper demonstrates how, far from being stuck in a colonial “backwater,” Buenos Aires’ free and enslaved populations participated in vibrant South Atlantic communities that cut across imperial boundaries.

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