Commentary No. 001
Date: 1497, July 22nd. Medina del Campo, Spain.
Theme: Decree by the Catholic Monarchs granting lands to the early settlers of La Española for the cultivation of certain crops and under certain conditions, including sugar-canes. Sugar production in Iberian possesions at the time was mostly based on black enslaved labor
Source: PARES, Portal de Archivos Españoles--Archivo General de Indias, Patronato, 295, No. 38, and Archivo General de Simancas,CCA,DIV,6,1-Imágenes Núm: 109/84 and 110/84.
According to this Royal Order from the Catholic Kings of Spain, by July 22nd of 1497, four and a half years after the first expedition led by Christopher Columbus arrived in La Española, the colonists already established on the island had formally requested the Catholic Kings to grant them lands they could own in order to cultivate a number of products, including “sugar-cane fields” and “to make and build houses and mills and sugar mills for the said sugar and other convenient buildings necessary for their living.”
In the late 1490s the main experience that Christian Spaniards had with cane sugar production (aside from the sugar production of medieval tradition, until then restricted to the Moorish-Iberian population of the Kingdom of Granada) was the relatively recent experiment of plantations in the Canary Islands. This experiment followed the model of the Portuguese in the Madeira Islands. Since the use of black-African forced labor was an important feature of that process, it is reasonable to infer that the sugar cane farming and manufacturing that these colonists of La Española had in mind by 1497 would have entailed the importation of enslaved blacks to perform as the main labor force in La Española.
If instead these first colonists initially thought of the Taíno/native population as the default fieldhands for the intense work in sugar cane plantations under forced conditions similar to those soon devised by the Spaniards for the collection of alluvial gold, then it is likely that the colonists may have abandoned that thought after they noticed what they considered a low level of strength and productivity of the natives in collecting gold. Their performance was reportetly widely surpassed by the mining work done by the first black Africans brought into the island by the Spaniards.
It may therfore be said, that, due to the capitalist-inspired, profitable previous experience of Spaniards and Portuguese in enslaving and exploiting black Africans in the Eastern Atlantic by the end of the fifteenth century, the transplanting of the forced-labor regime and the targeting of additional cohorts of enslaved black Africans bought in the Western coasts of Africa to work in the newly conquered territories under the same conditions, is not surprising.