Commentary No. 006
Date: 1518, March 2. Valladolid.
Theme: License by the Spanish Crown authorizing colonial treasury official Cristóbal Tapia to hire and bring to the colony up to ten technicians of any nationality to build a sugar mill, as well as fifteen male black slaves and two female black slaves.
Source: PARES, Portal de Archivos Españoles—Archivo General de Indias,INDIFERENTE, 419, L.7, L.7 - 91 - Imagen Núm: 86 / 357, F.697V-698R
During the second half of the 1510s some of the Spanish settlers of La Española began experimenting with cane-sugar manufacturing as a profit-making business alternative to the gold mining that had been prevalent during prior decades. The plantation-based cane sugar production business was by then a full-fledged practice in the Canary Islands and the Madeira Islands. The Spanish Crown, very concerned about the need to keep settlers in the colony, actively supported the enterprise in La Española, through tax exemptions and cash loans to the new entrepreneurs.
The brothers Cristóbal and Francisco Tapia are two colonists whose names come up in historical scholarship among the pioneers of commercial sugar-making in the colony, cited early on by such chroniclers of the conquest and colonization process as Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo. The document at hand has the interesting feature of being a primary source that shows some important aspects of the attempt by one of the Tapias to launch and exploit this business in La Española. They asked for permission from the Crown to import two essential human resources for the enterprise: experts in the treatment of the canes’ juice for transforming it into sugar (“maestros de azucar” or master sugar overseers), on the one hand, and field hands in charge of the planting, growing, harvesting, cutting, milling, boiling, stirring, molding and crystallizing of the juice and final pulverizing of the crystals. Following the precedent of the sugar cane business in the Canaries and the Madeiras, the preferred type of workers for the sugar-cane estates, called ingenios (“machines”) at the time, were enslaved black Africans.
Cristóbal Tapia had petitioned the Crown indicating that it was hard for him to find the right technicians within the Iberian territories and he asked for permission to bring them from wherever he could find them and from any nationality. He seems to have also asked for a license to bring fifteen enslaved blacks and two female slaves to La Española, most probably to work in the future sugar mill.
The Crown granted Tapia's request, who was part of the Crown’s colonial bureaucracy in Santo Domingo as veedor or manager of the king’s properties, goods and commodities in the colony, and a license to introduce the said slaves was granted the same day as the permission to hire and import non-Spanish technicians into La Española, a favor whose exceptionality status with regard to the rules issued by the Crown in the recent past was explicitly mentioned in the wording of the relevant royal licencia.
License was also granted for Tapia’s importing of the requested slaves “with the limitation that has been ordered,” an allusion to the restriction against the arrival of non-Christians. The manuscript, therefore, is evidence of how many enslaved blacks were legally shipped to La Española to toil in the grueling work of the sugar-making agribusness from its early beginnings in the colony.