Commentary No. 045
Date: 1528, February 15. Burgos, Spain
Themes: The king approved a ban reportedly established by the colonial officials against the importing of “free blacks” and “ladinos,” since they were considered inciters of rebellions and “other damaging things.” He also nullified a prior order to allow enslaved blacks to buy their freedom. And he complained that his own royal bureaucrats in La Española were intentionally underpricing the slaves imported into the colony as a way to pay less almojarifazgo or import tax to the Crown itself.
Source: Portal de Archivos Españoles, Archivo General de Indias, Indiferente,421, L.13, f.7r-10v.
The 1520s were the decade of the spreading of the cane-sugar business in La Española, which was conceived and launched as a replication of the well-tried black-slavery based plantation system in place in the Canary and Madeira islands. In a local context of a plummeting of the previously enslaved Indian labor force, the expansion of that model of sugar-cane fields implied an expansion of the importing of enslaved black Africans, since no Spaniards would subject themselves to the grueling and dehumanizing experience of field hands of a plantation. The decade marked as well the occurrence of the first recorded collective rebellions by blacks in the colony.
As shown in this document, by 1528 the Spanish Crown was trying to respond to the insisting demands from the colonists of La Española for enslaved blacks, referring to theasiento or contract established with the Governor of Bresa for the sending and selling of 4,000 slaves to the entire Caribbean region, which was expected to supply the demanded labor force.
It seems the Crown had asked for, and received already, some kind of written description of the kinds of colonists that would be receiving slaves in La Española, but at the same time the King was complaining that his own colonial authorities were not reporting clearly on their handling of the arriving slaves that were being distributed in the island as well as in Tierra Firme, indicating that he had received information that they were incurring in widespread tax evasion by declaring slave prices at arrival that were lower than the real ones, so that less taxes had to be paid to the Crown by all of their local associates. There was also, said the king, plain smuggling of slaves taking place as well. As an attempt to curtail the fraudulent practice incurred by his own designated officials, the king ordered representatives of both the Audiencia, the local Treasury Office and the City Council of Santo Domingo to mandatorily participate together in the supervision of the tax collecting pertaining to the selling and purchasing of the incoming slaves.
Another interesting element in the document is the approval expressed by the king for a previous prohibition by the City Council of Santo Domingo banning the arrival of free andladino enslaved blacks, both openly accused of being responsible for inciting and inducing other enslaved blacks to rebel and to engage in “other things damaging to the land.” This concern about the subversive behavior of those blacks that knew Spanish or were free appears in other sources from this early period of La Española’s society, like the ordinances for blacks of 1528, and indirectly it tells us about solidarities taking place between blacks of different legal statuses and different degrees of acculturation into creole colonial society.
A similar social fear against the activism or agency of enslaved as well as free blacks is obvious in the prohibition by the City Council of the purchase of freedom by enslaved blacks for a payment of twenty marcos of gold. The freedom-purchasing had been until recently, according to this document, promoted by the Crown itself –possibly with the original intention of encouraging slaves to stick with their subjection status for some time, at least during the number of years that presumably were necessary for them to acquire and save enough money-- but in this 1528 document the king decided to pull back from his previous initiative and support instead Santo Domingo’s colonists’ decision on the contrary. Which means that, when the practice was allowed or encouraged, enslaved blacks took advantage of it to attain freedom.