Commentary No. 055
Date: 1547, April 30. Madrid.
Theme: In a letter to the Audiencia of Santo Domingo, the Spanish Crown referred to the reportedly irregular work behavior of local cowboys or cattle ranch workers of La Española. It is very likely that these cowboys were enslaved black Africans or their La Española-born descendants.
Source: PARES, Portal de Archivos Españoles—Archivo General de Indias, SANTO_DOMINGO,868,L.2,Fo. 342v.-344v.
Around 1547 there were tensions between cattle ranchers or breeders and agricultural farm owners residing in Santo Domingo City regarding the ways in which rural lands nearest to the city should be assigned to those who owned herds of cattle and those who cultivated crops, respectively, in the region surrounding the city.
Reportedly two of Santo Domingo’s city council members had denounced before the Spanish Crown that rich denizens of the city were monopolizing the lands closest to the town, locating their cattle ranches there and not allowing the poorer residents to access them, though these grasslands were supposed to be for common, collective use. It was also said that the complainants argued as well that this marginalization of the poorest settlers was contributing to the island’s depopulation because of their fleeing to other territories in search for better conditions. Apparently the Crown heeded the complaint and responded by issuing an order reiterating that the lands around the city were of common use and allowing all settlers the possibility to access them and to bring their respective cattle to adjacent locations, understanding that no one could claim jurisdiction over any of the said lands.
Other members of the city council argued in opposite terms before the Crown, indicating that the above mentioned order allowing common pastures around the city had provoked “great inconveniences”, because as a result herds were being brought in close proximity to each other by the respective cowboys or herders as a way for them to have the chance to socialize with each other “to play [games]and do other bad endeavors.” Posing that the defenders of the proximity of the common grasslands to the city were acting based on “their own interest”, so that they would enjoy the convenience of having their cattle close to where they resided, their opponents suggested that herds should be maintained at a minimum of one legua (a league, about two kilometers) from each other.
These critics also denounced the fact that some owners of cattle, by driving their herds to the area peripheral to the city had provoked “great destruction” of “many” yucca or cassava farms or estancias (the source of the important local cazabe or cracker-like yucca bread), “because in one night, the said cows ate all the bread that was planted, collected and piled up, and they destroyed and tramped on it without remedy.” This in turn had reportedly sparked a sharp increase in the price of yucca, from four reales to two pesos, and even two and a half, per fanega. This was hurting all local residents, and also all those travelers from Spain that stopped at La Española for food supplies in their way to New Spain and Nombre de Dios. And it was also depopulating, critics argued, the farms owned by “poor men,” forcing them to sell their farms “out of need to the owners of the cows for nothing, so that the rich and lords of cattle enjoy the farms of the others and sell their bread at will.”
Complainants pleaded with the Crown to go back to the old system, so that “the sites of cows remained as they used to, since all the cows wandered together and enjoyed all the waters and pastures, and that the haziendas and estancias of bread of the denizens were to be guarded as they used to be, and this way the bread would cost cheap and that island would not depopulate.”
Since it is known from other sources that most of the workers in charge of taking care of the cattle in La Española at the time were enslaved or free Black Africans or their locally born creole offspring, it is likely that these comments regarding cowboys that would go lazy and mischievous and not tend to their responsibilities constitute another indirect evidence of the resistance by the enslaved of La Española against the work rigors of the slavery regime by means of which masters tried to exploit them, even within the much less physically stringent version of it that cattle ranching seems to have been.