Commentary No. 068
Date: 1501, October 16. Seville, Spain
Theme: A black man named Pedro was hired in Seville as a servant to work for two years in La Española digging for gold or whatever else he is assigned to do by his employer, in exchange for a salary and lodging, meals and beverage during the period of the contract
Source: Archivo Histórico Provincial de Sevilla—Protocolos Notariales, 9101P, Libro Unico, fo. 604ro-604vo, Oficio 15, Escribano Público: Bernal González Vallecillo
By 1501 some entrepreneurial-minded people in Spain (in this case in the southern trading metropolis of Seville) had heard or read enough about La Española’s natural wealth as to be already thinking about, and taking steps toward, risking some capital in exploiting the new colony’s resources all the way on the other side of the Atlantic in exchange for a profit, and black people were already part of those plans. That year a Juan de Saravia hired under salary a black man named Pedro, who had been a Genoese merchant’s servant, to go to La Española on an expedition that was about to leave from Seville, to work for the next two years in digging for gold in the island and in anything else he might be assigned to do while there.
In exchange for his mining labor in La Española, Pedro would receive from Saravia, during the two yeas of the contract, and from the day he was to embark to La Española, the equivalent of full room and board (literally food, beverages, shelter and bed) “in accordance to the food that may be available and given to other workers in the said island” plus a salary of 6,000 maravedís per year, plus a 5% of whatever he dug. (As much as 50% was to be paid to the Spanish Crown, and 45% presumably would go to Saravia, the investor.)
Pedro’s honorary was to be paid in installments, every four months throughout the year in La Española. If Saravia incurred in a delay, as a penalty he was supposed to pay Pedro a two-fold amount. On the other hand, if Pedro decided to quit before the end of the life of the contract, he would be obliged to contribute twice the amount of whatever the salary of the worker that Saravia could find to replace him, plus any additional expenses that finding the replacement could entail.
Black people, therefore, were participating in the capitalistic nature of the colonization and exploitation of the Americas, in this case from the salaried worker’s end, from the start. And La Española was the initial scenario of that participation. Thus, in a way, we can paraphrase the description of La Española as “the cradle of blackness” in the Americas by saying that it was also “the cradle of capitalism” in the Americas too.