First Blacks in The Americas

The African Presence in The Dominican Republic

The sugar business accelerated the arrival of blacks

Boca de Nigua Sugar EstateBy 1520 a gold mining crisis was beginning in the colony of La Española, with a severe drop in production resulting from the rapid dwindling of the Indian population, intervention by the Crown that reduced the direct control of the surviving Indian laborers by the encomenderos, and a decrease in the currency-capital available to finance it. Miners sustained the worst burden, often falling in debt or going to jail, while the Crown was still able to collect duties one way or the other.[1] And as a new alternate branch of trade activity, the cane-sugar industry, controlled by a few powerful, mostly local men expanded, African slaves began to be imported in larger quantities.[2]

That same year, oidor Figueroa reported that 40 ingenios or sugar-making estates were already in the process of construction. Though the figure may seem exaggerated in light of the figure of 35 ingenios recorded almost three decades later (exactly in 1548), it attests to the expansion of the sugar industry in La Española in the early 1520s and the sustained increase in the arrival of black population who, after replacing indigenous workers in the gold-mining industry, were becoming the main source of labor for the sugar and agricultural businesses.[3] The demographic decline of European colonists taking place in the island was addressed in communications to the Spanish monarch in 1528 by officials Zuazo and Espinosa who explained that five towns had disappeared from the island of La Española as a result of the colonists' exodus. [4] (See Manuscript No. 025).

Even those in La Española who still defended the continuation of the gold-mining efforts in the colony were now proposing for those to be made using enslaved black labor. In November of 1526, king Charles I, while decreeing the obligation to pay a salary to the Indians as free laborers, tried to encourage the exploiting of the gold mines, ordering that vassals of all of his states besides Castille be allowed entry into the colonial territories. In December he decreed the freedom of colonists to attempt mining wherever they wanted in the colony. And in March of 1528, the president of the Audiencia and bishop of the church Sebastián Ramírez Fuenleal was writing to the King and reporting on the decline in the population in several of La Española’s towns, and recommending that new cohorts of settler-families be sent, even from Portugal and the Netherlands to keep trying to exploit the mines, each family to be awarded three blacks to work in the mines for them. [5]

Another proposal submitted to the Spanish king from La Española during this period that indicates the eagerness of the settlers to get enslaved black labor suggested the granting of lands in the colony to poor people from the Crown’s territories as well as from Portuguese possessions like the islands of Madeira and Cabo Verde, together with the right to take to the island with them tax-exempted enslaved blacks to work in the mines or in agriculture, and the passing of a law granting freedom to these after fifteen years of service without running away or after extracting a total of 15 marcos of gold for their masters.[6]

In the early 1530s there was a momentary increase in the production of gold in La Española that, according to Deive reveals “the growing importance of blacks in the labor of the mines” of the colony as showin in a report of July of 1531 by the local colonial authorities.[7] “The massive introduction of black slaves into the island translated, in the 1530s, into an increase in the production of gold, but the crisis returned when the arrival of those Blacks stopped and was accompanied by the demise of many by disease, illnesses of various types, or by exhaustion at work. We know that in 1531 the local colonial authorities asked the Crown twice for permission to allow the free importing of enslaved blacks, but the Crown does not seem to have responded decisively to this request.[8]

About a decade later, and despite prior royal prohibitions, a number of Africans of Moorish origin had arrived in the Spanish colonies as slaves and some of them ended up in La Española. In 1543, Charles I issued an order that all enslaved Moors present in the colonies were to be expelled, which seems to provide evidence that there were at least some in the American territories.[9] More to the point, there is a letter of 1550 from the local authorities of Santo Domingo to the king mentioning the presence of at least 100 enslaved Moors in La Española at the time and asking the king to exempt them from the 1543 prohibition. The letter reportedly claimed that “the number of free and slave Moriscos, some introduced with a license and some without it, was of little significance in the island, for in the capital they barely reached a hundred and besides they were very useful since they performed various trades.” The King granted the request under the condition that the slaves were not allowed to leave the place. (Saco, José Antonio. Historia de la esclavitud de la raza africana en el nuevo mundo y en especial en los países américo-hispanos. Habana: Cultural, 1938. Vol. I, p. 305-306)

Seven years later, 1550 King Charles I issued another law nullifying the 1543 prohibition of the importing of enslaved Moors,[10] which may be interpreted as an indication that by then the religious difference factor was no longer considered a threat or that the ban may have been considered counterproductive in some undesirable way.

And according to another mid 16th-century testimony by the Crown’s colonial treasury officials in Santo Domingo, enslaved blacks were by then arriving into La Española at a rate of 2,000 each year. [11] This would have meant an entry of 20,000 slaves in just the five years before and the five after that statement. In 1567, (while in Spain the use of the Arabic language and Arabian national attire was prohibited that year), in Santo Domingo, “an undetermined number of male and female Moors worked in the fortress of Santo Domingo to whom artillery specialist Antonio Gómez, in charge of the work, paid one tomín per day for their sustenance." And two years later, in 1569, a letter from the City Council of Santo Domingo announced that regularly 1,500 or 2,000 Moriscos entered the island every year.[12]

[1]  Carlos Esteban Deive, La Esclavitud del negro en Santo Domingo, Vol. I, p. 37.

[2]  “The massive entry of Africans will come into effect from 1520 onwards, with the expansion of the sugar industry and at a moment when the native depopulation began to be felt in a definitive way.” Carlos Esteban Deive, La Esclavitud del negro en Santo Domingo, Vol. I, p. 26. Franklin Franco Pichardo argues that by 1518 the large-scale importation of African slaves and the proliferation of sugar production had already begun, since by 1520 the island already possessed 24 ingenios and 4 trapiches and these required a workforce to function. See Franklin Franco Pichardo, Historia del pueblo dominicano. Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic: Ediciones del Instituto del Libro, 1992. Vol. I, p. 67.

[3]  Carlos Esteban Deive, La esclavitud del negro en Santo Domingo, Vol. I, p. 26 and 28-29.

[4]  This letter is also available at the Obadiah Rich Collection of the New York Public Library, Juan Bautista Muñoz Collection, Reel 4, f. 214r.

[5]  Carlos Esteban Deive, La Esclavitud del negro en Santo Domingo, Vol. I, p. 37.

[6]  Serrano y Sanz, DCVIII-DCXIX. Cited in Deive, La esclavitud del negro en Santo Domingo, Vol. I, p. 37-38. Deive does not give a specific date, but it can be inferred that he is referring to the years 1528 and 1531. 

[7]  Carlos Esteban Deive, La esclavitud del negro en Santo Domingo, Vol. I, p. 39.

[8]  Carlos Esteban Deive, La esclavitud del negro en Santo Domingo, Vol. I, p. 40.

[9]  The exact date of the letter was August 14, 1543.

[10]  The exact date of the communication is November 13, 1550. Carlos Esteban Deive, La esclavitud del negro en Santo Domingo, Vol. I, p. 20.

[11]  Carlos Esteban Deive, La esclavitud del negro en Santo Domingo, Vol. I, 1980, p. 88.

[12]  Utrera, 1978, II:12. Cited in Deive, La esclavitud del negro en Santo Domingo, Vol. I, 1980, p. 20.