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Unit 1

1.5 Labor, Slavery, and Caste in the Spanish Colonial System

2 min readmay 28, 2020

Caleb Lagerwey

Robby May


The Slave Trade

As disease and years of fighting diminished the Native American populations in North and South America, Europeans began looking for a new labor force. Africans were brought to the new world first to South America and then eventually to North America. An estimated 12 million African Americans were forcibly brought to North and South America during the slave trade (1500s-1800s). The conditions aboard the ships were horrendous. Slaves were kept chained in the steerage and it is estimated that millions of African Americans died during the voyage. The most brutal part of the voyage came to be known as the Middle Passage (the voyage across the Atlantic Ocean). Here is a first-hand description of the conditions inside the slave ships:
 “The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocating us. This produced copious perspirations, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died, thus falling victims to the improvident avarice, as I may call it, of their purchasers. This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains, now become insupportable; and the filth of the necessary tubs [large buckets for human waste], into which the children often fell, and were almost suffocated. The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole scene of horror almost inconceivable.”

Source: The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, published in 1789

The first Africans would arrive as indentured servants in the colony of Virginia in 1619. Quickly thereafter, the indentured servitude system was abandoned and all Africans came as slaves.

Spanish Labor Systems

The Spanish conquistadors, a group interested in God, glory and gold, under Hernan Cortes, quickly implemented the encomienda system in New Spain. In this system, the king of Spain gave grants of land and natives to individual Spaniards in exchange for their loyalty to the crown.  These Indians had to farm or work in the mines. Their fruits went to their Spanish masters, who in turn had to “care” for them. European diseases demolished the Indians, so the Spanish imported Africans under the asiento system. This system required the Spanish to pay a tax to their kind on each slave they imported to the Americas.

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