The European market in African slaves, which opened with a cargo of Mauritanian blacks unloaded in Portugal in 1441, and the explorer Christopher Columbus, born in Genoa ten years later, were closely linked. The ensuing Age of Discovery, with its expansions of empires and exploitations of New World natural resources, was accompanied by the seizure and forced labor of human beings, starting with Native Americans.
Appraising that commercial opportunity came naturally to an entrepreneur like Columbus, as did his sponsors’ pressure on him to find precious metals and his religion’s contradictory concerns both to protect and convert heathens. On the day after Columbus landed in 1492 on an island in the present-day Bahamas and saw its Taíno islanders, he wrote that “with fifty men they could all be subjected and made to do all that one wished.” Soon the African trade was changing life in Spain; within another hundred years most urban families owned one or more black servants, over 7 percent of Seville was black, and a new social grouping of mixed-race mulattos joined the lower rungs of a color-coded social ladder.
Columbus liked the “affectionate and without malice” Arawakan-speaking Taíno natives. He found the men tall, handsome, and good farmers, the women comely, near naked, and apparently available. In exchange for glass beads, brass hawk bells, and silly red caps, the seamen received cotton thread, parrots, and food from native gardens. Fresh fish and fruits were abundant. Glints in the ornaments worn by natives promised gold, and they presumably knew where to find more. Aside from one flare-up, there were no serious hostilities. Columbus returned to Barcelona with six Taíno natives who were paraded as curiosities, not chattel, before King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.
The following year, Columbus led seventeen ships that dropped 1,500 prospective settlers on Caribbean beaches. As they stayed on, relations with local Indians degenerated. What was soon imposed was “the other slavery” that the University of California, Davis, historian Andrés Reséndez discusses in his synthesis of the last half-century of scholarship on American Indian enslavement. First came the demand for miners to dig for gold. The easy-going Taínos were transformed into gold-panners working under Spanish overseers.
The Spaniards also exploited the forms of human bondage that already existed on the islands. The Caribs of the Lesser Antilles, a more aggressive tribe, regularly…
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