the spanish and slavery -- 1/30/24

Today's selection -- from Beyond 1619: The Atlantic Origins of American Slavery by Marc H. Lerner. Iberian racial slavery and the creation of Blackness:

“Racial slavery on the Iberian Peninsula and Spanish America constructed the meaning of Blackness based on religious differences, statutes, and policies, and, over time, African descendants themselves.

“Robert Schwaller, a historian of racial identities in Mexico, notes that, within the Iberian Peninsula, the use of the word negro or black was based on three interrelated historical processes: the cultural encounter and interchange between Christians and Muslims, the rise of the Saharan and later Atlantic slave trades, and various explanations of physical and cultural traits of sub-Saharan Africans. The cultural encounter between Christian and Muslims began in the eighth century. James Sweet notes that ‘racist ideologies ... grew out of the development of African slavery in the Islamic world’ on the Iberian Peninsula. For example, fifteenth-century historian Ibn Khaldun asserted, ‘the Negro nations are, as a rule, submissive to slavery, because (negroes) have little that is (essentially) human and possess attributes that are quite similar to those of dumb animals.’

“During the fifteenth century, many Iberian Christians had internalized racist attitudes of the Black Muslims by characterizing them as a ‘race doomed to servility ... [and] classed as savages and idolaters.’ Under Muslim domination Christians too adopted a color prejudice as Latin texts made distinctions between light-skinned and dark-skinned slaves, ‘thereby distinguishing the black as the Other.’ The added use of physical difference to define non-Christians increased as Iberian Christians gained more contact with darker-skinned Africans. This was largely due to the trans-Saharan slave trade from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries, in which over two million sub-Saharans were sold, and the beginnings of the Atlantic slave trade during the fifteenth century. In general, Schwaller argues that both Christians and Muslims characterized sub-Saharan Africans as ‘less intelligent, prone to childish expressions of joy and levity, and barbarous violence’ and that those ‘prejudices cannot be divorced from slavery.’

“Blackness became a ‘metaphor for servitude’ on the Iberian Peninsula and led to infidel and slave associations with Blackness and race as the ‘driving force in the formulation of Spanish and Portuguese attitudes toward subSaharan Africans.’ Sherwin Bryant argues that when the first Black captives brought by the Portuguese disembarked in Iberia in 1441, ‘Guinea's subjects were deemed infidels,’ and judged ‘sovereignless and worthy of subjugation through buena guerra (just war)’ and subsequent enslavement. By the mid-fifteenth century, Portuguese trade imported 1,000 African slaves to Lisbon annually; after 1490, the numbers increased to 2,000. Many slaves who disembarked in Lisbon were later traded to Seville. From 1501 to 1525, notarial documents from Seville recorded 5,271 slaves living in the city. 4,000 of those listed slaves were described as Blacks or mulatos.  By 1492, as many as 35,000 people from West Africa had been sold into slavery on the Iberian Peninsula, so many that by the early sixteenth century African slaves and freed people were ten percent of the population. As Bryant further stresses, the growth of a sizable sub-Saharan African population on the Iberian Peninsula encouraged Castilians to justify the former's enslavement and unequal treatment. They did so by providing scientific explanations based on theological political practices. According to Bryant, Castilians argued that sub-Saharan Africans' ‘proximity to the sun was said to affect people's skin pigment, tendencies and physical disposition.’ Moreover, Bryant notes that Iberians defined sub-Saharan Africans as ‘black and enslaveable’ based on three factors: (1) their naturaleza or place and condition of birth, (2) their spiritual heritage as non-Christians, and (3) their sovereignless corporate status as individuals lacking a king or sovereign territory that Castile was compelled to recognize. 

“The negativity or impurity of Blackness was reinforced with the further development of the Atlantic slave trade and subsequent colonization of the Americas during the sixteenth century. The transformation of limpieza de sangre (purity of blood) from a more temporal and punitive act used in Inquisition cases of heresy to a more permanent mancha or stain that could not be removed was the result of three alterations to the relevant statutes. First, impurity was extended to Muslims. Second, maternal and paternal ancestry became factors in determining limpieza de sangre. Lastly, limitations on how many generations were stained disappeared. As a result, limpieza de sangre no longer allowed for any level of mutability and, furthermore, assured that newly converted Jews and Muslims could never become ‘fully realized Christians.’ These revisions to the statutes ‘led a number of historians who saw them as mainly a function of a religious problem ... to admit that they would become more about race.’

“Within Spanish America, the association of Blackness with religious infidelity extended the notion of limpieza de sangre to Africans and their descendants, who increasingly arrived as slaves vis-a-vis the Atlantic slave trade. Coupled with the New Laws of 1542, which banned the enslavement of Native people, these policies made ‘the condition of inheritable slavery exclusive to blacks.’ Furthermore, the practice of partus sequitur ventrem, which decreed that newborns inherited their enslaved mothers' status in order to protect the property rights of slaveholders, showed a reluctance to fully incorporate Africans and their descendants as vecinos or naturales in late sixteenth-century Spanish colonial society.

“The study of the early colonial period has shown that the combination of these statutes led to the complex classification of people known as the sistema de castas (casta system) or generos de gente (types of people) that ultimately associated slavery with Blackness.  To be Black in colonial Mexico meant an association with slavery, or at least a continued mark or stain that affiliated an individual with a former slave status they could not escape. This became evident with the term mulato. The term has Iberian roots, deriving from the hybrid mixture that produced mules or from the Arabic terms muwallad (for recently converted Muslims) and malado (signifying servitude). Mulato as a legal category appeared in royal slave licenses in the late 1530s. By the 1550s, legislation that dealt with mulatos showed an increase in discriminatory treatment. For instance, as Adrian Masters notes, in 1578, a decree for all of the Indies stated that ‘Indians ... were in the company of mulatos, mestizos, and negros’ who ‘teach them bad customs.’ Another example from a 1586 decree for Bolivia states that, ‘in those provinces there are many negros, mulatos, and mestizos and people of other mixtures ... they are all raised in great vices and laxity.’

“Moreover, legal historians Alejandro de la Fuente and Ariella Gross stress how ordinances, policies, and edicts enacted by the Spanish Crown helped to facilitate the idea that Blackness was synonymous with enslavement. By as early as the sixteenth century ‘negros’ were deemed to be people ‘without honor and faith’ and described as ugly, barbarous, and savage.  Furthermore, ‘Iberian legal ordinances blurred the lines between social status and skin color or African ancestry.’ In early sixteenth-century Lisbon, for instance, a variety of prohibitions applied to Black people, free and enslaved. In 1515, enslaved and free Black women ‘could only sell their wares in certain designated spaces.’ In Spanish America, the town council of Santo Domingo created the Ordenanza de las negros (Ordinances for Blacks), the first slave code indigenous to the Americas in 1522. This ordinance's title conflated Black with slave status, as not all slaves on the island were Black according to de la Fuente and Gross. Terms such as negro huido (runaway Black) and negros alzados (insurgent Blacks) further amplified a racial component to slave status. De la Fuente and Gross further note that the town council ordered ‘no black man or woman could have his own house to live [in] outside the houses of his master’ in 1554. Without using the word slave, this ordinance equated Blackness with enslavement. A review of these ordinances and policies reveals that the terms ‘black’ and ‘slave’ could be interchangeable, and that they legally contributed to the formation of racial slavery.

“The conflation of Blackness and enslaved status remained for freed Africans and African descendants. Despite being legally defined as vassals of the king and thereby gaining all privileges affiliated with freedom, the stain and legacy of former enslaved status continued to hamper free Black mobility. Various policies, such as barring free Black men from serving in municipal offices in 1621 because the free Black population had grown too large, reveal that, despite achieving freedom, the Blackness which tied these men to their enslaved pasts would continue to define their status. This racialization process, de la Fuente and Gross argue, defined Blackness. It was the continued marginalization in their freedom that ultimately helped to define Blackness in the Americas.”



Marc H. Lerner


Beyond 1619: The Atlantic Origins of American Slavery


University of Pennsylvania Press


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