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The Americas 63.4 (2007) 517-550

Diets, Food Supplies and the African Slave Trade in Early Seventeenth-Century Spanish America
Linda A. Newson
Kings College London, United Kingdom
Susie Minchin
Kings College London, United Kingdom

Much has been written about the spread of Old World crops and livestock in the Americas.1 However, very little is known, except in very general terms, about the availability of different foods, diets and nutrition, particularly among the common people, in different regions of Spanish America in the early colonial period. This derives in part from the shortage of evidence, but it also reflects the difficulties of researching these complex issues, where environmental conditions, access to land and labor, income distribution, regulation of food supplies and prices, as well as food traditions, all interact.2

It is possible to build up a general picture of food supplies and consumption in different regions of Spanish America from a variety of contemporary sources, such as general descriptions by chroniclers and travelers, as well as official and institutional accounts, especially those compiled by town councils that were responsible for regulating food supplies and addressing public health issues. However, due to differences in the nature of the evidence available for different regions, comparative analyses are difficult. Even the relaciones geográficas and the compendia of Juan López de Velasco and Antonio Vázquez de Espinosa, while intended to be comprehensive surveys [End Page 517] at a single point in time, in reality draw on evidence from a wide range of individuals and sources, often from an equally broad or unknown set of dates.3 Some regional comparisons can be extracted from the observations of travelers through Spanish America, for example in the early seventeenth century by Thomas Gage and Francesco Carletti.4 Such accounts can provide valuable insights into the main foods consumed, cooking techniques and dining habits for which evidence is hard to find in other sources. However, they are necessarily based on a limited stay in a region and are often impressionistic. 'Hard' or quantifiable evidence is difficult to come by. Much reliance has been placed on evidence for rations that were specified for particular groups such as soldiers, sailors, forced laborers or the sick in hospitals, who lived in relatively closed environments where the amount of food and the numbers being supported can be calculated fairly precisely.5 Even then, however, there is often doubt as to whether the intended recipients actually received or consumed the rations.

This study aims to provide a comparative and partially quantitative analysis of diets in several regions of Spanish America during the early colonial period through an examination of the foods fed to slaves by Portuguese slave traders during their transshipment from Cartagena through the Panamanian Isthmus to Peru in the early seventeenth century. Between 1595 and 1640 the Spanish Crown assigned the asiento (monopoly contract) for the introduction of slaves to its American colonies to the Portuguese. Enriqueta Vila Vilar has estimated that during the whole period of the Portuguese asientos 268,664 slaves entered Spanish America, with about 3,000 passing through Cartagena annually, about half of whom were subsequently transported to Lima.6 At this time, the slave trade was not conducted by monopoly [End Page 518] trading companies, but was a small-scale complex business that involved sub-contracting to competing merchants through a system of licenses.7 Many of those involved in the trade were New Christians who between 1635 and 1639 were brought before the Inquisition in Lima on charges of Judaizing. During this process their papers were seized and most are now held in the Inquisition section of the Archivo General de la Nación in Lima.8 The sources used in this study comprise a rare set of private account books and papers kept by one of the main slave traders, Manuel Bautista Pérez, and his agents. In the 1620s and early 1630s these traders were shipping between 150 and 500 slaves a year...


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