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  • The Domestic Slave Trade in Sixteenth-Century Mexico
  • Robert L. Brady

THE INTERNATIONAL slave trade which developed between the African slave depots and Spanish America during the sixteenth century has been the subject of several significant studies.1 These indicate in considerable detail the origins of the slave trade, the sources from which Negro slaves were obtained, and the historical development of the commerce within the Spanish imperial system. There emerges a broad view of the flow of human merchandize, in generally increasing volume, across the Atlantic and of the increasing refinement of its regulation. Other studies of mining, agricultural and pastoral occupations, the encomienda, and the urban guild system reveal the utilization of the Negro slaves as a labor force in New Spain.2 The distribution of the slaves among the various occupations resulted in a dispersion which makes classification by type of work or location tenuous. This combination of a unified pattern of international trade and a disparate utilization of the slaves suggests an area of fruitful investigation. That area is the domestic trade by which the slaves arriving at the ports of New Spain ultimately reached the consumers who used their labor.

A relatively small number of Negro slaves entered Mexico as the personal servants of Spaniards.3 Some also arrived in the colony through a clandestine trade which the authorities were unable to eliminate.4 Both of these sources fed the domestic trade. Additional quantities of Negroes were injected into the local markets from among the slaves who originally had been imported by individual settlers for specific purposes. Such was the case represented by the contract between the Marqués del Valle and the Genoese slaver, Leonardo Lomelín, which called for the shipment of 500 Negroes destined for the estates of the [End Page 281] conqueror.5 A similar situation involved royal authorization for Rodrigo de Albornoz, an official of New Spain, to import 100 slaves for his sugar refinery.6 The Negroes in these instances were part of the domestic slave trade only in the event of their subsequent sale.

Another source, the extent of which cannot be accurately defined, was the sale of unclaimed fugitive slaves who had been recaptured. In 1525 the cabildo of Mexico City set a price of one peso plus costs to be paid by the fugitives’ masters to the captors within three days of the return of the slaves. Failure to comply on the part of the owner entitled the courts to dispose of the Negroes and to pay the fee and costs from the proceeds. Slaves of unknown masters, brought to the city, had their marks and descriptions called publicly at regular intervals for six days. In the event that no claim was made, the slaves were entrusted to a competent person for a period of one year. Should no claimant appear in that time, the slaves were sold by the city.7 From 1525 to 1574 the number of fugitive slaves increased, and the redemption fee increased from two to fifty pesos. In the latter year, the royal government issued a law stating that failure to pay the reward would mean that the captor might keep the slave.8 These Negro slaves might subsequently become products in the domestic slave trade.

The primary influx of Negro slaves for the local trade came from the shipments authorized by the crown and intended for the general labor market in New Spain. The grant to two Germans, Heinrich Ehinger and Hieronymus Seiler, to deliver 4000 Negroes in a period of four years9 and the grant to the Consulado of Seville authorizng shipment of 38,250 slaves were examples of this major source.10 When the human cargo was brought ashore from the slave ships and the potential buyers gathered, the domestic slave trade was in operation.

The most obvious charactistics of the trade were informality and irregularity. Negro slaves were generally treated as most other commercial items. There is meager evidence of sales methods such as public auction becoming conventional in Mexico. Private exchanges were [End Page 282] numerous, and slaves were frequently included in sales of equipment or property. Negroes, as slaves, were considered the personal...


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pp. 281-289
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