Commentary No. 035
Date: 1545, April 24. Valladolid, Spain.
Theme: Communication from Spain’s Prince Phillip to oidor (auditor judge) Alonso Cerrato expressing concern about uprisings of maroon blacks, the attacks they have conducted against villages and rural areas of the center and north of the island, the fear this has generated among the Spanish settlers of those areas, and the need to exert "great punishment and constraint" on them so they remain obedient to their masters. In his message the Prince also referred to some communities of indians reportedly still being enslaved in the island
Source: PARES, Portal de Archivos Españoles, Archivo General de Indias, SANTO_DOMINGO, 868,L.2-250 Recto-Imagen Núm:499/766 - 251 Recto-Imagen Núm: 501/766
In April of 1545, Prince Phillip (future king Phillip II) of Spain expressed concern about the reports he had received from the colony of La Española on the violent actions by “rebel blacks” in several places of the island. The racial term “blacks” (“negros”) seems to be used in his communication in a rather generalizing manner referring to slaves, while the word “Christian” (“cristiano”) seems reserved to non-slaves. The future king described a situation of deep collective anxiety among the colonial settlers and inhabitants of La Española provoked by the uprising of those the colonial social order had assigned the role of forced laborers for life (with the exception of the few cases of manumissions that show up in the archival sources every now and then).
Black rebels were so many, said the Prince, that residents of towns like La Vega, Puerto Plata and Santiago, in the center-north area of the colony, would not dare to go out to the countryside except if in gangs, while miners gathered to sleep together in groups of eight with their weapons handy. Among the scenarios mentioned of attacks by the “blacks” were places as distant from each other as Samaná, San Juan de la Maguana, and La Yaguana, as well as rural estates of private owners at unspecified locations.
Aside from engaging in physical confrontation with non-slaves, during their attacks black rebels reportedly “took” (“llevaron”) with them other slaves, both males and females. Their presence is said to have been more aggressive west of San Juan “in the way towards Yaguana.” A maroon community is referred to as located “on the shore” of “the north part” of the Samaná Peninsula where there were “certain lagoons.” A proposal had been made to raise a tax from slaves owning individuals (“los que tenian negros”) to fund the construction of some vessels with which to launch an assault against the rebels by sea but no consensus could be achieved on the matter.
The Prince was also informed “that the blacks are people that need great punishment and constraint because if they feel in their masters or in those overseeing them any fear or no will to command them, they do not respect them and because of this the punishment and constraint upon them is necessary, and that for not applying it to them when it is warranted, later when it is imperative for them to be [obligated], they rebel and go to the forested mountains and do what they do.”
It had been reported to the Prince as well, in all likelihood by other parties in Santo Domingo, that the royal envoy-auditor to La Española to whom this letter was addressed wanted to restructure or dose the kinds of punishments (“poner tasa en el castigo”) applied to rebel black slaves. According to those colonial voices this revision “could be cause for them to feel so pleased with it that they will not want to do what is mandated to them and their owners will not dare to punish them, and because of not doing it any more it could be that a great number of them would uprise and that land would be in peril.” The Prince alerted his envoy on the importance of the circumstance and insisted with him to find an effective “remedy” to the situation and to report the Crown back on the matter.
In this same royal letter, we find Prince Phillip referring to the fact that there are still within La Española as well as the district of the Audiencia of Santo Domingo places where “many male and female Indians” are being held as slaves, and insists that they should be set free, “especially all the women whatever age they are and the male children who were from fourteen years of age down at the time they were captured and enslaved.” Yet there was a concern that these freed Indians should “serve and not wander lost, especially the women who reportedly many times do.”
This was a reiteration of the ambiguity already expressed by the Crown in regards to the rights of the native peoples once the conquest was unleashed upon them. They were considered not fully capable of freedom and in need for supervision of “masters” that would indoctrinate them into Christianity and put them to work for “the salary that is deemed fair” and so that the Indians “do not wander idle and due to this get lost,” a political arrangement ordered from the distance of the metropolis that left too many doors open to serious abuse against the indigenous peoples.