Commentary No. 039
Date: 1579, April 22. Santo Domingo, La Española.
Theme: In the late 1570s colonial royal prosecutor of La Española Gaspar de Torres recommended the importing of large amounts of enslaved blacks at affordable prices to work in the gold mines of the colony, together with an end of the trade monopoly by Seville, as keys to the survival of the colony and as an alternative to the widespread illegal trade that diminished the Crown’s local revenues
Source: PARES, Portal de Archivos Españoles--Archivo General de Indias, SANTO_DOMINGO, 51,R. 2, N. 34
By the end of the 1570s, the practice of smuggling mostly manufactured goods and enslaved black Africans into La Española by merchant ships from countries other than Spain in exchange for local products like cane-sugar, hides and meat had become a widespread reality among the settlers of the entire northwestern and western territories of the colony.
This massive unchecked illegal trade disobeyed openly and defied frontally the monopolistic laws of the burgeoning Spanish empire that intended to force the settlers of La Española to do trade only and exclusively with the metropolis (and more specifically with the merchants of Seville), coercing them to buy only the products sent from the metropolis at the price imposed by the metropolis and to sell the colony’s products only to the metropolis and at the prices dictated by the metropolis. The smuggling was essentially a collective act of colonial economic resistance, and even rebellion, by the settlers of an entire region of La Española, and in a way, most of the island, that saw it as their only way to access a fair, viable material life.
In 1579, in a letter to the Crown from Santo Domingo, colonial royal prosecutor Gaspar de Torres described in detail how entrenched the local social mechanics of the smuggling were, sustained by a sense of shared interest and a shared strategy of secrecy and violent enforcement among its many practitioners in the island, while comparing the official Spanish monopolistic rules of trade that motivated it to a tyranny. One of the main centers of this trade was the town of La Yaguana (possibly around today’s Leoganne, in the Republic of Haiti), where 80-90 families resided, “most of them rich or of medium wealth because there are very few poor people,” and they exported more than 40,000 hides per year, according to Torres.
As a solution to a collective behavior that generated a sizable evading of royal taxes and thus of potential local royal revenues in La Española, Torres proposed that transoceanic freedom of trade between La Española and metropolitan ports different than Seville be implemented, together with the affordable and easy providing by the metropolis of large quantities of enslaved blacks (“alguna cantidad de negros no pequeña”) to the settlers for the exclusive purpose of digging gold and under enough enforcement as to assure these slaves would indeed concentrate on such an endeavor “que no se ocupasen en otra cosa y […] que no cesasen de andar a minas”).
Torres’ words are another testimony of the importance that many settlers continued to attribute, during the last third of the sixteenth century, to the availability of enslaved black labor for the survival and functioning of the colony’s economy and of the colony itself as a viable piece of the empire, while his insistence on the need for constant vigilance upon the enslaved blacks talked to their constant documented efforts to resist or escape the drudgery of colonial enslavement.