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How Spanish king Charles I’s 1518 decree for Africans to be shipped to the Americas triggered brutalities

American slavery has rightfully received ample scrutiny. However, other states began European chattel slavery. Notable slave trading operatives include the Spaniards, Portuguese and the English.

With contact being made by these early European people with Africa, using missionary and trade in goods, the nature of that interaction soon altered to slave trade thanks to the possession of a new device – the gun by the Europeans which could relatively kill more and quickly.

Still the transportation of Africans to the Caribbean and Europe was insignificant. In the 1510s and ‘20s, ships sailing from Spain to the Caribbean settlements of Puerto Rico and Hispaniola had anything form one or two enslaved people to as many as 30 or 40.

However, an act changed all that scaling the operation significantly making human cargo movement on transatlantic voyages to spike nearly tenfold.

King of Spain Charles as he grants a license to sell Africans as slaves in Spain’s American colonies, 1518.

In August 1518, King Charles I authorized Spain to ship enslaved people directly from Africa to the Americas. The edict marked a new phase in the transatlantic slave trade in which the numbers of enslaved people brought directly to the Americas – without going through European ports first – rose dramatically.

David Wheat, history professor at Michigan State University observed “by the mid-1520s, we’re seeing 200—sometimes as many as almost 300—captives being brought on the same slave ship [from Africa].”

It’s difficult to trace which parts of Africa the captives on board came from, since many were captured on the mainland and shipped to island ports off the coast before Spanish boats took them to the Americas.

“This is also some of our earliest examples of enslaved people throwing themselves overboard, people dying of malnutrition,” Wheat added. “Some of the same really horrible and violent and brutal aspects of the slave trade that was seen much later on, we’re seeing them already in these voyages from São Tomé in the 1520s.”

Together with historian Marc Eagle, the pair identified about 18 direct voyages from Africa to the Americas in the immediate years after Charles I’s authorization.

A cocoa plantation in the West Indies.

With the edict came increased brutality inflicted by the slave merchants, captains and their crew on the defenseless enslaved.

The trade in humans was so lucrative that Portugal established in the mid-1400s São Tomé, a colonial island port off the west coast of Africa. Portugal were already masters of the slave trade by 1518, forcing enslaved Africans to work on islands in the eastern Atlantic while Spanish ships brought captive Africans to the Iberian Peninsula, forwarding some to the Caribbean.

With native people the Spaniards enslaved increasingly dying from European disease and colonial violence; they increased the number of enslaved Africans brought to the Caribbean after 1518 estimated in the thousands, according to Wheat.

While during this period, other people could be enslaved, Black people were in the majority. Wheat, however, noted that small numbers of free people of color were in Iberian societies around the Atlantic.

From the Galleons to the Highlands: Slave Trade Routes in the Spanish Americas in 2019; an essay by Wheat and Eagle looks at the matter in detail.

The crowded deck of a slave ship.

Eagle, a history professor at Western Kentucky University, observed that when it came to dealing with the “casual brutality” in the records he found, the slaves were treated just as merchandise.

On a report about a slave revolt, he noted, “the whole report is about a captain who’s trying to justify the fact that he’s lost some goods to his investors, and it really is just like he’s talking about merchandise.”

“When a slave dies they’ll send somebody to [record] what the brand was on the slave and what they died of and keep a record, and that’s all again for commercial purposes—they can claim that as loss later on,” Eagle continued.

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