Native American Slavery

Native American slavery started with Columbus. By his second voyage to Hispaniola, he set up a system, called the encomienda, which amounted to slavery. Under it, a colonist who was given a piece of land had the right to the labor of all the natives who lived on that land — whether they were interested in a job or not.

Columbus also imposed a gold tax on the Indians and sometimes cut the hands off of those who couldn’t or wouldn’t pay it. Between slavery, killings, and diseases, the population of Hispaniola’s natives plummeted from an estimated 250,000 to 300,000 at the time of Columbus’s arrival in 1492 to perhaps 60,000 by 1510, to near zero by 1550.

As the Indians on the main islands died off, the Spanish settlers in the Caribbean simply raided other, smaller islands and kidnapped the residents there. A historian at the time wrote that you could navigate among islands “without compass or chart . . . simply by following the trail of dead Indians who have been thrown from ships.”

When even the populations of the little islands waned, the Spanish looked for other cheap labor sources. They found them in Africa. African slaves were first imported to the New World within a few years after Columbus’s first trip. By 1513, King Carlos I of Spain had given his royal assent to the African slave trade. He made his decision in part, he said, to improve the lot of the Indians.

Of course, the fact that many Spanish landholders in the New World were beginning to prefer African slaves made his decision easier. They believed the Africans had better immunity to European diseases and were more used to hard agricultural labor because they came from agricultural cultures.

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