Gold, silver and sugar

The enslaved Africans taken to central and South America were used to undertake different kinds of work. They mined gold and silver, grew sugar, cacao (chocolate), indigo (a plant used for dye) and tobacco. They were also used as skilled craftsmen such as carpenters, cattle herders and as domestic labourers.

The demands for labour in the different colonies varied, and work done by slaves in one colony might be done by free labour in another. For example, mining for precious metals. Few enslaved Africans were used in the silver mines in Peru. The mines were high in the mountains, and the cost of feeding and clothing slaves in this isolated and cold area would be too high. Africans were not used to the lack of oxygen in the air at that altitude, and did not work well. The local Indians, however, were acclimatised to the mountains. They were used in a forced labour system. The men were obliged to work for so many weeks or months at the mines, but were paid a daily rate based on how much silver they produced. Enslaved Africans were used in the gold workings in New Granada (the country now called Colombia in South America). They were panning for gold in the rivers. By the late 16th century about 1,000 slaves were bought each year by the Spanish who bought the rights to pan for gold. (Panning for gold is a way of washing the gold-bearing gravel found in riverbeds in a pan). The Colombian rivers which had gold in them were not high up in the mountains, so the slaves did not need warm clothes or imported food. They could grow their own food on the land beside the rivers, and an adult enslaved African might survive for about seven years at this hard work. Here, slave labour made sense because the labour was cheap and the value of the gold that they were extracting was high.

The country of Brazil was settled by the Portuguese. It developed slowly from the late 15th century. At first, only the logwood, a tree which gave a dye, was exploited. Then in the 1540s sugar plantations started, and labour was needed to work on the plantations which grew it. In Brazil in 1570, there were about 20-30,000 Indian slaves. They were valued at 1 escudo each (equivalent to between 25 and 50 pence). There were also about 2-3,000 African slaves, valued at between 13 and 40 escudos. The difference in value could be explained by the amount of work done, as Africans were considered to be much better workers than the local Indian populations. The higher price of Africans could also be because they had to be purchased from traders who charged the cost of the slave in Africa, plus the cost of food and transport, plus a profit. The Indian would just be enslaved without any such costs. By 1600, there were about 12-15,000 enslaved Africans in Brazil, and over the next 50 years more than 200,000 were imported. The total number of enslaved Africans imported into Brazil is estimated to be about 4,000,000.

The Spanish had several colonies in central and South America. New Spain (now the country of Mexico), New Granada (which is Colombia today), Peru, Venezuela and Argentina. Resistance to colonisation by the local Indians in what is now Chile stopped Spanish expansion in that area. In Mexico, the gold and silver mines were the main interest of the Spanish settlers. The mines were worked mainly by free labour, and few enslaved Africans were imported. In the 16th century African slaves had been used in Mexico as dockworkers, as sheep and cattle herdsmen, and to a limited extent in the mines.

Enslaved Africans were usually used in mining, agricultural labour and domestic work. In the countries of Mexico and Peru, sugar and cacao (chocolate) were grown for the local market. Silver and gold was sent to Spain in the yearly trip made by a fleet of ships (heavily guarded against privateers and pirates). Brazil produced gold, sugar, cotton, indigo, rice and cacao and tobacco. In Venezuela, sugar, cacao and indigo were the main slave-produced goods. Indigo, a dark blue dye, comes from a plant which needs to be processed before it can be used as a dye. Cacao was often grown on a share-cropping basis between the plantation owners and the slaves. The plantation owners provided the land, the slaves grew the crop, and the two shared the profits. The enslaved Africans could earn enough to buy their freedom from their masters. Other slaves were used in more unusual jobs. Africans were diving for pearls in New Granada (which is Colombia today). They also worked as weavers and prostitutes throughout the colonies.

Slaves could buy or be given their freedom. This was called manumission. Far more slaves were freed in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies than in the British and French territories in the islands of the Caribbean. Many slaves were allowed (and able) to buy their own or their children’s freedom. Freed slaves might even own slaves themselves.

Cartagena des Indias, in present day Colombia, was the main port for slave imports in Spanish America. Buyers in the 17th century would come from as far away as Mexico or Peru to buy slaves. They would be taken back to Mexico or Peru and sold on. The price of a slave was affected by the distance they had travelled from the port where they had first arrived. An enslaved African might cost 250 pesos in Cartagena, Colombia, but the cost in far away Mexico City might be as high as 370 pesos. In Lima, the capital city of Peru, which is even further away from Colombia, the cost could be higher still at 500 pesos. Slaves were also imported to South America through the city of Buenos Aires in what is now Argentina. Slaves were sold from here to work in the countries of Chile, Bolivia and Peru, north of Argentina.