Discovery and Exploration, 1000-1562

Author: Arthur Helps  | Date: 1518

The Origin of Negro Slavery in America

The outline of Las Casas’ scheme was as follows: The King was to give to every laborer willing to emigrate to Espanola his living during the journey form his place of abode to Seville, at the rate of half a real a day throughout the journey, for great and small, child and parent. At Seville the emigrants were to be lodged in the Casa de la Contratacion (the India House), and were to have from eleven to thirteen maravedis a day. From thence they were to have a free passage to Espanola, and to be provided with food for a year. And if the climate "should try them so much" that at the expiration of this year they should not be able to work for themselves, the King was to continue to maintain them; but this extra maintenance was to be put down to the account of the emigrants, as a loan which they were to repay. The King was to give them lands—his own lands—furnish them with plowshares and spades, and provide medicines for them. Lastly, whatever rights and profits accrued from their holdings were to become hereditary. This was certainly a most liberal plan of emigration. And, in addition, there were other privileges held out as inducements to these laborers.

In connection with the above scheme, Las Casas, unfortunately for his reputation in after-ages, added another provision, namely, that each Spanish resident in the island should have license to import a dozen negro slaves. The origin of this suggestion was, as he informs us, that the colonists had told him that, if license were given them to import a dozen negro slaves each, they, the colonists, would then set free the Indians. And so, recollecting that statement of the colonists, he added this provision. Las Casas, writing his history in his old age, thus frankly owns his error:

"This advice, that license should be given to bring negro slaves to these lands, the clerigo Casas first gave, not considering the injustice with which the Portuguese take them and make them slaves; which advice, after he had apprehended the nature of the thing, he would not have given for all he had in the world. For he always held that they had been made slaves unjustly and tyrannically; for the same reason holds good of them as of the Indians."

The above confession is delicately and truth-fully worded—"not considering"; he does not say, not being aware of it; but though it was a matter known to him, his moral sense was not watchful, as it were, about it. We must be careful not to press the admissions of a generous mind too far, or to exaggerate the importance of the suggestion of Las Casas. It would be quite erroneous to look upon this suggestion as being the introduction of negro slavery. From the earliest times of the discovery of America, negroes had been sent there. But what is of more significance, and what it is strange that Las Casas was not aware of, or did not mention, the Hieronymite Fathers had also come to the conclusion that negroes must be introduced into the West Indies. Writing in January, 1518, when the fathers could not have known what was passing in Spain in relation to this subject, they recommended licenses to be given to the inhabitants of Espanola, or to other persons, to bring negroes there. From the tenor of their letter it appears that they had before recommended the same thing. Zuazo, the judge of residencia, and the legal colleague of Las Casas, wrote to the same effect. He, however, suggested that the negroes should be placed in settlements and married. Fray. Bernardino de Manzanedo, the Hieronymite father, sent over to counteract Las Casas, gave the same advice as his brethren about the introduction of negroes. He added a proviso, which does not appear in their letter—perhaps it did exist in one of the earlier ones—that there should be as many women as men sent over, or more.

The suggestion of Las Casas was approved of by the Chancellor; and, indeed, it is probable there was hardly a man of that time who wouldhave seen further than the excellent clerigo did. Las Casas was asked what number of negroes would suffice? He replied that he did not know; upon which a letter was sent to the officers of the India House at Seville to ascertain the fit number in their opinion. They said that four thousand at present would suffice, being one thousand for each of the islands, Espanola, Porto Rico, Cuba, and Jamaica. Somebody now suggested to the Governor, De Bresa, a Fleming of much influence and a member of the council, that he should ask for this license to be given to him. De Bresa accordingly asked the King for it, who granted his request; and the Fleming sold this license to certain Genoese merchants for twenty-five thousand ducats, having obtained from the King a pledge that for eight years he should give no other license of this kind.

The consequence of this monopoly enjoyed by the Genoese merchants was that negroes were sold at a great price, of which there are frequent complaints. Both Las Casas and Pasamonte—rarely found in accord—suggested to the King that it would be better to pay the twenty-five thousand ducats and resume the license, or to abridge its term. Figueroa, writing to the Emperor from Sonto Domingo, says: "Negroes are very much in request; none have come for about a year. It would have been better to have given De Bresa the customs duties—i.e., the duties that had been usually paid on the importation of slaves—than to have placed a prohibition." I have scarcely a doubt that the immediate effect of the measure adopted in consequence of the clerigo’s suggestion was greatly to check that importation of negroslaves which otherwise, had the license been general, would have been very abundant.

Before quitting this part of the subject, something must be said for Las Casas which he does not allege for himself. This suggestion of his about the negroes was not an isolated one. Had all his suggestions been carried out, and the Indians thereby been preserved, as I firmly believe they might have been, these negroes might have remained a very insignificant number in the general population. By the destruction of Indians a void in the laborious part of the community was being constantly created, which had to be filled up by the labor of negroes. The negroes could bear the labor in the mines much better than the Indians; and any man who perceived that a race, of whose Christian virtues and capabilities he thought highly, were fading away by reason of being subjected to labor which their natures were incompetent to endure, and which they were most unjustly condemned to, might prefer the misery of the smaller number of another race treated with equal injustice, but more capable of enduring it. I do not say that Las Casas considered all these things; but, at any rate, in estimating his conduct, we must recollect that we look at the matter centuries after it occurred, and see all the extent of the evil arising from circumstances which no man could then be expected to foresee, and which were inconsistent with the rest of the clerigo’s plans for the preservation of the Indians.

I suspect that the wisest among us would very likely have erred with him; and I am not sure that, taking all his plans together, and taking for granted, as he did then, that his influence at courtwas to last, his suggestion about the negroes was an impolite one.


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Chicago: Arthur Helps, "The Origin of Negro Slavery in America," Discovery and Exploration, 1000-1562 in Great Epochs in American History, Vol.2, Pp.70-75 Original Sources, accessed April 14, 2024,

MLA: Helps, Arthur. "The Origin of Negro Slavery in America." Discovery and Exploration, 1000-1562, in Great Epochs in American History, Vol.2, Pp.70-75, Original Sources. 14 Apr. 2024.

Harvard: Helps, A, 'The Origin of Negro Slavery in America' in Discovery and Exploration, 1000-1562. cited in , Great Epochs in American History, Vol.2, Pp.70-75. Original Sources, retrieved 14 April 2024, from