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Slavery in Latin America was practiced in precolonial times.
During the Atlantic slave trade, Latin America was the main destination of millions of African people transported from Africa to French, Portuguese, and Spanish colonies. Slavery's legacy is the presence of large Afro-Latino populations.
After the gradual emancipation of most black slaves, slavery continued along the Pacific coast of South America throughout the 19th century, as Peruvian slave traders kidnapped Polynesians, primarily from the Marquesas Islands and Easter Island and forced them to perform physical labour in mines and in the guano industry of Peru and Chile.
Encomienda (Spanish pronunciation: [eŋkoˈmjenda]) was a labor system in Spain and its empire. It rewarded conquerors with the labor of particular groups of subject people. It was first established in Spain during the Roman period, but used also following the Christian conquest of Muslim territories. It was applied on a much larger scale during the Spanish colonization of the Americas and the Philippines. Conquered peoples were considered vassals of the Spanish monarch. The Crown awarded an encomienda as a grant to a particular individual. In the conquest era of the sixteenth century, the grants were considered to be a monopoly on the labor of particular groups of Indians, held in perpetuity by the grant holder, called the encomendero, and his descendants.
With the ouster of Christopher Columbus, the Spanish crown sent a royal governor, Fray Nicolás de Ovando, who established the formal encomienda system. In many cases natives were forced to do hard labor and subjected to extreme punishment and death if they resisted. However, Queen Isabella of Castile forbade Indian slavery and deemed the indigenous to be "free vassals of the crown". Various versions of the Leyes de Indias or Laws of the Indies from 1512 onwards attempted to regulate the interactions between the settlers and natives. Both natives and Spaniards appealed to the Real Audiencias for relief under the encomienda system.
The encomienda system brought many indigenous Taíno to work in the fields and mines in exchange for Spanish protection, education, and a seasonal salary. Under the pretense of searching for gold and other materials, many Spaniards took advantage of the regions now under control of the anaborios and Spanish encomenderos to exploit the native population by seizing their land and wealth. It would take some time before the Taíno revolted against their oppressors — both Indian and Spanish alike — and many military campaigns before Emperor Charles V eradicated the encomienda system as a form of slavery. Raphael Lemkin (coiner of the term genocide) considers Spain's abuses of the Native population of the Americas to constitute cultural and even outright genocide including the abuses of the Encomienda system. He described slavery as "cultural genocide par excellence" noting "it is the most effective and thorough method of destroying culture, of desocializing human beings." He considers colonist guilty due to failing to halt the abuses of the system despite royal orders. Recent research suggests that the spread of old-world disease appears to have been aggravated by the extreme climatic conditions of the time and by the poor living conditions and harsh treatment of the native people under the encomienda system of New Spain.
The African presence in Latin America had an effect on the culture across Latin America. Black slaves arrived in the Americas during the early stages of exploration and settlement. By the first decades of the sixteenth century they were commonly participating in Spain's military expeditions.
While most slaves were baptized upon arrival to the New World, the Catholic Church did come to the defense of slaves. Some brotherhoods raised money to purchase the freedom of some of their slave members. Although the church owned slaves themselves, they never embraced the racist justifications for slavery so common among Protestant denominations in the United States.
The impact of slavery in culture is greatly apparent in Latin America. The mixing of cultures and races provides a rich history to be studied.
According to the television series, Black in Latin America, The territories that later constituted Mexico as part of the New Spain, imported more African slaves than the United States. Between 1502 and 1866, of the 11.2 million Africans, only 388,000 arrived in North America, while the rest arrived in Latin America and the Caribbean These slaves were brought as early as the 16th and 17th centuries. The evidence of the African population is not readily apparent due to the mixing of the indigenous population, Africans, and European peoples and the early inception of African slaves into the Mexican society. According to Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s film on the slave trade in Mexico, the integration of African peoples was so pervasive that every Mexican has an "African grandma hiding in their closet." The slaves would be forced to work in mines and plantations. Today, the most African communities live in coastal towns, "Vera Cruz on the Gulf of Mexico, the Costa Chica region on the Pacific".
During the nearly four centuries in which slavery existed in the Americas, Brazil was responsible for importing 35 percent of the slaves from Africa (4 million) while Spanish America imported about 20 percent (2.5 million) all during the Atlantic Slave Trade. These numbers are significantly higher than the imported slaves of the United States (less than 5 percent). High death rates, an enormous number of runaway slaves, and greater levels of manumission(granting a slave freedom) meant that Latin America and Caribbean societies had fewer slaves than the United States at any given time. However they made up a higher percentage of the population throughout the colonial period. This being said, the upper class of these societies constantly feared for uprising among not only slaves but Indians and the poor of all racial ethnic groups.
Over 70 percent of slaves in Latin American worked on sugar cane plantations due to the importance of this crop to economies there at the time. Slaves also worked in the production of tobacco, rice, cotton, fruit, corn and other commodities. The majority of slaves brought to the Americas from Africa were men due to the fact plantation owners needed brute strength for the physical labor that was done in the fields. However women were brought to the Caribbean islands to provide labor as well. Female slaves were often responsible for cutting cane, fertilized plants, fed can stalks in mill grinders, tended garden vegetables, and looked after children. Men cut cane and worked in mills. They also worked as carpenters, blacksmiths, drivers, etc. In some cases they were even part of the plantations militia.
Slavery was part of the indigenous cultures much before the landfall of the Europeans in America. After the Europeans made landfall in America in 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella saw that, if Spain did not receive from the Pope in regard to the American "Indies" the same authority and permissions which Portugal had received in regard of West Africa, then Spain would be at a disadvantage in making use of her newly discovered territories. Accordingly, Pope Alexander VI was approached and already on 3 May 1493 he issued two bulls on the same day in both of which he extended the identical favours, permissions, etc. granted to the Monarchy of Portugal in respect of West Africa to the Monarchy of Spain in respect of America.....and to reduce their persons into perpetual slavery...wherever they may be.
Although the church was excited by the potential for huge numbers of conversions in the New World, the clergy sent there were often horrified by the methods used by the conquerors, and tensions between church and state in the new lands grew rapidly. The encomienda system of forced or tenured labour, begun in 1503, often amounted to slavery, though it was not full chattel slavery. The Leyes de Burgos (or Laws of Burgos), were issued by Ferdinand II (Catholic) on 27 December 1512, and were the first set of rules created to control relations between the Spaniards and the recently conquered indigenous people, but though intended to improve the treatment of the Indians, they simply legalized and regulated the system of forced Indian labour. During the reign of Charles V, the reformers gained steam, with the Spanish missionary Bartolomé de las Casas as a notable leading advocate. His goal was the abolition of the encomienda system, which forced the Indians to abandon their previous lifestyle and destroyed their culture. His active role in the reform movement earned Las Casas the nickname, "Defender of the Indians". He was able to influence the king, and the fruit of the reformers' labour was the New Laws of 1542. However these provoked a revolt by the conquistadors, led by Gonzalo Pizarro, the half-brother of Francisco Pizarro, and the alarmed government revised them to be much weaker to appease them. Continuing armed indigenous resistance, for example in the Mixtón War (1540–41) and the Chichimeca War of 1550 resulted in the full enslavement of thousands of captives, often out of the control of the Spanish government.
The second Archbishop of Mexico (1551–72), the Dominican Alonso de Montúfar, wrote to the king in 1560 protesting the importation of Africans, and questioning the "justness" of enslaving them. Tomás de Mercado was a theologian and economist of the School of Salamanca who had lived in Mexico and whose 1571 Summa de Tratos y Contratos ("Manual of Deals and Contracts") was scathing about the morality of the enslavement of Africans in practice, though he accepted "just-title" slaves in theory.
Pressure for the end of slavery and forced labour among the indigenous Indians worked to increase the demand for African slaves to do the work instead. Rodrigo de Albornoz, a layman, was a former secretary to Charles V sent as an official to New Spain, who opposed the treatment of the indigenous, though himself importing 150 African slaves. Las Casas also supported the importation of African slaves as preferable to Amerindian forced labour, although he later changed his mind about this.
Slaveholders, slaves and freed slaves of African descent were the most watched people in the societies of New Spain, the explanations differing but there is repetitive correlation between status, family and economic stability that women during this time endured. African slaves were still prominent in Spanish colonies, however, a rise to societal class was forming: free wealthy African-descent women, who owned slaves themselves. As status and elegance was a major definer in the Spanish culture, it became apparent what was setting these African-descent people apart was the way in which they dressed opposed to the elegance in fabrics, jewels and other prestige items. Freedom becomes more popular for African- descended, forcing them to figure out how to take care of their families needs from an economical standpoint and statues was a primary factor in their drive towards wealth. Polonia de Ribas was one of many other famous African- descended slave-owning women, who challenged the predetermined gender roles of men in the family realm and for freed women who were not supposed to obtain these luxuries post freedom. As a result of the trading that was happening from the Atlantic slave trade, many women took the opportunity to purchase slaves in order to set up their financial stability but in Polonia's case, she was gifted two slaves following her manumission which helped her immensely. Slaves were easily the most expensive item to purchase during that time, not the equipment or the plantation but the slaves, so imagine how financially detrimental it was if one of their slaves would die. It was said that many women used politics in their slave-owning practices but Polonia's additional financial investments helped further the success in her life and other African-descent slaveowners. Financial investments like working or owning inns since these Spanish colonies were centered around trade, loaning money to neighbors but she always kept an official notarial account which accounted for all loans and debts; this is important for historians' research. African-descended women often profited from the doweries that were given to them through the marriage of their husband, this was another way in which women would be set up with economical statues while ensuring a life provided. Slave-owning by women of African descent was said to be just a way of supporting their families when no husband was present but it could also have something to do with the lust and the want to be a part of this society that has oppressed them constantly.
As seen in the previous section, the main focus is status in society, post-freedom of enslaved women but in Peru, status is closely correlated to its relationship with clothing because of the power it held in an ethically diverse, slaveholding society. It seems absurd that one would enslave after being enslaved but it was because of the "aesthetic" behind having slaves, the exceptionalism one attains within societal eyes when being an owner of slaves. In Peru, the separation in classes and hierarchies was something that Spaniard's did not take lightly because they felt an elite sense of European dominance, which was the focal point in the city of Lima when Spaniard's wanted to assert dominance over the way that African- descended women dressed and what their clothing signified. African women whether free or not began to have stipulations on what they were to wear through sumptuary laws enforced by white Limeños, trying to secure that autonomy would not be achieved by their oppressors. These laws allowed for only Spanish and elite women were able to wear elegant clothing, gold, silver, silk and slippers with silver bells on them. These laws really targeted slave owners and slaves, making sure that they had that separation in classes. Slaves could not afford to wear clothes like that so they must be stealing, this was the thought process of the Spanish lawmakers. If freed women looked like Spanish women then how would you tell them apart, it was considered trickery and they were scrutinized for it so the solution was to wear wool. As clothing does gain more societal popularity and significance, showing the means/wealth of a person but now in a very public fashion. Slaveowners decided that their slaves needed to be dressed in rich clothing in order to maintain and articulate this elite presence in what is called livery. For freed African-descent women, they were not supposed to dress like elite Spanish but since they were not the targeted subject, they were able to wear skirts and blouses made of lace.
In Cartagena, clothing and fashion was also at its prime when trying to distinguish between the elite, freed slaves and slaves but in this culture. It was because African-descent women were being provocative in the way they dressed so nicely while performing common task whether at home or in public, being referred to as "brash and disruptive." Fear is what drove the Holy Office to perform such intense trials when condemning these women because they did not want their people taking over control of them. African-descended women were renounced because of their love magic that correlated with the witch trials that were happening during that time. African woman were standing out because they were wealthy, the disruption that was seen as sin or a distraction was really just African woman wearing clothes made of materials that only elites were to wear. It did not matter whether or not you were actually wealthy, this was just an expressive way for enslaved and freed slaves to show their individuality, regardless of another oppressor. "Mostly well-off nonwhite women who could not claim the honorable statues of wealthy españolas still dressed as if they were rich and lived in luxury." The Cartagena's feared the rising of these beautiful, elegant women who no longer looked as clothing as a necessity but more of an expression in their freedom. The passing down of these fine clothes and jewels only aided in the future generations to continue this stand against oppression.
During the deportation of Yaqui under the Porfiriato the Mexican government established large concentration camps at San Marcos, where the remaining Yaqui families were broken up and segregated. Individuals were then sold into slavery inside the station and packed into train cars which took them to Veracruz, where they were embarked yet again for the port town of Progreso in the Yucatán. There they were transported to their final destination, the nearby henequen plantations.
By 1908, at least 5,000 Yaqui had been sold into slavery. At Valle Nacional, the enslaved Yaquis were worked until they died. While there were occasional escapes, the escapees were far from home and, without support or assistance, most died of hunger while begging for food on the road out of the valley toward Córdoba. At Guaymas, thousands more Yaquis were put on boats and shipped to San Blas, where they were forced to walk more than 200 miles to San Marcos and its train station. Many women and children could not withstand the three-week journey over the mountains, and their bodies were left by the side of the road. Yaquis (particularly children) were rattled off in Train cars to be sold as slaves in this process having 1/3 die simply in the process of deportation. The deaths were mostly caused by unfettered smallpox epidemics.
On the plantations, the Yaquis were forced to work in the tropical climate of the area from dawn to dusk. Yaqui women were allowed to marry only non-native Chinese workers. Given little food, the workers were beaten if they failed to cut and trim at least 2,000 henequen leaves per day, after which they were then locked up every night. Most of the Yaqui men, women and children sent for slave labor on the plantations died there, with two-thirds of the arrivals dying within a year.
The Amazon rubber boom and the associated need for a large workforce had a significant negative effect on the indigenous population across Brazil, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. As rubber plantations grew, labor shortages increased. The owners of the plantations or rubber barons were rich, but those who collected the rubber made very little as a large amount of rubber was needed to be profitable. The rubber barons rounded up all the Indians and forced them to tap rubber out of the trees. One plantation started with 50,000 Indians but, when discovered, only 8,000 were still alive. Slavery and systematic brutality were widespread, and in some areas, 90% of the Indian population was wiped out. These rubber plantations were part of the Brazilian rubber market, which declined as rubber plantations in Southeast Asia became more effective.
Roger Casement, an Irishman traveling the Putumayo region of Peru as a British consul during 1910–1911 documented the abuse, slavery, murder and use of stocks for torture against the native Indians: 
"The crimes charged against many men now in the employ of the Peruvian Amazon Company are of the most atrocious kind, including murder, violation, and constant flogging."
According to Wade Davis, author of One River:
"The horrendous atrocities that were unleashed on the Indian people of the Amazon during the height of the rubber boom were like nothing that had been seen since the first days of the Spanish Conquest."
Rubber had catastrophic effects in parts of Upper Amazonia, but its impact should not be exaggerated nor extrapolated to the whole region. The Putumayo was a particularly horrific case. Many nearby rubber regions were not ruled by physical violence, but by the voluntary compliance implicit in patron-peon relations. Some native peoples benefited financially from their dealings with the white merchants. Others chose not to participate in the rubber business and stayed away from the main rivers. Because tappers worked in near complete isolation, they were not burdened by overseers and timetables. In Brazil (and probably elsewhere) tappers could, and did, adulterate rubber cargoes, by adding sand and flour to the rubber "balls", before sending them downriver. Flight into the thicket was a successful survival strategy and, because Indians were engaged in credit relations, it was a relatively common practice to vanish and work for other patrons, leaving debts unpaid.