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by Ismail Akwei, at 08:00 am, August 21, 2018, History

The forgotten story of the earliest shipment of slaves to the Americas and the men behind the horror

Transatlantic slave trade

The transatlantic slave trade that existed between the 16th and the 19th centuries is considered the largest enslavement of black Africans captured from central and western Africa and cruelly transported mainly to the Americas.

Slave trade in general, was already a thriving venture among the Arabs who had been trading in black slaves centuries before the European voyage to Africa. They even sold their human “merchandise” to European sailors who sent them to their countries of origin to serve as domestic workers before sending them to the Caribbean to work in the gold mines and sugar plantations.

Prior to the transatlantic slave trade, Indians and other locals were enslaved in the Americas and the Caribbean which were already colonies of European powerhouses including Spain, Portugal, France, the Netherlands and Britain.

The number of enslaved Indians reduced drastically due to poor health and smallpox epidemic that had gripped the New World. It is widely believed that the Portuguese were the first to replace the Indian workers with African slaves who were stronger, cheaper and highly resistant to diseases. It is recorded that the first Portuguese transatlantic slave voyage occurred in 1526 to Brazil before other European countries followed suit.

However, new discoveries prove that the King of Spain, Charles V, issued a charter authorising the international transportation of slaves directly from Africa to the Americas on August 18, 1518 (August 28, 1518, on the modern Gregorian calendar).

Portrait of Charles V (Don Carlos V) of Spain, ruler of the Holy Roman Empire (Wikimedia)

The charter, discovered some 100 years ago, proved the genesis of the trade some 500 years ago that saw at least 10.7 million black Africans transported between the two continents and a further 1.8 million dying en route. Meanwhile, it was only until recently that historians knew that the authorised voyages had ever taken place.

The yet-to-be-published discovery made from Spanish archives by two historians – Dr Wheat, of Michigan State University, and Dr Marc Eagle, of Western Kentucky University – over the past three years showed that the August 1518 charter was put into operation and the earliest transatlantic slave trade occurred in 1519, 1520, May 1521 and October 1521.

The royal document which launched the Africa to Americas transatlantic slave trade exactly 500 years ago. Issued by the Spanish King, Charles V, its horrific consequences lasted for 350 years (Ministry of Culture and Sports of the Government of Spain/Archivo General de Indias)

“The discoveries we’ve made are transforming our understanding of the very beginnings of the transatlantic slave trade. Remarkably, up till now, it’s been a shockingly understudied area,” Professor David Wheat was quoted by the Independent as saying.

The charter by the Spanish King introduced a licence called the Asiento which enables the supply of a given number of slaves. The Spanish authorities sold the Asiento to the highest bidder, and the money went to the Spanish king and queen. Anyone who buys the licence could buy slaves in Africa and sell them in the Spanish Americas.

The Portuguese dominated the trade and were later joined by the Dutch. Britain successfully signed a contract in 1713 to gain a monopoly on supplying slaves to the Spanish colonies.

The first four voyages sanctioned by the Spanish King were from a Portuguese trading station called Arguim (present-day northern Mauritania) to Puerto Rico in the Caribbean. The first three carried at least 60, 54 and 79 slaves respectively with a likelihood of other voyages to Hispaniola (Haiti and Dominican Republic).

It is also likely that the first two voyages were by a Portuguese or Spanish caravel called the Santa Maria de la Luz, captained by a mariner called Francisco (or Fernando) de Rosa. The third voyage was by another caravel, the San Miguel, captained by a (probably Basque) sailor called Martin de Urquica, the researchers noted.

Research also showed that direct slave trade from Africa to the Africas occurred in 1522 from the island of Sao Tome off the northwest coast of central Africa and Puerto Rico and probably other Caribbean ports.

“Academic research shows that this 1522 voyage carried no fewer than 139 slaves. Another voyage in 1524, discovered in 2016, carried just 18 – plus lots of other non-human merchandise. But other most recently discovered voyages in 1527, 1529 and 1530 carried 257, 248 and 231 slaves respectively,” the report added.

There were also records of at least six early slave voyages from the Cape Verde Islands to the Caribbean between 1518 and 1530. The slaves were acquired by Cape Verdean slave traders from African rulers and traders in Senegal, Gambia and Guinea-Bissau, Guinea and Sierra Leone.

Those behind the early transatlantic slave trade besides the King of Spain Charles V as reported by the Independent were:

Laurent de Gouvenot (Lorenzo de Gorrevod in Spanish) – a Flemish aristocrat and member of the Spanish king’s council of state (Flanders, predominantly the northern part of modern Belgium, was part of the Burgundian Netherlands, ruled by Charles). He was awarded the slave trade charter and it served as a licence for him to make money.

Gouvenot subcontracted the operations to Juan Lopez de Recalde, the treasurer of the Spanish government agency with responsibility for all Caribbean matters.

Recalde, in turn, sold the rights to transport 3,000 of the 4,000 slaves to a Seville-based Genoese merchant, Agostin de Vivaldi, and his Castilian colleague, Fernando Vazquez, and the right to carry the remaining thousand slaves to another Genoese merchant, Domingo de Fornari.

Vivaldi and Vazquez then (at a profit) resold the rights to transport their 3,000 slaves to two well connected Castilian merchants, Juan de la Torre and Juan Fernandez de Castro, and to a famous Seville-based Genoese banker, Gaspar Centurion, who, along with Fornari, subcontracted the work directly or indirectly to various ships’ captains.

As the world commemorates the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, it is equally important to remember how it all began.

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