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Slavery and other forms of forced labor is an issue that is the subject of scorn and despise in today’s modern world. However the irony lies in the fact that the nations, mostly colonizers, who criticize it the most today themselves at some point in time used this institution to their advantage when they conquered and ruled foreign lands. The story of Latin America is not very different. The Spaniards on their arrival not only brought African slaves along with them but also developed different forms of forced labor for the natives such as encomiendas, yana etc. There were few arguments in favor of slave trade such as the excuse to spread the message of the Church and to evangelize as many people as possible. However a close look at the annals of colonial history shows us that economic gains were the driving force behind the acts of the colonizers. The ambitious cult of the Spaniards which made them take the long and hazardous journey to the New World was the driving force behind bringing African slaves and engaging natives into forced labor.  

                In the wake of Spanish conquests in Peru and New Spain the native societies experienced immense structural, economic and social changes. The Spaniards believed in Aristotle’s doctrine of natural slavery, whereby societies that were rational and reasonable and had accepted the true faith i.e. Christianity were meant to be Masters whereas those who were governed by brutality, passion and infidelity were eternally slaves. This implied that the Spaniards considered the natives as providers of free labor for them. One of the most major impacts of the arrival of the Spanish was the fall of the native Indian population. Although very accurate accounts are not available today yet records suggest that the native population experienced a decline of 85% in a century after they arrived. One of the major reasons for this was that the Spanish brought diseases such as smallpox, mumps, measles etc along with them from Europe. The spread of these alien diseases meant that the natives who did not have any immunity against them easily fell victim. Usually it would take up three or four generations to build up resistance against such diseases.  Moreover it has been suggested that the Spaniards used violence and brutality which lead to poor health conditions and malnourishment. The native’s crops were also eaten up by the animals of the Spaniards which meant that they were left with limited supplies of food.  Thereafter many natives accepting the Spanish domination as their land’s fate or divine will, began committing suicides and infanticides etc. Such decline in native population was on the other hand accompanied by an increasing Spanish population as more and more professionals and artisans from Spain poured in. The decreasing native population suggested a dearth of labor for the Spaniards as many of them possessed very economically important skills. This situation brought to the forefront the African slaves. The blacks travelled to Latin America along with their Spanish masters. They included men and women. Demographically, most of the Spaniards were young men who were accompanied by few Spanish women; therefore black women were also brought to the newly conquered territory.  Curiously the Spaniards could also consider transferring Spanish masses to the Indies to use as labor. However, during this time many cities of the Spanish empire were beginning to grow and thrive. Besides this the agriculture sector was operating now on free wage labor basis. Finally, the fact that the military force was being developed provided another niche to the Spanish masses.  Therefore, African slaves seemed a perfect choice given these circumstances. Added to this black labor was completely mobile and they were kinless which meant they could be transported anywhere and made to work. In case of the natives it was very hard to make them shift. Moreover, there remained a threat of rebellion as they were still living in their native land and developed community. However in cases where cruelty reached enormous heights there were instances of revolt from the blacks even as in case of the “Maroons” who ran away and settled and developed their own organized community. The Blacks soon surfaced in colonial society. Inter marrying took place between blacks, Indians and Spanish leading to mixed breeds such as mulattoes and zambos.
              On finding rich reserves of precious metals in the Indies, the Spaniards required even more labor for extraction. It is true to a great extent that some form of manual labor existed even before the arrival of the Spanish. The pre-existing economic structure appears to be similar to the theory of modern day socialism.  The government provided whatever its subjects needed and the nobility was responsible for the administration. People did not have freedom of choice and there was no concept of leisure time but it seems that these were not important concepts for the natives of the time. There were also artisans and craftsmen of an itinerant nature. The Spaniards simply added a monetary concept to this already existing concept of communal cooperation.( Weidner, Forced Labor In Colonial Peru).
         Sugar plantations were a major part of agriculture at that time. Sugarcane, not being an indigenous crop of the Americas, was first brought by Christopher Columbus from Europe. Harvesting the sugarcane crop tends to be an arduous and irksome job and initially the natives were employed for this job. However, a large part of them were already severely hit by European diseases. Some of them ran away from such harsh labor. Thereafter the Crown realized that they had to rely on African slaves. A healthy, adult slave was expected to be able to plow, plant, and harvest five acres of sugar. Sugar planting was back-breaking work. Lines of slaves, men, women and children, moved across the fields, row by row, hand-planting thousands of seed-cane stems. Between 5,000 and 8,000 pieces had to be planted to produce one acre of sugar cane. Workdays in the fields typically lasted from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. with a noon-time break of perhaps two hours. Not only was the nature of the work exhausting but also the working conditions were quite barbaric. Supervisors would even whip the slaves during the work in order to improve their performance or speed. After harvesting the process of boiling took place to convert the cane into crystal form. This was even worse as many slaves received severe burns or suffered from swollen body parts due to the intense heat. Sometimes work shifts would last 18 hours and not only this but threats and force were used to compel them to continue the labor. This pattern of sugar plantations initially existed in Brazil and then was later followed by other Latin as well as European countries. With more time sugar became a very important source of earning for the Crown. In British and French colonies such as Jamaica and Saint Domingue it became the most important export accounting for two thirds of the total exports.(West, Sugar and Slavery).
            One of the initial measures taken by the Spaniards with regard to American labor was the creation of “encomiendas”. Most of the Spanish conquerors were assigned a group of natives who were to provide labor for them. In return their Spanish Masters were to provide protection and sustenance and most importantly to evangelize them. However, on close scrutiny it appears that encomiendas actually reduced the Crown’s revenue. This occurred because the Spanish were not allowed to move the native encomiendas to other geographical locations which would yield better returns such as the silver mines in Mexico and Peru. Moreover, unlike slaves, they could not be traded or rented to other Spaniards which again meant that their cost per person was high for the Masters. Nevertheless, the Spanish continued the use of native labor. The Crown had strong reasons to continue doing this. Firstly, it had to provide some sort of incentive to the conquistadors as they would have to face alien conditions in the Indies. For this purpose the Crown struck a bargain with them. The leaders of the conquests or “caudillos” were specified a return and an area of authority. In return for this, the “caudillos” had to raise capital and a labor force for the Crown. Labor was one of the abundant resources available in the Indies and so it was in the best interest of the Spanish to exploit. The Church also wanted the Americans to be free people and not to be inflicted with harsh labor; however, in the initial years after the conquest they had to adopt a certain system of extracting native labor otherwise they would have forgone large amounts of wealth. Another major reason why the Crown preferred encomiendas over slavery was because of inheritance restrictions on them which meant that encomenderos could not retain the encomiendas for generations. Furthermore, if the Crown wanted it could confiscate encomiendas especially in case of signs of rebellion from the conquistadores. The encomiendas also processed a right not to be dislocated unlike slaves. The Church felt that dislocation of natives could lead to their depopulation as they would be exposed to different climatic conditions. The institution of encomiendas could have proved economically less productive as compared to slavery. However, the Church had to cater to security considerations at the time.(Yeager, Encomienda or Slavery).
         Soon the institution of encomienda began to be abused in several ways by the nobles and so the Crown passed the laws of 1542, banning encomiendas. It was replaced by “repartimientos” or “mita”. This made colonial administrators in charge of the natives. Under this system work requirements stipulated that all able-bodied men between the ages of 16 and 60 work 2 weeks per year and that no more than 5% of a community’s male population be absent at one time.(Kent, Latin America: Region and People).  The type of labor that could be extracted was totally on the administrator’s discretion. Mostly work included working in mines, on agricultural land and also on public works. The institution of mita was not very much the brainchild of the colonizers; rather it existed in some form during the Aztec and Inca empires as well.
        More than 80% of the population was involved in agriculture and ranching and mining being the foremost activity. Until the 18th century the policy of the Crown was to exchange precious metals extracted from the Indies for manufactured goods from Europe. This required them to engage maximum natives in labor. The major silver mines opened in Peru and Mexico in the 16th century. Potosi’ in Bolivia and Zacatecas in Mexico were the largest mines. The Crown owned all subsoil rights and so the ambitious Spaniards felt that in order to exploit the resources of the New World they had to make use of the natives’ physical skills and labor.
           Although the concept of slavery is often discussed alongside forced labor in the Indies yet significant differences exist. It is obvious that the main concern of the Spaniards was to exploit the natural resources of the area through mining and agriculture and to extract tributes from the natives. A large portion of the initial lot of Spanish believed that the natives due to their brutality were meant to be slaves. However, with the passage of time this view also changed, with individuals such as Bartolome’ de las Casas advocating the rights of the native populations and opposing the violence inflicted by colonizers. This also drove the Spaniards to bring in more African slaves and extract from them the type of work that they feared the natives could not perform. The Blacks always had a certain stigma attached to them and occupied a distinct place in the Latin society of the time. Moreover, it is obvious to a great extent that in certain types of labor the Spanish trusted the blacks much more than the natives. This was because they were aware that the natives were in familiar territory and between local well knit communities. This indicated towards more chances of revolt and rebellion from the natives. Also, they had come under foreign rule recently and so this idea was still something new to them and was still itching in their minds. On the other hand, the Blacks had been slaves for generations under the control of the Europeans. With the beginning of the 18th and 19th centuries forced labor soon began to take the form of debt bondage with natives taking loans and providing their labor in return. When drawing parallels one is bound to notice that the natives paid tributes to their Spanish encomienderos. This consisted of a proportion of the yield of the land on which they worked. African slaves, on the other hand, had no such responsibility. They were completely dependent on their masters. Slavery has a concept of “ownership” attached to it. This is the biggest distinction between a slave and an encomienda or native laborer. Slaves were owned by the Spaniards whereas the natives could not be owned by them. Unlike slaves, regarding the natives the colonizers had to consider their kinship ties. Often in later times entire families would be involved in debt bondage.  A slave had no links with his kinsmen and so he could be transported anywhere for work. In case of natives the colonizers had to consider the community bonds and geographical location. Another major task that the encomienderos were assigned with was to evangelize the locals. In case of black slaves, this argument is put forward by circles in favor of slave trade however trends throughout the world show that the attitude of colonizers towards African slaves developed a sort of repulsiveness towards Christianity and many of them even converted to other religions such as Islam. On the whole it is possible to argue that even native labor despite its differences was a disguised form of slavery. In both there have been cases of abuse, violence and intense malnourishment, which by today’s standards seem highly brutal and barbaric. 
     In hindsight institutions such as slavery and forced labor have been the center of intense debate and controversy. However, they have to be viewed alongside the social and historical context of the time. One of the major purposes behind the conquests to the New World was no doubt to gain wealth from these areas. After the violent takeover and the fall of the Aztec and Inca Empires, the Spanish looked forward to attaining pecuniary benefits. King Philip while addressing his senior administration in 1617 ordered the entire royal machinery to be as efficient as possible so as to extract the maximum wealth from the Indies. Initially the tribute system under the encomiendas seemed the easiest way of benefitting from the local resources. However, soon with the passing of the 1542 laws banning encomiendas many Spaniards looked on to mining and agriculture sectors. In order to extract maximum yield on sugar plantations and also considering the harsh work, the Spaniards had no choice but to employ African slaves. Thus, the African slaves formed an integral part of colonial Latin America’s economy, particularly Cuba and Brazil and especially Cuba where sugar production continues to be a major industry.    

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