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This Day in Labor History: November 20, 1536


On November 20, 1536, the conquistador Hernán Cortés buys a bunch of silver mines and acquires between 100 and 200 Native slaves. This moment is an excellent entry point to discuss the labor history of early Spanish colonization of the Americas.

Cortés was not even supposed to invade Mexico in 1519. He disobeyed orders. But so long as he won, no one was going to do anything to him, not really. Thanks to the unexpected power of disease, in addition to the hatred of the Aztecs by the tribes they had subjugated who joined him, Cortés managed to take Mexico City in 1521. He was now going to be rich. Spanish control of the Americas jumped by leaps and bounds. And this was going to happen through forced labor.

One thing we that underemphasize when we talk about the connections between colonization and race is that it was really all about labor. As I always tell my students, while today we focus on slavery and its legacies as about racism, the reality is that the entire point was to create a stable labor force and that continued well after slavery ended, at least in the American South. Such it was in the Spanish colonies too. The Spanish didn’t send settlers to Mexico or Peru. This wasn’t going to be Massachusetts, the gigantic exception when it comes to the history of American colonization and one that is given vastly too much attention due to the power of New Englanders in the 19th century to create myths about the United States and its origins. From New York down to Argentina, the singular point of colonization was to force labor to work in order to make Europeans rich. At times, that might even be English labor, such as in the early years of the Virginia colony. But the vast majority of this would be Native and then African labor. In Mexico, there was no pretense of bringing Spanish laborers across the Atlantic in any kind of meaningful numbers. Nope, you had the indigenous peoples and now they must acquiesce to complete Spanish control over their lives, both in terms of labor and religion.

By the time Cortés arrived in Mexico, these principles were already established. Christopher Columbus had enslaved Native peoples. In 1499, the Spanish discovered gold in Hispanola and forced the Taino to mine it for them, significantly adding to the rapid disappearance of those peoples. The Spanish government technically opposed such slavery at the time, but neither would nor really could do much about it. So after Cortés took over Mexico, he spent the rest of his life trying to get rich off it and the way to get rich was to buy mines and buy humans. There were all sorts of schemes to get around the technical illegality of slavery in Mexico. They would classify the wars against the tribes they themselves started as rebellions to force labor out of workers. The Franciscans would get grants of ten years labor when building missions and then just continue to enslave the workers after those ten years were up. Must have been the call of Christ and all. We’ve seen this history in this series before, talking about Bolivia. Mexico turned out slightly, though not massively, different.

Now, technically, none of the indigenous people of Mexico were supposed to be slaves. In 1500, Queen Isabella ordered all Indians freed from slavery. And when she died in 1504, her will doubled down on these policies. But you know, why bother right? There was another attempt in the late seventeenth century to crack down on this and it this period of direct slavery sort of ended by the 1680s. Mariana of Austria, Queen Regent when her son Charles II was a child, issued an edict freeing all indigenous slaves in Mexico in 1672. Then when Charles took over, he issued a broader declaration freeing all slaves in the colonies. But this was observed only technically, at best. In the end, the problem for Spanish leaders in Mexico is that they wanted cheap labor and this was the way to get it. What did Madrid really know about conditions on the ground anyway? So it wasn’t “slavery” anymore. Nope, it was “forced labor.” Ah, OK. You simply defined this through tribute. So if you were building a road, you would force the indigenous peoples who pay that tribute through labor. This happened over and over again.

What a broad history like this can obscure though is the sheer level of death involved. As slavery usually operates, there isn’t some moment where we can point to mass death as a specific day to remember. But it was the ones and two, the people killed or who killed themselves out of desperation, the people worked to death, the people half-starved who just gave up. Yes, the epidemics made a huge impact on populations, but as historians have argued, the Native populations would have recovered from these epidemics something like Europeans did after the Bubonic Plague hit, but forced labor made that impossible. By 1630, the indigenous population of Mexico had shrunk from a pre-conquest total of between 10 and 12 million to about 800,000. That’s over 90% of the population.

This system of forced labor turned into the repartimiento and encomienda. The former was the tribute system–government controlled labor drafts that provided the desired labor for the mines or for the estates for the rich. These people were paid a little bit of money, but the government set the wage and the workers had no say in it. This did not end in Mexico until 1829, which is after the nation threw off its colonial chains. It was easier for the Mexican elites to get rid of Spain than to get rid of their beloved system of forced labor. And of course by this time, the white Anglos who had brought their Black slaves into Texas had no interest in complying and this led to the first time that place committed treason in defense of slavery, just a few years later.

The encomienda bound people to the land, including their descendants. This was the closest things got to the chattel labor system being established by the Europeans in other parts of the colonial empire, mostly with Africans. This is what created the rich landowner and the peon, under complete control of the hacienda owner. It was just completely rank exploitation. This did not really end until the 1917 Constitution in the Mexican Revolution.

The best book on these issues is Andrés Reséndez, The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Slavery of Indian Enslavement in America, which should be a must read for each and every reader of this site.

This is the 505th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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