Trading Enslaved People in the Spanish and British Atlantic Empires

Posted on Tue., May 30, 2023 by Gregory E. O'Malley and Emily Berquist Soule
Painting of a woman with her Black slave next to giant tropical fruits.

Vicente Albán, Señora principal con su Negra esclava, 1783, Quito (Ecuador). | Museo de América.

In 2019, the New York Times’ 1619 Project elevated public awareness and discussion of the 400th anniversary of the first arrival of enslaved people to British North America. The many—often contentious—conversations that ensued highlighted the centrality of the slave trade to both popular and scholarly understandings of the importance of race, racist thinking, and the systemic subjugation of Afro-descended peoples in the United States and beyond.

At the same time, scholars who specialize in the history of slavery and the slave trade in the Spanish Atlantic world could not help but notice that, for all its importance, the 1619 Project presented a simplified version of the slave trade to the Americas. The now-famous 1619 voyage of the White Lion that delivered the first enslaved Africans to English North America did not bring its captives directly from Africa, and these individuals were not the first African captives to be brought to the Americas.

The trans-Atlantic slave trade to the Americas began a century before the White Lion’s notorious journey. Spanish records confirm that the first documented slave voyage to North America in fact landed in Puerto Rico—a Spanish colony—in 1520. Moreover, the 20 captives delivered to Virginia by the White Lion in 1619 were not originally destined for British territory. English privateers seized these African women, men, and children from a Portuguese vessel in the Caribbean that intended to deliver them to Spanish America, where slavery was already well established. Stepping back from the Anglocentric focus that so often shapes our historical understanding in U.S. and British academic contexts highlights the centrality of Spain and Spanish America in shaping the Atlantic world and the complex ties of commerce, racism, and oppression that linked the British and Spanish colonies in the Americas.

An open book with an illustrated portrait of Olaudah Equiano.

Olaudah Equiano, 1745­–1797. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself, frontispiece, 1794. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

On June 2–3, leading and emerging historians of the Atlantic slave trade will gather for a conference at The Huntington titled “Slave Trading in the Spanish and British Atlantic Worlds” in order to present research on the trafficking of African people in these two imperial spheres. The conference provides an opportunity for conversation among scholars of both major Atlantic empires who too often work in isolation from one another despite the parallel development of systems of slavery and African diasporic communities in both. Each panel will feature a historian primarily focused on the Spanish Empire paired with one mainly researching the Anglo-Atlantic world (the British Empire or the early United States) to address a particular aspect of the slave trade’s history. However, we do not view these pairings as primarily comparative or merely highlighting differences. These empires were connected and entangled, clashing and cooperating.

The slave trade’s role in connecting the Spanish and British empires was long lasting. About a century after the White Lion delivered captives to Virginia, the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht deepened the connection. Britain’s entry into the War of the Spanish Succession (1701­–14) was engendered by European dynastic disputes, but one of the war’s most significant outcomes was Spain’s 1713 concession of the asiento, or monopoly slave trading contract, to Britain’s South Sea Company. Over the next few decades, British traders would annually deliver thousands of enslaved African people to Spain’s colonies in the Americas, except in the years when disputes between the rival empires temporarily halted official trade.

A century later, the slave trade still shaped interactions between Spain, Britain, and the independent United States. When Great Britain changed course in 1807 and barred the nation’s traders from further participation in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, it also began a decadeslong campaign to pressure Spain (and other European nations) to follow suit, aiming to ensure that Britain’s rivals would not gain an advantage from British abolition.

Etching of a group of people around a table and chairs.

Jenkins' Ear engraving, British Museum, London, 1738, etching and engraving. According to one British interpretation, the so-called War of Jenkins’ Ear began when Spanish guardacostas (coast guard sailors) boarded British captain Robert Jenkins’ ship to search for contraband goods smuggled alongside the legal trafficking of enslaved people. Such smuggling raised tensions between the empires over the asiento, or monopoly slave trading contract. According to reports Jenkins would later make, the guardacostas sliced off his ear during an altercation. This engraving portrays the episode in which he dramatically pulled the severed ear from his pocket as evidence of Spanish misdoings. This was how the war got its name in English. Tellingly, in Spanish, the 1739–48 war is called the Guerra del Asiento (War of the Slave Trade Contract). Whether Jenkins’ story of the severed ear is apocryphal or not, both nations’ names for the war indicate that one of the conflict’s central issues was trading African people across imperial borders. | © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Likewise, the famous Amistad rebellion in 1839 linked the Spanish slave trade with the United States. On a voyage from one end of Cuba to the other, captives aboard the Amistad overthrew their captors and seized control from the crew, but because they lacked experience sailing a large oceangoing vessel, they eventually ended up adrift off the coast of Connecticut. Brought in by the U.S. Navy, this overthrown Spanish slave ship touched off a controversy that worked its way up to the Supreme Court, exacerbating sectional tensions in the United States.

The trans-Atlantic slave trade, of course, was a global phenomenon that linked not only the Spanish and British empires, but also those of Portugal, France, and other nations. Nor were Africans the only people enslaved in the Atlantic world. Scholarship would benefit from further inquiry into other transimperial connections, the enslavement of Indigenous Americans, and related topics. But this particular gathering will focus on the relationships among Spain, Britain, their subjects, and the African people they enslaved, because the Spanish and British empires were especially prominent and connected—sometimes as partners, sometimes as rivals—in the global genesis, development, and destruction of the slave trade and slavery itself.

Funding provided by The Huntington’s Dorothy Collins Brown Endowment and the USC-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute.

Gregory E. O’Malley is a professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Emily Berquist Soule is a professor of history at California State University, Long Beach.

Related Events:

June 2023 | Conference: Slave Trading in the Spanish and British Atlantic Worlds