The Americas: Indians and Slaves

How many Indians were there in pre-Columbian America? I said: In the case of the Indians of Latin American, anti´Spanish historians inflate their numbers to make the genocide more atrocious, while Spanish historians give much smaller numbers.  Carmen Negrin says:
See Hugh Thomas' excellent book on the matter (he is neither Spanish nor Latin American)  RH: I assume Carmen is speaking about his monumental work. The Slave Trade (Simon & Schuster, 908 pages, 1997). The book is about the slave trade, but he does make some mention of the Indians.

TIm Brown writes: One of the two golden keys to riches during the early years of the Conquest was trafficking in Indian slaves, especially in Nicaragua. The other was, of course, looting native treasures. Denevan estimates there were about one million Nahua-Mexica living in Pacific lowlands Nicaragua in 1522. By 1544, according to Linda Newson (Indian Survival in Colonial Nicaragua, Oklahoma, 1987) and others, this population had been reduced to only 30,000. While tens of thousands had died from overwork and disease, it is estimated that between 400,000 and 450,000 of these Nahua-Mexica were sent as slaves to other Spanish colonies. Of these, according to the Archivos de Las Indias in Seville, about 250,000 were sent to Peru. And there they simply disappeared.  No Peruvian historian with whom I spoke while doing research there had even the slightest idea what happened to them. A quarter of a million Native Americans just "disappeared"!  And yet, since the trafficking in these slaves went on for a number of years, it seems certain that they did arrive in Peru alive and worth enough money to make shipping them there from Nicaragua very lucrative in an era when shipping them must have been extremely expensive. It is a mystery I never have been able to unravel.

RH: In theory the enslavement of the Indians was forbidden, and that was the excuse given for importing slaves from Africa. A form of slavery in Peru was the mita (a word of quechua origin), by which Indians were forced the work in the silver mines of Potosi.  It was slavery in all but name.It was introduced in 1575 by Viceroy Francisco de Toledo. Most of the Indians were lowland Indians and they suffered in the high-altitude silver mines of Potosí.  This would also be true of Nicaraguan Indians, if there were any.  Perhaps they were simply lumped together with the Peruvian Indians.

Ronald Hilton 2005


last updated: April 12, 2005