The Spanish Catholic King and Queen regarding slavery in the Americas

24th Aug 2019

Stories of the church Black legends of the church La Reina Isabel according to the RTVE TV series ... which collects - in part - the scene of the slave Indians

Queen Isabel according to the RTVE television series ... which collects - in part - the scene of the slave Indians

The history of slavery in Spain from the fifteenth century, with the discovery of the African coasts, the Canary Islands and then the American continent is complex. By tradition, it was lawful in Castile to make slaves to the enemies in the wars against the Moors (and then against pagan kings of Africa or the Canary Islands, if it was ruled that it was just war), to put them to work or to exchange for a rescue or other prisoners.

The 6 Indians who accompanied Columbus to Spain on their first trip were volunteers, one of them the son of a friend cacique, explains historian Carol Lowery Delaney.

But later, in 1495, a fleet arrived in Seville from America with 500 Indian slaves, which Columbus claimed were prisoners of war. Queen Isabel had the case studied and in 1500 ordered that they be all released and repatriated to America. That is a key date for the story. He tells it in more detail in La Razón José María Zavala, an author who knows Isabel la Católica well for her research collected in the interesting book Isabel Intima.

Was the discovery of America exploited by the Catholic Monarchs?

Was the Discovery of America, as has been said, an exploiting company of the Catholic Monarchs towards the indigenous people?

Did Isabel and Fernando intend to complete a fabulous business by appropriating the natural wealth of those lands, as has been affirmed?

Did they even pursue numerous slaves, thus violating the most elementary human rights?

Let us now address these false legends. From the overwhelming documentation that is still preserved today, the main reason for the Discovery of America emerges: the expansion of the faith of Christ.

Christopher Columbus himself told Isabel of a project to extend Catholicism, first in the islands and lands that were discovered, and then reaching out to the kings of India who sought to establish contact with Christians and with Rome. Columbus had proposed such noble goals to the sovereign in his official Alcalá de Henares interview, prior to the negotiation of Santa Fe: «... So many towns were lost falling into idolatry and receiving perdition sects, and Your Highnesses as Christian Catholics thought of sending me, Christopher Columbus, to the said departures of India for their conversion to our holy faith.

The controversial issue of the slavery of the natives has also clouded the right performance of the Catholic Monarchs. The problem arose when, at the end of 1494, Columbus sent the kings a first consignment of 500 slaves. We know, by two Royal Certificates of April 12 and 16, 1495, that the said shipment was made from La Española with the expedition of Antonio de Torres, composed of four ships.

Apparently, the Indians were made slaves in war actions undertaken by Columbus and described by Bartolomé de las Casas. The "raised", in the law of war of the time, were taken prisoner as slaves. It is not surprising, therefore, that the admiral acted in this way, in accordance with the common ideas of his time. Unless that war action was "unfair", as De Las Casas himself qualifies it, censoring Columbus for acting "without the will of the Kings", but recognizing him at the same time as a "Christian and virtuous and very good man" wishes".

We are interested to know what Isabel did when she learned that Antonio de Torres' expedition had left La Isabela with this shipment of slaves, on February 2, 1495, arriving at the port of Cádiz in early April. In a few days, the bishop of Badajoz, Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca, communicated the arrival of the consignment to the kings, asking for instructions on the slaves.

The Queen orders to paralyze the sale

On April 16, a Royal ID issued from the chancellery in which Bishop Fonseca was ordered to paralyze the sale of slaves "because we would like to inform ourselves of lawyers, theologians and Canonists if they can be sold with good conscience."

From this consultation to theologians and canonists, no more document is preserved today than the announcement of the kings themselves in their letter, already cited, of April 16. We now know that the queen waited five years before adopting her own resolution: those that go from the Royal Premises of April 16, 1495, to the "operative" of the freedom of the Indians, dated in Seville on June 20, 1500

Isabel ordered to pick up the Indians to deliver them to Pedro de Torres and repatriate them to their families, all at their own risk.

It is not strange that the historian Rafael Altamira, in view of the corresponding document, reflected this way: «Memorable date for the whole world, because it indicates the first recognition of respect due to the dignity and freedom of all men, however uncultured and primitive they may be; principle that until then had not been proclaimed in any legislation, much less had been practiced in any country.

It is important to underline that, although the universal doctrine was in practice contrary to the freedom of slaves, Queen Elizabeth already doubted then in her own awareness of the lawfulness of human trafficking, finally deciding to free them.

Fourth trip instructions: "Do not bring slaves"

In this way, to Columbus, in the instructions for the fourth trip, he will say, "And you must not bring slaves." With this decision, Isabel anticipated in 35 years the formulation of the right of people of Francisco de Vitoria and Domingo de Soto: in America there would be no slaves while it continued, for centuries,