Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Voyagers to the East, Part XV

For the previous entry in this series, click here.

Hoping to secure his kingdom's contested claim to Brazil, in 1532 King Joao III of Portugal divided the Brazilian coast into colonial districts, or donatories, which he then granted to fourteen Portuguese magistrates and noblemen. The donatory grants placed the grantees, also known as captains, under a number of legal restrictions. One of these pertained to Indian slaves: the captains could employ Native American slaves on their plantations in Brazil, but could only export 24 to Portugal each year.

I don't know the reason for this restriction – I suspect that Joao was trying to protect the interests of merchants involved in the African slave trade – but whatever the cause, it seems likely that the Brazilian captains followed the Indian slave-export rule. I base this guess upon a simple economic fact: the demand for Indian slave labor on the Brazilian side of the Atlantic far outweighed the European demand. By 1526, Portuguese settlers had learned that coastal Brazil had an ideal climate for sugar cultivation – and sugar cane was as labor-intensive as it was profitable. By 1540 Joao's donatory captains had lined the Brazilian coast with plantations, each manned by hundreds of Indian slaves who (under threat of torture and death) spent their days planting, weeding, cutting, and pressing sugar cane. The cane fields were graveyards for Indian laborers, who died from hunger, exposure, overwork, and imported Old World diseases, like malaria and amoebic dysentery. (John Hemming, Red Gold, 36-39; Alfred Crosby, The Columbian Exchange [Westport, CT, 1972], 39-40, 69).

The combination of intense local demand for slave labor and high Indian mortality naturally limited the supply of Brazilian Indian slaves for the European market. John Hemming, an expert on Indian-white relations in colonial Brazil, gives no estimate of the number of Indian slaves taken to Portugal during the first period of Brazilian colonization (1534-49), but he does note that one of the most successful donatory captains, Alfonso de Sousa, only sent 48 Indian slaves across the Atlantic during his entire career. (Hemming, op. cit., 538.) If we assume that this was an average per capita figure, then the fourteen captains would have shipped about 670 Indian slaves to Europe by 1550. However, this is probably a high estimate, because some of the donatory captains never actually claimed their grants.

After 1549, when Brazil became a royal colony, several new developments further curtailed (and most likely stopped) the shipment of Brazilian Indian slaves across the Atlantic. First, the demand for slave laborers in Portugal and Spain declined in the second half of the sixteenth century, as Europe finished replacing the population losses it had sustained in the Black Death. (George Huppert, After the Black Death [Bloomington, 1986], 112.) Second, the Brazilian Indian population began to collapse as smallpox, the most consistently lethal of Old World diseases, arrived in the ports and plantations. A 1562 smallpox epidemic killed 30,000 Indians within four months, then attacked and annihilated countless coastal Indian villages. Portuguese and allied Tupi Indian slave raiders were forced to conduct long-range slaving expeditions into the Brazilian highlands, and the captives they brought back to the coast were just as short-lived as their predecessors. By 1576, Portuguese planters in Brazil were beginning to meet their labor demands by importing African slaves – 40,000 by 1600, and hundreds of thousands in the subsequent century. These new bondsmen brought with them additional smallpox outbreaks which decimated both the Brazilian Indian population and the colony's Indian slave trade. (Dauril Alden and Joseph Miller, "Out of Africa: The Slave Trade and the Transmission of Smallpox to Brazil, 1560-1831," Journal of Interdisciplinary History 18 (1987), 195-224.) I've not located any accounts of Brazilian Indian slaves traveling to Europe after 1550, though a few Tupi-Guarani Indians did cross the Atlantic voluntarily, of whom more later.

For the next entry in this series, click here.

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