Moorish Bondage in the Early Modern Atlantic World

The perspective of other Englishmen in Spain’s Atlantic world reinforces the idea that slavery was both commonplace and not especially controversial. Over the course of the sixteenth century, several hundred Englishmen spent some time as permanent or temporary residents in Spain and its American colonies. Well-placed Englishmen, particularly in the seaport towns of southwestern Europe, routinely witnessed African slaves rowing in the galleys or Venetian gondolas, serving as personal servants at royal and papal courts, or toiling among the laboring poor. English visitors to the court of Francis I may even have noticed, or heard rumors about, the young African woman with whom he shared a bed.”  


“Some Africans were placed on a sale in Bordeaux in 1571, but they were ultimately released by the French government on the grounds that slavery did not exist in France. Slavery may have been rare enough in France for some people to believe that little piece of fiction, but there could be no doubt about slavery’s legality on the Iberian Peninsula. A Flemish humanist, upon his arrival in Portugal in 1535, remarked that Moors and sub-Saharan Africans were present in such large numbers that “in Lisbon there are more men and women slaves that free Portugese.” Shocked, he declared that upon his arrival “in Evora I thought that I had come to some city of evil demons: everywhere there were so many blacks whom I so loathe that they may just be able to drive me away from here.” 

“Increasingly, over the course of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, it was becoming difficult for European observers to ignore the fact that sub-Saharan Africans and their descendants were becoming an ever more important and ever more visible part of the population of southern Europe. Englishmen were especially familiar with Iberian slavery because, in the wake of Anglo-Spanish alliance during the 1490s, English merchants cultivated extensive trade networks in the coastal cities of the Iberian Peninsula, or those places where African slavery was most common. Robert Thorne, a wealthy Lond merchant-tailor and son of a Bristol merchant, resided in Spain during the 1520s. Upon his death in 1532, Thorne’s inventory showed an enormous personal estate, including “a house and slaves in Sevyle [valued at] 94(?).” 

“Ten years earlier, another English resident, Thomas Malliard, left four slaves to his Spanish mistress. Thorne and Malliard were among the small number of English merchants who not only lived in Seville but also were reputed to be active participants in the emerging Atlantic slave trade. Malliard may have left just a few slaves to his mistress, but executors identified fourteenth slaves in his possession in the weeks before his death in 1522. Thorne also bought and sold slaves for profit; he and an associate sold thirteenth slaves in 1531 to the Welsers, an Augsburg family of merchants and bankers. Like another Englishmen, Thomas Bridges, who had bought and sold Africans during the 1510s in Seville, Malliard and Thorne demonstrate the early willingness of English merchants to adapt themselves to local circumstances and their eagerness to take advantage of local markets, including the market in slaves.”

“Slavery was common in sixteenth-century Seville; notarial records indicate the presence of more than 5,000 slaves in the city between 1501 and 1525. A 1565 census recorded the presence of 6,327 slaves of a total population in excess of 85,000. A few of these individuals were Muslims and Canary Islanders, but most were sub-Saharan Africans. Indeed, throughout the sixteenth century, Africans routinely constituted anywhere from 5 to 10 percent of the population of Iberian coastal cities. This trade inevitably attracted the attention of the local English merchants, like William Fowler of Radclife and others, who tried to benefit from the system however they could (which could be difficult because legal participation in the African slave trade required a special license). Nonetheless, during the early sixteenth century, English merchants possessed some influence. One group of English merchants received corporate privileges in San Lucar from the Duke of Medina Sidonia in 1517 and subsequently created the Andalusia Company in 1530. Being English did not prevent certain individuals from benefiting from ill-gotten gains.” 

“According to Richard Hakluyt, English merchants had also been involved with trade to the Canary Islands during the sixteenth century. Thomas Midnall and William Ballard took up residence in San Lucar and Andalucia, respectively, as early as 1526, from where they maintained a relationship with merchants in the Canary Islands, including the Englishman Thomas Nicholas who composed a description of the islands and native peoples, the Guanches, which Hakluyt published in his collection. Even more significant was the “divers’ voyages to the Iles of the Canaries” conducted by John Hawkins during the mid-sixteenth century. According to Hakluty, it was there that Hawkins, “by his good and upright dealing,” gathered information about the West Indies from the local inhabitants and was assured “that Negroes were very good merchandise in Hispaniola” and that they “might easily be had upon the coast of Guinea.” When Hawkins made his first slave trading voyage in 1562, he once again stopped at Teneriffe, “where he received friendly entertainment.” 

“Evidence of active English involvement in either slavery or the slave trade in the Spanish Empire is sparse, but the activities of these few individuals suggest that some influential Englishmen possessed exceptional knowledge and experience. Perhaps no one demonstrates the links between English and Spanish society during the era more than Roger Bodenham. Bodenham participated in several voyages into the Mediterranean in the 1550s and subsequently settled in Seville where he married a Spanish woman and started a family. As a merchant, Bodenham participated in the Barbary trade and transatlantic enterprises that involved slavery. The tables were turned when those risky ventures eventually landed Bodenham in the hands of Moorish privateers who sold him, along with nine other Christians, on the Cadis slave market where he was fortuitously ransomed by a friend who just happened to recognize him in this moment of crises. Bodenham did more than trade for his own personal profit, however; he also had important connections in the Elizabethan court, where he sent useful commercial and political information until he departed Spain in 1586. As Bodenham’s case demonstrates, there were important physical and intellectual connections between Spain’s Atlantic world and that of the English.”

“The lessons that Africans could be bought, owned and sold as slaves therefore not lost on early modern Englishmen, decades before they were making much of an effort to profit from the practice. At the same time, few Englishmen could not have failed to notice that sub-Saharan Africans were neither the most despised group within the Iberian social order that place was generally reserved for either Jews or Moriscos–nor where they necessarily always held in bondage. Although Africans routinely found their way to Spain and Portugal as slaves, it was not difficult for slaves to become ex-slaves through manumission or self-purchase.” 

The Catholic Church generally applauded manumission and Iberian society had a long tradition of incorporating diverse peoples into the larger social order. The association between blackness and slavery, though palpable, was far from absolute on the Iberian Peninsula. As early as 1474, Ferdinand and Isabella appointed a man of African descent named Juan de Vallodolid, more popularly called “El conde negro,” to be a judge and an official leader of Seville’s African community. Freedmen also formed a religious brotherhood and operated a hospital to serve the African community in Seville. In 1472, a group of free Africans in Valencia received a license to form a religious brotherhood, which they named the cofradia of Nuestra Senora de Gracia. Skin color did not necessarily limit the ability of African peoples to coexist with Europeans and Moors as free people on the peninsula.” 

“Not surprisingly, then, free Africans could be found throughout Spanish America, especially in the main urban centers and coast enclaves, Africans had been present in the main urban centers and coastal enclaves, Africans had been present in America from the beginning of European colonization in the 1490s. By all accounts, African mariners sailed with Christopher Columbus in the 1490s and African soldiers aided Heran Cortes and other conquistadores in their New World exploits. Many of the earliest African peoples in Spanish America were ladinos, or individuals who had already lived in the Iberian world for a number of years. Their numbers were small during the first half of the century, as African slavery became more routinized, slave traders transported another 40,000 slaves across the Atlantic. Increasingly, these new arrivals–bozales shipped to Spanish America directly from Africa contributed to the Africanization of the local population. Enslaved Africans therefore lived and worked very visibly in the Americas during the sixteenth century, particularly in those places that interested English observers the most-the Caribbean islands, central Mexico, and the gold mining region of northern South America.” 

Source: Slaves and Englishmen: Human Bondage in the Early Modern Atlantic World By Michael Guasco