African Laborers for a New Empire: Iberia, Slavery, and the Atlantic World

Exhibit Splash Image


Cantino Planisphere, 1502, courtesy of the Biblioteca Estense, Modena, Italy.

Cantino Planisphere, 1502, courtesy of the Biblioteca Estense, Modena, Italy. The Cantino Planisphere is one of the earliest surviving world maps from the Age of Discovery. It features geographic information obtained from four voyages in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries: Christopher Columbus to the Caribbean, Pedro Álvarez Cabral to Brazil, Vasco de Gama followed by Cabral to eastern Africa and India, and the brothers Corte-Real to Greenland and Newfoundland. All sailed under a Portuguese or Spanish flag. The map also features remarkable detail of the Atlantic African coast based on earlier Portuguese exploration in the fifteenth century.

When large-scale Iberian expansion into the Americas began in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, political and religious leaders in Spain, Portugal, and colonial Spanish America established arguments supporting the use of enslaved Africans—and limiting other forms of coerced labor—in ways that would greatly influence the development of the Atlantic World. This exhibition outlines this history and examines archival documents that provide insight into early Iberian justifications for enslaving Africans. While slavery did not exist in Western Europe on a large scale during the centuries preceding European colonization of the Americas, Iberia inherited a social hierarchy from the broader Mediterranean world that included slaves. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, slaves made up roughly one tenth of the population in rural areas including the Algarve, western Andalusia, and southern Extremadura. They also formed up to ten percent of the inhabitants of urban centers such as Lisbon, Seville, Valencia, and Barcelona.

Iberian laws governing slavery during the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries were influential in the Atlantic World not because they displayed new attitudes towards who could be enslaved, but because they represented a new consensus on which enslaved peoples would be transported to the Americas. The archival documents featured in this exhibition reflect a series of concentrated efforts to ensure that Spanish America’s slave populations were sub-Saharan Africans. Though presumably rooted in considerations that were practical for Iberian monarchs and policy makers at the time, the views recorded in these documents foreshadow the rise of racial attitudes that would later play influential roles in the formation of societies throughout the Atlantic World, leading to social divisions and racial inequalities that would persist in various forms for centuries to come.