The first American slaves who fought against the European colonial power

It was on a sugar plantation of Christopher Columbus' descendants that in 1521 blacks brought to the Dominican Republic rebelled for the first time against European colonial power.

The first American slaves who fought against the European colonial power
Christopher Columbus. Image: Brown University Library

On the second day of Christmas 1521, in one of the first sugar mills established in the New World, a group of black slaves rose against their masters in what was the first rebellion of African slaves in America, a fact largely unknown 500 years later despite its consequences.

It is an event about which there are few certainties beyond the fact that it took place in what is now the Dominican Republic, in a sugar plantation owned by Viceroy Diego Columbus, son of Christopher Columbus, and that it gave rise to the first laws on slaves in the continent.

The date of the event, which for centuries was dated 1522, has recently been corrected, but there have also been divergences among specialists about the place where it took place, explained anthropology expert Carlos Andújar, during a tour of several sugar mills.

Some say it was in Boca de Nigua, 25 kilometers southwest of Santo Domingo, others that the uprising took place in the first sugar mills installed by the Columbus family in the area near the Isabela River, closer to the city of Santo Domingo.

In any case, on December 26, 1521, quite violent events must have taken place, "the idea was to exterminate the Spaniards," according to Andujar. The insurgents, of the Gelofe ethnic group, "sought to reproduce themselves as a movement" and moved "to conquer other sugar mills and assault the houses of the masters".

First Africans in America

The first blacks arrived in 1501 in Hispaniola, today a territory shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti, when Governor Nicolás de Ovando requested permission for his entourage to bring their domestic slaves with them. Already in 1520, more than two thousand slaves arrived and were distributed to work the land, between 150 and 400 men per farm, according to historians.

It was the first experience with slaves outside Europe and it was decided to bring ladino blacks, who were Christianized, knew Spanish, and were believed to be more docile than the blacks who came directly to America after their capture in Africa. They settled with "the excuse that there were problems with the production of gold and that, if it was replaced by sugar cane, the labor force", until then mainly indigenous, had to be replaced by African slaves "who already knew the production".

In 1500, Isabella the Catholic promulgated a royal provision prohibiting the enslavement of the natives, considering the subjects of the Crown, which made it necessary to find an alternative for the cultivation of sugar cane. The slaves soon rebelled, a year after arriving in Santo Domingo, and "not only because of the physical punishments but also because of the denial of cultural space, forced labor or lack of food".

Even so, the slaves were given "certain spaces of freedom: music, religion", but after the events of December 26, they were forbidden to meet in groups, the only way in which the germ of rebellion could have arisen.

Laws and punishments

Just twelve days after the uprising, on January 6, 1522, a slave law was enacted to prevent future rebellions, while at the same time the hills to which they fled were traced. When they were captured, they were subjected to exemplary punishments, such as the amputation of feet or hands, they have placed "muzzles so that they would not communicate with each other, some ended up hanging".

The dependence on African labor at that time was great, the population was three to one and the demand for sugar was growing. For this reason, there were some agreements to create "compromises with the slaves", one of which consisted in the fact that if the runaway returned within ten days, he would not be punished.

The rebellions that followed

This first rebellion created "a libertarian conscience in the African groups" and was the precursor of insurrections between 1530 and 1540, "the period of greatest demand for sugar and in which the colonial sugar industry acquired the greatest strength". After the events of 1521, the Spaniards began to take blacks to the sugar mills instead of ladinos, hoping that they would be more submissive, but "they failed because the movement continued".

"The blacks did not adapt to the colonization here, although they were subdued by the Spanish military power, they presented permanent rebellions," Andújar said. The largest slave rebellion in the colonial history of Santo Domingo took place in 1796 in Boca de Nigua, in a sugar mill whose remains are still standing, and the abolition took place in 1822.