Iberian Slave Routes: The Transatlantic Slave Trade to Spanish America, 1500-1640

Collaborative Group

Professor David Wheat, Dr. Marc V. Eagle




The first known transatlantic slaving voyages sailing directly from Africa brought captives to the Spanish Caribbean as early as the 1520s; by the time England began to colonize Virginia a century later, nearly one thousand Iberian slaving voyages had set sail for the Spanish Americas. Yet despite major advances over the past decade in scholarship on the transatlantic slave trade—notably the website Voyages: the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database—much is still unknown or poorly understood about this early forced migration, and colonial Spanish American historiography has been slow to embrace broader Atlantic perspectives. Historians David Wheat and Marc Eagle will conduct research in eight Spanish and Portuguese archives during the tenure of their fellowship, drawing upon primary sources generated in Iberia, Africa, and the Americas to construct the first comprehensive overview of the slave trade to Spanish America from its inception in the early 1500s up to the dissolution of the union of the Spanish and Portuguese crowns in 1640. Building on Eagle’s previous work on trans-imperial contraband slave trafficking, and on Wheat’s earlier efforts to periodize coerced migration from distinct African regions, this project will correct and amplify existing information on slave voyages, allowing the researchers to trace the evolution of the movements of African captives, the licit and illicit practices of slave traders, and the transnational merchant networks that deeply influenced the development of Spain’s overseas empire. Eagle and Wheat’s research will form the basis for a co-authored monograph on the early Iberian slave trade to Spanish America, with chapters discussing sources, volume, legal instruments and regulations, African provenance zones, slave trade ports, slaving networks, and captives' experiences aboard ship. Their project will illustrate how this Iberian Atlantic slave trade functioned at the ground level, providing new insight into the interconnected nature of early modern Spanish and Portuguese empires, and the pathways and mechanisms by which sub-Saharan Africans became an essential part of colonial Spanish American society. Award period: July 1, 2015 through June 30, 2016