The Spanish and Portuguese initially tried to make Native Americans labor in their mines and plantations but quickly discovered problems with that system. Native Americans resisted compulsory labor (often killing themselves), and they were extremely susceptible to epidemics. Their enslavement was hotly debated and finally outlawed by Spain (in the 1520s) and Portugal (in the 1570s), although those laws were frequently violated. The colonists therefore had a strong motivation and the legal tradition to import large numbers of Africans as slaves on sugar plantations in the Indies and Brazil. By 1550, the slave trade was firmly established in Latin America. Spanish and Portuguese colonial laws distinguished between whites, Native Americans, and slaves; thus slavery and racism were joined from the beginning and became a mutually reinforcing system. But the Iberian tradition of slavery and relative willingness to intermarry with others, based on the notion that European blood was strongest and would therefore gradually whiten others, created a more complex racial structure in Latin American society and culture. Many African slaves and their (often mixed) descendants gained freedom in various ways; in addition, a growing number of Native Americans and their mixed descendants moved to the towns, away from their indigenous communities. The result in Latin America was a hierarchical continuum of racial categories based on the degree of European, Native American, or African ancestry, each defined and regulated by an increasingly complex social code but not necessarily (as in British North America) distinguished and restricted by legal codes.
England began its efforts to understand and exploit the Americas with a deep sense of rivalry with Catholic Europe, and English writers frequently criticized how the Spanish and Portuguese abused Native Americans. Promoters of colonization such as the Hakluyts frequently trumpeted that English traditions of liberty and Protestant values would result in fair and just treatment of Native Americans. The reality, however, proved very different. English leaders and colonists were fearful and contemptuous of the indigenous peoples and preferred to keep their communities separate while attempting to subject the natives to the colony’s sovereignty and rule. When the English began establishing colonies in the West Indies, they copied the Spanish and obtained African slaves from Dutch merchants to work their sugar plantations. The English also adopted the harsh Spanish and Portuguese laws regulating slaves, as well as the terms Negro and mulatto for Africans and their mixed descendents. In the long run, the Spanish tended to be much more precise about how they categorized race, but they also were more open to intermarriage between Europeans and native peoples, and they made racial variations an important shaper of class. For the English, notions of race, as they developed, proved more important than class or even the condition of servitude. In the English colonies, racism developed as part of the institution of slavery.
The first Africans to arrive were sold by Dutch merchants to Virginians in 1619, only twelve years after the colony was founded and just as those colonists were embracing tobacco a very profitable crop if one had rich soil and sufficient laborers. But most of the unfree laborers obtained by planters in the Chesapeake region over the following half century were young Englishmen indentured for four to seven years of servitude. More Africans also were acquired, primarily from the West Indies; while the records are sparse and incomplete, initially some were apparently treated as bound servants and even gained their freedom, even though they were held longer than whites, while others were held as slaves without redemption. The Middle Passage marked by overcrowding, a lack of proper nourishment and sanitation, and outbreaks of disease was only the beginning of a long nightmare for African slaves and their descendants in the New World. (Wilberforce House, Hull City Museums and Art Galleries, United Kingdom/Bridgeman Art Library) Whether free or slave, Africans and their descendants were set apart by the label Negro, and that difference widened over time. After 1640, some were put into slavery for life by courts, which never happened to whites. Probate records and other documents show that Africans and their descendants were worth more than whites, which pointed to longer or unlimited servitude; the higher prices of black women pointed to inherited servitude for their children, a practice that did not apply to the children of English indentured servants. The emergence of new concepts of race appeared in the changing terminology used by English colonists. They increasingly tended to refer to themselves as English, free,” and white rather than Christians, and described Africans and their descendants as Negroes and blacks rather than heathens or pagans.