Why do school books hide Spain’s slave past in America?


There are mythical stories that constitute an essential part of the master narratives and the national imagination. And there are historical investigations that have great difficulty finding their place in education and in public memory . This is the case of Spain’s role in the slave economy from 1500 to 1886, which still struggles to tear down the wall between historiographic production and school history.

The African slave trade in the Spanish dominions of America began at a very early date. Throughout the early modern period, the crown granted licenses or “ seats ” to commercial companies. The Casa de Contratación registered a large part of the ships that loaded enslaved Africans to America, and the documentation is still preserved in the General Archive of the Indies . But it was with the promulgation in 1789 of the “ Royal Certificate of Freedom for the Negro Trade ” by Charles IV when it experienced its greatest moment.

The rise of the 19th century

More than 40% of the Africans brought to the Spanish possessions in America arrived in the 19th century. The data collected in SlaveVoyage , a database with educational resources and information about these forced voyages, shows that the Spaniards not only issued licenses to commercial companies from other countries. More than a million enslaved Africans were transported by Spanish-flagged ships between 1500 and 1866.

In Cuba and Puerto Rico, a powerful plantation economy focused on sugar production made its way at the beginning of the 19th century. Intensive work and the constant replacement of slave labor were combined from the logic of an incipient industrial capitalism . It was the springboard to amass fortunes, despite the layers of forgetfulness with which they tried to cover and silence.

The difficulties of the abolitionists

The abolitionist movement during the Democratic Sexennium (1868-1874) was met with resistance from slavers and slave owners. During the 19th century, as José Antonio Piqueras states , they brought down thrones and elevated kings, they bought the wills of the powerful and the humble. They twisted the will of Parliament and the Government, fired captain generals and flouted the laws as many times as they wanted. Financing the return of the monarchy of Alfonso XII, they prolonged slavery until 1886. Later they managed oblivion and silence .

Absent in the school story

To verify the presence (and silences) of this topic in the school environment, we have analyzed (in a research in the process of publication) 165 textbooks used in Spain between 1975 and 2022. A third were published before the year 2000, and two thirds in the 21st century. We can see relevant topics that are silenced or have little presence:

  1. There are few allusions to the enslavement of the Amerindian population during the first phases of the conquest of America. The manuals insist on the unique and humanitarian character of the Laws of the Indies and the Las Casas-Sepúlveda debate. Only two manuals incorporate texts that allude to Columbus’s proposals for his enslavement.
  2. The transatlantic trade of Africans is not affected. On the rare occasions where this theme is introduced, it is attributed to foreign powers: Portugal, France, England and Holland. It is rarely indicated that the Spanish crown was in charge of signing the licenses and permits for the introduction of slaves into its colonies, or the percentage they received for the transaction.
  3. When the theme of slavery is introduced in contemporary times, it is associated with the North American civil conflict between 1861 and 1865. In both ESO and Baccalaureate, the relevant role of the slave economy in Cuba linked to sugar production has been ignored. Nor has the influence of slave pressure groups on Spanish politics during the 19th century been explored in depth.
  4. Regarding the abolitionist movements and subsequent racism, the manuals focus on contemporary society in the United States. The Spanish Abolitionist Society is barely mentioned, or the connection with feminist thinkers such as Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, Carolina Coronado and Concepción Arenal.

The story of slavery in other countries

The absence of these topics in Spanish manuals is a consequence of a systematic forgetfulness in the school curriculum. A situation that contrasts with other countries that are protagonists of the Atlantic trafficking. Among the objectives of the history subject, in Portugal it is proposed to “Understand that the prosperity of the imperial powers was also due to the trafficking of human beings, mainly from Africa to the plantations of the Americas.”

In France, “Mercantile bourgeoisies, international trade, slave trade and slavery in the 18th century” appears as basic knowledge of the history curriculum. In the US it is indicated that the curriculum “will prepare students to investigate the conditions under which the Atlantic slave trade developed.”

This has its consequences in the manuals. In France, for example, an entire topic (usually between 14-18 pages) is dedicated to it in quatrième textbooks (students aged 13-14). It explains how and where Africans were captured, the harsh journey crammed into boats, forced labor on American plantations, the revolts, and the abolitionist movements. Also in second-year Key Stage 3 English books (12-13 years old), a chapter is usually dedicated to addressing the slave trade holistically, working with texts, images and different interpretations.

The new curriculum in Spain

In Spain, the new history curriculum approved in 2022 prescribes for the first time the study of “invisible people in history: women, slaves and foreigners.” The impact has been immediate in the ESO and Baccalaureate school manuals published in 2022 and 2023. This topic has been included through specific monographs, workshops and activities, especially for the 19th century. It is a first step to break the silence suffered for decades.

Spain was the last European country to abolish slavery, in 1886. And, despite this, in the year 2023, sufficient political consensus has not yet been achieved to develop memory policies that allow visibility and dignity to the victims of slavery . African holocaust ( Maafa ).

In the drafting of Law 20/2022, of October 19, on Democratic Memory, the opportunity to remember the role that slavery had in contemporary Spanish history, and the abolitionist men and women who fought it, has been lost.

Author Bios: Cosme Jesús Gómez Carrasco is Professor of Didactics of Social Sciences at the University of Murcia, Felix Gonzalez Chicote is Professor of Geography and History at IES Margarita Salas. PhD student in Humanities, Arts and Education at the University of Castilla-La Mancha. at UNED – National University of Distance Education and Juan Antonio Inarejos Muñoz is a Full Professor Contemporary History at the University of Castilla-La Mancha