Royal Decree of 1789: The Commerce of Slaves


Scene of slaves in Africa entering an slave holding boat destined to a place in the Americas. (Peter Newark American Pictures)

The Royal Decree of February 28, 1789 was made valid by King of Spain Carlos IV with the motive of stimulating the agriculture and commerce of various places in the Spanish Empire. It was assumed that with increasing the labor was necesary to increase production in the agricultural fields and plantations. At that time, the economy was greatly centered on agriculture. In this article we will focus on the places where the Royal Decree of February 28, 1789 had jurisdiction, who were the beneficiaries, how was the economy suppose to be stimulated, the effects this Royal Decree had on Santo Domingo, other Royal Decrees emitted later to further expand the jurisdiction of the Royal Decree of February 28, 1789 and an exact copy of the Royal Decree of April 22, 1804 which references the Royal Decree of February 28, 1789 and parts a few others which are related.

The Parts of the Spanish Empire it Applied

The highlighted in red was the Spanish Empire. (Ostiudo)

The original purpose of the Royal Decree of February 28, 1789 was to stimulated the agriculture and the commerce of various places in the Spanish Empire. For that reason places like Mexico, Lima and others were not among the original places the Royal Decree of February 28, 1789 was applied. In subsequent Royal Decrees the jurisdiction of the Royal Decree of February 28, 1789 was expanded to include other places in the Spanish Empire. The only places that the Royal Decree of February 28, 1789 permitted the introduction of new slaves were the following.

  • Viceroyalty of Santa Fe (Nueva Granada)
  • Viceroyalty of Buenos Aires
  • General Capitancy of Caracas
  • General Capitancy of Santo Domingo
  • General Capitancy of Cuba
  • General Capitancy of Puerto Rico

Currently these places are in the following countries and territories in Latin America.

  • Colombia
  • Argentina
  • Venezuela
  • Dominican Republic
  • Cuba
  • Puerto Rico

Despite the Royal Decree of February 28, 1789 applied in all the places mentioned, it seems that the place that benefit the most was Venezuela, in particular the area within and surrounding Caracas. This is evidenced in the book “The Present State of the Spanish Colonies” of William Walton which was published in 1810, 21 years after in was enacted the Royal Decree of February 28, 1789 and other Royal Decrees meant to further expand the slave trade and stimulate agriculture and commerce in the Spanish Empire.

William Walton; “The Present State of the Spanish Colonies“, Vol II, 1810; p 143. 

Taking into account the current countries, most of the slaves in Spanish America were in Venezuela and, due to its vicinity, in the Caribbean coast of Colombia. In the rest of Spanish America which included the Caribbean islands of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic; the black presence was very small in relation to the absolute majority of the whites and the mulattoes, plus on continental Americas adding the mestizos and the Native Americans.

Spanish and Foreign Beneficiaries

Scene of a town’s plaza in the Spanish Empire which is in the current Spanish America or Hispanic America.

The beneficiaries of the Royal Decree of February 28, 1789 were the Spaniards and the foreigners.

Juan Garrido was born in the area of Guinea in Northwestern Africa. He was a full black thst became a Spaniard and in fact one of the Spanish conquistadors of the Americas. For a time he lived in Santo Domingo and other places in the Spanish Empire, although death caught up to him in Mexico where he was living with his Mexican wife and with whom he had several children. To be of African and black origins were not obstacles for him to be accepted as a Spaniard in the XVI century.

Regarding the Spaniards, it references all the free people that were not foreigners living in any of the places of the Spanish Empire. From this comes the fact that many of the owners of slaves were of mixed race and some free blacks as long they were Spaniards. This could surprise some that thought the Spanish conquistador of the XVI century was exclusively a white man and not one like Juan Garrido. This man was not only full black, but born and raised in Africa. Despite that he was able to become a Spaniard and was one of the many Spanish conquistadors of the Americas. He died in Mexico. In a similar manner, in following centuries was put in effect the Royal Decree of February 28, 1789 and it was produced the first constitution of Spain in 1812 in which defining who was a Spaniard there is no mention of race or skin color. Before the promulgation of the Royal Decree of February 28, 1789 as after, the mulattoes and blacks were able to become Spaniards if they compliex with a few requirements. White Spaniards were not the only Spaniards, something different from many European nationalities such as the English or the French among whom it was impossible to be a member of one of those nationalities while your origin was African and/or black (not including the mixed race element.)

Francisco Menéndez was born around 1700 in Gambia on the western coast of Africa. He ended up as a slave in what is now the United States. Despite he was of African origin, black, and for a time had the social condition of a slave; he managed to flee into Florida (then a Spanish colony) where Spanish law granted freedom to anyone that step on its soil out of his own will and as a slave. Once in Florida where he was free, he was the head of the militia of the free blacks of the Spanish army in Mose Fort in the town of Saint Augustine (the first European settlement in North America). In the same century that was promulgated the Royal Decree of February 28, 1789, Francisco Menéndez becomes a Spaniard. His origin, his race, and his color were not obstacles for the Spaniards to see him as one of their own. (ABC)

Regarding the foreigners, it was limited to those thst were in the slave boats that arrived at the ports in the Spanish Empire. The foreigners living in this places of the Spanish Empire were not given the same privileges. As such, the foreigners in the slave boats were permitted to dock in the ports of the Spanish Empire and sell slaves to Spaniards only.

The Increase of Commerce

One of the coins that circulated in the Spanish Empire at the time of the promulgation of the Royal Decree of February 28, 1789. (

The original purpose of the Royal Decree of February 28, 1789 was to stimulate the agriculture and commerce, which were in crises in the places it was applied in the Spanish Empire. This increase in agriculture and commerce was possible with the flexibilization of the adquisition of slaves that were to be dedicated to agricultural plantations whose productions were to be exported and sold. This flexibilization included the temporary elimination of the duties paid in customs, which meant lower prices of slaves for the purchasers. With the reduction the price of each slave increased de amount of people that could buy one or many slaves and dedicate them to the agricultural production in their property. This privilege was granted to Spaniards and foreigners for a period of 6 years. We should be aware thst this privilege lasted 5 years in Santo Domingo and not because it was msndated in any of the Royal Decrees.

Another detail of the Royal Decree of February 28, 1789 was the limitation that the slaves had to be birn as slaves and speak Spanish. Later it was emitted the Royal Decree of January 24, 1793 that made it clear that the new slaves were to be caught in Africa and instructed the creation of Spanish posts in Africa to capture Africans into slavery and destine them to the Spanish Empire.

The Effects on Santo Domingo

The Spanish Part of Santo Domingo and its XVIII century economy. The box in the lower right corner of the mao says the following.


Small mecantile agricultural production.
Agriculture plantations depending on slave labor.

(Modification to the original work by Roberto Cassá.)

The Royal Decree of February 28, 1789 was applied in certain places such as Buenos Aires, some circunstances made it didn’t have the same effects in all the places. While the effect in places like Puerto Rico and Cuba lasted for more time and had a notabld increase of blacks, Santo Domingo didn’t benefitted as intended by the Royal Decree of February 28, 1789.

One of the main reasons was the emergence of the disturbances in the French part of the island in 1791. This disturbance intensified until culminating with the independence of Haiti in 1804.

Another of the main reasons was Spain ceding the Spanish part of Santo Domingo to France in 1795. This meant that the Royal Decree of February 28, 1789 would end its jurisdiction in Santo Domingo at an earlier time than elsewhere in the Spanish Empire. Contrary to the other places that benefitted for much longer, Santo Domingo had this Royal Decree in effect for 6 years. In addition, at this time Santo Domingo was affected by the depopulation of many entire families including their slaves, which were their most useful of all their possessions, that increase with time.

In 1795 started the process of emigration or depopulation of Santo Domingo. At first it was organized and consisted of people that were in the Spanish government of the island, the ecclesiastical power represented with the Catholic Church, and the Spanish soldiers (which naturally included as well mulattoes and free blacks.) Furthermore, the Spanish government facilitated to any Dominican that didn’t want to live under French rule to move with all their furniture, tools, and slaves to any part of the Spanish Empire free of duties at customs for the period of 2 years. The majority that left went to Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Venezuela. Afterwards, with the invasion of Toussaint Loverture in 1801, the emigration process went from an organized emigration to a disorganized as the fear of the people seeing for the first time the arrival of the Haitian army by the name of France caused them to panic.

As a result, on one hand the increase of the slaves and on the other the stimulation of the Dominican agriculture and the commerce couldn’t be an intended due to the interruptions which affected Santo Domingo. This was the result of its vicinity to the French part of the island, Spain ceding the Spanish part of the island to France, and lastly the first Haitian invasion by the name of France. Four years later takes place the second Haitian invasion, this time headed by Jean Jacques Dessalines, and that was the bloodiest and most disastrous of all the Haitian invasions and which increased tremondously the desire of many Dominicans to leave the island forever. The Spanish part of Santo Domingo was a land of an agricultural abundance and fertility, an extraordinary natural beauty, and a perfect climate turned in a short amount of time into a land of much horror, suffering, and sadness.

Later Royal Decrees

All the Royal Decrees that were promulgated were done in Madrid by the King of Spain.

While it is true that not all the Royal Decrees had effect on Santo Domingo (for example, the Royal Decree if April 22, 1804 which makes references to the Royal Decree of February 28, 1789 and other Royal Decrees, came into effect in a year when Santo Domingo was in its French Era from 1802 to 1809), we will list those Royal Decrees that extended the importation and sale of slaves to additional ports in the Spanish Empire from the original places mention in the Royal Decree of February 28, 1789.

  • Royal Decree of January 14, 1794: It expand to include the port of Montevideo im the current Uruguay.
  • Royal Decree of March 23, 1794: The port of Manzanillo in Bayamo, Cuba is prepared for the arrival and commerce of the slaves.
  • Royal Decree of May 21, 1795: It expand to include the Viceroyalty of Peru limited to two ports, Callao and Palta. It should be noted that in this year was ceded the Spanish part of Santo Domingo to France by the Treaty of Basle.
  • Royal Decree of April 12, 1798: It expand to 2 years the ability to import slaves free of dutirs in the Viceroyalty of Peru, Viceroyalty of Buenos Aires, and the President of Chile.
  • Royal Decree of April 15, 1803: It expands to include Valparaiso (currently in Chile), Guayaquil (currently in Ecuador), and Panama the ability to import free of duties new slaves.

The Royal Decree of April 22, 1804 with Information of the Royal Decree of February 28, 1789

The Royal Decree of April 22, 1804 is following shown in its entirety. Within this decree is some information of the Royal Decree of February 28, 1789. This is in Spanish and will not be translated due to its length.