IV. The Early Modern Period, 1500–1800 > H. Latin America, 1500–1800 > 8. The Spanish Colonial System, 1550–1800
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
8. The Spanish Colonial System, 1550–1800
a. Population Development
The native population of the Americas declined drastically owing to the effects of war and epidemics. Unchecked proliferation of European livestock at the expense of Indian agriculture destroyed ecological equilibrium. In the Caribbean, depopulation was aggravated by the enslavement of natives to work in gold placers. Devastating epidemics spread throughout the islands (1519, 1530), reducing the population from an estimated 500,000 at the eve of the conquest to 22,000 in 1570. Yellow fever became endemic in the tropical lowlands and coasts of the Caribbean and circum-Caribbean.  1
On the eve of the conquest, Indian population in central Mexico was estimated at 11 million. Severely affected by recurrent epidemics of European diseases (1519–24, 1529, 1545–46, 1558, 1576–79, 1588), the Indian population had no opportunity to recover, and by 1597 had plunged to 2.5 million. In Peru, the Indian population was an estimated 6 million at the beginning of the conquest. Affected by military mobilization, by the resettlement policy in new towns, and by deadly epidemics (1545–46, 1558, 1576, 1588), Indians were reduced to 1.3 million by 1590. Their decline was especially dramatic in the coastal areas.  2
By 1650 the Indian population had reached its nadir in New Spain (Mexico) with 1.5 million. Recovery began at the end of the 17th century, when Indians numbered about 2 million. By the end of the 18th century, the Indian population had increased to 3.7 million. In Peru, the native population dropped to 1.5 million in 1570. Its recovery, at the beginning of the 18th century, did not follow a uniform trend. The portion of the population identified as Indian continually declined throughout the Spanish domains. Many Indians sought to be counted as mestizos to avoid tribute payment.  3
Early on, African slaves were brought to the New World. The rapid decline of the Indian population in the Caribbean led to increased slave trade. By 1570 the Caribbean had 56,000 inhabitants of African origin, easily surpassing the Indian and white population. Most of the slaves were captured in Senegambia, Guinea, and the mouth of the Congo River. During the 16th century, 75,000 slaves were introduced in Spanish-American domains. Between 1600 and 1650, slave traders sold 125,000 slaves in the region. The uneven distribution of the sexes and the harsh conditions of slavery made reproduction and the formation of slave families difficult. Nevertheless, slaves formed unions with native women, which increased the size of the mixed population. Children of these unions were born free, since the child's status derived from the mother. Between 1651 and 1760, slave traders shipped some 344,000 slaves to Spanish dominions. Between 1761 and 1810, in response to the booming plantation economy, 300,000 slaves were imported, mainly into Cuba and Puerto Rico. However, by that time most of the black population in Spanish domains was free.  4
Much of the Spanish population was concentrated in urban settlements. The crown created the Casa de Contratación to control emigration to the Indies. Heretics, Moors, Jews, and their descendants were excluded from traveling to Spanish domains. Most Spanish emigrants came from the territories subject to the Castilian crown, especially Andalusia and Castile, although a few non-Spanish subjects of the Spanish king also migrated. Women were scarce at the beginning, but as the crown promoted family emigration, their numbers increased to a quarter of the total emigration. Some 240,000 Europeans came to America during the 16th century. Between 1601 and 1650, European emigrants totaled about 194,000. For the 18th century, estimates of Spanish emigration indicate a minimum of 53,000 individuals, coming mainly from northern areas of Spain—the Basque country and Catalonia.  5
Predominantly male migration at the beginning of colonization promoted unions between Spanish men and native women, which led to the growth of the mestizo population. Some were incorporated into the Spanish group, but illegitimate births were common among the mixed population. The mestizo rate of growth quickly surpassed that of the Indian population.  6
Mortality rates began to fall around the end of the 18th century. In 1803, Francisco Javier de Balmis (1753–1819), a Spanish physician, carried out a general campaign of vaccination against smallpox, helping to improve health conditions in the colonies. At the close of the colonial period, the estimated population of the Spanish colonies was 3,276,000 whites, 5,328,000 mestizos, 7,530,000 Indians, and 776,000 blacks. (New Spain, 1,230,000 whites, 1,860,000 mestizos, 3,700,000 Indians; Guatemala, 280,000 whites, 420,000 mestizos, 880,000 Indians; Peru and Chile, 465,000 whites, 853,000 mestizos, 1,030,000 Indians; Colombia and Venezuela, 642,000 whites, 1,256,000 mestizos, 720,000 Indians; Río de la Plata, 320,000 whites, 742,000 mestizos, 1,200,000 Indians; Cuba and Puerto Rico, 339,000 whites, 197,000 mixed, 389,000 blacks). The black population in all colonies, excluding Cuba and Puerto Rico, numbered 387,000.  7
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.