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Slavery in Adeje 

Slavery today in Adeje, so far as I know, does not exist. By ‘slavery’ I don’t mean the namby-pamby ‘zero-hour contracts’, unpaid ‘internships’ and food banks for the working poor, as in 21st century Britain. No, this is good old-fashioned slavery with whips and chains – that’s the way to keep costs down and maximise profits – enough to satisfy the most psychopathic employer, corporate company director or banker. No, that’s wrong, psychopaths are impossible to satisfy, that’s part of their condition, hence the widening gap between rich and poor. The greedy will always want more, like a big, fat, Oliver Twist – but I digress.

In sixteenth-century Tenerife the Count of Gomera and first Lord of Adeje, Pedro de Ponte, was said to have owned a thousand negro slaves. He was pals with Sir John Hawkyns, the famous English privateer and one-time treasurer of the navy, who was knighted after the Armada in 1588. Back in 1562 he was a notable slave trader; he and de Ponte must have had some laughs together.

The word ‘slave’ implies a hard life, but in Roman times talented slaves could hold positions of great responsibility and even at the most basic level, like beasts of burden, slaves had to be cared for sufficiently to enable them to work. At La Casa Fuerte de Adeje a manual, or list of tasks, responsibilities and a code of conduct for its management, was written in 1654-1656, and it shows just how the slaves were treated. We learn that February was the month when the slaves were given new clothes, consisting of a coat, knee breeches, shirts or chemises of brown material, as specified (perhaps to be less visible to their betters), shoes, and the material for shirts, including an allowance of thread. Throughout the year they also had their rations of bread, honey, oil and a ‘fanega’ (58 litres or 12.8 gallons) of wheat per month. Their lives were strictly regulated, of course; for example they were not allowed to carry knives, even small ones; at nine or ten years they had to go to help in the fields; and girls were taught to spin.

The slaves had a steward to oversee their work, and their state of heath and their conduct. These responsibilities were not to be taken lightly, because if the steward failed in his duty he would be made to work in the fields alongside the slaves.

Each night, back at La Casa Fuerte after the work was finished, the steward had to give an account of work done by the ‘free’ labourers and slaves, then he had to issue the orders for work that they had to do next day. He also had to give a report of the faults of all workers and the punishments they had received for those faults. This all had to be done thoroughly because, over the course of a year, the performance of both the ‘free’ workers and slaves had to be assessed.

Slaves had to be punished for their “knavery” without mercy or compassion, no matter what sympathy the steward might feel towards them, otherwise those wicked slaves would take advantage of him, they would disobey him and he would not be able to control them. Punishment was harsh; local legend has it that the slaves were kept in chains overnight and had to walk to work in the fields still in their chains. Although how they would have had the strength to work after that, goodness knows.

As a rule, the slaves had to be locked every night into the ‘slave house’ of La Casa Fuerte, from the moment they arrived ‘home’ from work until the morning when they were “driven” back to the fields again. During the day the steward had to leave the house locked up, with only the sick remaining behind. Slaves who were genuinely ill were given grapes to help their recovery, which seems a nice touch, but the steward had to watch out for malingerers, the slaves who would feign sickness to avoid work. Another considerate attribute of the master is that the widows of free workers and slaves alike who had died while working for La Casa Fuerte continued to be given food for their sustenance.

Religion played a big part in the lives of the slaves. Before leaving for the fields and on their return at night they had to say their prayers. Any slave who knew the lessons and prayers had to teach the others who might be ignorant of religion, but he had not to make any speeches.

On festival days, quite a common occurrence, the steward had to lead the slaves (all 1,000 of them?) to attend the main mass and on their return to be taught more of the Christian doctrine. They could be allowed a change of scenery for this instruction; they might attend the priest either in the convent or else in the church. The marquis of Adeje was obliged to allow this whether he liked it or not, because it was decreed by the foundation of the convent. Also on fiesta days the steward had to make sure that no slave was allowed to work. (I wonder if any of them protested.)

On the Sundays of the Holy Host the steward ordered every slave to bring a branch and flowers to the church and other things to contribute to the procession through the streets. On fiesta days the slaves were not given food before mass and any slave who managed to avoid mass, and was caught, did not eat at all as a punishment. If he missed mass a second time, not only was he not fed but he was given a lash of the whip from each of his fellow slaves – as a warning to them.

It has been claimed that the slaves of La Casa Fuerte consisted not only of negroes but some were guanches, and a “cynical resident” is quoted as saying, “for six days they were worked, sometimes starved and occasionally beaten, but on Sundays they came here (to the church in Adeje) to attend Holy service with their masters, to be taken out again when it was over and shut up in their compounds – or wherever it was they were kept. They must have wondered what it was all about.”

A hundred years later there were still slaves in La Casa Fuerte. A census of 1779 showed that there were thirteen households with fifty-five people in residence. (Today, no one lives there permanently.) By then La Casa Fuerte was managed on behalf of the Marques de Belgida by Captain Don Francisco del Castillo Santelices, who was married with three children and four maidservants.

The census noted such things as any worker or slave who could read and write, which girls were learning to sew, who worked in the house for the master, and so on. For example Ana, a female servant with no surname, unmarried at the age of 61, was described as being “intelligent” and “can write” and was “very serviceable”.

Eleven of the households in La Casa Fuerte were servants and slaves of the Marques, on whose good will they were all dependent for their well-being and employment. Twenty of the residents, over a third of the total, were slaves and, strange though it may seem, seven families were mixed between ‘free’ and ‘slave’. In most cases the husbands, who were usually fishermen or labourers (although three men were “Absent in the Indies”), were free, while their wives and children were slaves. However in one family of six, the mother and a five-year old daughter were slaves, while the father and the other three children, aged seven, three and one, were ‘free’, which seems a cruel division. In another family of six only the eldest daughter was ‘free’.

When this situation ceased I don’t know, this is only very small part of a very large subject, and only a small part of the fascinating history of La Casa Fuerte de Adeje, about which – more soon.

I’d like to thank Daniel Garcia Pulido for help with the translation, but all views and opinions expressed are only my own.