In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Slavery in Peru

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Sources
  • Edited Volumes
  • Slavery and the Law
  • Race, Ethnicity, and Classification
  • Africans and Indians in Comparison
  • Gender and Family
  • The Church and Religious Practice
  • Slave Rebellion and Uprisings
  • From Slavery to Abolition
  • The Legacy and Memory of Slavery

Latin American Studies Slavery in Peru
Tamara Walker
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0154


Africans arrived in what is now Peru alongside the first Spanish conquistadores. They served as military auxiliaries in expeditions, as intermediaries between Spaniards and Indians, and as builders of cities throughout the newly founded Viceroyalty of Peru (which until the 18th century encompassed most of Spanish South America). As the colonial enterprise evolved, so too did the role of slaves: in the early years of the lucrative silver mining industry in Potosí, the Spanish Crown imported African slaves to supplement Indian laborers. Although Africans never comprised as significant a presence in this sector as did their counterparts (owing to the Crown’s concerns over the expense of importing Africans to high altitudes, where they were thought likely to get sick and die), they were nonetheless important fixtures in the highlands, including gold mines at Carabaya, mercury mines at Huancavelica, hospitals in Arequipa, and textile mills and households in Cuzco. Slaves also held tremendous appeal to coastal colonists looking for labor to sustain everything from large estates to private households. By the 17th century, the Viceroyalty of Peru had become one of the most important centers of African slavery in the Americas. Because slavery had effects on and was shaped by nearly every aspect of colonial life from its earliest years through its abolition in 1854, scholars have been able to draw on a wealth of records—produced by notaries, the church, civil and criminal courts, and other entities—to produce in-depth studies of slaves’ experiences in urban and rural settings throughout the region. The work surveyed here includes the most accessible scholarship on the institution of slavery and its evolution over time, from general overviews to more in-depth studies of gender, race, religion, and the law. Some trends stand out: early scholarship on slavery served to mark slaves’ economic importance and demographic presence in the Viceroyalty as a whole, as well as their often brutal treatment at the hands of their owners. The 1990s saw the introduction of scholarship that focused primarily on what we now call Peru and highlighted how coastal slaves negotiated their status and shaped the gradual process of Peruvian abolition. And within the past decade or so, more recent scholarship has looked outward, to some degree, by placing Peru within the study of the African diaspora and drawing explicit links between the cultural and religious practices of slaves in Peru, Africa, and the Americas.

General Overviews

One of the earliest in-depth archival studies of slavery in Peru, Lockhart 1968, details the importance of slavery to the region’s conquest and colonization. Drawing from notarial records (including contracts, marriage documents, dowry agreements, wills, and sales records) and other archival sources, the author shows how slaves played evolving roles on the coast, in the highlands, and throughout the peripheral areas of 16th-century Peru. A subsequent and much more expansive study, Bowser 1974, examines civil, criminal, and ecclesiastical records to trace how slavery constituted the backbone of the region’s coastal and agricultural economies, with Africans and their descendants gradually replacing Indians as the preferred labor source in those areas. In coastal cities, female slaves worked in the domestic sector and as street vendors, while men generally found employment as day laborers known as jornaleros, who paid a large portion of their wages to their owners and saved any remaining portions to purchase food, clothing, and, in many cases, eventual freedom. For their part, slaves in the agricultural sector worked to produce fruit, wine, corn, wheat, barley, sugar, potatoes, and other local foodstuffs. Lockhart 1968 and, especially, Bowser 1974 continue to count among the most definitive accounts of the first two centuries of slavery in Peru. Despite some of their dated language (Lockhart 1968, for example, collectively refers to African-descent slaves as “Negroes” without accounting for color and caste differences) and heavy focus on inter- and cross-caste conflict, both texts are indispensable introductions to the field and build on exhaustive archival research. Flores Galindo 1984 places slaves in a broader social context, describing them as part of a class of “plebeians” that included lower-status Spaniards and free people of African, Indian, and mixed-racial ancestry. Aguirre 2005 offers a more comprehensive temporal analysis of Peruvian slavery, focusing on its existence across three centuries. While designed as a brief introduction and therefore more rooted in secondary literature than archival sources, the text (written by one of the most prolific and empirically grounded scholars of slavery in Peru) is a welcome contribution to a field lacking a basic primer on the institution from its early formation through its abolition. Currently it is only available in Spanish, making it less useful to some readers. Nonetheless, all readers will find utility in the rich assortment of visual sources (mostly drawn from the work of 19th-century artist Léonce Angrand) that appear throughout the text.

  • Aguirre, Carlos. Breve historia de la esclavitud en el Perú: Una herida que no deja de sangrar. Lima: Fondo Editorial del Congreso del Perú, 2005.

    A highly readable Spanish-language survey covering more than three hundred years, with chapters organized thematically rather than chronologically. Provides an overview of the major scholarship and the questions that guide it, as well as a sampling of diverse visual and archival sources. Ideal for classroom use and as a research primer.

  • Bowser, Frederick. The African Slave in Colonial Peru, 1524–1650. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1974.

    A foundational study of how African slavery went from a luxury in the 16th century to a necessity by the 17th. Shows how Peru had the largest concentration of Blacks in the Western Hemisphere during period under study; most were located in Lima, giving Peruvian slavery a decidedly urban character.

  • Flores Galindo, Alberto. Aristocracia y plebe: Lima, 1760–1830. Lima: Mosca Azul Editores, 1984.

    Widely cited and indispensable Spanish-language study of slavery in the broader socioeconomic context of the late-colonial period; necessarily integrates it into a discussion of region’s socio-racial hierarchy and examines interactions with the lower-status Spaniards and free people of African, Indian, and mixed-racial ancestry with whom slaves intermarried, lived, worshipped, and worked.

  • Lockhart, James. Spanish Peru, 1532–1560: A Social History. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1968.

    A crucial text for understanding the role of slavery in Peru’s early formation. Shows how African slaves, from the coast to the highlands, helped to build one of the wealthiest and most important Spanish colonies in the Americas. Discussion of slaves appears throughout, but chapter 10 gives them singular attention.

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