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(From the Arabic, memluk, "slave", the household cavalry of the former sultans of Egypt, recruited chiefly from the children of Christian slaves).

The general term applied in South America to designate the mixed European-Indian race, and more specifically applied in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to the organized bands of Portuguese slave-hunters who desolated the vast interior of South America from the Atlantic to the slopes of the Andes, and from the Paraguay to the Orinoco. The enslavement of the Indians by the conquerors began almost with the discovery of America, being recommended and put in practice by Columbus himself as early as 1493, occasioning his first serious rebuke by Isabella. In 1511 the Dominicans throughout Hispaniola (Haiti) publicly preached against it, and sent one of their number to Spain to protest against it at court; their actions resulted in a royal edict against the abuse, and the official appointment of the celebrated Dominican father, and later bishop, Bartolome de Las Casas, as "Protector of the Indians". In 1531 Paul III issued Bull restoring liberty to all enslaved Indians. In 1543, largely through the effort of Las Casas, the Spanish Government published a code of new laws for the government of the Indians, limiting the existing power of holding slaves, and prohibiting all future enslavement of Indians. The law applied only to the native Indians, not to negroes. It served as a check upon the worst abuses and was carried out strictly wherever the watchful eye of the viceroy could reach, but elsewhere it was treated with contempt.

The Portuguese who colonized Brazil in the sixteenth century were already the professional slave-dealers of Europe, and their settlements along the coast soon became a rendezvous for a lawless class of slavers, pirates, and other desperadoes. Intermarrying with the women of the wild tribes, they produced the mixed breed of Mamelucos, which combined the courage and persistence of the white race, and the woodcraft and linguistic faculty of the Indian, with a cruelty untempered by any restraining influence whatever. São Paulo on the South Brazilian coast, and Pará at the mouth of the Amazon became their two great headquarters, from which, beginning about 1560, for a period of nearly two centuries, regular armies of slave-hunters, sometimes a thousand strong, fully armed and equipped with horses guns, and blood-hounds, set out periodically, year after year, to slaughter and capture the helpless natives. In this work they were encouraged both by the Brazilian colonists, who wanted slaves for the plantations and the mines, and by the Portuguese Government which favoured them as a formidable barrier to the Spanish colonization, of which the Jesuit missions were considered outposts. Among all the Mamelucos, those of São Paulo, the Paulistas as they were called, were most noted.

The first of the Guaraní missions of the Paraguay territory was established in 1610. In 1629 the Paulista armies invaded the territory, and within two years had destroyed all but two of the twelve prosperous missions, plundering and desecrating the churches, slaughtering thousands of the inhabitants, and carrying off 60,000 Christian Indians for sale at São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The result was the entire abandonment of these first missions and the exodus of the survivors, led by Father Montoya, into the remote southern province of Corrientes, Eastern Argentina, where the work was begun anew. The slave-hunters followed and again the outlying missions were abandoned until at last, in 1638, Fathers Montoya and Tano sailed to Europe and personally obtained from Urban VIII a letter threatening the church penalties upon the enslavers of the mission Indians, and from Philip IV permission for the Indians to be furnished with guns and drilled in their use by Jesuit soldier veterans. This was done and at the next invasion, in 1641, the Christian Guaraní, armed with guns and led by their own chief, inflicted such a defeat on the Mamelucos as kept them aloof for ten years. Then in 1651, taking advantage of the war between Spain and Portugal, the Mameluco army advanced again, but was scattered by the neophytes led by the Fathers themselves. Thenceforth to the close of the Jesuit period the Guaraní missions were protected by an army of drilled and equipped Christian Indians. Defeated in one direction, the Mamelucos turned in another, and began a series of raids upon the flourishing Chiquito missions of Southern Bolivia, of which the first had been established by the Jesuits in 1691. Whole villages were swept away one after another, until Father Arcé gathered his people together, drilled and armed them, and then with a few Spaniards led them against the Mamelucos, whom he defeated and drove across the Paraguay, never to appear again on its western bank. On the Upper Amazon, according to Hervás, the principal cause of the ruin and dispersion of the numerous tribes gathered into the Mainas missions was the repeated raids of the Portuguese slave-hunters, who in several attacks from 1682 to 1710 carried off more than 50,000 Indians, besides the thousands butchered. Of the Omagua alone more than 16,000 were taken. Of those who escaped the majority fled to their original forests and reverted to barbarism. In the Orinoco missions the same destruction was wrought by slavers from Pará, ascending the Rio Negro and engaging the wild cannibal tribes as their allies, until checked by the heroic enterprise of Father Roman in 1744, and finally made impossible by the establishment of Spanish frontier garrisons about 1756. The entire number of Indians slaughtered or enslaved by the Mamelucos from the beginning of their career for a period of about 130 years has been estimated by Father Muratori at two millions. (See also GUARANÍ; MAINA; MAIPURE.)


BANCROFT, Hist. Cent. Am., I (San Francisco, 1886); DORRIZROPER, Hist. Abiponibus (tr. London, 1822); GRAHAM, A Vanished Arcadia (London, 1901). HERVAS, Catalogo de las Lenguas, I (Madrid, 1800); HUMBOLDT, Travels to the Equinoctical Regions of Am. (1799-1804), (London, 1881); PAGE, La Plata, etc. (New York, 1859).

About this page

APA citation. Mooney, J. (1910). Mameluco. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Mooney, James. "Mameluco." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 9. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Joseph P. Thomas. Dedicated to the memory of American Indians.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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