A newly released book is helping reshape a subject little known to most U.S. citizens—the hidden history of Indian slavery. The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America by Andrés Reséndez (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016) is possibly the most exhaustive read on the subject to date; certainly, at least, in being geared toward the average reader. The book’s 431 pages include not just a readable and engaging narrative, but detailed appendices as well. Indian Country Today Media Network spoke with Reséndez, a history professor at the University of California Davis, about his third book.
You argue that Indian slavery (the “other slavery”) took different forms over a period of about four centuries, beginning with the Spanish Crown and lasting well into the American era. Can you please briefly describe them?
Photo: via UC Davis
The enslavement of Indians was legal for a few decades, but the Spanish Crown abolished the practice in 1542. In collusion with various officials, owners resorted to terminology changes, subterfuges and subtle reinterpretations in order to get around the law. Some Spaniards held Indians in “encomiendas.” In other cases Indians were accused of crimes and then sentenced to serve out for a period of five, ten, or even twenty years. Or Indians who lived near mines were forced to work for few weeks of the year at absurdly low pay in a system of compulsory labor draft known as “repartimiento.” Later on, when encomiendas, repartimientos and other forms of labor coercion were phased out, owners advanced money as a method of recruitment, leading to what became known as “debt peonage.” This system was popular all over northern Mexico and the American Southwest and eventually spread also to the South during Reconstruction. All of these labor arrangements resembled slavery or were slave-like because they shared four basic characteristics: forcible removal of the victims from one place to another, inability to leave the workplace, violence or threat of violence to compel them to work, and nominal or no pay.
In addition to this centuries-long time frame, your estimate of the number of American Indian slaves is far higher than anyone before has postulated.
I estimate that the number of Native Americans enslaved on the continent between 1492 and 1900 was somewhere between 2.5 and 5 million. In The OtherSlavery I offer a breakdown by region and by 50-year intervals. Although this is a very preliminary range, we need to start somewhere and have a baseline in order to refine our estimates as we move forward. My guess is that these numbers will go up as more researchers delve into this issue.
You state that the Spanish Crown never intended to commit genocide or enslavement against the Native population of the Caribbean at the time of Columbus. Yet wasn’t the Crown beholden to the church, who had issued papal bulls authorizing enslavement of the Indigenous Peoples and dividing up their yet-to-be discovered lands among the European sovereigns? How do you account for this?
Actually, in 1537 Pope Paul III issued a papal bull called Sublimus Deus opposing the enslavement of Indigenous Peoples and declaring them “true men” and therefore naturally free. This is one of the reasons the Spanish Crown eventually followed through and also banned the enslavement of Natives in 1542. However, this was too late for the Caribbean, as by then much of the indigenous population of the archipelago had been wiped out. But there is clear evidence that from the very beginning the Spanish monarchy had been uncertain about the policy of enslaving Indians. As early as 1494 the Catholic Monarchs—Ferdinand and Isabella—halted the sale of Native Americans taken to Spain to be sold there. Queen Isabella in particular emerged as a staunch defender of Indian rights.
One of the most shocking revelations in your book is how Mormons engaged in the trafficking of Indian children, well into the American period.
Mormons arrived in Utah in the 1840s looking for a promised land, only to discover that Indians and Mexicans had already turned the Great Basin into a slaving ground. By establishing themselves in the region they became the most obvious outlet for indigenous slaves. The Mormons wanted to use slavery as a tool of redemption. As Brigham Young told his people, “Buy up the Lamanite [Indian] children, and educate them and teach them the gospel, so that many generations would not pass [and] they should become a white and delightsome people.” This was exactly the same logic that had propelled Spaniards three centuries earlier to buy up Indian captives in order to save their souls. In spite of their best intentions, the Mormons ended up participating in a system of captivity and enslavement merely by migrating in large numbers to the western United States.
Why does the unknown history of Indian slavery matter in today’s world?
It matters because Indian slavery is the most direct antecedent to the forms of coercive labor and human trafficking that we observe today. Unlike African slavery, which was perfectly legal and sustained by racial and religious prejudice for centuries, Indian slavery was outlawed since the sixteenth century. Yet the banning of Indian slavery, far from ending the practice, led to a tangle of coercive practices (ranging from debt peonage and convict leasing to various forms of compulsory draft systems) that posed as legal work, yet amounted to slavery in all but name. This is very much the situation that the world faces today. Slavery is forbidden all around the world. Yet, the Walk Free Foundation has estimated that the number of people living under conditions that we often refer to as the “new slavery” (in which formal ownership of human beings has been replaced by other mechanisms such as indebtedness, etc.) may reach as many as 35.8 million individuals in more than 160 countries.