The Other Slavery

The Other Slavery; The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America by Andrés Reséndez Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016.


Andrés Reséndez has called our attention to the widespread enslavement of Indians in the American West and Spanish Mexico as early as the sixteenth-century. Indian slavery was different from the African slavery used extensively in the cotton fields of the Southern United States. Indian slavery grew out of the institution of peonage and was more like the involuntary servitude practiced in medieval and early modern Europe. Some historians would argue that the apprenticeship laws in early colonial America were a form of servitude similar to Indian slavery in our Western states.

The silver mines of colonial Spain were labor intensive and Indian slaves were used to dig out the silver and then carry out the heavy loads of tailings. And this demand for slaves for the mines supported a complicated set of exchanges amongst the western Indian tribes. The presence of a steady demand for leather – hence buffalo hides – for the mines and miners gave work to many captive female slaves. And the use of the horse in buffalo hunts increased the kill and the trade in hides.

The author suggests that the first source of Indian slaves in the Southwest was the Island of Espaňola in the Galápagos. The slave-hunting venues multiplied; eventually there were five major slaving areas –Chile, Paraguay and the adjoining provinces of Brazil, the grassland areas of Colombia and Venezuela, the Philippines, and northern Mexico, the last being the focus of The Other Slavery. Many of the western tribes had captured members of other tribes in warfare, for which they demanded ransoms. And often that ransom demand was met with captives who then became slaves.

Andrés Reséndez suggests why the presence of Indian slavery was neglected in histories of North American settlement. For one, there was no abolitionist movement focusing on Indian slavery. Because of the settlement that ended the Mexican War (1846-1848), President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 also applied to the slaves of Indian tribes in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah and parts of California. When the Thirteenth Amendment was passed in January 1865, it also abolished Indian slavery as well. But that was almost an afterthought.

Reséndez  reminds us that the Spanish Empire made numerous efforts to reform and eventually abolish Indian slavery long before the nineteenth century, first in Spain and then in Spanish America. In 1542 the New Legal Code of Metropolitan Spain stated that no American Indians could be enslaved under any circumstance. Charles II (1675-1700) and earlier during his mother Mariana’s regency (1665-1675) Spain enacted ordinances limiting slavery and passed them on to its New World colonial governments to enforce. But to no avail. The labor of Indian slaves was needed in the silver mines on which metropolitan Spain depended. Also it was common for Spanish clergy to argue that Indians were better off living in Christian homes and exposed to the true religion than in their own natural state. Never really successful, the strictures against slavery at least gave Native Americans an occasional opportunity to seek justice in Spanish courts.

Spanish Legal Codes, however, had a provision that Indians captured in a designated zone of war could be sold into slavery. So when you needed to acquire Indian slaves either to trade, or to work in your mine or tend your crops, you conducted a military campaign, which justified enslavement.

It is not surprising that Indian slaves offered greater resistance to their enslavement than was the case with African slavery. There were greater opportunities for hiding out and flight than was true in the American South. Even then and given how badly they were treated, there were remarkably few slave uprisings.

The largest uprising in the Southwest was the Pueblo Rebellion of 1680. The plan to have all of the Pueblos arise at the same time was compromised by a lack of co-ordination among the several Pueblos. .  Also by killing friars and destroying church property, the revolt seemed to be an attack on Christianity. The Indians were said to be led by Indian “sorcerers and idolaters.”

Reséndez suggests that part of the unsettled character of the Southwest was a result of conflict between those tribes that were trying to retain their nomadic way of life and competing tribes that had taken up agriculture and a more settled existence. Their allegiances during the rebellion tended to align in this way.

Andrés Reséndez argues that the decline and demographic collapse of Native American populations was primarily due to the Indian slave trade rather than the spread of infectious diseases as is often argued. And the acquisition of horses turned whole tribes, for example, the Comanches, into raiders and slave traders.  Until the nineteenth century, captive males past a certain age were either killed or sent south to the great slave emporium of Parral, in Chihuahua State, Mexico, Never to return. Eventually, however, the younger males were kept around to replenish the many males killed in warfare.



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