Ruthless European slave traders emptying villages and forcing terrified victims onto ships bound for the Atlantic. Lines of chained humans marching toward slave markets under the watchful eyes of armed guards. Violent slave owners using torture and rape to force more work out of their captives.
These searing images might bring to mind the terrible history of African slavery in the United States. But in fact they describe historical events in the Bahamas, Central Mexico, and the American continent’s Western frontier — and the slaves were Indians.
In popular culture and in scholarship, slavery is having a moment. Racial strife in the present is drawing new attention to the racialized injustice and inequality in our past. Recent and acclaimed books by Edward Baptist, Sven Beckert, and Walter Johnson have illuminated the economic calculations behind planter cruelty and the connections among slavery, capitalism, and American expansion. But these books, and movies like 12 Years a Slave, have also reinforced the popular "black and white" image of slavery — an injustice perpetrated by whites against Africans and their descendants, mainly in the antebellum South.
The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America,
by Andrés Reséndez
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Still, huge gaps in our understanding remain. In his beautifully written (and National Book Award-nominated) The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America, Andrés Reséndez offers a tour-de-force account of the enslavement of Indians in the New World, and in the process broadens our definitions of slavery. Part of the challenge of the subject is that Indian servitude took many forms, making victims hard to identify in the records. Reséndez, a professor at the University of California at Davis, offers a capacious but defensible definition, including peonage; rebels sentenced to servitude; orphans and vagrants bound to service; victims of the mita (a forced labor quota imposed on Indian villages); and ostensibly free wage laborers whose employers never paid them.
Using this definition, Reséndez estimates the number of Indian slaves in the Americas at between 2.5 million and 5 million — fewer than the approximately 12.5 million Africans enslaved between the 15th century and the late 19th century, but a staggering number nonetheless. Moreover, he argues that population loss due to enslavement was in fact much greater in the Americas than in Africa. Slavery, not merely epidemic disease, was the primary cause of the high mortality rates of 70 percent to 90 percent that some Indian societies experienced.
In revealing the centrality of slavery to colonization, The Other Slavery amounts to a searing indictment of empire. Starting with Christopher Columbus, who touted enslavement as a way of financing empire, successive waves of conquistadores and colonizers profited from the trade in humans. Some, including Columbus, exported Indians to the Old World in a "reverse middle passage," but the vast majority of the enslaved remained in the Americas.
Reséndez describes the boomtown mining centers of Mexico, notably Parral, which spurred a trade in slaves over a thousand-mile radius and even reached into the Philippines. Two hundred years later, California Gold Rush entrepreneurs such as John Sutter also exploited female Indian labor. Even the Euro-Americans determined to eschew Indian slavery — including Jesuit missionaries, the Mormons, Kit Carson, and the U.S. Army — ended up participating in it. Missions in Sonora became militarized presidios that enslaved and relocated thousands of Seri Indians. Brigham Young eventually temporized with a law that permitted Mormons to "ransom" captive children and hold them in bondage for 20 years.
One of Reséndez’s major contributions is his pursuit of the story of Indian slavery from Spanish America north into the 19th- and 20th-century United States, showing the continuities. Involuntary servitude continued in California and the Southwest even after the Civil War. Reséndez implies that "the other slavery" didn’t end until well into the 20th century because its many forms made it difficult to stop via statute, and because too many landowners had a stake in its continuance.
The book arrives amid a lively debate over slavery and capitalism. While Eric Williams’s 1944 Capitalism and Slavery (University of North Carolina Press) suggested that the African slave trade capitalized British industrialization, The Other Slavery reveals that Indian slavery funded colonization itself. Moreover, since Indian slavery flourished from large industries to small households and farms, Reséndez’s work opens up new paths for thinking about how slavery made it possible for many Americans — not just big planters — to participate in the market revolution.
The long story of Indian slavery also speaks to the persistence of unfree labor within ostensibly free-labor capitalist economies. Reséndez concludes that today’s human trafficking and the exploitation of immigrant workers are the direct heirs of the practices he traces.
The book leaves the reader with lingering questions, especially regarding gender and race. Most Indian slaves were female in Spanish America, with women commanding higher prices than men. Was this a testimony to the importance of female labor or an indicator that Indian women’s sexual services were a key element of the slave trade?
And how did Native American slavery factor into the emerging racial order in America? Since gender and ethnicity surely play a role in whom society targets for abuse, we need to better understand how Indian slavery shaped Americans’ ideas about race and class, and vice versa.
Such questions are a testament to how much The Other Slavery has widened the field’s vistas. A rich, ambitious book that everyone in the field is talking about, Reséndez’s work proves that Indian slavery was an essential part of the American story from the beginning. That puts it in the heart of our continuing conversation about the legacy of slavery in the Americas, in company with Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (The New Press) and Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th, works that examine other forms of unfreedom.
Indian slaves helped build America, at a terrible cost. Their story deserves telling.
Margaret Ellen Newell is a professor of history at Ohio State University and the author of Brethren by Nature: New England Indians, Colonists, and the Origins of American Slavery (Cornell University Press, 2015).