Episode 7, Season 2
A hundred years before the first ship carrying enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia, Europeans introduced the commercial practice of enslavement in “The New World.” And for the next 400 years, millions of Indigenous people throughout the Americas were enslaved through several forms of forced labor and bondage. Historian and author Andrés Reséndez calls this “The Other Slavery,” and his work is changing our understanding of the transatlantic slave trade.
Resources and Readings
History, University of California, Davis
- The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America
- A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca
- Ancient History Encyclopedia, Atahualpa
- Spanish forced labor, Encomienda
- Spanish forced labor, Repartimiento
- Southern United States, Convict leasing
- PBS: Slavery by Another Name, Slavery v. Peonage
- Interviews with Historians, Brett Rushforth
- Portuguese slave trade, São Jorge da Mina
- American Heritage, Columbus and Genocide
- Massimo Livi-Bacci, The Depopulation of Hispanic America after the Conquest
- Spain, New Laws of the Indies for the Good Treatment and Preservation of the Indians
- Nancy E. van Deusen, Global Indios: The Indigenous Struggle for Justice in Sixteenth-Century Spain
Meredith McCoy: Visiting the cathedrals of Europe can be a pretty mesmerizing experience: the stained glass windows, the vaulted ceilings, the smell of incense, they all conspire to create an atmosphere of reverence. And yet, visiting these impressive spaces is complicated for me. Whereas so many visit these cathedrals and see their beauty, I also see the church's violent imperial reach across the globe. I do see the grandeur of these spaces, but I also see the massive quantities of gold stolen in the name of God, hammered into awe-inspiring alters, and I wonder about the high price that Indigenous people have paid to deliver this gold into European hands.
Meredith McCoy: For example, I think of Atahualpa. Atahualpa was the last Incan emperor, and he was held hostage by Spanish conquistadors in Cajamarca, Peru. My husband's family is from Lima, and we went to visit the room where Atahualpa was held in Cajamarca. I can tell you it's a big room, about the size of a large classroom. And while we were there we saw the mark on the wall, a full arm's length above Atahualpa's head, showing how high his people would have to fill the room with riches to secure his release.
Meredith McCoy: Atahualpa was held hostage for a ransom of gold and silver, and then the Spanish killed him anyway. I also think of the many thousands of Indigenous people living under Spanish colonial rule who were forced to mine silver. I think of the impact of the mercury on their bodies, of the mining accidents, of the threats of violence for non-compliance. I think about how they were forced to put their bodies on the line for someone else's material gain.
Meredith McCoy: When I taught middle school history, these were not the stories we told. Our textbooks talked about European exploration as something to celebrate; shiny maps showed the exchange of food and goods, and our standards listed God, gold and glory as explorers' motivations. And that was where it stopped. We rarely discussed the costs of colonialism, like the relationship between exploration and enslavement, and the many impacts on Indigenous lives. And the emphasis on God, gold and glory meant that our lessons centered European desires, sidelining Indigenous perspectives.
Meredith McCoy: Bringing indigenous perspectives from the sidelines to the center means telling often hidden histories. And one story we must tell is the story of Indigenous slavery. Without the forced labor of millions of Indigenous people, colonization of the Americas might not have succeeded. And yet these stories and this history have too often been left out of the curriculum. It's long past time to tell the real story of colonialism and the brutal forced labor which made it possible.
Meredith McCoy: I'm Meredith McCoy and this is Teaching Hard History: American Slavery—a special series from Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. This podcast provides a detailed look at how to teach important aspects of the history of American slavery. In each episode we explore a different topic, walking you through historical concepts, raising questions for discussion, suggesting useful source material and offering practical classroom exercises.
Meredith McCoy: In our second season, we're expanding our focus to better support elementary school educators; to spend more time with the teachers who are doing this work in the classroom, and to understand the often hidden history of the enslavement of Indigenous people in what is currently the United States. Talking with students about slavery can be emotional and complex. This podcast is a resource for navigating those challenges, so teachers and students can develop a deeper understanding of the history and Legacy of American slavery.
Meredith McCoy: Dr. Andrés Reséndez is the author of The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America. His work brought together years of research on histories of Indigenous enslavement in the Americas, changing our understanding of the transatlantic slave trade. And this episode is the first of two conversations between Dr. Reséndez and my co-host Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries. In this episode, we're going to talk about the scope of colonial enslavement and all of the forms of bondage that exist within what Reséndez calls "the other slavery." We will learn about the research and historical documents that brought this history to life, we'll discuss the role that Columbus played in introducing slavery as one of the earliest commodities from the so-called "New World," and we'll hear more about how the complicated legal status of Indigenous enslavement delayed emancipation, leading to a lasting legacy which continues to reverberate in our communities today. I'm so glad you can join us.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I am both excited and delighted to welcome Dr. Andrés Reséndez, historian and author specializing in colonial Latin America, teaches at UC-Davis and is the author of The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America. Andrés welcome, and thank you so much for joining us.
Andrés Reséndez: Thank you so much, Hasan. It is a pleasure to be here.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, we have spent this season, this second season of the podcast really exploring the history of the enslavement of Indigenous people. Could you just share, from your perspective, why it is important for us to understand the history of the enslavement of Indian people?
Andrés Reséndez: I think this is a key missing piece of the history of the Americas. This is a story that is known in bits and pieces, but only now are we beginning to put it all together in a more comprehensive understanding of the scope of this phenomenon, of the importance of this phenomenon. Two and a half to five million human beings from Columbus to 1900, that took place in the entirety of the continent, not a single region was spared from this scourge. The Spanish did it, the Portuguese did it, the English did it, the Dutch did it, the French did it, the Mexicans did it, the Americans did it. It involved everybody who was a colonizer, and eventually various Indigenous groups became part of the system and they became providers of slaves, taking from other groups and selling them to either other groups or to European colonizers.
Andrés Reséndez: I mean, you can find some Indigenous groups that did not participate in the Indian slave trade, in part for environmental reasons or economic reasons it didn't make economic sense for them to get people and have more mouths to feed. But everybody who was in a position to do it did it. So this is a phenomenon that affected the entire continent, and it's helping us to better understand our past and also to understand the continuities that exist between these seemingly forgotten and these seemingly old practices of bondage, and the practices that we see surviving into the present.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And you really shine so much light on this history that we all need to know about that's so central to the Americas in your book, The Other Slavery. Could you say a little bit about the title itself, what you chose not just to name the book, but this idea of the other slavery, to name this phenomenon that you were exploring?
Andrés Reséndez: Sure. Initially, I thought about writing a very self-contained book that would mostly unfold in the 16th century, but I kept collecting examples about Indian slavery in the 17th, 18th, all the way to the 19th centuries, not only in Mexico and what is now the United States, but in Chile or the Caribbean. Eventually, I decided that the best service that I could do was write a more ambitious, detailed book about the overarching workings of this phenomenon, the enslavement of Indians from Columbus all the way to the 19th century. In grappling with this, I realized that I would be really talking about a number of different coercive labor institutions, and I needed to come up with an umbrella term that would encompass them. But also useful in the sense that it immediately brings that comparison with African slavery, which is what the reading public, students and teachers are most familiar with.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So this really does sort of beg the question, how do you define slavery itself, this system of unfreedom in this particular context?
Andrés Reséndez: This is a very controversial aspect of the book. One of the first things that I wanted to do was to quantify this phenomenon. How many Indian slaves had been taken from Columbus all the way to the 19th century? And in order for me to start counting them, I needed to make clear what I meant by who counts as an Indian slave. And the problem was there were very different institutions that occurred over time. Indian slavery was actually legal immediately upon contact. In fact, Columbus's very first enterprise was to send Indians back to Europe to be sold in the slave markets of the Mediterranean. And it remained more or less legal until the middle of the 16th century, at which time the Spanish crown essentially made it completely illegal to continue slaving for Indians.
Andrés Reséndez: But masters not only benefited but actually came to depend entirely on coerced native labor for their businesses, be that in mining or building houses or as domestic servants, etc., found euphemisms and different ways to get around this prohibition. And so they devised a number of terms that crop up in the history of the Spanish Empire like encomiendas, repartimientos. And eventually they also resorted to other phenomena that are more familiar to readers of US history like convict leasing or debt peonage. And all of these labor institutions were different, but in my view, they shared four basic traits that made them the other slavery, as I call them.
Andrés Reséndez: And one was that these natives had to be forcibly transported from one place to another. And the reason for that is that the owners who benefited from this coerced labor could not really do that if they were living right next to the Indigenous group from where the slaves had been taken, because they would be opening themselves to retribution or attacks from these natives. So by necessity for this system to work, Indian slaves had to be moved from one place to another, often very faraway place. So that's the first characteristic.
Andrés Reséndez: The second characteristic was that, regardless of whether it was as a prison sentence or as a debt or in some other institution like the ones we mentioned, these Indians were unable to leave their place of work once they had been transported to this other place where they would be laboring. So that's a second main characteristic.
Andrés Reséndez: A third one was either the use of violence, or at least the threat of use of violence in order to make these natives, Native Americans work. And finally, there was the lack of payment. Sometimes there was payment, as in some of these institutions like repartimientos for example, but the payment was so symbolic, so below the market average that it really was just a token effort in order to disguise this institution as not slavery.
Andrés Reséndez: But these four characteristics were almost always present in the range of institutions that I found. I also found that, even though these different coercive labor practices may have appeared very different to Spanish officials and even to present-day scholars looking at these sources, but when you go back to the historical record and you look at the victims of these labor regimes, they often describe them as "slave-like" or "worse than slavery." So in recognition that to them it was the same as slavery, and in recognition that these diverse labor forms were introduced in order to foil the prohibition against slavery, I decided to lump them all together into this umbrella term of "The other slavery."
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: It is a little surprising that Indian slavery itself is something that, generally speaking, we don't know about. You mentioned that that has something to do with it being outlawed and made illegal in so many ways in so many places over time. Could you say a little bit more about how that has impacted how we have come to forget that Indian slavery even existed?
Andrés Reséndez: It was very surprising to me when I started this project that Indian slavery was not better known as a very significant phenomenon, as you point out. And one of the reasons was, of course, that documenting that is a lot harder than African slavery. African slaves were transported across the Atlantic and they were obsessively counted along the way. So we have very good records about the numbers of Africans being enslaved and brought to the new world. The institution remained legal, based on racial prejudice and supported by various empires around the world. So we can see it very readily in the documentary record.
Andrés Reséndez: The case of Indians slavery is totally different. Indian slaves were both procured and consumed in the same regions, as we said. So we don't have this transatlantic voyage that allows us to count them very accurately. And it was very early on made illegal, which makes documenting its existence more difficult in the documentary record. But not only do we have the challenge of finding this phenomenon in the record, but perhaps even more significantly is that, because Indian slavery was prohibited, but it had become so essential for the economy of the New World, Indian slavery mutated into a number of different institutions. And historians tend to just—you know, and the people at large tend to follow this story using these different labels that were initially introduced to disguise the fact that these institutions were introduced precisely to get around the prohibition and precisely to allow owners to retain mastery over their Native Americans.
Andrés Reséndez: And so another part has to do just with these kaleidoscopic terms that we don't necessarily think about as one particular phenomenon. So part of it is the lack of records or the difficulty of finding the records. And a second part is just wrapping our heads around these multiple expressions that I tried to lump together into this one umbrella term, "The other slavery." And so in some ways, it requires a conceptual breakthrough to try to lump them all together.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I think the umbrella term actually works really well. I mean, especially as you have enumerated these four key characteristics. And keeping in mind too, that in the contemporary moment that those who are caught up in these systems of bondage and those who are practicing these systems of bondage are well aware of what is happening. It also seems to draw this through line between the past and the more contemporary moment. In other words, these four centuries from Columbus through the 1800s. You know, in thinking about this though, that it is four centuries, that you are offering us a more expansive definition of this coercive form of labor, these coercive labor institutions, I know it's impossible to get a precise number, but you do offer a broad range for the number of Indian people who are trapped in these coercive institutions. You give us that range of two and a half to five million. Could you say a little bit about how you derived that number and what it represents?
Andrés Reséndez: From the very beginning, my central idea was to come up with an estimate of the number of Indians subjected to slavery. I knew that numbers have a way of shaping our understanding of a particular phenomenon. I knew that in the case of African slavery, for example, as many as 12.5-million Africans were forcibly transported across the Atlantic. And this number matters because it has shaped how we perceive the workings of the Atlantic world. So whether we are talking about a raid in Angola, or some runaway slave in Brazil, or a slave working in a plantation in the south of the United States, we are really talking about the same phenomenon involving millions of victims. And that stood in sharp contrast to the situation that existed in Indian slavery studies. There were a few regional studies of Indian slaves in the New World, but it is extremely difficult to arrive at very concrete numbers, in part because, as I just mentioned, Indian slavery had been made illegal very early on and therefore, we don't have the kind of records that we have for African slavery that can be easily gleaned from either port records or from wills and bills of sale, etc. We don't have that kind of documentation for Indian slaves.
Andrés Reséndez: And yet there was this continuous paper trail in all regions of the new world over multiple centuries. So I early on wanted to provide a baseline. There had been a previous global estimate by scholar Brett Rushforth, but I wanted to go beyond that, and I wanted to be more precise. So what I did was to divide these four centuries into 50-year periods, and also by regions. So north of what is now Mexico, the area that is now Mesoamerica, or Mexico, Central America, Brazil and the rest of South America. And so for each of these regions, I tried to provide basically the best estimates that we have on the number of Indian slaves taken in these regions. Now doing this very systematically and carefully would have taken me more than a lifetime. So in many cases, I rely on works of others, I rely on what little evidence we have, on estimates that were made at the time in some reports. So I am fully cognizant that this number, 2.5 to 5 million, is a very broad range, and it is also subject to revision. My thought was to really establish a baseline that could then be questioned.
Andrés Reséndez: I usually tried to be very judicious in these 50-year interval estimations in the different regions. I could have cherry-picked the highest estimates that I could find based on contemporary estimates, etc., and I could have come up with a figure that could have even been comparable to that 12.5 million African slaves. But instead I tried to be very conservative. But I nonetheless believe that we need to start discussing these numbers. So by providing this number, I am making clear that this is very significant. This is not just a couple of hundred natives in this region or that region, or it was a phenomenon that occurred primarily at the very beginning of European colonization and then it petered out when African slaves and salaried workers became available in sufficient numbers. Instead, what I wanted to signal very clearly from deriving these numbers is that this is a major phenomenon that affected the entire hemisphere for the entire colonial period and beyond. And that it involved very significant numbers when we put them all together.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So you provide us with this range, 2.5 to 5 million, and I think it's really important for all of us to really wrap our minds around that number. How does that then reshape how we ought to be thinking about the development of the so-called new world in this post-contact period?
Andrés Reséndez: I call it "The other slavery" to distinguish it from African slavery, but in some ways, it is the slavery that is most relevant for us to think about current forms of human trafficking. In other words, this other slavery happened in spite of express prohibitions. It happened on the basis of subterfuges, it happened on the basis of debt. It happened on the basis of convict leasing, etc., which are the very same traits that we see in the human trafficking today. Today, slavery is prohibited all around the world, yet it happens. More than 42 million people are estimated to be subjected to some kind of modern form of slavery. And this happened against express prohibitions and using the mechanisms that would have been utterly familiar to Native Americans who were subjected to very similar labor regimes in the 16th, 17th and 18th and 19th centuries. So in some ways, this is the slavery, and what is really the other, the very unusual slavery is African slavery, in which all the empires of the world made it legal and were in agreement about how the system would work. So I think that's some of the significances of the number, of the range, that really should open your eyes about the geographic scope, about the involvement of the actors and about the continuities all the way until today.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: That's a great point. This idea of reconceptualizing in our minds, these systems of unfreedom and bondage, it actually offers us a continuity between the so-called New World and Old World, that Atlantic slavery actually disrupts to a certain extent. It seems as though what you're identifying as the other slavery and putting into bondage Indian people, they're doing it in ways that they have traditionally practiced, and offered rationalizations and justifications that were familiar in the Old World, if you will. That the break isn't the enslavement of Indian people, that the break, the rupture perhaps is in fact the explosion in the enslavement of African people.
Andrés Reséndez: That is right. And it really creates a very different narrative. I mean, in the most simplistic understanding of African slavery is that it's a phenomenon that was legal, then there was this great fight against slavery. There was the French Revolution and the American Revolution, the Civil War, and this somehow came to an end. That's a very simplistic and somewhat misleading interpretation of the enormous staying power of slavery. So I think Indian slavery offers a different view of that. And that is a very dynamic system that was never supposed to happen, yet it happened. In fact, it was able to operate in covert and clandestine ways. It never really went away. And because it had theoretically never happened, it continued well past the passing of the 13th and 14th Amendments, and the formal abolition. And it is in many ways the antecedents of the modern forms of human trafficking that are far from having ended, precisely because of the dynamic and the kaleidoscopic and the difficulties in understanding these other forms of bondage.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: It seems to serve as a bridge—an unfortunate bridge, but a bridge nonetheless—between these systems of bondage and unfreedom in the present, and systems of bondage and unfreedom in the past. And driven by a desire for profit, right? The exploitation of people for personal gain. These aren't civilizing missions, if you will, in that sense. These are commercial ventures as you have underscored and highlighted for us.
Andrés Reséndez: That's right. That's correct.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And I think the numbers and the case that you make for the numbers and this range, even on the conservative side, really demonstrates the scale and scope of this phenomenon. Just like you pointed out, these are not marginal systems, these are not marginal institutions. In fact, they're very essential and central to these colonial and national enterprises moving forward through time.
Meredith McCoy: This is Teaching Hard History: American Slavery. As we've heard during this conversation, there are similarities between certain forms of Indigenous enslavement and contemporary slavery. If you'd like to learn more about modern-day slavery and how you can address it in your classroom, take a listen to episode 14 from season one: Slavery Today with historian James Brewer Stewart. Once again, here's Hasan Kwame Jeffries and Andrés Reséndez.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: As part of the work that you were doing to recover this history that has been marginalized and in many instances rendered invisible, what were some of the key takeaways for you? What were some of the new insights that began to really leap out at you, that moved you in a direction of, "Hey, I got to get this down and really uncover, unpack some more and share with people?"
Andrés Reséndez: Right. Well initially, I believed like many scholars, that really the heyday of Indian slavery had occurred early on in the colonial period. You know, it had—there were plenty of records at the time, and it was prior to the arrival of really tens of thousands of African slaves and the emergence of a salaried economy. So I, alongside with many others, thought that really these had been a very initial and perhaps somewhat marginal phenomenon that petered out with time. But I nonetheless kept collecting sources in the 17th, 18th, 19th centuries, and I realized that Indian slavery, in fact, never went away, never disappeared because of the availability of African slavery or salaried work. But in fact, it co-existed with these other forms of work. And it was there all along. It never disappeared. It evolved. It transformed itself, and it survived. And in some ways, it outlived African slavery for example, because theoretically it wasn't happening, and therefore, it was extremely difficult to abolish it because theoretically it didn't exist.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I'm really struck by, as you were pointing out, the way in which its staying power, its ability to mutate and to adjust to these efforts to render it illegal, it really speaks, in my opinion, to how central it was and how profitable it was to this colonizing experience that was occurring at the time.
Andrés Reséndez: Sure. I mean, as I mentioned early on, the Catholic monarchs prohibited Indian slavery except in a few locations, and that resulted in the devastation of the—these loopholes were enough for the devastation of the Caribbean. In 1542, it was made completely illegal by the Spanish monarchy, yet it persisted. When Mexico became independent from Spain, it proscribed all forms of Indian slavery. And in fact, made natives who had been born in Mexico citizens of the New Mexican Republic. And yet it continued in forms like debt peonage and others. There was another opportunity in the aftermath of the Civil War here in the United States when the 13th Amendment prohibited slavery as well as other forms of involuntary servitude, opening the door for the possibility of the extinction of Indian slavery, yet it continued. So it almost defies gravity. It's extremely—there were all of these attempts and they never quite succeeded. Slavers or those who benefited from coerced Indian labor found all these ways to get around these legal restrictions and continue their activities.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You mentioned Columbus, noting that one of his first acts on crossing the Atlantic was putting in bondage, enslaving Indian folk and then bringing them back across the Atlantic. But of course, this isn't his first experience with forced labor and slavery. Something that we often don't talk about is his engagement as a trader of human beings on the Atlantic coast of Africa. Could you say a little bit about Columbus's involvement in both of these institutions: Atlantic world slavery in its very beginnings, as well as the other slavery, the enslavement of Indian people?
Andrés Reséndez: The institution of slavery was well-known in the Mediterranean world where Columbus came from. So both in the Iberian Peninsula as well as what is now Italy, where Columbus's family originally came from, from Genoa, were very familiar with slaves, both African slaves or slaves from the eastern Mediterranean, introduced by merchants from that region, you know, from Bulgaria or Greece, etc., Circassians, etc. There were also Indigenous peoples from the islands facing the coast of Africa, like the famous Guanches from the Canary Islands. So all of these slaves were brought into major cities in Italy and Spain, and they were sold off there. So Columbus would have been very familiar with that type of slavery.
Andrés Reséndez: Moreover, he spent 10 years in Portugal before the famous voyage to the New World. And in the course of that apprenticeship, so to speak, in Portugal, he traveled in the company of Portuguese sailors all along the coast of Africa. And maybe 10 years before his first voyage of discovery, he wound up in what is now the coast of Ghana in a fortress called São Jorge da Mina, later known as the infamous al-Mina, which was one of the main ports of departure of African slaves for the New World. Now in the 1480s when Columbus visited, São Jorge da Mina had just been established. The Portuguese had made their way there, had built this fort in a record time, and had shown how these fortress like this could be a profitable and self-sustaining enterprise. At the time it was the—it was trading gold as well as human beings, and maybe the principal trading commodity would have been gold rather than human beings. But by virtue of Columbus going there, he became aware of how these could turn into a—as I said, a self-sustaining and profitable enterprise.
Andrés Reséndez: And so it is not surprising that 10 years later when he went to the New World, he would think about these earlier experiences in the coast of Ghana in São Jorge da Mina. Columbus was, as you note, a—you know, a merchant first and foremost. In fact, he had pitched his extraordinary project of sailing west to reach the east to various monarchies in Europe. He had pitched the project to Portugal. His brother had also pitched the project to England. And eventually he pitched the project to Spain, securing commercial clauses, and he was thinking about reaching the Orient at the time. And so it is not surprising that when Columbus finally did succeed in crossing the Atlantic and reaching these new lands, he first of all thought that he had reached the Orient or some portion of the Orient. Yet he failed to find the stuff that he was very interested in. There were no silk, no porcelain, no precious spices. And so he's—but he did find a—you know, the Caribbean archipelago, that was very, very well-populated. And so it is not surprising that his idea was to then at least export human beings for the slave markets in the Mediterranean that he knew very well, and that—and he had this prior experience in the coast of Africa.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: What is the next step to actually piecing this puzzle together? The historians' craft, if you will, what do you do to recover this history?
Andrés Reséndez: So the first thing is to try to figure out its transformation. This is a story that goes through different phases. As we said, Indian slavery started out as a legal institution. Interestingly enough, from the very beginning, the Spanish crown was not totally convinced that natives of the New World were an enslavable people. So I just said how Columbus had these Portuguese antecedents and he started shipping natives to be sold in the markets in the Mediterranean, in the Iberian Peninsula. But very early on, the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella ask Columbus to stop sending Indians until they could figure out whether these were an enslavable people. And they appointed a committee that labored for five years to try to figure out theologically, ethically, whether the natives of the New World could be legally enslaved.
Andrés Reséndez: And eventually, Queen Isabella in particular, emerges as a strong defender of Indian slaves to the point of becoming antagonistic to Columbus. We all know the story of how she initially had pawned some of her jewels in order to finance Columbus's voyage of discovery, but eventually, she reportedly said that, "Who is this Columbus who is sending my legal vassals as slaves?" And so that shows that there was some opposition on the part of the Spanish crown, which is again, something that is very surprising, because we normally think of the Spanish crown as grasping and that they would not take up a noble cause like that. But it is interesting that there were some misgivings about the morality and the legality of this practice.
Andrés Reséndez: And so yet the European colonists in the New World essentially depended on forced Indian labor for their early enterprises. And so the solution to that was initially to make Indian slavery illegal except in a few exceptions. And so one exception for example, was if slaves had already been enslaved by other natives, then it was okay to purchase those slaves from those other natives and held them as slaves. So these were the ransomed slaves. So that was one exception to the general prohibition to take Indian slaves. Another very important exception had to do with "just wars." There were instances in which Indians attacked the Spanish explorers or colonists, and in that case, it was possible to hold Indians legally because they were—they had been taken justly in a war, in a proper war, as opposed to a slaving raid. And finally, and perhaps the most used exception to the prohibition was if Indians were cannibalistic, then it was okay to keep them as slaves in perpetuity.
Andrés Reséndez: The rationale there being that cannibalism was such a terrible sin that it required extraordinary means in order to correct and to punish that sin. And so this is why we find many references to native cannibalism in and around the Caribbean and elsewhere in the New World. Some of it did exist. It was a real phenomenon, but it was magnified because of the incentives for European colonists to find cannibalism and thus be able to legally enslave Indians.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: These efforts to mark Indian slavery as both legal and illegal, sort of legitimate and illegitimate I find fascinating, because it seems that on its very surface it would allow for efforts to abolish the practice to be undermined and not be successful even by those, whether it was Queen Isabella or others, who seemed very adamant about doing away with the practice.
Andrés Reséndez: That is right. They were really caught in a very difficult situation. In the old slave markets of the Mediterranean, before any sale of slaves, be that from Africa or from the eastern Mediterranean or elsewhere, the slavers and most crucially the slaves had to be interviewed. And from these depositions, it had to be established that these slaves had not been procured on the basis of slave raids, but rather properly declared wars or were proper channels. And the threshold to make these sales legal was that the slaves in question had to be enemies of the European kingdoms and enemies of Christianity. So that was the threshold. And so it was okay to enslave, you know, Muslim jihadists, for example, from West Africa, because they were clearly fighting against the European kingdoms and Christianity.
Andrés Reséndez: But it was far less clear that this was the case for Native Americans who a) were not Muslim, but they were pagan. Often they were presented as having no religion whatsoever. And, you know, friars often reported that they converted very quickly to Christianity, number one. And number two, they were not waging a war against the European kingdoms. Quite the opposite. Europeans were the ones waging an offensive war on these natives. So the threshold that normally applied to whether a people were—could be enslavable did not seem to to apply to the natives of the New World.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This idea of who was enslavable, who could be enslaved and who could not be enslaved, as it connects to the effectiveness of abolition seems to be a really important takeaway, an important aspect of the other slavery, Indian enslavement that people ought to know. Are there other aspects of the process of enslavement, that you wish that teachers and the general public should know?
Andrés Reséndez: Yes. We were talking about how the Spanish crown initially prohibited Indian slavery except in a few—and introduced a few exceptions. These exceptions were spacious enough that it resulted in the devastation of the Caribbean. So one point that is really interesting that has been coming to the fore is that there is a very clear connection between epidemics and slavery. As every schoolchild knows, the devastation of the Caribbean occurred because of smallpox, malaria, virgin soil epidemics. These are the explanations that are dominating our understanding of the demographic history of the Caribbean in the first half of the 16th century. However, this is not so clearly the case. It is true that illnesses really had a lot to do with the fast-dwindling population of natives that by the middle of the 16th century had been drastically reduced. Nobody disputes that demographic collapse. But a closer look at the sources, the 16th-century sources, which tended to emphasize overwork, displacement, appropriation of Indigenous native women, as well as illness, reveal that slavery may have been a major factor as well, because epidemics and slavery did not act independently. But in fact, there was a synergistic relationship between the two, one leading to the other and supporting each other.
Andrés Reséndez: In other words, dwindling populations led to additional slave raids in order to replenish the workers that were dying in the early plantations of the Caribbean. They had gold fields as well as very early sugar plantations. And in order to replace them, they needed to go to other islands in order to acquire more Indians, to take them to the plantations. And that, of course, spread germs that in turn, created even more devastation. So there was a reinforcing loop between epidemics and slaving going on.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: That point is really critical because it dispels, in part, one persistent myth that connects to the reasons why there would be this sort of massive depopulation in Indigenous populations after this period of contact with Europeans.
Andrés Reséndez: And we have very good evidence about this because in this large island of Hispaniola, Spaniards discovered the largest gold deposits in the circum-Caribbean area. And in order to work those mines, a lot of Indian labor was required. And so between Columbus's time and 1510, for example, well before this, we have a consuming of the local population in order to work in these mines. And between 1510 and 1517, the population of the island was no longer sufficient to work the mines and plant food and do all the other stuff that needed to be done. And so what we have are slaving voyages stemming out of the large Antillean Islands, Hispaniola being one, but also Jamaica or Puerto Rico, going to smaller islands that had no gold or any other marketable commodities that the Spanish would be interested but were populated. And so the point was to send slaving voyages—also well-documented—to bring these Indians from where there was nothing of value to the Spanish to where they were badly needed either for the gold economy or for the sugar economy or for the pearl economy. There were Indians who were forced to dive for pearls. So all of these businesses required lots of workers, and the efforts to resettle and bring Indians to work on these businesses is very well documented. Really, we don't have evidence of mass death by smallpox reported in the first quarter of a century after Columbus. It is, of course, impossible to rule out completely the possibility of unreported epidemics, but the first evidence that we have is from other factors.
Andrés Reséndez: So, for example, the large island now shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Hispaniola or Hispaniola, which was the first home, the first base of the Spanish in the New World, there was a precipitous population decline from the time of contact to 1517. And by that I mean maybe the population that Columbus found, which we can reasonably estimate at 200,000 to 300,000 people living on this very large island in some 400 or 500 communities, that it had declined by 95 percent by 1517. And so it is only in 1518, the following year, that we have clear evidence of smallpox arriving into the area. So eventually smallpox did make the leap and eventually wreaked havoc in the Caribbean, but really it came as a later scourge to give the coup de grace to a population that was already fully in decline. And it's something that we need to bear very much in mind as we think about the undisputable population decline of the Caribbean during the first half of the 16th century.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And that really speaks to, not only the impact that the institution of slavery will have on Indigenous populations, but it also reflects what people were being enslaved for. We often think about mistakenly in the context of African slavery, that African people or African Americans, African-descended people are being enslaved because of racism. They're being enslaved because of their labor.
Meredith McCoy: This is Teaching Hard History: American Slavery, and I'm your host Meredith McCoy. Along with this podcast, you can find our new first-of-its-kind K-5 framework for teaching slavery to elementary students, including 20 age-appropriate essential knowledge sections, over 100 primary-source texts and six inquiry design models at Tolerance.org/hardhistory. Again, here's Dr. Reséndez.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Could you say a little bit about some of these early usages of enslaved Indian people in terms of their labor, and then how that changes over time and place?
Andrés Reséndez: One of the worries that I had when I started working on this project was that I would be really talking about Indian slaves in this vague terminology. And I really wanted to find the voice. I really wanted to find the texture of life for some of these men, women and children who fell into these labor regimes. And I was worried because, unlike African slavery where we have narratives later on, Frederick Douglass and others in the 19th century, former slaves who were able to extricate themselves and wrote memoirs or autobiographical sketches, we don't have anything of the sort for Indian slaves. But what we do have is the Spanish legal system. And so I did find, for example, in terms of what you're asking about, the specific usages, one of the uses of Indian slaves was to actually ship them across the Atlantic to Spain. So upwards of 2,500 Indians were shipped to Spain to labor in Spanish households. And there they remain, and we would know precious little about them if not for the fact that the Spanish crown outlawed Indian slavery in 1542 under a new set of legislations called—they're really called The New Laws. And again, we would know very little about this if not for the fact that the Spanish crown actually went through the trouble of dispatching Crown officials whose job it was to make sure that there were no Spanish households who held Indian slaves illegally.
Andrés Reséndez: So we have a set of extraordinary court cases in the 1540s, '50s, '60s, '70s, in which Native Americans who had been transplanted all the way to Spain sued their masters for their freedom. There are over 100 of these 16th-century court cases. And what is interesting about the Spanish legal system is that it actually required extensive depositions by the natives themselves. These natives also were able to bring witnesses to bear on their cases, often other fellow natives or neighbors. That gives you a sense of who these people were.
Andrés Reséndez: In one of the chapters in the book, I go into the lives of some of these individuals. For example, one of the conclusions was that many of these Indians transported across the Atlantic had been taken initially as children. And so later on, decades later, when they sued for their freedom, they often claimed that they had been tricked into going to the Old World, being taken away from their homelands for the purpose of serving as slaves. We also learn that their lives in the Iberian Peninsula was somewhat claustrophobic. They basically were domestic servants. Sometimes they took up the traits of their masters. For example, I found some examples of Indians who became weavers because that was the business where their masters were involved. There was a certain level of mobility to them. They had started out as simple slaves, and they were sold as such in the Iberian Peninsula. But eventually they were able to attain some better conditions. Some of them were allowed to marry, for example, with other Indians who lived there. But they could lose these privileges at any second as well. So the system also bred degradation and uncertainty. That's another very clear case.
Andrés Reséndez: Perhaps the most dramatic case that I found involved a woman named Beatrice who arrived when she was only 13 or 14, which was very typical, already carrying a baby, Simone. And they were sold in the town of Carmona, which is close to Seville in southern Spain. And there she remained, laboring for more than two decades. Eventually, she learned that the Spanish king had said that the Indians were free, and she fled from her home, went to Seville, met with some of these Spanish lawyers whose job it was to help Indians build up their case. And when everything was ready she sued the master. And the whole case—Beatrice's case—revolved around the fact that if she could prove that she had been enslaved originally in the Spanish Indies, as it was called, so in the Spanish colonies in the New World, she would have to go free. And for the same reason, her children—she had a daughter—should also go free.
Andrés Reséndez: And the case is fascinating, and it shows the tenacity of both the natives who halfway around the world still used this alien legal system in order to extricate themselves and in order to seek their freedom. And at the same time, the tenacity of the owners who use the lack of knowledge of these Indian slaves in order to get their ways. So in this particular case that I'm referring to, the owner's lawyer countered by saying that, in fact, she was not from the Spanish Indies. They showed that in fact, she could not speak any Indigenous language from the New World, which was common because as we mentioned, many of these Indians had been taken when they were children, and so they had forgotten the language or they didn't remember much. And so this lawyer, for example, also followed up with some leading questions like, "What are the textiles like where you come from? Are there elephants or camels in your homeland where you came from?" And clearly, all of that to play on the gullibility of these defendants, and try to ascertain that they had come, in fact, from Africa rather than the new world, and therefore, they could be legally held as slaves.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Which, of course, is so important because when you're able to put names and histories and stories of those who are trapped in this system of bondage, it's the humanizing element. I'm really struck by the story of Beatrice and how you were able to reconstruct her life through the court documents and through the court record. How complete a picture were you able to piece together, and what were some of the key documents in those court records or even beyond that that really helped you put it all together?
Andrés Reséndez: The Spanish government's Ministry of Education has in fact digitized probably millions of records. So I went into this incredible digital source, and many of the records that first came up were these 16th-century court dramas, really. And many of these court cases are so long. I mean, there are cases that run for three, four, eight hundred pages, where you can really get into the nitty gritty of life for these slaves, because not only do you have the depositions of the Indians, in some cases Indians speaking Indigenous languages. And for all its plodding and convoluted form, the Spanish legal system provided translators to make available the voice of the plaintiffs in court. And it made room for these additional witnesses. And just the length and the detail preserved in those records were a source of amazement to me.
Andrés Reséndez: These were Indian slaves who were suing their masters for their freedom. And it was sometimes the case that for the duration of the trial, these Indian slaves would actually live under the same roof as their masters, opening themselves for all kinds of punishments to try to get them to desist from their legal pursuits or efforts on the part of the masters to try to transfer these Indians to rural properties where they would not have access to this legal opportunity. It is amazing that these Native Americans halfway around the world would find the courage to risk it all in proceedings that would last weeks, months or even years, where the outcome was uncertain. If they succeeded, great, they would earn their freedom, but if they failed, they would earn the eternal hatred of their masters. A pretty heavy price to pay.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This really speaks to the desire of those who are enslaved to be free. I mean, it not only gives and grants and acknowledges their agency, but their desire to be free, their deep dissatisfaction with the system, and are willing to challenge it in ways in which they have not just a lot to risk, they are risking everything even in this bad situation.
Andrés Reséndez: Absolutely. And in the case of Beatrice, for example, that you mentioned, she was risking not only her life but her daughter's life, who was also a slave in the same household. Beatrice died a slave. She tried and failed. And her daughter over a decade later sued the master again to gain her freedom. As you say, this speaks of the tenacity, the sheer tenacity of these Indians to try to attain their freedom.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Inter-generational enslavement, but also inter-generational resistance to enslavement.
Andrés Reséndez: That's right.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: That's really phenomenal. In the Spanish records or beyond, do you also find evidence that illustrates the business of bondage and how that operated and worked over the years?
Andrés Reséndez: Sure. My attempt in the book was to provide a stereophonic view of this phenomenon. So in the same way that one chapter is devoted to these Indian slaves, a later chapter is devoted to one particular slaver. His name was Luis de Carvajal y de la Cueva. Don Luis. And what's really fascinating about this individual was that he was initially a slaver in the west coast of Africa, and then he moved his operations to the New World, and therefore, we have occasion to see him operating on two different continents with both African slaves and Indian slaves. And we also see how some of the technologies that he employed initially in Africa, were transplanted to the New World. He was originally of a Jewish family who lived in the Iberian Peninsula. And again, this makes it a very fascinating and unlikely slaver.
Andrés Reséndez: Basically, Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, and many of them moved to the neighboring kingdom of Portugal. And this had been the case with Don Luis's family. But Portugal followed through by expelling Jews from Portugal in 1496. The idea was that you either had to leave or you had to convert to Catholicism if you wanted to stay. So many of these Jewish families, of course, became Crypto-Jews. That is, they outwardly said that they had become Christian or Catholic, but inside the family, they continued to practice their faith. The problem was that they would face the Inquisition, whose job it was initially to make sure that there was no backsliding into the old faith. And so this is the turbulent world that Luis started working on. However, even though he was a converted Jew—they were known as New Christians—Don Luis had a very influential uncle who served the Portuguese king as a slave broker. Basically at the time, the Portuguese crown was in the habit of auctioning off portions of Africa to well-heeled individuals who would profit from leasing those lands. You know, sometimes they were islands.
Andrés Reséndez: So Carvajal's uncle leaves the islands of Cape Verde, which are about 400 miles off the westernmost coast of Africa, and at the same latitude as the Spanish Caribbean. Spain did not control a portion of the coast of western Africa, so this was an enormously important stopping point for Spanish ships. So if it wanted African slaves, and Spain demanded African slaves, it had to negotiate with the Portuguese crown to get slaves from the Portuguese. And this would be the most obvious place where Spain would get its African slaves and get them to the New World. And so that's the world in which Carvajal started himself.
Andrés Reséndez: But then eventually he moved his operations to what is now called the Panuco region, which is just south of Texas. No longer dealing in Africans, he started dealing in Indians. He became a frontier captain, which was an interesting undertaking. These were captains whose job it was to pacify—that was the technical term, to pacify the frontier, and to attract soldiers to do that. And these soldiers were essentially businessmen. That's the eye-opening realization there, that these are commercial ventures and the crown is paying them. But the salary is such that it's not enough to cover all the expenses. You know, you have to have a horse, you have to have weapons, you have to invest in provisions. All of this is very, very expensive. And so in addition to the salary provided by the Spanish crown, you need to have another incentive to join these frontier captains and conduct expeditions. And that additional incentive was to be able to capture Indians and sell them to other colonists who were clamoring for Indian labor. Again, this is happening, you know, later in the 16th century after Indian slavery had been prohibited, yet there were ways to get around the law. Referring to the Indians, these were criminals who could be legally not enslaved, but their service could be sold for a period of 10 years or 20 years. This is one of the ways in which Indian slavery mutated and became very durable, disguised as something else.
Andrés Reséndez: So this is convict leasing. So you weren't really selling the Indian himself or herself, but you were selling their service. And so that really shows these extraordinary entrepreneurs of the frontier like Carvajal. I mean, he was the one example that I chose because there's some good sources about him. And he was such an interesting character that, oddly enough, he may have been directly or indirectly responsible for the enslavement of thousands of both Africans and Indians in the Old World and the New World. Yet he was eventually tried by the Inquisition for one of the few magnanimous acts that he made, which was to transport Crypto-Jews, so Jewish individuals who were secretly practicing Judaism, who wanted to come to the New World because they thought that they would be safer from the long arm of the Inquisition. And so he brought some of these Crypto-Jews to the New World, and that's what eventually brought him to the attention of the Inquisition and led to his downfall.
Andrés Reséndez: Carvajal would eventually become the governor of the kingdom of Nuevo Leon in northeastern Mexico, a huge kingdom where he held sway and conducted these slaving operations. But he eventually was brought down because of these allegations.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: It's so interesting that his demise isn't, as you point out, the inhumane acts that he's committing, but it's actually the rare humane act that he's committing that actually leads to his downfall. As you know, a large segment of our listening audience are teachers. What would you say to them specifically about the importance of teaching the other slavery to their students?
Andrés Reséndez: I think we're living in an extraordinary moment in which we are finally coming to grip with a vast phenomenon involving millions of human beings that had been obscured before. I think scholars are everyday providing new insight into this topic that had been left behind, and yet it is central to understand the dynamics, for example, of different colonial societies and their regions, between different Indigenous groups in the New World, that have colored the imperial rivalries, that have colored great rebellions and warfare between different groups. So I think it's a very key moment of discovery. And now this discovery is being also translated into the classroom, a project that is going full speed. And I think we are—we are very fortunate that we are able to contribute in this way.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Thank you so much, and I look forward to continuing this conversation in our next episode.
Andrés Reséndez: Thank you so much, Hasan. It has been a pleasure.
Meredith McCoy: Andrés Reséndez is a professor of history at the University of California, Davis. He's the author of several books including A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, and The Other Slavery, which was a National Book Award finalist and the winner of the Bancroft Prize. We will continue our conversation with Dr. Reséndez in the next episode, beginning with the history of resistance and resilience.
Meredith McCoy: Teaching Hard History is a podcast from Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, helping teachers and schools prepare their students to be active participants in a diverse democracy. Teaching Tolerance offers free resources to educators who work with children from kindergarten through high school. You can find these online at Tolerance.org. Most students leave high school without an adequate understanding of the role slavery played in the development of what is currently the United States, or how its legacies still influence us today. Now in our second season, this podcast is part of an effort to provide comprehensive tools for learning and teaching this critical topic. Teaching Tolerance provides free teaching materials that include over 100 texts, sample inquiries and a detailed K-12 framework for teaching the history of American slavery. You can also find these online at Tolerance.org/hardhistory.
Meredith McCoy: Thanks to Dr. Reséndez for sharing his insights with us. This podcast is produced by Shea Shackelford. Russell Gragg is our Associate Producer with additional support from Robin Wise and Barrett Golding. Gabriel Smith provides content guidance, and Kate Shuster is our Executive Producer. Our theme song is "Different Heroes" by A Tribe Called Red featuring Northern Voice who graciously let us use it for this series. Additional music is by Chris Zabriski.
Meredith McCoy: If what you heard today was helpful for you and your classroom, please share it with your friends and colleagues, and then let us know what you thought. You can find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We always appreciate your feedback. I'm Dr. Meredith McCoy, assistant professor of American studies and history at Carleton College.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I'm Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, associate professor of history at The Ohio State University.
Meredith McCoy and Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And we're your hosts for Teaching Hard History: American Slavery.