It has long been presupposed that epidemic disease is the explanation for the decimation of the Indian population across North America. But how historically accurate is this claim? In The Other Slavery, Andrés Reséndez argues that rather than smallpox and malaria, it was slavery, overwork, and famine that led to the devastation of Native populations in the New World.
Reséndez begins by describing the foundation of Indian slavery by Spanish explorers after the discovery of goldfields in the Caribbean. From the advent of Indian enslavement by explorers, the Spanish monarchy worked to prevent slavery and to protect the Native population. Such efforts included the New Laws of 1542, which were explicitly intended to prevent Indian slavery. Although enacted with the best of intentions, the New Laws and other attempts at preventing slavery were not only unenforceable, but were also immediately overwhelmed by the reality that individuals would do whatever they could to continue enslaving Indians. For centuries after the passage of the New Laws, Natives were enslaved despite the continued formal illegality of Indian slavery by the Spanish, Mexican, and American governments.
This is perhaps the most insidious evolution of Indian enslavement – by cultivating intricate justifications, slavers moved the entire system of Indian slavery under the guise of the law. Explorers claimed holy wars to bring salvation to “heathens”; slavers amended laws to meet the labor needs of the silver industry; governors fabricated debt to ensure peonage; and Indians were labeled as “rebels” and “criminals” to establish convict leasing. While there were measures by which Natives fought for their rights, notably through legal proceedings or planned insurrections, the Indian slave trade remained strong for over four centuries.
To be sure, the enslavement of Native peoples had been practiced long before the arrival of the Spanish. For centuries, Indian tribes partook in the slave trade and from the very beginning offered captives to Europeans; what changed with the advent of European contact, rather, was the commodification of slavery by Native tribes. Reséndez focuses on the American Southwest and presents tribes, notably the Comanche and Ute, as preeminent suppliers of captives who fully participated in the enslavement of both Indians and Mexicans. Through this chronicle, Reséndez establishes an account of Indian slavery that depicts a vast expansion that stretched across the west coast of North America.
One of the most compelling narratives that Reséndez presents is what the history of Indian slavery reveals about African slavery. Much like the continued oppression of Natives despite the illegality of Indian slavery, so too were African-Americans subjugated long after the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. Tactics that had been used for centuries against Indians, such as vagrancy laws, indebtedness, and convict labor, were also used against newly freed African-American slaves. Iterations of these strategies continue to subjugate and oppress individuals, whether through vagrancy and loitering laws used to harass the poor or through drug laws that target young Hispanic and African-American men. By detailing the chronicle of Indian slavery, Reséndez complicates and challenges both popular knowledge of what the concept of “slavery”, and the evolution of slavery in the United States both historically and to the present.
Reséndez cautiously maneuvers a loaded historical landscape by bringing forth carefully constructed arguments that use strong evidence to display the horrific instances of depravity and inhumanity perpetrated in the New World. With evidence ranging from maps to photographs and illustrations from primary sources, The Other Slavery depicts Indian slavery and explains why it was overlooked for centuries, and in doing so also illuminates its lasting effect on the present. It is only right that we acknowledge and apprise ourselves of the tragedy endured for centuries by indigenous peoples, and that we use this knowledge to inform ourselves of the world around us.