American Indians as Slaves

( – promoted by navajo)

When the subject of slavery in the Americas is discussed, many people assume that this is about the 13 million Africans who were captured, enslaved and transported to the Americas to work on the plantations. Yet the history of slavery in the Americas starts long before this. From the very beginning of the European discovery of the American continents, Europeans were involved with slavery: not African slaves, but American Indians.  

First, some background: social scientists often describe three forms of slavery: (1) chattel slavery, (2) debt slavery, and (3) contract slavery. What I am about to describe is chattel slavery. In this type of slavery, a person is captured, and then sold into permanent servitude. In this type of slavery the legal term “own” applies.  In chattel slavery, “persons” are synonymous with “property”. As chattel, slaves have no rights and are not paid for their labor. They also have no control over their bodies and may be required to provide sexual services.

Europeans came to the Americas looking for wealth. Initially, they were not really trying to establish colonies for their surplus population, but to extract wealth from the resources which they found. In addition to gold and silver, the Europeans found wealth in the slave trade. The slave trade by the 15th century was well established in Europe.

By the year 675 there was a well-established trade in slaves in Europe with the Frisians occupying the major role as slave merchants. About 750 the slave trade expanded. It was driven in part by the Islamic world, centered in Cairo, Damascus, Tunis, and Cordoba. The Muslims had a great need for labor and thus there was a ready market for slaves. Some of these slaves came from Africa and some of them from Europe. The Vikings soon became the major suppliers of slaves and Viking wealth was built upon the slave trade. It should be kept in mind that Spain at this time was an Islamic country and a major buyer of slaves. In 1492, the Catholic monarchs of Spain, Isabella and Fernando, unified Spain and drove out the Muslims. At the same time, Spanish ships began seeking out wealth in the Americas.

The Spanish involvement in the American Indian slave trade started very early. On his second expedition to the Americas in 1493, Christopher Columbus enslaved over 500 Native Americans and sent them to Spain. In addition to the search for gold and other riches, slavery at this time was a major Spanish objective in the New World.  

In 1495, the Spanish, under the leadership of Columbus, rounded up 1,500 Arawak. They selected 500 to be exported to Spain as slaves, 500 to serve as slaves to the Spanish on the Island, and the remaining Indians were released. Columbus proudly boasted to the Spanish monarchs about the slave potential and its economic benefits. Columbus captured and exported more Indian slaves-about 5,000 — than any other single individual. On the other hand, Spanish Queen Isabela opposed slavery and returned many slaves to the Caribbean. In addition to capturing the Indians as slaves, the Spanish also hunted the Indians for sport and slaughtered them for dog food. Columbus’ legacy in Haiti is an example of 15th century genocide and slavery.

By 1516 the Spanish census estimated that there were only 12,000 Native Americans in Haiti, down from an estimated 8 million before the Spanish conquest and 3 million in 1496. This population decline was caused by a combination of factors: (1) diseases introduced by the Europeans which proved deadly to the natives, (2) slavery which resulted in both death and deportation, (3) deliberate killing of Indians by the Spanish, and (4) dropping birth rates which are a common reflection of cultural stress.

The Spanish used religion as a way of justifying capturing Indian slaves. In 1519 Catholic Bishop Juan de Quevedo declared that Indians were slaves by nature because some people were by nature inferior.

The Spanish slavers did not limit themselves to the Caribbean islands and what is now Latin America, but they were soon sailing along the coast of North America looking for additional wealth.  In 1520, the Spanish explorer Pedro de Quxós landed at Winyah Bay, South Carolina.  He explored the area and exchanged gifts with the Guale. Then, in order to make the voyage profitable, he captured 60 Guale to be sold as slaves.

The following year, two more Spanish slavers- Pedro de Quejo and Francisco Gordillo-sailed up the Atlantic coast of North America to what is now South Carolina. They traded peacefully with the Catawba and then they forcibly abducted about 60 men and women after enticing them aboard the ships with trinkets. About half of the captives died at sea and the rest were taken to Santo Domingo as slaves. The Spanish justified their actions by claiming that the Indians were cannibals and sodomites, and thus slavery and warfare against them were justified.

Not all Europeans supported the idea of slavery in general nor of American Indians in particular. In 1537, Pope Paul III issued a papal bull (a declaration) Sublimis Deus in which he declared that Indians were not to be enslaved nor were they “to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside of the faith of Jesus Christ.” The Spanish King, however, disagreed with the bull and confiscated all copies of the bull before it could reach the Americas. He then prevailed upon the Pope to revoke the bull.

In 1550, the Spanish King Charles called together all of the leading theologians and scholars in a council in Valladolid. The group was asked to determine the criteria by which a just war could be waged against Native Americans. Bartolomé de Las Casas presented the idea that Christianity should be spread by kindness and example rather than by the sword. Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda argued that Indians were brutes who should become the servants of civilized peoples. Spanish authorities suppressed the detailed defense of the humanity of Native Americans prepared by Las Casas. Sepúlveda’s ideas were widely circulated and were used as justification for enslaving Indians.

The Spanish were not the only Europeans who were looking for slaves in the Americas during the sixteenth century. The Portuguese began capturing Beothuks in what is now Newfoundland in 1501. They exported what Gaspar Corte-Real described as people with “manners and gestures most gentle” to Europe where they were sold as slaves.

The Portuguese were not the only European slavers sailing off the Canadian Maritimes: in 1507 Norman fishing vessels captured seven Beothuks in Newfoundland and brought them back to France as slaves.

In the seventeenth century, the English became active in North America. While the English were more focused on obtaining land for colonists, they also engaged in the slave trade. In 1614, for example, English Captain Thomas Hunt captured 26 Wampanoag in what is now Massachusetts. The captives were then taken to Spain where they were sold as slaves. In this same year, another Englishman, John Smith, the former commander at Jamestown, led slave raids into New England where he captured Wampanoag and Nauset who were then sold into slavery.

In 1619 the first African slaves arrived in Virginia, marking the beginning of what many consider to be the slave era in North America. While the English colonists used the African slaves on their plantations, they also continued to capture American Indians who were used as slaves on their plantations or sold in the Caribbean slave markets. Europeans and later Americans continued to capture and enslave Indians until the end of the nineteenth century.