Friday, August 26, 2016

The Other Slavery by Andrés Reséndez

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

This is another book that I plucked from the “new books” display on a whim. It dealt with a topic that has interested me for some time: the enslavement of Native Americans in the New World.

A bit of personal background first. I am not (to my knowledge) Native American. (There is one branch of the family for which paternity was never established, so goodness only knows where those genes came from.) However, I have a history of involvement with Native Americans. In addition, my parents were both born overseas - my mom in Mexico, where her parents were missionaries to a village consisting in large part of Native American peoples.

As for my own history, I spent a good bit of time in my teens working with a church group that worked on the Navajo reservation. We assisted in building churches (which also functioned as centers for distribution of aid and assistance), and provided food distribution during Christmas. Out job wasn’t really to preach, but to provide assistance to Navajo (and Zuni and Hopi) leaders so they could care for their communities. As a result of this, I learned a lot about the culture (I can still roast pine nuts which grow in the mountains near where I live, and make fry bread), and spent time listening to Code Talkers and veterans and grandmothers, and so on.

More recently, as part of my law practice, I represent a Tribe in their California juvenile dependency cases. (This is where a child is removed from the home due to abuse or neglect.) As a result of this work, I have had ample opportunity to learn the legal history of the attempts to destroy Indian culture by the forcible removal of children from the home - a tradition that dates back several hundred years, and is not at all benign.

So this book naturally appealed to me. 

The book is called The Other Slavery because the enslavement of other races, in contrast to African American slavery - the “peculiar institution” - is less known, and also had distinct features which made it more difficult to abolish. It also is more relevant to us today, because, unlike institutional slavery, which is illegal nearly everywhere in the world, the Other Slavery persists around the world because the instinct to enslave is more creative than the efforts to end enslavement.

The Other Slavery covers a broad period in history, roughly from the first contact by Christopher Columbus (not coincidentally the first record of Native American enslavement) through the first half of the 20th Century, when Native Americans were finally guaranteed United States citizenship and permitted to vote in 1924. (Yes, shockingly, it took that long…)

Andrés Reséndez is a professor and historian at the University of California, Davis. He has written a couple of other books about Mexican history and the borderlands, which sound interesting as well.

I was struck by two things about the author’s writing style. First, it is remarkably dispassionate and objective. Rather than make an impassioned argument, he uses a devastating accumulation of the bare facts to make his point. It is a book, as the Los Angeles Times review stated, that is remarkably free of ideology. This isn’t to say it is dry. Quite the contrary, the writing tells the story in a manner which holds the interest. The other thing that impressed me is the extensive use of primary sources. The research that went into this book is incredible - it is obvious Reséndez spent hours combing through the inventories from hundreds of years past to find the many references to slaves. It was particularly interesting to note the differences in terms used throughout the history. In the times when enslavement and slave trading were expressly legal, the slaves were referred to as such. However, the increasingly creative terms (and often laws) calculated to conceal the continued existence of slavery took over during times when the authorities attempted to shut the system down. Euphemism and legal sophistry were the order of the day then (as now).

The first point that really stood out to me is something Reséndez includes in the introduction: the four essential elements of slavery. He spells this out because of all the different “forms” of slavery used to evade prohibitions on slavery itself. When outright enslavement was no longer permitted, slave owners (and the government officials which enabled them) used other systems to get the same effect - most notably debt peonage, which remains popular today.

These four elements are: 1. Forcible removal of the victims from one place to another, 2. Inability to leave the workplace, 3. Violence or threat of violence to compel them to work, and 4. Nominal or no pay. I think that these four are useful to divide between actual slavery and “mere” oppressive employment practices. This is necessary in significant part because the remedies are different. Slavery demands freedom, not reform.

Another fact that I was not aware of, but found intriguing was that in the Other Slavery, adult male slaves were far less desirable than women and children. Yes, children - they were arguably the most valuable slaves of all, because they could be disconnected from their culture. Since they wouldn’t know any other life, they could be kept indefinitely.

In a lot of ways, this makes sense. When enslaving people from the general area, you will always risk that they will attempt to escape and return to their own villages. This is less likely for women and children. (Also less likely when you bring your slaves across a large ocean…) The type of labor to be done also can determine who is desired. Agricultural work can often be done by women and teens - as African American slavery proved.

One thing that I will admit hit me a bit hard was the realization that I could - perhaps for the first time - see the benefits of owning slaves. I mean, in the abstract, I understood. Working large plots of land requires laborers. Whether you want to call them serfs, or slaves, or (in our modern era) farm workers, if you want to work more land than you can personally, you need others to do it. To become truly wealthy, you need cheap labor. In an era when land was cheap - or free via the Homestead Act - there was a lot of competition for labor. After all, why work for a pittance for someone else when you can simply get some land of your own and work for yourself? Thus, slaves (or at least immigrants lacking access to land) are necessary. Likewise, to work the infamous Mexican silver mines, you needed labor. Lots of replaceable labor, because life expectancies were very low indeed. But nowadays, fulfilling labor requirements by slavery sounds like an expensive proposition compared to “mere” labor exploitation. The economics don’t seem to work.

[Side note: the Mexican Silver Rush lasted for a couple hundred years, and produced 12 times as much metal as the better-known California Gold Rush. While the Gold Rush attracted a bunch of freelancers, the Silver Rush mines were worked almost exclusively by slaves.]
In contrast, as I realized to my dismay, having someone to do household work in exchange for a shack to sleep in and some food seems like a great deal - for the slave owner. My wife and I could indeed use a teenage girl who could do the Cinderella thing and work 12 hour days for room and board - for the rest of her life… Not a good feeling.

The author’s most interesting point in this book, though, is that he believes - and makes a compelling case - that the genocide of the Native Americans was not, as commonly taught in school, caused by disease, but was in fact caused by the widespread enslavement. The records of the era seem to bear this out. The common practice over a wide area, and over centuries, was to require slave labor from Native Americans, and then when they (inevitably) revolted, use the revolt as an excuse to slaughter the men, and enslave even more women and children. Because there was a seemingly endless supply of slaves - it was cheaper to obtain slaves from the surrounding areas than to bring them across the Atlantic - there was little incentive to prevent the massive numbers of early deaths. The slave trade itself turned out to be a major reason for the spread of the very diseases that killed many as well.  

A few years back, I read a long-form magazine article which pointed out that in the United States just prior to the Civil War, the value of the slaves exceeded every other class of assets - indeed, the slaves were worth more than all the other assets combined. This book confirms that idea, and applies it to the Other Slavery as well. A devastating quote comes from Columbus himself:

“[T]he Indians of Española were and are the greatest wealth of the island, because they are the ones who dig, and harvest, and collect the bread and other supplies, and gather the gold from the mines, and do all the work of men and beasts alike.”

One of the more depressing things about this book was the account (which recurs throughout the book) of how, faced with legal pressure, slavers made little changes to preserve their trade and the institution itself. So, rather than call slaving raids what they were, the slavers trumped up charges that the Native Americans were at fault, making the war against them “just,” and thus justifying the enslavement as punishment for the war. Or, when outright slavery was outlawed, the existing - and future - slaves were then held in “debt peonage.” Essentially, they - or their parents - were considered to owe money to the employer. Thus, they could be kept at involuntary employment until the debt was paid. Which of course never happened. Records were never kept, naturally. And the peon could be sold at will. As Julius Graves, a special agent appointed in the aftermath of the Civil War to investigate Indian Slavery put it, debt peonage was widespread, and “the universally recognized mode of securing labor and assistance; and the results of that system were identical to that of Negro slavery as formerly practiced in the southern states.”

Slavery by a different name.

The elimination of the Other Slavery bedeviled generations of reformers, from the rather admirable Philip IV and Queen Mariana of Spain to the US Congress in the 1860s. Congress turned out to be the most successful, but it still took two generations to accomplish citizenship for Native Americans.

The author points out in the last section of the book that there is a significant connection between African American Slavery and the Other Slavery that continued to be relevant for a century after the end of the Civil War. In order to maintain Debt Peonage, certain “Indian Codes” were passed. These would later be copied during the Jim Crow era as “Black Codes.” In essence, people of the disfavored group - Indians or Blacks as the case would be - would be required to carry papers showing their employment at all times. If they were caught unemployed, they could be “sold” to the highest bidder for a temporary job - temporary slavery, really. This worked to bind the slave to the employer - he or she couldn’t simply leave to seek better employment, but would be arrested and sold.

It boils down to a universal desire of humanity, perhaps what we should be least proud of. Abraham Lincoln said it so well in one of his debates with Stephen Douglas:

"It is the eternal struggle between two principles, right and wrong, throughout the world. It is the same spirit that says 'you toil and work and earn bread, and I'll eat it.' No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation, and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle."

If we think we moderns are immune from this, one need only look at the debate over wages and the remarkably widespread belief that there should be no restrictions on wages or working conditions. It is the delusion that there is no risk of exploitation, and that the powerful will resist the temptation to enrich themselves at the expense of those below them.

Perhaps that is the most uncomfortable lesson of the book. We too are capable of this, and we too would find ways to justify our exploitation of others as being for their own good.

This is an excellent book, and one I am going to put on my list of important books for understanding the true history of our nation.


  1. This sounds really good. I am not as up on Native American topics as I should be.

    Does he cover colonial English-Native American relations in the 1600s? Things like the Pequot War, King Philip's War, etc.? Because those I do know something about, and many of the things discussed here happened (for instance, many Pequots were sold into slavery after they lost to the English). Another interesting factoid is that the husband of the West Indian slave Tituba who was involved in the Salem witch trials was Native American (referred to as John Indian). If he does cover this stuff, I'd be REALLY interested to see his primary sources. The most infamous massacre of the Pequot War happened in my hometown - like seriously, ~5 miles from my house - so certain aspects of this are quite literally close to home.

    And yeah, I know, you're probably sick of me bringing up New England every time I comment here. :-)

    1. There are just passing references to the Pequot war, but King Philip's war does get some pretty good publicity. For the most part, North America is mentioned in relation to the actual slave trade (from New Mexico to Mexico) as that was the more organized and long-lasting situation. However, the general practice of attacking the Native Americans, claiming it was self defense, then selling the defeated into slavery.