Friday, June 3, 2016

The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America, by Andrés Reséndez: READ THIS BOOK!!

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016
431 pp


"If we were to add up all the Indian slaves taken in the New World from the time of Columbus to the end of the nineteenth century, the figure would run somewhere between 2.5 million and 5 million slaves."(5)

Thinking about the subject of slavery in America will, for most people, conjure up horrific images of Africans taken from homeland and families, packed in confined spaces on ships and enduring unimaginable conditions and treatment once they reach their destination. It is a tragic and vile chapter in our history,  and a reminder of the horrors that humans can inflict on other humans in the name of economic power and gain. But, as the author of this book reveals, Africans were not the only victims of the slave trade in America  -- "the other slavery" involved indigenous people. This "other slavery" didn't replace African slavery; on the contrary, it was, as the author notes, "there all along."

This book is not only eye opening, but eye popping as well.  Not only does it offer us a glimpse at this most horrific, long-lasting chapter in history that most people, including myself, knew little about, but in tying it all together the author briefly calls our attention to why this study has potential  relevance in our modern world. For one thing, while slavery is prohibited "practically everywhere in the world,"  today there are "multiple practices of human bondage and trafficking that have some features in common, as well as others that are unique to each market and region of the world."  And, as he notes and in my opinion proves beyond a doubt, there are major similarities between the "unique features of Indian enslavement" and  the various  "forms of bondage practiced today."

 Beginning with  "The Caribbean Debacle," in which
"By the 1550s, a mere sixty years, or two generations, after contact, the Natives so memorably described by Columbus as 'affectionate and without malice' and having 'very straight legs and no bellies' had ceased to exist as a people, and many Caribbean islands became eerie uninhabited paradises." 
the author reveals that what little what we've actually learned about the history of this time doesn't necessarily agree with the reality.   For example, we are all told in our school years that the decimation of  indigenous peoples in this area came about through epidemics that overcame an "immunologically defenseless population." However,  by examining written records of the time, the author carefully makes the case for a combination of "slavery, overwork, and famine" between 1492 and 1550 as the major causes of death, rather than  "smallpox, influenza and malaria" that have been blamed. Of these "human factors," as he goes on to examine in some depth, he finds that "slavery has emerged as a major killer."

From the Caribbean, the rest of the book moves through parts of Central America and on  into North America to reveal that while slavery had already existed between tribes in these areas prior to European contact, it was the arrival of the Europeans that caused a major transformation in the practice itself.  As they spread throughout these areas, "the other slavery" was "never a single institution," but became a "set of kaleidoscopic practices suited to different markets and regions."  As the dustjacket blurb notes, "what started as a European business passed into the hands of indigenous operators and spread like wildfire across vast tracts of the American Southwest."   Human trafficking  moved people outside of their homelands into different places where they were expected to adapt, sometimes under the harshest conditions.    Slavery was  illegal, but the Spanish laws prohibiting Indian slavery , for example, could be gotten around under the banner of  religious justifications or by justifying the need for more labor for resources. Furthermore, they were made by people far removed from the realities of the situation and rarely enforced with any particular kind of vigor.     Even in North America, as he notes, neither the Thirteenth Amendment which clearly states that
"Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude...shall exist in the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction"
nor the Peonage Act (1867) offered any sort of protection against "the other slavery."  One, there were always justifications for getting around any law if enough money was involved,  and two, labor coercion simply continued in a huge variety of other forms. In fact, as he says, it is this "variability of practices, supremely adapted to each social and legal context and region" that is one of "the defining characteristics" of the other slavery.

There is so much more to this book and it goes into way more depth  that I won't get to here, most especially  in understanding how the transformation of Indian slavery had a huge impact on and helps to explain "the shared history of Mexico and the United States,"  offering for one thing a new slant to historical events of which we are already aware, and making for a serious point to consider in light of today's political climate.   It is not a pretty story, but it is one that definitely needs to be heard.  Highly, highly recommended.

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