We all know that Christopher Columbus and his successors enslaved the natives in the New World. Reséndez (History/Univ. of California, Davis; A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, 2009, etc.) exposes the broad brush that the “other slavery” wielded.
The extinction of the indigenous peoples of America is usually written off as the effect of diseases introduced by Spanish soldiers and colonists. Not so, says the author; it took only 60 years after Columbus’ discovery for a cataclysmic population collapse. They died from slavery, overwork, and famine. Reséndez examines the methods of enslavement, from the 15th-century Caribbean to 19th-century California, and his approachable style eases reading difficult personal stories of slavery and cruelty. That there are so many individual stories illustrates the author’s wide-ranging research. Columbus initially intended to transport Indians to Europe in a “reverse middle passage,” but he was thwarted by Ferdinand and Isabella’s opposition to slavery as well as the need for labor in the mines. In 1542, the Spanish crown passed the New Laws, outlawing slavery, and procuradores, specialist lawyers, were appointed to sue for freedom of those illegally enslaved. Reséndez shows how inconvenient laws were bypassed. First, the parameters of who could be enslaved were not necessarily strictly defined. While the royals insisted their people be treated as vassals, those who enslaved them just changed the nomenclature and methods. Colonists were granted encomiendas, grants of Indians to overlords, or repartimientos, compulsory labor drafts. The growth of peonage—debt slavery—provided even more slave labor. Eventually, Mexican silver mines turned to New Mexico to supply slaves, which gives the author the opportunity to provide the history of peoples in the Southwest. As the Mormons bought slaves to “civilize” them, the Spanish initially enslaved people to “Christianize” them. Both merely created an underclass.
This eye-opening exposure of the abuse of the indigenous peoples of America is staggering; that the mistreatment continued into the 20th century is beyond disturbing.