It is not often that a single work of history can change the course of an entire field and upset the received notions and received knowledge of the generations but that is exactly what "The Other Slavery" does. Andrés Reséndez boldly argues that slavery, not necessarily disease and misfortune, was the one part of the colonial matrix that decimated the indigenous population of North America and that the institution of this "other slavery" was the model for all others.
When we think of slavery in the New World we immediately think of the capture and sale of African slaves who were then transported to North America. But, he argues, there was another kind of slavery in the New World — "the other slavery" — that predated and outlasted the African slave trade that was in many ways more fundamental.
While the archaeological record suggests that slavery between tribes existed before the coming of Europeans, their arrival transformed it and made it so widespread as to leave no part of North America untouched. The "other slavery" shaped the shared history of Mexico and later the United States, and was so deeply entrenched that it was ignored. Because "it had no legal basis, it was never formally abolished like African slavery," the "other slavery" continued well into the 20th century.
Reséndez launches his thesis with a bang that might (and probably should) upset the most widely held idea about the colonization of the New World: That as bad as the Spanish, Portuguese and later the English were, most Indians died from diseases against which most had no immunity, which was no one's fault. It's the "no harm no foul" approach to colonization.
But if this were true, if disease was the culprit, wonders Reséndez, why is there no mention of any major disease, much less pandemics, in the New World until 1519, a full 25 years after Columbus first set down on Hispaniola?
According to Reséndez, the Spanish were well aware of disease at that time; they knew exactly what smallpox was and what it looked like, but they make no mention of it. He explains why smallpox was unlikely to cross the Atlantic: Smallpox was endemic in the Old World, and the majority of Europeans had been exposed to it as children and those who survived had lifelong immunity. European sailors and passengers were unlikely to have an active smallpox infection. And if they did it would have been hard for smallpox to cross the ocean, a journey of five or six weeks during which time an infected passenger would have died or recovered. The disease probably spread more slowly than previously thought.
Meanwhile, an institution was put in place almost immediately that had grave consequences for Indians in the New World: slavery.
Even if Indians did contract diseases against which they had no immunity (like Europeans did during the Plague) they would have (like the Europeans during the plague) rebounded within a few decades. The major difference between Indian and European populations was the fact that Indians were enslaved to work on gold mines and silver mines in alarming numbers beginning on Columbus' second voyage whereas Europeans were not.
By 1520 whole Caribbean islands had been depopulated — the inhabitants moved to gold mines in what is now the Dominican Republic. Tens of thousands of Indians were worked to death even after the Spanish monarchy outlawed slavery.
As his narrative moves to Mexico, New Mexico and parts north, at each place and phase of the "other slavery" he shows a masterful grasp of the history and an astonishing command of archival material in not a few languages. He also shows, with startling clarity, how even after slavery was outlawed by the Spanish and then the Mexican and the American governments, those interested in profiting from the enterprise deployed a bouquet of legal terms and frameworks to continue the practice.
The perpetrators of this regime included explorers such as Cortes (the owner of the largest number of slaves in Mexico), territorial governors of New Mexico and U.S. officials. For many years white Southern colonists exported more Indians from the southeastern United States than they imported black slaves. Conflicts, such as the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, were in large part spurred by the ceaseless capture and conscription of Indians from all over New Mexico for export to the silver mines of Mexico.
Reséndez doesn't spare the reader the shock of seeing a whole system of settlement, colonialism and capitalism that was built around the institution of the enslavement of Indians. And he includes some shocking instances of depravity and cruelty perpetrated in the New World in the name of crown and Christ. Nor does he omit the variations on that central theme as practiced by some tribes against others. In particular, Reséndez illustrates how the "horse empires" of the southern plains of the Comanche and Utes became dominant and expanded their territory and their control not just by mastering the horse but also by becoming the masters of less fortunate Indians around them, including the Paiute, Pueblo, Mexicans and Apache.
What is profound about Reséndez's argument isn't simply that there was a kind of slavery older, more widespread and more pernicious than African slavery (or that it continued longer) but that there is a clear and direct relationship between the two. "In 1865-1866," he writes, "southern states enacted the infamous Black Codes aimed at restricting the freedom of former slaves. Adopting tried-and-true tactics such as vagrancy laws, convict leasing, and debts, white southerners sought to nullify the provisions of the Thirteenth Amendment." The tactics he lists were pulled from the playbook that had kept Indians in servitude in the West and in Mexico long after slavery had been made illegal.
Lest this carefully researched and compelling book make readers feel bad about every aspect of the settlement of the New World, the conclusion should make us feel bad and think hard about our own times as well. The "old slavery" based on the legal ownership of certain racial groups had been, for quite some time, replaced with a kind of "new slavery" based less on race and without legal standing and more on economic vulnerability: mechanisms of control meant to deprive workers of their freedom in order to extract their labor.
Reséndez concludes, "the other slavery that affected Indians throughout the Western Hemisphere was never a single institution, but instead a set of kaleidoscopic practices suited to different markets and regions. The Spanish crown's formal prohibition of Indian slavery in 1542 gave rise to a number of related institutions, such as encomiendas, repartimientos, the selling of convict labor, and ultimately debt peonage….In other words, formal slavery was replaced by multiple forms of informal labor coercion and enslavement that were extremely difficult to track, let alone eradicate."
He is too careful a historian to make unsupported leaps and the book is wonderfully devoid of ideology, but there is a larger point hiding in these pages that has everything to do with the world in which we live today: The institution of "the other slavery" — the thinking behind it, the ways in which laws were passed and interpreted, how the practice of slavery itself took on many different guises — is alive today and in a world where the richest people exercise so much authority (in the form of political influence, economic power, and cultural capital) over a vast (and growing) underclass; where more and more jobs are in the service sector; where the poor are subjected to so many disproportionately onerous taxes and fines and fees. To think about the enslavement of Indians over the last 500 years can help us think about the ways in which people are enslaved today.
This book is, arguably, one of the most profound contributions to North American history published since Patricia Nelson Limerick's "Legacy of Conquest" and Richard White's "The Middle Ground." But it's not necessary to be into history to understand its power: Our world is still the world Reséndez so eloquently anatomizes.
Treuer is the author of "Prudence," a novel, and "Rez Life: An Indian's Journey Through Reservation Life."
"The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America"
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 448 pp, $30