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Forgotten Story of Indian Slavery

by Alan Gallay, Arab News,

LOS ANGELES, 3 August 2003 - When Americans think of slavery, our minds create images of Africans inhumanely crowded aboard ships plying the middle passage from Africa, or of blacks stooped to pick cotton in Southern fields. We don't conjure images of American Indians chained in coffles and marched to ports like Boston and Charleston, and then shipped to other ports in the Atlantic world.

Yet Indian slavery and an Indian slave trade were ubiquitous in early America. From the Atlantic to the Pacific, and from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada, tens of thousands of America's native peoples were enslaved, many of them transported to lands distant from their homes.

Our historical mythology posits that American Indians could not be enslaved in large numbers because they too readily succumbed to disease when exposed to Europeans and they were too wedded to freedom to allow anyone to own them. Yet many indigenous people developed resistance to European diseases after being exposed to the newcomers for well over a century. And it is a racist conception that "inferior" Africans accepted their debased position as slaves - a status that American Indians and Europeans presumably could never have accepted. This is a gross misconception of history.

We are just scratching the surface of what this all means. For the enslavement of Indians forces us to rethink not only the institution of slavery, but the evolution of racism and racist ideologies in America.

In the 17th century, Europeans, Africans and American Indians all accepted slavery as a legitimate social institution. Treatment and status of the enslaved varied greatly from group to group. War captives provided most slaves, though the Europeans made slavery inheritable. Africans and Indians did exchange slaves as commodities, but Europeans introduced an international market economy for labor, as colonial plantation societies developed an insatiable demand for workers, spurring the African slave trade as well as various forms of bond labor for impoverished Europeans.

In the American South, European traders, mostly British colonists operating out of Charleston, South Carolina, engaged local and distant Indians to undertake slaving against their neighbors, who could be made to walk to ships that would carry them to Barbados, New York, Antigua and other ports in the Atlantic world, where they would work as slaves. The South Carolinians used some of these slaves to work their own plantations, but because of the ability of captives to escape over familiar territory among familiar peoples, their captors preferred to export most of them elsewhere. Capital from selling Indian slaves was used to fund plantations and purchase Africans. It was as if one could create capital out of thin air: The only effort lay in capturing the prey and transporting it to market.

Native peoples engaged in slaving for a variety of reasons. In exchange for captives, they received European trade goods. Many also hoped to forge closer relations with the British. To refuse to become slave raiders, they risked becoming categorized as potential victims, with their enemies then filling the role of slavers. The result: A frenzy of slaving infected the region, as natives captured not only their enemies, but people they had never met. Some went farther and captured their friends and allies.

Small-scale raids with attacks on fewer than a dozen people evolved into large-scale wars, with the British and their American-Indian allies seeking captives in the thousands. Extending southward from Charleston, British and native raiders followed attacks upon the native peoples of Georgia with a massive onslaught against Indians on Spanish missions in northern Florida. Systematically, the raiders extended all the way to the Florida Keys.

Simultaneously, the English established important ties with the Chickasaw, who became the key slavers of the lower Mississippi Valley, extending their attacks west of the Mississippi and south to the Gulf of Mexico. The Chickasaw, surrounded by enemies on all sides, used slaving as a way to strengthen themselves at their enemies' expense, but great losses in slaving wars weakened them immensely.

The numbers are difficult to calculate, but I estimate that 30,000 to 50,000, perhaps more, American Indians were exported from Charleston. Thousands more were exported from ports like Boston and Salem, and, on a much smaller scale, by the French from New Orleans. Untold numbers, which scholars are just beginning to calculate, will ultimately include the thousands who were not exported from their region but lived out their lives as slaves on plantations in Virginia, as farm laborers in Connecticut and as domestics in New France. Although the scale of enslavement pales in comparison to the African slave trade, it is notable, for instance, that from 1670 to 1717, far more American Indians were exported from Charleston than Africans were brought in.

Scholars long have known about the Indian slave trade, but the scattered nature of the sources deterred a systematic examination. No one had any conception of the trade's massive extent and that it played such a central role in the lives of early Americans and in the colonial economy.

Indian slavery complicates the narrative we have created of a white-black world, with Indians residing outside on a vaguely defined frontier. The Indian slave trade connects native and European history, so that plantations and Indian communities become entwined. We find planters making more money from slave trading than planting, and if we look more closely we find Indians not only enslaved on plantations but working as police forces to maintain those plantations and receiving substantial rewards for returning runaway slaves.

We are also learning a great deal more about American-Indian peoples. Most importantly we can now tell the stories - the tragedies - that befell so many who were killed in slaving wars or spent their days as slaves far from their homes. They and their peoples have been largely forgotten. The Natchez, Westo, Yamasee, Euchee, Yazoo and Tawasa are among the dozens of Indian peoples who fell victims to the slaving wars, with the survivors forced to join other native communities. These are tales that Indians themselves ha

ve not told: Just as the story of Indian slavery was excluded from the European past, it was largely forgotten in American-Indian traditions.

Americans often wish the past would just go away, save for those symbols we celebrate: Pocahontas saving John Smith, the "noble savage," and the first Thanksgiving. The image of Pilgrims and Indians sharing a meal is one of the most cogent images we have of American Indians and of the colonization of this continent.

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Forgotten Story of Indian Slavery

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