Summary and Keywords
The history of American slavery began long before the first Africans arrived at Jamestown in 1619. Evidence from archaeology and oral tradition indicates that for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years prior, Native Americans had developed their own forms of bondage. This fact should not be surprising, for most societies throughout history have practiced slavery. In her cross-cultural and historical research on comparative captivity, Catherine Cameron found that bondspeople composed 10 percent to 70 percent of the population of most societies, lending credence to Seymour Drescher’s assertion that “freedom, not slavery, was the peculiar institution.” If slavery is ubiquitous, however, it is also highly variable. Indigenous American slavery, rooted in warfare and diplomacy, was flexible, often offering its victims escape through adoption or intermarriage, and it was divorced from racial ideology, deeming all foreigners—men, women, and children, of whatever color or nation—potential slaves. Thus, Europeans did not introduce slavery to North America. Rather, colonialism brought distinct and evolving notions of bondage into contact with one another. At times, these slaveries clashed, but they also reinforced and influenced one another. Colonists, who had a voracious demand for labor and export commodities, exploited indigenous networks of captive exchange, producing a massive global commerce in Indian slaves. This began with the second voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1495 and extended in some parts of the Americas through the twentieth century. During this period, between 2 and 4 million Indians were enslaved. Elsewhere in the Americas, Indigenous people adapted Euro-American forms of bondage. In the Southeast, an elite class of Indians began to hold African Americans in transgenerational slavery and, by 1800, developed plantations that rivaled those of their white neighbors. The story of Native Americans and slavery is complicated: millions were victims, some were masters, and the nature of slavery changed over time and varied from one place to another. A significant and long overlooked aspect of American history, Indian slavery shaped colonialism, exacerbated Native population losses, figured prominently in warfare and politics, and influenced Native and colonial ideas about race and identity.
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