Christopher Columbus, honored as the discoverer of America and celebrated annually with a national holiday, was a slaver. This and other grim facts about the trail of human trafficking throughout history are likely not learned in school. In The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America, Andrés Reséndez, a professor of history at the University of California, Davis, offers a compelling account of a huge, tragic, missing piece of history.
From the Caribbean to South America to Mexico, then north to the West and Southwest of America, colonization, conquest and greed spawned the need for cheap labor and servitude. Long before the African slave trade brought captives to America, European explorers and conquerors claimed native men, women and children for profit-making purposes. Slavery was “first and foremost a business involving investors, soldiers, agents, and powerful officials.” In what is now Peru and Bolivia, for example, a “state-directed” labor force for silver mines “began in 1573 and remained in operation for 250 years.” Enslaved workers were brutally treated and subjected to diseases like smallpox, for which they had neither immunity nor remedy.
Spain’s monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, figure prominently in an equally long history of reformers, predecessors to the abolitionists. They shared a conviction that any form of slavery was morally wrong—but faced difficulty in converting those who profited from it. Owners of Indian slaves, distantly removed from their royal rulers or, as in America, from political deciders back east, could ignore demands for reform. When the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was enacted in 1865, legally abolishing slavery throughout the U.S., Southern laws like the Black Codes continued to thwart freedom for African slaves. In the Southwest and West, where Indian tribes went on enslaving each other, warring over horses, guns and territory, laws made in Washington meant little.
Today, with the complex and myriad effects of globalization frequently in the news, human trafficking has managed to endure. The Other Slavery both reminds and cautions: Man’s inhumanity to man is still making history.
Priscilla Kipp is a writer in Townsend, Massachusetts.