Playing the Indian Card

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Want Slaves?

Arab slave merchants with Zanzibar slaves.

It is no particular knock against Indian culture to note that they practiced slavery. After all, until recently, everyone did. A few years ago I lived in Al Ain, an oasis in the Arabian desert. It has a large livestock market, probably serving most of the United Arab Emirates and the southern part of Saudi Arabia. This is the last water source inland from the Indian Ocean coast before the barren desert begins. At that coast, dhows used to arrive from Oman's African possessions, once stretching south to Zanzibar.

Up into the 1950s, this livestock market was also the slave market. Slavery was officially outlawed in Saudi Arabia only in 1962 (Guy Nixon, Slavery in the West, Bloomington, IN: Xlibris, 2011, p. 13).

Slave market, Khartoum
Slavery has been routine in China, India, Africa, and the Muslim world throughout recorded history. It is enshrined in the Code of Hammurabi, the world's first recorded set of laws. It is now considered an unspeakable evil, but almost all past societies have found it not just useful, but necessary. After all, before our current bankruptcy laws, what were you going to do if someone got himself into more debt than he could possibly repay? What were you going to do if you took prisoners of war, in a time when social organization was too weak to sustain prisons? Indeed, what were you going to do with ordinary criminals? You could cut off their heads. You could cut off their hands. Or you could take it out in labour.

However, it is worth mentioning that slavery was the common practice among Canadian Indians too, because enslavement is too often represented as a peculiarly European, and even English, vice, replacing in Canada a native society that was all unicorns and rainbows. This is squishy-headed romanticism, “noble savage” stuff. Of course Indians kept slaves; like everyone else. Captain John Smith, of Pocahontas fame, speaking of Powhatan's tribe, observes that they made war, "not for lands and goods, but for women and children, whom they put not to death, but kept as captives, in which captivity they were made to do service" (Samuel Purchas, Purchas His Pilgrimes, 1625, edition of 1908, Volume 4, pp. 1699-1700). 

Captain John Smith and Pocahontas

The group we obediently politically correct sorts recently started calling “Dene” were formerly called, from the Cree, the Slaves or Slavey. That was their chief significance, to the Cree, who regularly raided and enslaved them. The Jesuit Relations have many stories of the Eastern Woodlands Indians holding slaves. Among others, Father, now Saint, Isaac Jogues was captured by the Iroquois, and enslaved for about a year, until he was ransomed by the Dutch (Jesuit Relations 31, p. 91). The system among the Iroquois was to give a captive to any family who had lost a relative in war. The family—generally the wife or mother--could choose to have the captive tortured to death, or make use of the slave's labour for as long as they saw fit. Father Joseph Poncet writes, of his own captivity: “I was given to a good old woman in place of a brother of hers, who had been captured or killed by those on our side. Nevertheless, my life was not yet safe; for that woman could have made me die in all the torments that could have been suggested by revenge” (Jesuit Relations 40, p. 135). The Jesuit records explain, of the Iroquois, "When a barbarian has split the head of his slave with a hatchet, he says, 'It is a dead dog—there is nothing to be done but to cast it upon the dung hill'" (43, p. 295). Iroquois slaving raids could produce three or four hundred captives at a time (Almon Lauber, "Indian Slavery in Colonial Times," Columbia University Ph.D. Thesis, 1913, p. 29). Jesuit Father Fremin mentions an Iroquois woman who owned twenty slaves (Jesuit Relations 54, p. 93). French sources attest that the Huron and Ottawa also kept slaves; Ojibwe slaves came from as far away as Eskimo country (Jesuit Relations 30, p.133).

You can certainly find sources which will deny that tribes did not practice slavery, or claim that slavery was rare outside the Pacific Northwest. This is sheer political correctness. As the Jesuit records show, slavery and some sort of slave trade was widespread and followed a familiar pattern: it was an established cultural practice, with set laws to govern it. The slavery deniers rely on making a slippery distinction between “captive” and “slave.” But even this does not hold up. The early French sources make it clear that being captured in war was not the only way one could become a slave. There were deliberate slaving raids. Beyond that, debt was another route to enslavement (Jesuit Relations 16, p. 199). Just as with slavery elsewhere.

Treaty requiring return of escaped slaves, 1480 BC.

UNESCO defines slavery as “an element of ownership or control over another's life, coercion and the restriction of movement and by the fact that someone is not free to leave or to change an employer." ( By that definition, there can be no question: slavery among North American tribes was practically universal. It is also the common condition of expat employees everywhere; but never mind. Like any bureaucracy, UNESCO needs to artificially create problems as an excuse for more funding. If you want a problem never to be solved, set up a government bureaucracy to solve it. 

Let's stick with the dictionary. Oxford defines slavery as “A condition of having to work very hard without proper remuneration or appreciation.” That proves conclusively, among other things, that I am currently a slave. Merriam-Webster defines slavery as “the state of a person who is a chattel of another.” By that definition, the American Indian practice was surely slavery—besides being able to buy or sell a slave, an owner could kill without penalty. What else could more clearly define ownership?

The Indians of the Canadian Northwest were especially energetic slavers. An estimated one quarter of the resident population among Pacific Northwest tribes were slaves; a proportion similar to the US South before the Civil War. When being taken over by the U.S. After the Alaska purchase meant freedom for their slaves, the Tlingit of Alaska crafted a totem pole with the figure of Abraham Lincoln at the top, to shame the government and demand compensation.

Abtraham Lincoln figure from original Tlingit totem pole.

Among the Tlingit, the practice was to pull out one eye to identify a slave as property. The Indians of the US Southwest would instead cut the tendons of the ankle, or cut off part of a foot. This made escape difficult. Slaves might be ritually killed at a potlatch, usually by being brained before the guests with an axe, or at the death of their master, to provide services in the next life. Or, of course, if they grew old or got sick. A prominent Tlingit or Haida citizen might own as many as fifty slaves.

Slavery among Alaskan Indians was only outlawed by court decision in 1886, two decades after the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution prohibited it for whites. Instances of enslavement are still reported as late as 1903. The Queen Charlotte Islands, now renamed, with proper respect to the local Indian culture, Haida Gwaii (“Islands of the Haida People”), have been described as “the great slave mart of the northwest coast” (Bancroft, History of the Northwest Coast, ii, pp. 647-649).

Until 1850, the Thompson Indians of British Columbia kept slaves (Teit, "The Thompson Indians of British Columbia," in Memoirs of the American Museum of Natural History, pp. 269, 290). In 1836, the Chinook Indians of the BC interior still kept slaves (Thomas, Indians of North America in Historic Times, p. 369). Lauber concludes, “among the North American tribes, the custom of slave-holding was practically universal” (Indian Slavery in Colonial Times, p. 45).

Oddly enough, as is so often the case, what is commonly believed about slavery is the exact opposite of the truth. Those who profit from deceit usually, instinctively, feel safest as far away from truth as possible. The peculiar institution was hardly a uniquely European or even English vice. In fact, in all the world, in pre-modern times, there was only one notable, though only partial, exception to the general practice of slavery: Christian Europe. Moreover, it was primarily Christian reformers who had the institution ended, world-wide, over the last two or three centuries.

The ancient Romans had slaves. The ancient Greeks had slaves before them, and the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians. But almost as soon as Christianity became the established church of the Roman Empire, the practice fell into radical disuse. While usually not prohibited outright, it did not fit with the Christian belief in the equality of man. Usury was by Christianity banned, preventing people from falling into insurmountable debt. Prisoners of war came to commonly be ransomed, or simply “paroled,” released on giving their word that they would not again take up arms. Where the practice persisted, Christianity assigned the enslaved person significant rights. According to the church, no person, on principle, could ever be owned by another person; the master could, at most, have rights to their labour. In other words, the Christian practice was servitude, but not slavery, according to Merriam-Webster's strict definition. John Chrysostom, church father, described slavery as “the fruit of covetousness, of degradation, of savagery ... the fruit of sin, [and] of [human] rebellion against ... our true Father.”

Ancient Greek slaves working in a mine.

So why did slavery, and extreme chattel slavery, revive among Europeans in the New World? Two clues: note that it reappeared very soon after Columbus landed, and it appeared only in the Americas. It was not generally accepted, even then, in Europe. Ownership of people had to be expressly permitted by statute in the English American colonies; it had no status in English law. It was legalized in Massachusetts in 1641, in Connecticut in 1650, in Virginia in 1661. It was, to our everlasting credit, banned in Ontario (then Upper Canada) in 1793. Upper Canada was the first British colony to abolish slavery. It was not a major local issue at the time, but Governor Simcoe wanted to prevent United Empire Loyalists from bringing in slaves as they immigrated from the new US. Simcoe considered slavery “an offense against Christianity.”

Massachusetts governor's warrant allowing the sale of native Indians as slaves.

The obvious conclusion is that Europeans were re-exposed to the idea by their travels, by contact with the Muslim world, with Africa, and with the American aborigines, among all of whom it was established and common practice. “The finding of the same custom among the Indians themselves, make their carrying on of the practice quite natural” (Lauber, p. 46). Columbus encountered slaving almost immediately on landing: the local Indians of San Salvador made him understand that “people from other adjacent islands came with the intention of seizing them, and ... they defended themselves” (Columbus, Journal of the First Voyage, 12th of October).

The first slaves held by Europeans in America were certainly native Indians. One can imagine how it came about. Indians, wishing to make a bargain, would have presented slaves as trade goods as a matter of course. When in Rome... Later, they discovered a European interest in furs, but at first, the native interest in European goods far exceeded their capacity, in their extreme poverty, to trade anything of comparable value in return. Columbus attests to an extreme thirst to trade in the Indians he first encounters: “for the longing to possess our things, and not having anything to give in return, they take what they can get” (Journal of the First Voyage, 13th of October). On his Western travels, De Boucherville was offered many slaves as a means of establishing good will (Lauber, p. 32). “In 1684, the Indians offered Du Luth slaves to take the place of some assassinated Frenchmen. In 1724, the Indians at Detroit offered the French commander, by way of truce, two slaves for the same purpose.” (Lauber, p. 38). At the same time, Europeans were certainly taken by Indians in slavery, from very early colonial days; turnabout probably seemed fair play. “Strachey, in The Historie of Travaile into Virginia, speaks of a story that he had heard from the Indians, concerning an Indian chief, Eyanoco by name, liv'ng somewhere to the south of Virginia, who had seven white slaves who had escaped from the massacre at Roanoke. These slaves the Indians employed in beating copper.” (Lauber, p. 46, note; Hakluyt Society Publications, 6, p. 26). “Captain Hendrickson, in 1616, found three persons belonging to the Dutch West India Company, who were slaves of the Mohawk and Minquae, and who were traded to him for merchandise” (Hazard, Annals of Pennsylvania, p. 7). Lauber cites more cases from early records. The taste acquired, the number of available natives become too few, the Irish, conquered and sold into service by the English, often took their place. Then Africans were imported. Offered, in turn, by Africans eager to trade for European manufactures.

African slaves
The Portuguese had explored the coast of Africa down to the Cape of Good Hope by the time Columbus reached Hispaniola. The local inhabitants of their colonies along the African coast, which they had established for ship resupply, all offered slaves. But at first the Portuguese had no use for them. Then Spanish and Portuguese Catholic missionaries began advocating accepting them, as the alternative was generally to see them put to death by the tribes who had captured them as spoils of war (Nixon, p. 11). The same may often have been true of Indian slaves. If the Iroquois had no use for a captive as a slave, they were slowly tortured to death.

In sum, slavery was nearly universal outside of traditional Christian lands. Indian slavery is no special knock against Indian culture. Still, we do not want slavery, do we? We do now believe in the equality of mankind? We don't think only Haida are human? So recall, when you hear demands for a return to traditional Indian culture, and the claim that it was corrupted by European influence, that some of those rainbow unicorns were not there of their own free will. Traditional Indian culture often involved, and economically relied upon, slavery. It is hard to see the good in reviving that culture in too much detail.

Want slaves? Ask an Indian.

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