It’s hard to call slavery the original sin. There’s nothing original about it, throughout history, people have enslaved people almost everywhere.
But short of murder, it may be the most definitive sin, since it involves robbing human beings of all their basic freedoms — not to punish them for some wrongdoing — but to exploit them for your benefit, because you can.
Slaves lose control over where they are, where and how they live, what work they do, how long they will work or stay, what might happen, in terms of movement or disposition to their families. Slaves are chattel, fed and housed to produce profit, free to expect –nothing.
Slavery wasn’t the primary sin that propelled Christopher Columbus to seek out the West Indies. Sheer avarice probably subsumed it, but the prospect of captives to sell was very much on the Great Discoverer’s mind.
Ten years before “Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492,” he’d taken a long sailing trip from Spain to West Africa and spent time in Guinea, closely observing the operations of the Portuguese slave trade in captive Africans.
Before he’d returned from his second voyage to the New World, Columbus had already dispatched a ship back to Spain with his first cargo of enslaved Caribbean natives. Before 5 years had passed, his avaricious seizing, transporting, and selling of human beings had become so ugly it alienated his most important sponsor, Queen Isabella.
But Columbus didn’t bring slavery with him to the New World. On the Caribbean Islands and on continental North, Central and South America, tribal natives were quite habituated to turning natives from other tribes into slaves. As, it must be said, were many tribal and non-tribal people in parts of Europe, Asia and Africa.
In fact, once it was established that there was a lucrative international market for slaves, it didn’t take long for the White man’s role in this to be primarily just a broker of human lives. The actual capturing and exchanging of Black slaves in Africa was mostly done by Black Africans, as was the case for Native American slaves, taken and first sold most often by Native Americans.
You can argue that sin is sin and always bad, but when sin goes global, when it transports people from Africa to Alabama or from Sonora to Hispaniola, when it uproots them from tribal harmony and re-plants them in racist discord, it seems to me the slavery sin gets worse, especially when it multiplies the scale of slaving.
Mention industrial-strength slavery to most Americans and they’ll think of enslaved Africans in the Old South and the Caribbean. Well, our guest today, historian and author Andres Resendez says we need to think about the Native Americans exported to Europe by Columbus, those who were force-marched into the silver mines of Mexico and those who did horse-wrangling or homefront duties on ranches and estates from New Mexico to California. Native American slavery survived deep into the 20th century.
Andrés Reséndez is a historian and author specializing in colonial Latin America, borderlands, and the Iberian world. He teaches at the University of California, Davis and his book The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America was shortlisted for a National Book Award and won The Bancroft Prize.