Tuesday, March 31

Slaves and indians | History today

The slave hunter by Jean-Baptiste Debret, 19th century © Bridgeman Images.

In his autobiography My bondage and my freedom (1855) the American abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote:

The slave finds more of the milk of human goodness in the bosom of the wild Indian than in the heart of his Christian master. He leaves the man of the Bible and takes refuge with the man of the Tomahawk.

Douglass repeated a popular view of the 19th century and one that has been largely preserved to this day: Indian slave farming is milder than white slavery because the indigenous peoples of North America are natural allies of enslaved Africans. Indeed, Native American slaves were an institution with a long history, but rarely as compassionate as Douglass thought.

The role of Native Americans in the history of North American slavery is beginning to be properly quantified. This means not only highlighting the large number of Native Americans who were held as slaves in North America, but also how many Native Americans were actively involved in the slavery and slave trade economy. Europeans did not introduce slavery into the New World, but colonialism of the settlers changed the focus, scope, and characteristics of the practice.

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