Beneath the Underdog: Race, Religion, and the Trail of Tears
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The American Indian Quarterly 25.3 (2001) 453-479



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Beneath the Underdog
Race, Religion, and the Trail of Tears

Patrick Minges

In the fields and homes of the colonial plantations of the United States in the late eighteenth century, African Americans and Native Americans forged their first intimate relations in their collective oppression at the hands of the "peculiar institution" of slavery. 1 The institution of the chattel slavery, as it developed in the United States, was based on the lessons learned in the enslavement of the traditional peoples of the Americas. In spite of a later tendency in the Old South to differentiate the African slave from the Indian, the "peculiar institution" was built on a preexisting system of Indian slavery. 2 In North America, the two systems never diverged as distinctive institutions. 3

Racism and religious intolerance were critical components in the European dispossession and enslavement of Native Americans in the colonial period. 4 Originating in the Aristotelian notion of "natural rights," the concept of white supremacy as it found expression in colonial expansion had its roots in the classical traditions of philosophical idolatry. 5 Juan Gines de Sepulveda met with Bartholomeo de las Casas at Valladolid, Spain, in 1555 in a disputation over enslavement of the people of the New World. Sepulveda argued for the enslavement of the indigenous people on the basis of the intellectual and moral superiority of the Spaniard: "In wisdom, skill, virtue and humanity, these people are as inferior to the Spaniards as children are to adults and women to men; there is a great a difference between savagery and forbearance, between violence and moderation, almost—I am inclined to say—as between monkeys and men." 6

Though Sepulveda did not carry the day in Valladolid, the moral argument against slavery was soon swept aside by a European continent facing a vast world with countless treasures inhabited by a people who could, themselves, become a commodity in the open market. Many of the early explorations of the New World were quite simply slaving expeditions. Vast numbers of indigenous peoples toiled to their death in the fields and mines of the Spanish colonists from the earliest points of contact. A Cherokee from Oklahoma remembered his father's tale of the Spanish slave trade: "At an early state the Spanish engaged in [End Page 453] the slave trade on this continent and in so doing kidnapped hundreds of thousands of the Indians from the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts to work their mines in the West Indies." 7

What was originally the "black legend" of Spanish ethnocentrism and genocidal cruelty spread quickly throughout Europe as political, economic, and religious sentiment fueled colonial expansion. Though initially shocked by Sir John Hawkins's first slaving venture in 1562-63, Queen Elizabeth quickly changed her mind—"not only did she forgive him but she became a shareholder in his second slaving voyage." 8 With the founding of Charlestown in Carolina some one hundred years later, England entered into the commercial slave market in a manner that was to establish Charleston as the center of the slave trade for two centuries. 9

Applying the same rhetoric that they had used in their campaign against the "heathens" and "barbarians" of Scotland and Ireland, 10 the English cited Indian "savagery" and "depredations" as justification for the dispossession and enslavement of the indigenous peoples. 11 The colonists' predisposition to cite "hostilities" as the cause for "Indian wars" was quite often simply a rhetorical exercise to cover a more insidious commercial enterprise. 12 The Carolinians played Native American nations throughout the South against each other in an orgy of slave dealing that decimated entire peoples. During this period, Carolina was more active than any other colony in the exportation of Indian slaves; 13 the trade in slaves became an essential element in the early southeastern economy. 14

By the beginnings of the eighteenth century, even the interior Cherokees had become objects of the slave trade to the extent that they sent a tribal delegation to the royal governor of South Carolina to protect...