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Indian Slaveries

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 39, Number 2, June 2011
pp. 234-239 | 10.1353/rah.2011.0073

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For nearly a century, the chief authority on Indian slavery in early America was Almon Lauber, whose book on the subject was first published in 1913. The title of Alan Gallay's recent collection of essays seems intentionally to echo Lauber's Indian Slavery in Colonial Times, but in the last decade that venerable work has largely been superseded. In 2002 we saw the publication of two Bancroft Award–winning books on Indian slavery: Gallay's The Indian Slave Trade: The Rise of the English Empire in the American South, 1670–1717, and James F. Brooks' Captives and Cousins: Slavery, Kinship, and Community in the Southwest Borderlands. A growing number of scholars are also contributing to a revival of the subject. Alan Gallay's recent collection of essays, Indian Slavery in Colonial America, showcases this work, plumbing issues and raising contradictions that will undoubtedly spur additional scholarship.

Gallay notes in his introduction that these essays challenge two "binary paradigms" of early American history. One is the stereotype of "European versus Indian." As applied to the history of Indian slavery, this approach assumes that Europeans imposed slavery on Indians. In his own contribution to the collection, "South Carolina's Entrance into the Indian Slave Trade," adapted from his 2002 book, Gallay corrects this misperception. Rather than introducing slavery, which already existed in Indian societies, Europeans "expanded it immensely, prompting a frenzy of slaving that extended from the Atlantic Coast to Texas, and from the Ohio River South to the Gulf of Mexico" (p. 109). Denise I. Bossy's essay, "Indian Slavery in Southeastern Indian and British Societies, 1670–1730," underlines the fact that the slave trade operated between Indian societies, not just between Indians and Europeans. She recounts the story of Lamhatty, a Towasa Indian who was traded from one tribe to another until he was finally sold to the English. Like Gallay, Bossy claims the English intensified and transformed Indian slavery from a small-scale system serving political and cultural ends to a commercial one for the purpose of exploiting human labor. The sixty-year time frame of her study allows her to describe the devastating impact of the growing slave trade, as well as the warfare and disease that followed it, shrinking the native population of the Southeast from nearly 200,000 in 1685 to 90,000 by 1715 (p. 219). Indians finally turned on English slave traders in the Yamasee War, targeting and killing ninety out of one hundred English traders and destroying the commercial trade. Indian slavery in the aftermath of the war returned to its earlier form, serving political and cultural rather than economic interests.

While Gallay's and Bossy's essays focus on the origin and development of the Carolina slave trade, C. S. Everett describes its immediate precursor in "'They shalbe slaves for their lives': Indian Slavery in Colonial Virginia." Everett explains that Indians were enslaved early in Virginia's history, during the first Anglo-Powhatan war of 1622. Fifty years later, slavery had become profitable, and Everett makes the striking assertion that Bacon's Rebellion of 1676 was, at root, an unsuccessful effort to gain control of the Indian slave trade. I was not entirely persuaded that Nathaniel Bacon was someone with the foresight to manipulate events in his favor, instead of just a loose cannon, but it is an intriguing possibility. Everett notes that Bacon's partner in the attempted takeover was William Byrd, who later became instrumental in the Carolina slave trade. While Everett's essay is occasionally hard to follow, it is notable for its prodigious primary research, including some sources only recently discovered.

One of the topics Gallay introduces is what motivated participation in the Indian slave trade. His own contribution to the volume focuses on the motives of the English participants, exploring what impelled them to defy restrictions the distant proprietors of Carolina imposed on relations with Indians. Indian motivations get less attention, a fact that two other contributors, Joseph Hall and Jennifer Baszile, point out. The essay collection itself offers an answer to that criticism, as it includes chapters that add Indian motives to the mix of reasons driving the slave trade. In his beautifully written "Anxious...