I am studying for an American history CLEP test, and was studying the impact of slavery on the economics of our fledgling country when I had a thought.

Why didn’t we just enslave the Indians? They were already here and didn’t require transportation across an ocean.
Their culture couldn’t have been much more advanced than the Africans, i.e., the resistance theoretically shouldn’t have been much stronger.

Any thoughts?

(Of course the disclaimer that I do not condone the enslavemnt of the black people. The above is purely a hypothetical question, and I don’t think anyone should be enslaved.)

I think it was done to a certain extent. Especially in South and Central America. But indiginous slaves could probably escape and survive pretty well compared with what Africans could do. Plus, the practice of enslaving Africans pre-dates the (English) settlement of N. America.

Indians had a terrible time with European diseases, and their populations were reduced significantly when in contact with Europeans. Was this less of a problem with Africans?

Africans, instead of Indians, were more commonly enslaved in America because Indians knew the native land too well and could easily escape.

My recollection from school history is that the Native American population was largely decimated by European diseases to which they had no resistance. So that’s one reason that weren’t enslaved. In addition, perhaps it’s the case that the early European-Americans had more complex relationships with the natives as a whole, and the concept of slavery didn’t really fit. We were friendly with the natives in some places, horrible to them in others, and everything in between. It seems that we were either at peace with them, or at war over the parts of the country, in which case they were perceived somewhat as equal adversaries even if they were considered less deserving.

I can see the escape risk, but I can’t see that the diseases would have much less of an impact on the Africans, unless the exposures prior to American colonization had sensitized.

But they weren’t really more equal than the Africans, though I can see that perhaps the Africans had largely been broken by the time slavery was taking hold in the New World.

Christopher Columbus went on record as saying that the natives would make peachy slaves.

Unfortunately, European diseases wiped 'em out pretty good, and capturing them was a hell of a trick… at least, in lots big enough to make the effort worthwhile. Plus, they fought back, sometimes very effectively.

By the same token, slave ships could pull into East African ports and buy cheap slaves by the boatload… cheaply enough that they don’t seem to have cared much if half of them were dead by the time they made it back to America.

By the time white folks had enough advantages, in numbers, logistics, and firepower to make it POSSIBLE to enslave the Plains Indians, slavery itself was already becoming a touchy issue…

Yes, but WHY could Africans be rounded up so easily?

Also, once the Africans were shipped overseas, their surviving tribal members couldn’d do anything to rescue them. Not so with Native Americans. Perhaps if Europe had had an appetite for Native American slaves, that trade would have been as successful as the African slave trade.

It’s my understanding that the Europeans weren’t doing the ‘rounding up’. Various African tribes would fight one another and the losers would be rounded up and sold. The slave trade would not have worked on the scale that it did without cooperation from the Africans themselves.


Given the history of wars between the various Indian tribes, that technique could probably have been encouraged in America as well.

Three reasons:

  1. The Africans had much better resistance to European diseases than the Indians had. West Africa at that time was a pest-hole of disease compared to pre-Columbian America or, for that matter, compared to Europe. The Europeans carried few or no germs the Africans couldn’t handle. The Indians, on the other hand, had no prior exposure to any Old World diseases, thus had never developed immunities, and they dropped like flies whenever and wherever the Europeans came into contact with them. This made the Africans greatly preferable as slaves.

  2. The Africans didn’t have any relatives living over the hill who might try to rescue them; their free relatives were on the other side of an ocean and completely ignorant of oceangoing navigation.

  3. The European traders did not have to capture African slaves, they could simply buy them. They couldn’t buy Indians. The Indians, north of the Rio Grande, did not themselves practice slavery on a large scale. The Aztecs practiced it, but Indians further north did not have the social organization to maintain such an institution. The Indians’ technology was strictly Stone Age. Africa, on the other hand, was in the Iron Age, with a higher level of intensive agriculture, and slavery was a thriving institution there long before the Europeans came. As in classical Greece and Rome, one could become a slave by being captured in war, or by being convicted of a crime, or by being born of a slave mother, or simply by being kidnapped by bandits and sold someplace far enough away from home. Nubia (northern Sudan) was an entrepot for slave export from ancient times. Arab traders bought slaves in Africa from the Middle Ages on. But the Europeans provided West Africa with a lucrative export market in slaves on a scale that had never existed before – with the result that West Africans started going in for banditry and kidnapping, and making war on other nations just to capture slaves. Some writers call this the “African Holocaust.” The loss of life was not limited to those who were actually loaded onto the ships.

By the way, you should check out Cecil’s column, “Why did so many Native Americans die of European diseases but not vice versa?” – 7/29/94,

A combination of what BrainGlutton and RNWebner said. Also, since slaves were taken from a lot of different regions of Africa, 100 slaves did not mean 100 people who knew and trusted each other and spoke the same native language. It meant 100 people from different regions who wouldn’t necessarily have a native language in common (harder to plot escape or rebellion when you have to speak the boss’s language…) and who probably wouldn’t know or trust most of the others.

(That’s not to say that native Americans were never enslaved or quasi-enslaved - for example, the native population served as forced, unpaid laborers in the silver mines in Bolivia up until the 1950s, when they finally became citizens and got the right to vote.)

Lets not forget that plenty of Natives were enslaved. The light complexion of many African-Americans today isn’t all the result of Massuh treating his slave quarters as the family harem. Early in the colonial period black and red slave populations intermingled. Many enslaved Natives were shipped to the Caribbean islands where they had no hope of escaping home. Perhaps those same ships returned to the Atlantic colonies with black slaves. No sense spending money converting your ships to accomodate a different cargo if you don’t have to.

Slight hijack/gripe.

Maybe “slavers” would be a more fair (apt?) choice of words.

Because not all of us “white folks” had something to do with the black slavery trade. Some of us “white’s” ancestors were busy fishing for subsistance up in Scandanavia, or herding sheep up in the highlands of Scotland or the Yorkshires back in the slave trading days and didn’t have anything to do with it.

I know from reading your posts here wang-ka that you’re not like this, but sometimes the old “white folks automatically = ancestors owned slaves and/or oppressed black people” thing gets old.

Sorry, just a thought.

I don’t know, Canvas Shoes - you’re totally right that this would be a bad thing to assume (my ancestors at the time were probably getting their asses persecuted in eastern Europe at the time), but I don’t think Wang-Ka does it here. The necessary firepower, logistics, etc. wouldn’t have been an issue to people who didn’t want to enslave the Plains Indians in the first place. And Wang-Ka mentions that slavery “was becoming a touchy issue” - which it wouldn’t have if everybody owned slaves and oppressed blacks. (Not to get into the fact that there was plenty of racism and oppression directed even toward free blacks in non-slave areas.)

As noted Indian slave labor was indeed utilized. Just as one example, after the Tuscarora War ( 1711-1713 ) in North Carolina, many captive Tuscaroras were sold into slavery to defray the costs of the conflict. However, as also noted, disease struck at Amerindian populations far more severely.

To quote myself from an earlier thread on the preference for African over Indian slaves:

From here:

The issues with the church over Amerindian slavery in early Spanish colonial America led to the compromises of first the encomienda, and later the naboria systems ( both basically a variety of serfdom ), as mentioned in the aforementioned thread.

  • Tamerlane

2sense, your sig is much too long. You need to trim it by at least two thirds. We ask that a sig have no more than four lines, including blank lines. When a sig gets to be much longer than this, it becomes a paragraph rather than a sig.

For the Straight Dope

I do not know what Columbus said but if he did say something like that it is probably not representative of his thought which, in turn, is not representative of the attitude of the Spanish government. Columbus was a great navigator but a very bad leader and ruler of men. In spite of that he wrote letters to the King and Queen where he advised limiting the licenses for gold searching and encouraging people to settle the land and implement the customs and government system of Spain. His view and that of the Spanish government was to encourage settlement and commerce and to convert the Indians.

It is very PC these days to paint all Europeans as bloodthirsty, wealth-stealing oppressors of the natives but in this case it is just not so. It is a fact that the Spanish monarchy always considered itself to be the protector of the Indians and never condoned enslaving them and always considered them free people to be converted to Christianity. Obviously there were abuses but they were always against official policy and they were denounced by Las Casas and other authors.

The Spanish monarchy considered the Indians as newly acquired subjects just like any other it had acquired in Europe. Spain assimilated the conquest of America to the conquest of any other European land and respected the usages of war at that time and tried to respect all legal formalities. The fact that it was breached many times does not detract from the fact that it was the officially mandated policy.

In the conquered territories the native rulers and princes were recognised as nobility so long as they submitted to the Spanish Crown. Spanish soldiers in Tenochtitlan (Mexico) were given orders to show the Mexican chief Montezuma the respect due to a noble prince and some were punished for not abiding by this.

All in all, In the 16th century, Spain was very much ahead of her time when it came to awareness of what today we would call human and civil rights. The Emperor Charles commissioned a group of theologists, moralists, etc to advise him on the rights of the Indians and how they should be governed. Orders were always given that the laws and customs of war should be observed and legality was always very much a concern in the conquest and settlement of the Americas.

In the 16th century there was nothing in Europe comparable to the “industrial” slave plantations which would evolve later in North America. Spain and Portugal had a long history of fighting Muslims and both sides would enslave each other’s prisoners and generally hold them for ransom. The profit was in selling them back more than anything else.

After about 1750 slavery changed drastically, especially in the New World. As slavery evolved over the centuries into more of a commodity trade it was acceptable to buy slaves from other countries in Africa because they were buying people who were already slaves. The Spanish Monarchy considered itself to be the protector of all its subjects and that included the American Indians but the Spanish monarchy did not consider itself protector of the African slaves any more than the American government today considers itself to be the protector of citizens of other countries.

Anyway, my post refers exclusively to the Spanish colonies and not to the part of North America settled by the Anglos.

I think the main worst effect of slavery was to tie the American South into single-crop economies,like tobacco and cotton. Besides the inhumanities visited upon the slaves, the fact that the plantation system made economic progress in the south impossible-there was no need for higher education, because there were no factories. The planter aristocracy was not interested in commerce or technology-just making sure that the tobacco or cotton crop got grown and shipped.
The fact is,until long after the Civil War, the legacy of slavery kept the south far behind the rest of the nation. As Mark Twain said, the wonderof the Conferacy was that the poor white tenant farmers willingly took up arms to defend a system that kept THEM in ignorance and poverty as well!