For a literary criticism course in spring 2020, I wrote on Isabel Allende’s Zorro (2005) through a postcolonialist lens. I felt pretty proud about it, honestly, until I read The Other Slavery by Andrés Reséndez and saw how much research and insights I missed out on. Phooey.
It would have been highly useful to know that the Spanish crown had forbidden Indian slavery in any situation, and that Spanish landowners and miners still raided Native groups and forced them to work. We learn that:
In spite of formal legal prohibitions against Indian slavery in 1542 and African slavery in 1865—as well as antislavery campaigns conducted by the Spanish crown in the seventeenth century, the Mexican government in the early nineteenth century, and the U.S. government in the Civil War era—extralegal slavery, in various forms, has endured…In other words, formal slavery was replaced by multiple forms of informal labor coercion and enslavement that were extremely difficult to track, let alone eradicate. (319 – 20)
But aside from my post-grad regrets at not having written an even longer and complicated paper for my professor to read, this book is highly relevant today.
For example, the Navajo campaign of 1863 – 1864 was founded on a “simple” choice: total extermination or wholesale removal. When whites found that the natives were no longer “useful”—read: profitable—to them, the only answer was, of course, genocide and/or extirpation. In light of the COVID-19 crisis and how it is overwhelmingly and disproportionately affecting the peoples of the Navajo nation, this book demonstrates how still today lack of information, lack of awareness, and lack of empathy play into genocide still today.
To anyone who might believe that Natives are just naturally more susceptible to illnesses, consider Reséndez’s research here:
The shorthand version of the history of the Americas posits that virgin soil [first contact] epidemics were at the root of the demographic devastation that ensued. However, an exclusively biological explanation is at odds with much of the documentation of that era and runs contrary to the observed adaptability of humans. In the long sweep of history, human populations have survived virgin soil epidemics. The most well-known case is the Black Death. Possibly originating in China and spreading along the Silk Road, this epidemic arrived in Europe during the second half of the fourteenth century, when devastating outbreaks wiped out perhaps one-third of the continent’s inhabitants…its aftermath shows the resilience of human populations. Europe’s losses lingered until the early decades of the fifteenth century, but then the population made a stunning demographic comeback…
Left to their own devices, the Native peoples of the Caribbean would have limited their exposure to illness, coping like many other human populations before and after them. We will never know how many Indians actually died of disease alone. But even if one-third, or two-thirds, of the Caribbean islanders had died of influenza, typhus, malaria, and smallpox, they would have been able to stem the decline and, in the fullness of time, rebound demographically. In fact, some Indian populations of the New World did just that. But unlike fourteenth-century Europeans, the Natives of the Caribbean were not left to their own devices. In the wake of the epidemics, slavers appeared on the horizon. (45)
It’s not just illness that is killing the Navajo nation today. It’s lack of access to healthcare, for one thing, and lack of access to resources that would help them. It’s lack of empathy on the parts of policymakers and the people who are still devouring up the land and labor.
Something’s got to change, and it starts with learning how to break this historical cycle of the other slavery.
You can read an NPR book review of The Other Slavery here.