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World History Question

10 February, 2008

World History Question

Or maybe one for the Americanists? I’m teaching about the Columbian exchange this week . One of the required readings makes a point that part of the problems Europeans had in dealing with the New World and Native Americans is that they didn’t know how to fit the Native Americans into a world view based on the biblical creation. These difficulties contributed to an ongoing discussion about the humanity of the Native Americans, including church councils (Salamanca, IIRC) that defined whether or not they had souls, etc. Part of the reason for this was also because, at least for the Spanish, being human and capable of salvation meant that the Native Americans should be protected from being enslaved.

Makes sense to me. More or less (I’m condensing about 35 pp. into a paragraph here).

Here’s where I’m stuck — if humanity is one of the reasons that one should be protected from slavery, what was the justification for bringing African slaves to the New World? Because if one sticks to the biblical accounts and extrapolations therefrom, Africans were the descendants of Ham, the son of Noah. So they’d definitely be human. Europeans would have known that some Africans were Muslims, so capable of religious belief, even if, to Christians, it was the wrong belief. So … ??

I am not looking for answers that say anything simplistic like, “well, Europeans were trying to justify their racism to get rich.” That’s not my point. What I’m wondering is if anyone knows how Europeans justified this differentiation in treatment of Africans, who were more or less ‘known’ peoples, and Native Americans, who were ‘new’. What were the rationales, if any?

13 Comments leave one →
  1. 10 February, 2008 5:59 pm

    The usual justification that I’ve seen is Ham (Gen. 9). His son is enslaved to the rest of the family (although he then walks the earth rather than totin’ bales).I have spent years trying to find the origin for the legend that Canaan was black-skinned, which is frequently mentioned in pro-slavery tracts.

  2. 10 February, 2008 6:04 pm

    Europeans didn’t have problems even enslaving other Christians — Slavs, etc.The debate in the New World wasn’t really about slavery but more about HOW to Christianize them. The encomienda system, I think, may have been de facto slavery but it specifically WASN’T slavery (at least conceptually). Lewis Hanke’s All Mankind is One deals with the Valladolid debate in 1550 between de las Casas and Sepulveda, which was about this very issue.

  3. 10 February, 2008 6:09 pm

    I think this is where the “mark of Cain” comes into play. I’m pretty sure the idea that the mark of Cain was blackness isn’t active until the African slave trade, but I only know this from conversation with 18th centurists and not from any sources I can give you.I had a similar discussion at my blog last spring because of a student question about Grendel’s association with Cain. I was mostly wondering if there was any association of the mark of Cain with blackness in the Middle Ages, so mostly people were pointing me to sources where I might find the answer to that question. But What Now reinforced my general impression that the Cain-blackness association was around in early American lit. If you want to read everyone’s responses and the sources they suggested, go here.And the Ham association also played into the justification, too, I think. Isn’t Ham the one who looked on his father’s nakedness and drunkenness and so he and his descendants were cursed?Since this is all rather fuzzy-headed, I’ll stop babbling now.

  4. 10 February, 2008 6:20 pm

    Some later slavers justified their activities by saying it led to conversion of the enslaved.

  5. 10 February, 2008 6:26 pm

    There are definitely attempts to enslave Native Americans, though, and at least two papal bulls from the mid 15th-c. urging the King of Portugal to go forth, take the lands of pagans, saracens, and infidels, and subject them to eternal slavery.

  6. 10 February, 2008 7:14 pm

    Argh! You all make sense (although I am starting to wonder if the ‘sons of Ham’ is a post Reformation and possibly Protestant justification). Matt — Valladolid was what I was thinking, I think, not Salamanca (although maybe there was also a council of Salamanca that dealt with such things?). Thanks! I know Europeans didn’t have a problem with it, but there are capitularies against enslaving Christians … That’s why I’m wondering about the justification. Or possibly procrastinating?

  7. 10 February, 2008 7:16 pm

    Oh — right — but also, I’m just trying to get my head around the differentiation between Native Americans and Africans in the early 16th-early 17th C in terms of justification of slavery.

  8. 10 February, 2008 9:07 pm

    As far as I know, one of the main reasons enslavement of Native Americans stopped is because Native Americans didn’t work well under slavery and had a high death rate, while Africans seemed cheap and plentiful (but I’m referencing Brazil here). The Spanish may have invented a philosophical rationale after the fact, at the Valladolid debates.It’s not like the conquest of the new world was philosophically consistent or rational.

  9. 10 February, 2008 9:07 pm

    Functionally, there’s a difference between enslaving people and purchasing people who are already slaves. That might be the distinction you’re looking for which entirely bypasses theological and racial explanations.

  10. 10 February, 2008 9:53 pm

    But, New Kid, mid-15th c. is before the New World. I’m pretty sure Papa was talking about Africa there (re: slavery). Anyway, hopefully, I’ll know a lot more after this event (on right of page). Also, I think Ahistoricality makes a good point about “purchasing people who are already slaves.” Wasn’t that par for the course in Africa — Europeans buying from natives?

  11. 11 February, 2008 2:03 am

    I think also that part of the difference is that the peoples of the New World were seen as part of the Spanish kingdoms (at least by the rulers), while the Spanish rulers didn’t claim jurisdiction over Africa. So in the New World they were arguing about whether the people were slaves as a whole, ie natural slaves, and officially deciding no, while with taking slaves from Africa they were talking about specific people being enslaved, which (as people have said) had a long history of being acceptable. So perhaps being human is a reason not to be able to enslave your own subjects wholesale, but doesn’t matter when talking about slavery due to war/purchase/etc.?

  12. 11 February, 2008 2:42 am

    Ah, true, true. I know modern scholars trace the dispossession of Native Americans from their lands to those bulls, so I kind of elided things. I too think ahistoricality’s distinction between enslaving/purchasing is a big part of what’s going on. And finally – I don’t know that there’s any good reason Europeans would have assumed that Native Americans and Africans were remotely comparable and therefore the slavery of one group would have raised any questions about the slavery of the other (if that makes any sense).

  13. 11 February, 2008 5:01 am

    Those are all such good points. I don’t know why I keep expecting logic …Matt … if you wanted to mention that panel to the speaker …Wish me luck that no one asks!

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