Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Race, Religion, and the “Trail of Tears”

Beneath the Underdog:
Race, Religion, and the “Trail of Tears”
By Patrick Minges
Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York
© Copyright 1994, 1998, All Rights Reserved

In the fields and homes of the colonial plantations of the United States in the late eighteenth century, the first intimate relations between African-American and Native-American peoples were forged in their collective oppression at the hands of the "peculiar institution." The institution of the African slavery, as it developed in the New World, was based upon the lessons learned in the enslavement of traditional peoples of the Americas. In spite of a later tendency in the Southern United States to differentiate the African slave from the Indian, African slavery was in actuality imposed on top of a preexisting system of Indian slavery. In North America, the two never diverged as distinct institutions.

Vast numbers of indigenous peoples toiled to their death in the fields and mines of the European colonists from the very earliest points of contact. Many of the early explorations of the New World were quite simply slaving expeditions. The colonial predisposition to cite Indian depredations as justification for "Indian wars" were often quite simply rhetorical exercises to cover the seizure and enslavement of the indigenous peoples of the America. A Cherokee from Oklahoma remembered his father's tale of the Spanish slave trade, “At an early state the Spanish engaged in 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.”

With the arrival of twenty "negars" aboard a Dutch man-of-war in Virginia in 1619, the face of American slavery began to change from the "tawny" Indian to the "blackamoor" African between 1650 and 1750. Though the issue is complex, the unsuitability of the Native American for the the colonial's labor intensive agricultural practices, their susceptibility to European diseases, the proximity of avenues of escape for Native Americans, and the lucrative nature of the African slave trade led to a transition to an African based institution of slavery.

During this period, however, the colonial "wars" against the Pequots, the Tuscaroras, the Yamasees, and numerous other Nations led to the enslavement and relocation of tens of thousands of Native Americans. By the late years of the seventeenth century, caravans of Indian slaves were making their way from the Carolina backcountry to forts on the coast just as they were doing on the African continent. Once in places such as Charleston or Savannah, the captives were loaded on ships for the "middle passage" to the West Indies or other colonies such as New Amsterdam or New England. Many of the Indian slaves were kept at home and worked on the plantations of the Carolinas; by 1708, the number of Indian slaves in the Carolinas was nearly half that of African slaves.

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