Indian Slavery and Forced Labor

views updated

Indian Slavery and Forced Labor

During the colonial period in Brazil (1500–1822), Amerindian labor provided a fundamental source of manpower for Portuguese enterprises, particularly in areas peripheral to the Atlantic export economy. Early on, with the development of the sugar industry along the coast, settlers turned to the indigenous population in their search for labor. Though they attempted alternative forms of labor appropriation, the colonists ultimately favored native bondage. In a strictly legal sense, however, indigenous slavery failed to unfold on a large scale, since protective Portuguese legislation and Jesuit opposition to illegal slaving practices constrained its development. According to the law of 20 March 1570, slaves could be acquired legitimately only through the prosecution of "just wars" against tribes who had refused or renounced Christianity, or through the "ransom" of captives destined to be sacrificed in cannibalistic rituals. Colonists found many ways to circumvent legal restrictions, forging pretexts for "just wars," often with the collusion of corrupt authorities, and declaring that every captive taken had been "ransomed."

While native labor gradually was replaced by African slavery in the sugar zones, Amerindian slavery reached massive proportions in the southern colony of São Paulo and in the northern state of Maranhão, where the local economies revolved around the services of native agricultural laborers and porters. In seventeenth-century São Paulo, the colonists focused their attentions on the southern Guarani people, organizing several large-scale expeditions to assault their villages and the Jesuit missions, bringing thousands of captives back to the Portuguese settlements. Though treating the Indians as captives and disposing of them as property, the colonists did not consider them formally as slaves, always referring to them as forros (freedmen).

Claiming rights to the labor of the people they had extracted from the wilderness at great personal expense—feeding them, clothing them, and giving them Christian instruction—the colonists developed a parallel system of personal administration. In effect, though, the expansion and reproduction of this system depended less on its institutional contours than on objective demographic and economic variables. Subject to periodic epidemics and negative natural growth rates, the captive population had to be replenished by new expeditions. As a result, indigenous slavery flourished as long as the flow of new captives continued.

In Maranhão and Pará, the colonists also developed a labor-recruitment scheme based on slaving expeditions, though with peculiar regional characteristics. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the basic organizational form was the tropa de Resgate (ransom expedition), canoe convoys that penetrated the many navigable rivers of the Amazon Valley in search of slaves and forest products. Though frequently contested by the Jesuits, many captives taken were judged legal slaves, even as late as the 1740s.

Though the Pombaline Reforms eradicated all forms of forced native labor in 1755, legal "Indian" slavery reemerged briefly after 1808, when the crown permitted the temporary bondage of war captives, especially among the Kaingang of São Paulo and the Botocudo of Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo. The province of Goiás and the cattle frontier of southern Maranhão also witnessed the reintroduction of Amerindian slavery during this period. Indigenous bondage was proscribed once again in 1831, though other forms of native forced labor, such as debt servitude in the Amazon, persisted into the twentieth century.

Generally indigenous slavery was prohibited in Spanish-speaking America, and therefore, unlike in Brazil, the topic of Native-American slavery has not received much attention using this kind of terminology. Yet Pre-Columbian peoples held each other in slavery, not only with the mit'a in the Andes but also with parallel structures in Mesoamerica. The Nahua (Aztecs) held large quantities of peoples as slaves. Oftentimes when the Spanish arrived, they simply appropriated Amerindian practices in this regard. Cortés's Cartas de relación offer some insight. As Ward observes, every time Cortés arrived in a new town or city the local ruler would make gifts of slave women, called esclavas in Spanish. This usage can also be found in other chroniclers. Since the Amerindians did not generally have the concept of private property, later Iberian practices tended to reflect that and not view their indigenous slaves as chattel. Oftentimes in the Spanish-speaking world, indigenous servitude was hidden through institutions that seemed somewhat less sinister, such as with the repartimiento and the encomienda. Like in Brazil, native servitude in Spanish-speaking regions evolved into a form of debt peonage as early as the seventeenth century, chronicler Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala reports. Debt peonage practices continue to the present day in Guatemala, Peru and other countries.

See alsoDebt Peonage; Encomienda; Mita; Repartimiento; Slavery: Brazil; Slavery: Spanish America.


On early labor relations see Alexander Marchant, From Barter to Slavery (1942), which remains an important source. Stuart Schwartz, Sugar Plantations in the Formation of Brazilian Society (1985), provides an illuminating discussion of Indian labor in the northeast. John Monteiro, "From Indian to Slave," in Slavery and Abolition 9, no. 2 (1988): 105-127, examines the development of Indian slavery in São Paulo. Mathias Kiemen, The Indian Policy of Portugal in the Amazon Region (1954), deals with the legal dimensions of native labor in Maranhão, while Dauril Alden, "Indian versus Black Slavery in the State of Maranhão During the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century," in Bibliotheca Americana 1 (1983): 91-142, offers a cogent summary of demographic and economic aspects. For a general treatment see John Hemming, Red Gold (1978) and Amazon Frontier (1987). For indigenous history, see Manuela Carneiro Da Cunha, ed., Historia dos índios no Brasil (1992).

Additional Bibliography

Metcalf, Alida C. Go-betweens and the Colonization of Brazil, 1500–1600. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005.

Langfur, Hal. The Forbidden Lands: Colonial Identity, Frontier Violence, and the Persistence of Brazil's Eastern Indians, 1750–1830. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006.

Ward, Thomas. "Expanding Ethnicity in Sixteenth-Century Anahuac: Ideologies of Ethnicity and Gender in the Nation-Building Process." MLN 116.2 (March 2001): 419-452; pp. 434-449.

                                    John M. Monteiro

About this article

Indian Slavery and Forced Labor

Updated About content Print Article