Webinar Featured

Webinar: Indigenous Slavery in America and Africa

Indigenous Slavery in America and America
Elizabeth Weiss
Written by Elizabeth Weiss

Elizabeth Weiss is Professor of Anthropology, San José State University. Her most recent book, co-authored with James W. Springer, is Repatriation and Erasing the Past (2020).



Lawrence Goldman: Well good afternoon London time to everyone who is listening and I’m delighted to invite you to listen to another of the History Reclaimed webinars in a series we’re doing on contemporary historical issues that need some accuracy and objectivity. It’s my delight to have with us from the University of San Jose in the United States Elizabeth Weiss who is a professor of anthropology there. Elizabeth teaches courses there on human osteology, bioarcheology, human evolution, and the history of disease. And generally, from what I understand, Elizabeth, you use the evidence left by our bones, and for most of us in History Reclaimed who use the evidence of the written word that is in itself astonishing and very interesting, and so I’m fascinated to hear you speak today on types of evidence that are normally not used in the historical profession.


Elizabeth is very widely published. I like particularly the title of her book of 2012 Old Bones: A brief introduction to bioarchaeology. She’s also the author of Paleopathology in Perspective, Bone Health, and Disease Through Time, and most recently she has published with a co-author, James Springer, a book entitled Repatriation and Erasing the Past which is about that complex issue of the return of indigenous remains to indigenous communities from Western museums and galleries and so forth.


But today I’m delighted to introduce her subject. She’s going to be talking on indigenous slavery in Africa and America. Elizabeth, Welcome.


Elizabeth Weiss: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me on. Let me give a little bit of background first about how I came to this subject, and what we learned, and how we learn it. So as said, I am a physical anthropologist. So I study bones. One of the things that always amazes me is that when you look at the Americas, they didn’t have writing until very late. Europeans introduced writing to the native Americans, so in a sense, we don’t have as clear indication of what went on as in as in Asia or in Europe where writing goes back quite far back. And so one of the things we tried to do is we tried to reconstruct the past, using the artifacts and using the bones. Now some of this is difficult to do because trauma, whether it’s trauma caused by being enslaved or trauma caused by other things, can look the same. But in order to kind of navigate, whether it is trauma by slavery or trauma by other means, one of the things that anthropologists have done is compare the data of known slave cemeteries with unknown. And so we can see certain patterns like what kind of a cranial trauma is sometimes linked to slavery, and being hit on the back of the head, and then being held captive afterwards, versus cranial trauma that would be done in order to kill the person. So that’s one aspect of how we make these determinations.

Another aspect of how we make these determinations is by looking at the ethnographic data of the first people who encountered Native Americans and other indigenous people, and this is always a little bit fraught because, of course, this is written record, and but some people might have had ulterior motives, and so anthropologists in the past, in the recent past, have been kind of sceptical of records left by missionaries, because they thought maybe they were exaggerating what was occurring to make them look more important, and to continue having their support from their homeland.

But the more we look at the evidence from bones, in some cases from the artwork that these individuals left behind and from artifacts, the more we see that the missionaries and other colonialists actually were telling the truth. And so what I’m going to do today is basically to give you a summary of slavery throughout time. History and prehistory. But also I’m going to then split it up into the different sections covering Africa, but spending some time on the Americas, and also some other areas like New Zealand so forth to show how slavery was a global institution. And so, as an American, there’s often talk about reparations to descendants of slaves, and I think as I’ll go into more detail later on, I think it’s kind of ironic that we don’t consider the slavery that happened before the Europeans came to the Americas, which was rampant. And so it’s really a testament to humans and humanity that we’ve gotten rid of so much slavery in the modern era, and I’ll talk a little bit about that, too.

So slavery is very ancient, we know it goes back thousands of years, especially in the Near East. If you look at the Sumerians who had the world’s first civilization around 6,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, they had terms for slavery already back then. And it’s interesting that these terms referred to slaves as foreigners, and so already on our earliest evidence of slavery, we see that enslaving the other is one of the themes we see in Mesopotamia, we’ll see that in the Americas and so forth. In the late Assyrian Empire, which is modern day Syria, around 4,000 years ago, slaves mainly consisted of minors, many from other places like Babylonia which was modern day Iraq. Sometimes parents would sell their children into slavery, and other times the children inherited the parents’ debt, and therefore would be enslaved as a result. So a lot of slavery in the past was debtors slave. And so basically, what that meant was that people would go into slavery because they had debt, and then if they did not pay off their debt, then the next generation would also be enslaved and I’ll talk more about that later.

In Pharaonic Egypt, foreigners who were prisoners of war, made up the majority of slaves, such as the captured Israelites in 1700 BC. These slaves could be property of the Pharaohs, the temple, or even of private individuals. At around 450 BC, Herodotus, who made travels into Egypt, noted that slavery existed, and that the Egyptian term at that time for slaves was something to the equivalent of “speaking tools”. This phrase, speaking tools comes up in many places in North Africa in reference to slaves, showing that they were not considered really human.

In the Roman world from about 27 BC to about 476 AD, slavery was quite common. And they had diverse ways of getting those slaves. One of them was punishment for crimes, sometimes the punishment would be that you would be enslaved. Debt, as I mentioned, war captives, which didn’t necessarily mean soldiers, it could have meant the children or the women of the enemies, and people were also born into slavery. Again, slaves could be owned by the State and by Privates. Children were shown sometimes to have been kept as pets. So this was a type of slavery by the very wealthy, and women were used as sex slaves. Males on the other hand, were noted as being involved in the most heavy labour, such as mining, and one of my favourite retellings, Cassius Dio, the Roman historian, who lived from 155AD to 235AD, discussed a group of German women and children who were sold by the Emperor Caracalla, and this group wanted to avoid slavery so badly, wanted to avoid being enslaved, that they all committed suicide rather than living as slaves.

Although many religions engaged in slavery, it really wasn’t until the origins of Islam, at around seventh and eighth centuries that took hold in North Africa. But then also really expanded slavery in North Africa and the Near East. From about the eighth to the fifteenth century AD, Islamic captives of non-Muslims for slaves during raids was near a constant aspect of life in North Africa. But it wasn’t only in North Africa. It filtered down into sub-Saharan Africa. In the Chad Basin by the eleventh century, slavery was so prevalent that there were a string of slave settlements between Lake Chad and Fazan. Raiding and the taking of slaves in this region and neighbouring areas like Nigeria increased in the thirteenth and fourteenth century. Perhaps as a result of dramatic climate shifts or changes like drought. But I’m always kind of weary of those kind of explanations. They may be more excuses than explanations.

And the ancient trade routes crossing the Sahara have been used by Arab and Berber traders to transport captives from sub-Saharan Africa, and the routes were controlled by the Muslims starting around the eighth century. They also started to be brought into the North African slave trade markets, and then sold on to Asia and Europe. Much later around the seventeenth century we get the Barbary pirates, who are also Muslim, and they enslaved many white people traveling up to the English Channels and the Thames River. One reason for the vast engagement in slavery in Islam is that the Quran allows for slaves of non-Muslims. You could say it even encourages it. Currently, I’m reading the book Infidel, by Ayan Hirsi Ali, and she mentions so many times in that book. You have to think she was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, and she mentioned so many times in that book that her mother and other Muslims she knew, referred to non-Muslims in derogatory terms that basically translated into slaves or slavery. It’s quite astonishing. It is true that the Catholic Church is not a 100% innocent. Nicolas the Fifth authorised the Afonso the Fifth of Portugal of enslaving non-Christians in the Papal Bull, in 1452, but by 1537 Pope Paul the third condemned all slavery and specifically mentioned slavery in the Americas, so native Americans and South America.

Between 1530 and 1780, more than a 1 million European Christians were enslaved by Muslims in North Africa, and in the seventeenth century England lost about 400 sailors to slavery a year. Now, this is a lot. But to keep everything even and in perspective, the transatlantic slave trade was about 10 times that size. So it was small in comparison to that, but right at the beginning, when the transatlantic slave trade occurred, there were more Europeans being enslaved than Africans.

But it isn’t just Africa and the Near East that has long history of slavery. Slavery was present in most of the world. In ninth century China, there are texts that reveal that slaves were identifiable by tattoos, facial tattoos, and the tattoos could also reveal whether the slave had tried to escape. Different tattoos for how many attempts to escape were done. Females sometimes were tattooed, female slaves were sometimes tattooed by the jealous wives of the masters. Slavery was not abolished in China until 1906. Some people have argued that slavery in many of these places that I’m mentioning and in the Americas was not as terrible as in the US because the slaves could purchase their freedom. However, early ethnographers of the Chinese slaves who were talking to people who have a real history, a personal history of slavery, it wasn’t from generations ago, they were dealing with people who still experienced slavery. One of the examples I like is one of the informants pointed out to the anthropologist, purchase freedom from what money? It never happened. So this is a quote from people who lived through that. So I think it’s kind of silly to try to argue “There’s good slavery and bad slavery”. It really all was bad. Slave tattooing of the faces was also done in Korea. At least as far back as in China. So this was common. In New Zealand, Major General Horatio Gordon Robley, was a British army officer and artist, and he was serving in New Zealand during 1860, and he made a point of collecting and studying the Māori tattooed mummified heads, and these are called the Mokomokai, and the tattoos showed clan symbols or lineage. And these tattoos should have only been on warriors or high ranked individuals, and what would happen is that when a warrior or chief got killed in battle, the enemy would take the body and mummified the head, and then, when they were trying to make peace with their neighbours, one of the bargaining chips was, “you get your warriors heads back”. So this was one of the cultural traditions that the first Europeans viewed when they arrived in New Zealand.

However, what happened is that there became so much interest and desire to collect these heads from Europeans for museums, and the Māori were happy to sell those heads. So, even though some people say they shouldn’t have been in European hands, the Māori were selling them to them, trading them for other materials like weaponry. But what happened is when demand was more than supply, the Māori then started to tattoo slaves and kill them, and sell them to the Europeans. We have evidence of this from these mummified heads. The slaves who were tattooed, had tattoos that were meaningless, Robley was one of the first to point this out, that there were these scam or fake warrior heads that were actually slaves. Reverend Taylor, who worked in conversion in New Zealand noted that as late 1868, he said: Many a poor slave was tattooed and murdered for his head.

Going to the Americas, in Mesoamerica, the Aztec in the 1500s had debt slavery, and criminals were often punished by slavery. Sometimes when a slave died, that debt would  still need to be paid, and so somebody would take his place. Usually a family member. One of the interesting things about debt slavery is, we kind of think of it as, “Oh, when the debt is paid you’re free”. But oftentimes the debt is never paid. Who’s keeping track of that? It’s not the slave keeping count of what they still owe. Furthermore, the Aztec who did keep records enslaved traitors and their descendants for up to 5 generations. So slaves were also used as sacrifices. There’s a lot of sacrifices in the indigenous cultures and one of the things we see is that children were often sacrificed, but a lot of the sacrifices seem to have been slaves. We know this by the types of injuries they had, the recidivism of their injuries that leave marks on the bones, but also there are other things like when you look at the bones isotopes you can tell whether they are from the same population or not. Whether they grew up in areas where there were different waters that they were consuming that then made up their bones and teeth. So that’s an interesting aspect of bioarcheology, and consistently shows that people who are treated poor tended to be from the outside. And although we can’t always say that this was slavery, we can say that this is kind of an additional piece of evidence of treating the foreigners differently. If we look at burials, we see that individuals who were foreigners in many areas where slaves were kept also they were not buried in the same way. They had no grave goods. So this is again an example of treating the other different.

And I mention this because a lot of times there’s talk about slavery being different from American slavery. That transatlantic slavery was different because it focused on race and enslaved people based just on their race. I think this is kind of a quibble, because in a sense,  what is the difference between whether you’re enslaving somebody because of their race or their religion, or because they are just a different tribe. We’ll talk more about intertribal evidence.

But the Native Americans oftentimes viewed people, even if they were just their neighbours, if they were a different tribe, as sub-human, as non-humans, and therefore felt fine about enslaving them.

What about enslavement as punishment for crimes? Sometimes this is also pointed out as being not as bad as enslavement for other reasons, but we should remember that determining who was a criminal was quite different back then, and crimes could be for something simple like saying the wrong word, which might still be a crime now, but also giving the evil eye. In Australia when you look at the different tribal traditions and the different reasons for mummifying, one of the reasons was that they thought that every death was suspicious, and they had to figure out who caused the death. And you can just imagine that there were many people who were punished as murderers for accidental and natural deaths. So we should remember that it’s not like they went through the justice system, they were presumed guilty, not presumed innocent.

As I mentioned before downplaying the debt slavery is also quite ridiculous. Many of the debt slaves also could be sacrificed.

So you get into debt, you decide that rather than trying to make it still as a free person, you sell yourself into slavery and 6 months down the road you’re being sacrificed to the sun god in Mexico. These things happened.

Among the Mayans, Mexico, children of slaves were also slaves regardless of the reason the initial enslavement.

So moving up to North America. In North America we have less written evidence but we have ethnographic evidence. We also have evidence ss I mentioned on the artifacts and the bones. Many tribes throughout the continent engaged in slavery both before and after contact with the Europeans.

So one of the things we hear is that “the Native Americans, they just learned this from the Europeans, and they were didn’t do this beforehand”. But this is just not true. The southeast tribes such as the Cherokee, the Creek, and the Seminole Indians, even actively participated in the transatlantic slave trade, running some of the markets on the same steps on the same land, that they ran their own slave trade prior to the transatlantic slave trade.

When slavery was abolished in the US, the descendants of these slaves that were held by the Cherokee (and the Cherokee didn’t only actively engage in trading, but they did own slaves as well), they were promised that they would be tribal members. And now in the last couple of years there’s been a real active push to try to get them out of the tribe and the tribal chiefs say, “well, we should be able to decide who’s in our tribe. This is about sovereignty”. But I really think it’s about money. Basically, they want to get as many people out of the tribe as possible in order to share the Casino wealth as with as few hands as possible. And this was I covered in the New York Times, surprisingly, and one of the cases against the tribe, I believe the descendant of the slave did win one of the cases, but it’s ongoing.

Before European contact, slavery among the tribes like the Creek, the Huron, the Yoruk, and many others, was nearly always intertribal. Sometimes even the trade involved multiple tribes interacting, such as the California Shasta who went through the Modoc to get slaves from another the Atsugewi. It wasn’t just a raid and then they took what was there. There was a slave trade. Ethnographic stories of slavery are abundant. The Jesuits, for example, who worked with the Huron in the Northeast, talked about slavery. The French, who when they first encountered the Native Americans in Illinois they thought that each man has hundreds of wives. But actually this wasn’t wives. These were slaves which they later on realised.

Native American tribes, such as the Iroquois of the Northeast, who are located in modern day New York were documented by Desoto in 1540, as engaging in mutilation of the slave’s feet. Of slaves, feet. This continued into the eighteenth century. And these types of ethnographic tales help us when we’re looking at the bones. So at an archaeological site called Sacred Ridge, in Colorado, dating to about 800 AD, so way before contact, there’s evidence that there were individuals who had injuries that would have been similar to the mutilation that was noted by Desoto. So basically they were hobbling these people, in order to prevent from escape. So they cut their Achilles tendon, for example. And although you’re cutting on soft tissue, the cuts oftentimes went straight through to the bone. And so you can see these kinds of injuries. You can also see injuries along the bottom of the foot, where the feet were cut, and then it hit the bone. There’s some bones there that are quite close to the surface of the skin, and so we know that this mimics what was told by the ethnographers and by the first colonialists.

Additionally, in many of the individuals who had the foot trauma and the ankle trauma, they also had cranial trauma. They were hit on the back of the heads, which suggests that these individuals were captured in raids. So if you look at trauma of the skull, almost always when we’re talking about combat, where one person and another person get into a fight, there’s going to be injuries on the nose, on the cheek, on the forehead. Those are the most prominent. There’s a whole area of research about facial trauma and about how when you hit somebody on the nose, there’s a lot of blood and so this is an effective way to scare people too. It’s also a very sensitive area.

So we can see evidence of broken noses. Most of our nose is cartilage but up here it’s bone, and so we can see evidence when there’s a misalignment or a broken area here that suggests people were hit in the face. This would be evidence of warfare or combat, but what we see in areas where there was likely slavery, is that the people were hit on the back of their heads. They’re coming from behind and clubbing them on the back of their heads and this leads oftentimes to an indent there. We can look at these patterns and see that more women and children were hit on the back of a head than men. These were the captives. And then they basically would sometimes kill off all the men if they were too much trouble, and just have the females and the children, who would then grow up as slaves.

There’s also this kind of trying to make it sound as if it’s not that bad. Many ethnographers and anthropologists talk about how Native Americans would adopt their slaves. But this was not adoption like what we see now. They might have adopted them in the sense of they gave them the tattoos of the tribe so that they wouldn’t be stolen by somebody else. But it’s not like they were adopting them into their family from the warmth of their hearts. It’s a very different way of thinking.

A similar site to that of Sacred Ridge, Colorado was found in New Mexico, dating to again before contact in 1000 AD. Lots of evidence of hobbling, but also in this site and other sites like the Iroquois sites, there’s evidence of cutting off of the so-called ‘trigger finger’, that you would use for bows and arrows. This was also documented by ethnographers so we have the archaeological evidence that this was done precontact, and then we have the ethnography as a comparison of “yes, this was definitely about slavery, and therefore we can make the comparison.”

Some of the most prolific slave owners were tribes along the northwest coast. Indians of the Columbia River, which runs from British Columbia to the Washington Oregon border, use cranial modification to distinguish themselves from others. For instance, the Chinook Indians, viewed unmodified skulls as evidence of being subhuman. These beliefs were then fortified by their belief in Polygenesis. Basically, most Native American tribes, even today, have some story about polygenesis, basically that every tribe is created independently and we don’t share a common ancestor. All religions do that. Our religion is the best right. So, in their view, the creator created us especially, but not those other Indians. They were just created as the other animals were. Very common. This really helped to justify this view that the others were subhuman, and therefore can be treated as slaves.

Along the northwest coast, the Kwakiulti of British Columbia, traded slaves during potlatches as late as 1906. The slaves were obtained through raids, and although there was some suggestion that slaves could be bought back or traded back to their families, this occurrence has never been actually documented. The possibility has been documented. But the actual act has not been, and likely because early ethnographers noted that when discussing these kinds of issues among the natives there was a high stigma of having been enslaved, and the families didn’t want them back.

As California grapples with reparations for slavery it never engaged in, and San Francisco even voted for reparations to black Americans who are descendants of slaves, even though San Francisco never had European slavery, the only true history of slavery in California is hidden. Many Californian tribes engaged in intertribal slavery.

The Yoruk up north had slaves and valued the slaves as less worth than a single obsidian blade. Although the Yoruk slaves are sometimes debtor slaves, the offspring of the slaves belong to the slave owner, and slaves, even the debtor slaves, were threatened with instant death if they had run off after being sold to another master. The Shasta of Central California and the Juaneño of Southern California mainly used children and women as slaves after wars. That’s even though many of the tribal slaves were from intertribal wars. It was the women and children who were held captive. And we see evidence of this in the grave sites where women and children who are buried had fared far worse, had far more nutritional problems, had far less grave goods. Finally, I’d like to point out that most of the sacrifices, and along the west coast, even in California, were of slaves.

So, in summary, slavery was a global institute, and it doesn’t matter whether it was chattel slavery or debtor slavery, the risk of sacrifice and torture were the same. And it’s silly to argue that slavery that didn’t involve the American or the Brits was somehow benign. Tales of the masters being nicer or less harsh, are just that, tales. They are myths. Slavery was horrendous everywhere; the British abolished it. The US turned around and made it illegal. The Catholic Church saw the error of its ways. All this occurred before the end of African and indigenous slavery. Currently slavery only exists in small pockets of the world, mainly Africa, like in Ghana, among the Trokosi cult or Sudan, where Islamic rule encouraged of non-Muslims as recently as 1999. Thank you.

Lawrence Goldman: Thank you very much indeed. Elizabeth. I hope you can hear me. That’s really very good indeed, a remarkable tour, both historically in time and geographically across the globe. And your point is made in so many ways, so effectively, so thank you for the context that you’ve provided for an understanding of slavery.

I wonder if I could ask a first question, whether slavery, given it’s great spread is always a heritable condition or whether it was possible for it to die with the slave, and not be passed on to offspring. And indeed just a small rider to that one as well, whether debtor slaves could work off their debts over a period of years and would then be allowed their freedom for example.

Elizabeth Weiss: Slavery was not always inherited. There are some examples especially with debtor slavery, that it did not pass on to the children. There are some examples both in the New and the Old World of this. In Europe, there was debtor slavery that did not pass on, Eastern Europe especially. It wasn’t always passed on. I think that this is one of the arguments why chattel slavery is worse, but it was sometimes passed on. The debt could be repaid but I think it very rarely happened just because the slaves couldn’t keep track and there was no reason to basically allow the slave to go free. There was one example where the children could redeem themselves, the offspring could redeem themselves. In some of the South American Aztec and Mayan tribes you sometimes had cases where debtor slaves’ children could redeem themselves and become serfs. So moving up the social ladder a little bit. In Egypt there were also tales of female slaves who were considered especially attractive could then marry out. So there are some cases where they escape their fate, so to speak.

Lawrence Goldman: Yes, I was just wondering if there are other examples in other cultures of manumission. It’s clearly a very important theme in the history of American slavery, slavery in the United States, where many planters manumit their slaves at the end of their life, having had service of them through their lives, and I wonder if that’s very much a part of the kind of Atlantic world by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and whether you find it elsewhere also.

Elizabeth Weiss: In many indigenous cultures, when the master died, the slaves would be sacrificed. So not every time but that was a common theme, and it’s amazing how much sacrifice occurred, and it wasn’t just slaves that were sacrificed. Sometimes the wives were sacrificed. So that was common, and you see this in both South and North America. That that was the more common way than letting them go.

Lawrence Goldman: One of our listeners/watchers is a postgraduate who says that she’s having some difficulty navigating the waters of critical social justice at present, and wants to keep her integrity, her scholarly integrity. She asks what tips you might have to help her. It’s a dilemma that so many young researchers, young postgraduates, are facing, not just in slavery studies, but in all sorts of areas. And I just wondered if you could help reassure this person in our audience tonight about that particular problem.

Elizabeth Weiss: It’s a huge problem. One that I’ve been struggling with of course. I think we have to keep our ethics about being fair and being true to the facts. In anthropology one of the big problems is that when we want to study skeletal remains or artifacts, a lot of times we have to collaborate with Native American tribes or those who claim to be Native American tribes. And I am not against collaboration, but I am against collaboration when it requires me to make decisions about my research that shape the outcome.

For example, a lot of times the tribes will want to see the results, and if they don’t like the results they don’t want to publish it, or they don’t want certain questions asked. Or they have weird regulations about what you can and cannot do as a woman. All of these problems arise, coupled with awe about the indigenous issues, whether it’s the Māori or the Australian Aborigines or Native Americans. They can say the biggest BS, and you can’t say anything. My advice is, even if it seems difficult, to speak up. And I think you’ll find that there are other people who agree with you. But you grow some thick skin. You have to realise that you will be attacked, and you have to keep a sense of humour about it and look for the way to go forward. Even though it’s difficult. Things have gotten much worse than when I was a student. I do think that is the case But one of my first papers was ‘Kennewick Man’s funeral’, I think I called it, and so even back then it was controversial for me to talk against reburial of bones, but I just felt like it was too important not to say anything. My advice is to speak up and to not let the bullies kowtow you to agreeing to do things you don’t think is comfortable  and you wouldn’t normally not agree to. You will find people who support you, and you will make it through. You just have to have some thick skin and a good sense of humour and some backing.

Lawrence Goldman: If I could just add to that, I think it’s incumbent upon us, people like us, who are established scholars or, in my case, at the end of a scholarly career, to actually make the space in which younger scholars can say what they find in their research and said openly and without fear and favour, because I think it’s actually quite difficult. People who were involved with History Reclaimed are very concerned about this, the narrowing not only of what is considered acceptable speech but indeed the narrowing of what would be an acceptable topic to work on.

There’s a sense in the UK that in the historical disciplines, to have a career you have to work on only certain subjects today, and many of the perhaps less obviously exciting but nevertheless historically very important sorts of subjects are now being squeezed out because of the need for an acceptance of a theological view of what counts in history. So, I hope that answers to some extent our younger questioner, and I wish her the very best of luck.

In the absence, perhaps, of others who know a little bit about slavery, I’m very interested in the variety of slave experience. Again, based upon my teaching and reading concern with American slavery in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, North American slavery, as it were, and the way in which the historiography has in the end said that there isn’t one slave experience. There are lots of slave experiences dependent upon the size of the plantation, the relationship for the master, what’s being grown, and so forth.

I mean, it’s not a single experience in the work of someone like Eugene Genovese looking at American slavery, you get a very nuanced and subtle picture at some of those subtleties that I think have been forgotten since he and others were writing in the 1970s and 1980s. And I just wondered if you know, looking at other slave cultures, if you see, even within the slave population enslaved by an Amerindian tribe, or whatever it is, whether you can get a sense, and I know it must be difficult if you’re if you’re going and looking at preliterate cultures, if you can get a sense of the variety of slave experience so that it’s not just one experience. But actually, there’s perhaps a role for agency within certain slave cultures.

Elizabeth Weiss: I think that’s a really interesting question because one of the arguments had been that the reason why indigenous people did not have slavery is because they didn’t have plantations. Many of them didn’t engage in agriculture. What would you use your slave for? So we do have examples like in South America, where they did build fantastic structures, pyramid structures and so forth where slaves were utilised for those things. And then in Africa there’s fairly clear evidence at least some of the large architectural structures were done with some aspect of slave labour. So that’s more clear that how their lives would have been, and we and they were also literate cultures that left if not text writings then pictures and so forth that drew these examples.

In the Americas, the southeast tribes do get agriculture, and so they use their slaves in similar manners, however, not as vast. Their agriculture wasn’t as big. So they not plantation size. One of the suggestions is that these slaves had more autonomy because there was less structure overall in the indigenous cultures. And I can say that that might be the case, at least in some tribes, because they didn’t have the homes. They didn’t have certain things, and so there would be less structure there. But then in the Northwest, they’re not agriculturalists. They’re hunter-gatherer-fishers right, and you wonder what were they using their slaves for. And a lot of it was for display, for show off, to show wealth. I think that this is in alignment with the potlatches where they tried to one up one with what they have. So it’s a symbol of wealth. And so these individuals would have still been doing labour. But that wasn’t necessarily the main reason why they were around. The main reason why they were around was to show off the wealth. And that’s, I think, why they were so easily sacrificed. They didn’t care that much about what they were worth. Sometimes they weren’t worth that much to them, and so why not just sacrifice them to show that you have enough that you can just toss them out? I do think that that’s an important aspect of the distinction between the transatlantic slave trade, and especially like the Northwest slaves, that this was more of a status symbol than anything else.

Lawrence Goldman: Indeed, it’s one of the points that has been made so often in the study of American slavery in the American South that by the nineteenth century slaves were an extremely valuable part of capital on the plantation, and it’s very central to the paternalist thesis of Genovese and others that you wouldn’t want to mistreat your slaves because they were so valuable. They were a vital capital asset. Cotton was so valuable as well. It becomes a quite different kind of economic equation. And looking after your slaves makes a great deal of sense if you’re a planter at that time. We haven’t got awful lot of time left, and I just wondered if I could get you to speculate on why we’ve so narrowed our sense of what slavery has been, across so many civilizations and societies. As you’ve suggested, and as is very clear at present, we have an image of slavery which is very much dominated by Atlantic slavery. In the case of Britain it’s about the West Indies and the Caribbean Islands of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Obviously, in the case of the United States, it’s the American South and the cotton producing States.

But of course we’re dealing with an international phenomenon over thousands of years. And I just wondered if you have any thoughts on why we’ve lost the capacity actually to understand that this labour system, this form of labour, has been used across the globe in so many different circumstances.

Elizabeth Weiss: I think that this is part of this postmodern agenda of painting one group as the victims and the other group as the oppressors. It’s kind of when I was working on the book Repatriation and Erasing the Past, and my co-author, Jim Springer, he’s an attorney but he’s also an anthropologist, and one of the things is that he wrote this excellent chapter in the beginning about how repatriation ties into the postmodern agenda of victim and oppressor and that the truth does not matter as long as you get who’s a bad guy and who’s a good guy correct. And this has taken hold in anthropology on so many topics, and it has taken hold on the topic of historic slavery versus other slavery. So you really can’t say anything bad about the indigenous, and one of my things is that a lot of times I look at religiosity. Academia is full of people who can’t stand religion, a lot of atheists, a lot of agnostics. But what I’ve noticed over the years is that it’s the white Christians that they really can’t stand, and that if others are religious they get a pass. And so I think that this is just the same trend. It’s a European-American slavery that is shunned and repeatedly discussed as being horrendous. And of course it was. There’s no way to argue that it wasn’t. But it just basically is that we cannot say anything bad about the indigenous, whether they are the Māori or the Native Americans, because they are the victims. And I think that it’s just that tale that facts don’t matter, identity does.

Lawrence Goldman: Yes I’m sure everyone listening will be very aware of the simplifications of history which are going on at present, and also the judgmentalism, the rush to judgment and as you rightly say, the desire to have very simple moral tales, history becoming a kind of morality play in which there are good and bad things, and they’re very obviously there in front of us. There have been actually over recent years some wonderful films on the slave experience in America. I’m thinking of Amistad by Steven Spielberg, and 12 Years a Slave, all of which I think are admirable in their way in bringing to an audience the experience of slavery. But sometimes you think that it’s actually narrowed our conceptions of the past, and certainly provided people with a kind of simple morality, rather than led to a kind of broadening of understanding in what has become a kind of rush to judgment.

Yes, I quite understand the points that you’re making and sympathise entirely. It’s very much the same on this side of the Atlantic. Elizabeth. Thank you. I know it’s very early in the morning where you are, but you’ve given us a wonderful end of day experience, and I do want to thank you for the breadth that you brought to the study of slave cultures both over time and in space. That’s been a wonderful tour of the horizon, if you like, of the whole subject, and one I think that will give us much to think about as we reflect on the subject that we ourselves deal with, because we also, of course, in Britain, are thinking all the time about slavery and its Legacies so thank you again, and we wish you well.

Elizabeth Weiss: Thank you so much for having me.

About the author

Elizabeth Weiss

Elizabeth Weiss

Elizabeth Weiss is Professor of Anthropology, San José State University. Her most recent book, co-authored with James W. Springer, is Repatriation and Erasing the Past (2020).