Vital Enemies: Slavery, Predation, and the Amerindian Political Economy of Life

Vital Enemies: Slavery, Predation, and the Amerindian Political Economy of Life

Vital Enemies: Slavery, Predation, and the Amerindian Political Economy of Life

Vital Enemies: Slavery, Predation, and the Amerindian Political Economy of Life

Synopsis

Analyzing slavery and other forms of servitude in six non-state indigenous societies of tropical America at the time of European contact, Vital Enemies offers a fascinating new approach to the study of slavery based on the notion of "political economy of life." Fernando Santos-Granero draws on the earliest available historical sources to provide novel information on Amerindian regimes of servitude, sociologies of submission, and ideologies of capture. Estimating that captive slaves represented up to 20 percent of the total population and up to 40 percent when combined with other forms of servitude, Santos-Granero argues that native forms of servitude fulfill the modern understandings of slavery, though Amerindian contexts provide crucial distinctions with slavery as it developed in the American South. The Amerindian understanding of life forces as being finite, scarce, unequally distributed, and in constant circulation yields a concept of all living beings as competing for vital energy. The capture of human beings is an extreme manifestation of this understanding, but it marks an important element in the ways Amerindian "captive slavery" was misconstrued by European conquistadors. Illuminating a cultural facet that has been widely overlooked or miscast for centuries, Vital Enemies makes possible new dialogues regarding hierarchies in the field of native studies, as well as a provocative re-framing of pre- and post-contact America.

Excerpt

On the very first day Columbus landed in America, he registered in his Diario (1991: 67) the first allusion ever made to the existence of captive slavery in native tropical American societies: “I saw some who had marks of wounds on their bodies and I made signs to them asking what they were; and they showed me how people from other islands nearby came there and tried to take them, and how they defended themselves.” And he speculated: “I believed and [still] believe that they come here from tierra firme to take them captive.” Since that fateful twelfth day of October 1492, wherever European conquistadores set foot in the American tropics, they found evidence of indigenous warfare, war captives, and captive slaves.

As early as 1509, to the north, Núñez de Balboa reported that native lords living in coastal Darien, Panama, were carried on the shoulders of slaves (López de Gómara 1946[1552]: 199). In 1515 another conquistador observed that the peoples to the east of Darien kept slaves—identified by the red and black designs that their masters tattooed on their faces— whose main duties were to extract gold, to perform agricultural tasks, and to do other menial services (López de Gómara 1946[1552]: 278). In the early sixteenth-century expeditions undertaken along the Paraguay River, to the south, the Spaniards found a great deal of interethnic warfare associated with the taking of enemy heads as war trophies, the cannibalistic consumption of war prisoners, the trading of captives for gold and silver objects, and the classification of entire populations as “enemy/slaves” (Schmidl 1749[1539]: 19; Martínez de Irala 1912[1542]: 347, 349, 352; Núñez Cabeza de Vaca 1585[1555]: 125v).

On the eastern slopes of the Bolivian Andes, to the west, highland informants told Garcilaso de la Vega (1963[1609]: 322) that since the reign of Tupac Inca Yupanqui, several decades before the Spanish conquest of Peru in 1532, the lowland Chiriguaná groups had been raiding the frontiers of the Inka empire to take captives. Spanish conquistadores told the Court historian Pietro Martire d’Anghiera (1966[1516]: 38v–39r), as early as 1516, that the Caribs of the Lower Orinoco River, to the east, undertook large maritime war expeditions to the Gulf of Paria to procure . . .

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