A Short History Of Race in the Americas: Part one...
A Short History of Race in the Americas
For Young Readers
Of All Ages
by Curran Jeffery
( Welcome. This is part one of the long essay I wrote in response to the death of George Floyd. An ink on paper copy is available from Amazon for $4.95. )
There was a time,
A long time ago,
When there were
No humans, male or female
In the Americas,
Either North or South.
About 18,000 years ago or there about, hunter/gatherer clans of humans from Asia started to cross the land bridge that existed between what we call Alaska and Siberia. This land bridge existed at the end of the last Ice Age before the melting ice flooded it out of existence.
Looking for better hunting, possibly following herds of Elk or Deer and following the lush abundant forests, these were the first Americans. They were Siberian-Asian, probably short brown people, muscular, hardy and agile. Over hundreds and thousands of years they moved up and down the coast and spine of what we would call North and South America. They weren’t the light skinned Europeans or the dark skinned Africans. Those people would arrive later. Much later. The first Native Americans had the two continents to themselves for thousands of years. At first, their small bands, usually just extended families, slipped into the forests, mountains, prairies, deserts of Americas and learned to survive. They raised families, hunted, some discovered farming. They fought wars over hunting grounds and territory. They made peace. Powerful rituals and wonderful and frightening legends of the spirits explained the mysteries of life.
Clans grew into tribes. Tribes into nations. Each with their own language, culture, sacred story and way of life, pride and honor. All these peoples had great awe and wonder for father sky and mother earth. This was their sacred space which gave them life.
There was war as tribes and clans would fight each other for control of the resources. There would also be peace and farming and trade. The hunter/gatherers were ruled by elders and shamans who understood the magic of the forests. Warrior peoples were ruled by strong chiefs who invoked divine powers for victory. Farm people with towns and then cities were ruled by priests who understood the magic of the seasons and could invoke the rain and the sun.
The Mayan Civilization lasted over 3000 years in Central America with huge cities, magnificent architecture, mathematics and astronomy. They had a complex written language that included pictures and an alphabet. The Aztec Civilization which came much later had a picture based written language but not an alphabet. Both the Mayans and later the Aztecs had a complex religion of gods and rituals which included blood sacrifice. The Aztecs would wage war to capture prisoners for their thirsty gods. It was brutal.
In the Andes Mountains in what is today Peru, the Timanku people who would become the Incas began creating their culture which would eventually build a magnificent sacred city atop a mountain built in stone without benefit of the wheel. A major accomplishment.
In North America the ancestors of the Pueblo peoples and the Mississippian People were establishing large towns of well planned elaborate construction, irrigation, farming, and trade. The forest peoples continued their earth-centered hunting culture which had sustained their people for thousands of generations.
In 985 C.E. Eric the Red—a Viking from Norway—settled in Greenland. In 1001 C.E. his son Leif Erickson arrived on the coast of what would become Newfoundland. This is the first contact of the American continent with Caucasian Europeans. The Vikings established a settlement which lasted several years but it did not survive the harsh winters or the long distances.
The Second encounter of the Americas with Caucasian Europeans was in 1492 C. E. on the island the native inhabitants called Guanahani. These were the Taino people of the Bahamas. They were peaceful, friendly and curious. But it soon became clear that the Spanish led by Christopher Columbus were not to be trusted. Several of the Tainos were taken forcefully back to Spain. The Spanish were looking for a sea passage to the Orient for the spice trade. Failing in that, they were looking for gold, silver, and land for plantations and people to work the mines and the crops. Columbus’ four trips to the Americas began the Spanish conquest which was a disaster for the Native peoples but provided immense wealth for Spain. The first meeting of the Native American (originally Asian) and European peoples in the Americas did not go well. On his third trip to the Americas, Columbus returned with many enslaved natives which were presented to Queen Isabella. She immediately freed them and ordered them to be returned to their homes. The Queen had serious reservation about forced labor from people she saw as her newest subjects. She consulted her court and the Church but by 1503, enslavement of native people was a reality in most of the Spanish territories but she did not approve. But the church did. Her will asked that her successors treat her native subjects fairly. Her voice was not heard.
The Spanish Cavalry terrorized the native warriors. European armor was the best and could deflect the arrows and war clubs of the Americans. The Spanish long swords made by the skilled black smiths of Toledo in Spain could decapitate heads like swinging a golf club. The Muskets of 1500 were awkward and not very effective but made a loud noise that convinced the native peoples that the Spanish fought with thunder.
The defeat of the first American people by the Spanish was largely due to European military superiority but the fatal blow was from small pox, measles, and influenza all of which traveled to the Americas on the Spanish ships. The Americas had not seen these diseases before thus no natural immunity. People started to die in droves: whole villages, whole cities depopulated. Millions died. Mayan, Aztec, and Incan civilizations came to an abrupt end. Soon the same fate would strike the peoples of North America.
In 1496, Diego Columbus, the brother of Christopher established Santo Domingo in what would become the Dominican Republic. This was the first secure European settlement in the Americas. By 1515 the conquest of Cuba was complete and the town of Havana established. In 1519 the Conquistador Hernando Cortez lands with men and cannons on the coast of Mexico. At first the Aztec Emperor Montezuma welcomes him thinking he is the returning god Quetzalcoatl. Cortez turns on him. The Aztecs resist for a year but the Spanish take control of Mexico. The conquistadors settle on land granted to them by the Crown for the conquest. Many Aztecs become forced laborers. The Priests and Friars built chapels and begin the conversion of the native peoples to the one true faith of Spanish Roman Catholicism. The Aztec and Mayan gods are treated as superstition and devil worship. The Friars were horrified by the human sacrifice. At first, the conversions are mostly forced. The Bishop Diego de Landa burned all the Mayan books he could find and burned them in front of a church. Only four of the books survive and the ability to read the Mayan written language was lost for over 400 years. After decades of work by linguists and scholars the code has been broken and the Mayan written language can be read again. There are today hundreds of thousands of Mayans still living on their ancestral lands, still speaking Mayan dialects.
Historians have often wondered about how quickly the Mexican people converted to Roman Catholicism. It happened in one or two generations. Many pre-conquest traditions survive. The Virgin of Guadalupe can be seen as the reincarnation of the Aztec Mother Goddess. The Blood of the Cross can be seen as replacing the need for human sacrifice. Indeed God Himself becomes human and is sacrificed for the salvation of everyday people. This isn’t that far from Aztec religion where gods require human blood to sustain humanity.
It wasn’t long before Spanish ships were taking gold and silver treasure back to Spain, the mines being worked by the forced labor of captured people but traveling with the Spanish sailors were also tuberculous and syphilis, two diseases that had not been seen in Europe before. What goes around, comes around.
When the friars and the Spanish army arrived in the Land of the Pueblos, they were greeted, and offered food and water and a place to stay. The friars started to talk the one true church and the soldiers built a fort. At first, friars were amazed at how receptive the people were to their message. The Pueblo People were very spiritual with a special relationship with the spirit of the earth and sky and the ancestors. They saw themselves as part of a Great Mystery. Their religion was very ancient but also open to new ways. They added Jesus and Mary to their practice. When the friars realized that they were a mere addition and not a replacement, they cracked down. When people were caught practicing the old religion, they were tortured and often killed. Spanish Pueblo relations turned violent. In 1680, the pueblos went to war. Over 400 Spanish were killed including most of the priests and friars and the rest forced out of the Rio Grande Valley, back into Mexico. They returned 12 years later with a heavy military escort and never left again.
In September 1565, the Admiral Mendez de Aviles came ashore with settlers, soldiers and supplies and founded St. Augustine in what would become Florida. St. Augustine is the oldest European town in North America. However, the oldest town in North America is the Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico which was founded 1000 years ago and has been continuously inhabited ever since.
The first successful English settlement in North America was on a river that feeds into Chesapeake Bay called Jamestown (1607). The previous settlement, Roanoke (1585,) had disappeared without a trace before their supply ships got back from England. It’s speculated that the Roanoke settlers had absorbed into the local tribes to escape famine from a severe drought. Tree rings tell that those years had a serious lack of rain. Food and fresh water would have been scarce.
The Powhatan saw in the English a chance to trade for steel and iron tools. But it soon became clear that the English
wanted to control the food supply and the land. Hostilities broke out. The lingering drought may have been responsible at least in part, for the tension. The Powhatan and the English would have been competing for the same sources of food and fresh water. Over half the English died the first year. But unlike Roanoke, Jamestown survived and soon began to prosper. Native Americans were pushed back. Tobacco farms appeared to ship tobacco back to England where it had a growing popularity.
This is the story of the first two branches of humanity to live in what we call the Americas: Native Americas descended from Asia who arrived thousands of years ago and Europeans who arrived from the other side of the Atlantic just a few hundred years ago. In 1619 Jamestown received it’s first Africans, probably from Angola, on a ship of an English privateer. Twenty Negros put to work on the tobacco farms. Many White Englishmen worked on the farms as indentured servants. Seven years of labor would pay for their passage and their training and they would be freed. The first Africans in Jamestown were treated as “indentured servants.” At the end of seven years some were freed and some were not. The farms needed labor. The Atlantic slave trade was about come to the English colonies. In 1640, the Virginia Governors Council declared that John Punch, a Black man who considered himself an indentured servant was actually a life-long slave. This was the beginning of legal, race based slavery in English North America. There were already Africans enslaved in Spanish Florida in and around St. Augustine
A year after the arrival of Africans in Jamestown, the English Puritans landed in the land of the Wampanoag people far to the north after being blown off course by Atlantic storms. Their destination had been Virginia but landed in December in what would become Massachusetts. They spent the first winter on their ship anchored near the shore. They suffered terribly in the cold. Many died of disease and hunger. They persevered. They saw no sign of the people who they knew were probably watching them. The local tribe had been hit hard by an epidemic and under threat from the Narragansett who lived to the West. Massasoit, the chief of the Wampanoag thought the new arrivals might be of help. After several months he sent Samoset to speak to the Puritans. The Puritans were amazed. Samoset spoke English and asked for a beer. He had learned some English from English fishing fleets. But there was still confusion. Samoset came back a week later with Squanto. This was in March 1621. The Puritans were even more amazed. Squanto spoke fluent English and seemed familiar with the ways of the English. He had been kidnaped by the Explorer Thomas Hunt and taken to Spain as a slave. He was “bought” by Monks who educated him in European ways. He was sent to England, learned English, secured a voyage back to his world only to find his village had been wiped out by the epidemic. (The diseases which were affecting Native peoples were probably of European origins from the sailors on the fishing boats.)
Squanto along with Samoset, brokered peace with the Puritans. They taught the Puritans how to grow native crops. They showed the Puritans the secrets of survival in a forest land. (The seeds the Puritans brought with them failed to sprout.) William Bradford, the Puritan governor, credits Squanto with the Survival of the first Puritan community. Relations with local tribes were good for at first, but the arrival of many more Puritans and the establishment of other settlements created tensions with and among the Puritans and the various tribes. Violence broke out in the 1630’s and in Chief Metacom’s War in 1675. It was Brutal with atrocities on both sides that ended in the complete defeat of the tribes. The Puritans began forging an identity independent of being English. This was the beginning of “White America.” The Native Americans were pushed further West where the fur trade between the tribes, the French and the Dutch was getting very competitive and would lead to the French and Indian War.
By 1650 the Atlantic Slave Trade was creating tremendous human suffering as Europeans bought into the slave trade of West Africa. Prisoners of warring tribes were often captured and kept as slaves within the tribes. This was not the dehumanizing chattel slavery that would emerge with Europeans but a traditional POW system of African Culture. The POW’s, although prisoners, were treated with some dignity and respect. The first Portuguese explorers traded for these POW’s who were then treated as property to be shipped off to forced labor in the America’s. It was profitable and soon bands of European backed bounty hunters were capturing people to be sold into the dehumanizing Atlantic slave trade.
Although ancient hunter/gather cultures probably did not practice slavery, the practice of forced labor has been a part of most human history since. In the Atlantic slave trade, it took a truly sinister turn for the worse which left deep wounds on the soul of the modern world that are still in need of healing. People were kidnapped from their homelands, forced to forget their families, language, culture even their religion, to spend weeks chained on cramped slave ships with barely enough food and water and only a bucket for a toilet which was often out of reach. Disease was rampant. Many died in route. In the Americas, they were sold like cattle to work forced labor on farms, mines, kitchens and plantations. Europeans involved in the trade did not see these people as having dignity therefore it was OK to treat them as less then human. This was race-based forced labor. It is estimated that over 10 million people were removed from Africa to the Americas as slaves: 40% to Brazil where conditions on the plantations were brutal, 50% to the British West Indies, French Territories and Spanish Empire, and 10% to the British Atlantic colonies. These would become the African Americans of today’s United States.
Most 21st Century people think of Old Africa as a monolithic primitive and very simple world. Nothing could be further from the truth. Like the pre-European Americas, Africa had a long history of Empires, cities, nations, cultures, languages and religions. It wasn’t all just ancient Egypt. There are several West African Empires with great art and culture and histories, the best known being the Mali Empire from the 1200’s to the 1600’s and the Yoruba culture which produced exquisite sculpture in bronze. Most Africans forced into chattel slavery were from West Africa.
It is now well into the 1600’s. In the Salons of Paris, London, Amsterdam, and Prague, Renaissance Humanism is evolving into the Age of the Enlightenment. In 1686 Isaac Newton published his “Principia Mathematica” which makes it clear that reason and logic, not the faith of the church, are the new normal. This paves the way for respect, tolerance, compassion and the ideals of the French and American revolutions. But the world has a long way to go. In 1776 Thomas Jefferson would write “We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal,” knowing full well the contradiction that his large farms were worked by slaves. It would take another century and a brutal war to work this out.
The first opposition to slavery in the English colonies came in 1688 from the Quakers in Pennsylvania. Some Quakers owned slaves and many other Quakers felt that was incompatible with the Gospels. Francis Daniel Pastorious penned the Quaker Petition Against Slavery which affirmed the rights of all human beings. Although the Quaker leadership did not take action until much later, this early and forceful anti-slavery petition became the inspiration for the later abolitionist movement.
The Colony of Georgia was founded in 1733. The founder James Edward Olgethorpe refused to allow South Carolina to bring slaves into Georgia saying that slavery violated the principles that brought us together and that it was wrong to inflict misery on Africans. Olgethorpe envisioned Georgia as a haven for England’s worthy poor and disadvantaged. His vision didn’t last. Gradually slavery and the plantation system prevailed.
The history of human forced labor in the Americas was all over the map. Native peoples of what would become Brazil would enslave prisoners of war. When the Portuguese arrived, they would trade POW’s to the Europeans for iron and steel tools. But the native forced labor was not enough for large sugar plantations which emerged as the base of the Brazilian economy. Africans were brought in. African forced labor on the sugar plantations was notoriously brutal with a short life span that kept up a constant demand for more people to be brought from Africa. It is estimated that 4,000,000 Africans were brought captive to Brazil before they abolished slavery in 1888. Brazil was the last country in the Americas to abolish forced labor.
The Spanish Royal Court led by Queen Isabella did not support enslaving native peoples but it happened anyway. African forced labor was seen as an alternative. Bartolome de las Casas, a Dominican Friar very opposed to abuse of native peoples even supported that alternative till he realized that it was equally cruel. He remained a vocal voice against the sin of slavery but the economic realities that made forced labor profitable kept all attempts to stop it from succeeding. Roughly 2,000,000 Africans were brought to the Atlantic colonies for involuntary
forced labor. There was a small but growing opposition. Some form of slavery existed in all the Atlantic colonies in the early 1700’s. In 1780, largely because of the Quakers, Pennsylvania passed An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery but the constitution of the new nation allowed the importation of slaves until 1808. In 1783 the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that forced labor was incompatible with the State constitution. This was the emerging pattern: the Northern States would come to oppose chattel slavery and the Southern states would embrace it. The Southern Slave holding elites refused to consider any talk of compromise or gradual emancipation. The abolitionists insisted on an immediate end to all human beings being held as property. The tragedy was that the Southern economy had become totally dependent on forced labor. No one seemed to see a way out. And the way out would be war over Union and Slavery.
In the Southwest, The Pueblo Revolt of 1680 had an unexpected radical impact on tribes such as the Navajo, Cheyenne, Comanche, Sioux and the many tribes along the Missouri River. When the Spanish were driven from the Pueblo lands they left behind their livestock. The Pueblo People had no use for the horses which they would let roam wild. This became new “technology” that changed the way people lived. The Navajos adopted the sheep and learned how to spin and weave the wool. The mustangs, now wild, grew into great herds. The plains people would capture, tame and learn how to ride them: the beginning of the great “horse culture” of the plains people. Prior to the Spanish horse, the tribes were
hunter/gatherers with a real challenge to survive. It wasn’t easy for a band of hunters on foot to take down a buffalo but they did. Now mounted hunters could take as many as the tribes would need. Mounted warriors could take on neighboring tribes in battle for land and resources. Later, the mounted warriors would offer stubborn resistance to the advancing American army.
But it wasn’t all war and conflict. The Great Law of Peace of the Iroquois Nations which had maintained peace between once warring tribes for generations influenced Ben Franklin and other colonial founding fathers. The Iroquois Nation was a federation of five tribes, once all bitter enemies who had come together under an enlightened elder and worked out what in effect was a constitution that established the rights of tribes under a leadership dedicated to cooperation and peace. It had been working for generations. This Iroquois Peace of the Five Nations inspired the men who were working on what would become the American Constitution.
In the Pacific Northwest, the mild climate, abundant Salmon, and forests enabled the original people to develop elaborate arts, houses, totems, costumes rituals and great ocean going cedar canoes. They were flourishing when the early Spanish explorers arrived with small pox. The reduction of population was as high as 90% in some areas which made it easier for European settlers to move into the area. In the early and mid 1800’s the legendary Chief Seattle maintained a somewhat peaceful relationship with the Anglo-Americans which got the town of Seattle named after him. There is no documentation for his legendary speech which was no doubt embellished over time but there is no doubt that he stood for respecting the earth and native peoples. After his death, his people were sent to reservations. Much further to the north the Inuit and related tribes adapted to life near the Arctic Circle learning to build ice houses that protected them from the bitter cold and to survive on hunting seals through the ice, fishing, whaling, and hunting polar bears. Recent climate changes are seriously impacting and threatening their way of life.
So here we are in the beginning of the modern world, the late 1700’s and the early 1800’s. Human beings have completely populated the once un-human inhabited continents. Three major human races are here. Native Americans, descended from Asian/Siberian ancestors who crossed the now submerged ancient land bridge. The Euro-Americans descended from the Spanish, English, Dutch, and French who arrived over the Atlantic only about 500 years ago. African- Americans who were kidnapped, stripped of their identity and shipped to the America’s for involuntary forced labor. The human beings who inhabit the Americas have built great nations, great cities, great science, music, art and even put a man on the moon. Why has there been so much suffering, fear, pain, and death? To understand this let’s go way back to the very beginning of being human hundreds of thousands of years ago.
The human imagination is an energy of deep wisdom that defies understanding. All the peoples of earth have found sacred stories to guide them through the overwhelming challenges they have faced and to give courage and wisdom and faith and meaning. We are meaning seeking people. The Africans who arrived in the Atlantic colonies were stripped of their religions, either Islam or the native spirituality of West Africa with its majestic sky God and angel spirits. Newly arrived Africans heard the Exodus of the Hebrew Moses and embraced his story. It gave them meaning, strength, and courage. They embraced Jesus with his message of Love and Forgiveness. The Black
Church was born from the bowels of the slave ships. One of their grandsons proclaimed “I have been to the Mountain top and I have seen the Promised Land.”
Our sacred stories are what make us human. But they also make us less than human when we abuse them: when we turn them against each other. What is this “us vs. them” thing that drives human history? It is in our deep human nature. It began when the first humans were emerging into to awareness. It was “us’ versus “them.” It is “in group” versus “out group.” It’s what some call the law of the jungle or the survival of the fittest. We learned to love and help our own kind and be hostile to those who aren’t like us. Compassion and aggression emerged in human nature hand-in-hand, because they were both necessary for survival. It is buried in our bones. We learned to love our own and fear those who were not us. Each of us is a part of that story. No one is exempt. It is still with us today. It is dualistic, “Us Vs. Them” thinking.
Just as wise elders led the warring tribes of the Iroquois into finding ways to live in peace as Five Nations, sages, prophets, saints and elders in many Sacred Stories have shown ways out of the cycle of violence, fear and hatred. It started with the Chinese philosopher Confucius who taught “Don’t do to others what you don’t want done to you.” Confucius lived centuries ago when ancient China was torn by warlords. His ideas helped people to expand their idea of to whom they had to be nice and to reduce the violence. But it didn’t stop. There was always another enemy just over the horizon. The Buddha in Hindu India spoke of the oneness of all creation and of all beings. He taught compassion and meditation to find inner peace which could then become the peace of the world. He ushered in an unparalleled era of peace and prosperity for all of India. But it too didn’t last. Moses in the Torah wrote “Love thy neighbor as thy self” but it seemed the understanding of who was your neighbor stopped at your boundaries. Then Jesus taught to love your enemies, pray for those who curse you and in proclaiming “The Kingdom of God,” broke down all sorts of barriers between humans. The Sacred Stories kept expanding to include an ever growing circle. When you stop thinking in terms of “us vs. them” and start seeing all people as part of the great story, things start to change…even the story can change.