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The Indian Slave Trade: The Rise of the English Empire in the American South, 1670-1717

Author(s):Gallay, Alan
Reviewer(s):Mancall, Peter C.

Published by EH.NET (April 2003)

Alan Gallay, The Indian Slave Trade: The Rise of the English Empire in the

American South, 1670-1717. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. xviii +

444 pp. $45.00 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-300-08754-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Peter C. Mancall, Department of History, University of

Southern California.

It comes as no surprise to state that slavery was a crucial part of the

economy of the southeastern colonies of British North America. As historians

and economists have long recognized, the enslavement of Africans imported from

Africa or the West Indies was crucial for the development of plantation

agriculture in the region. By 1708 individuals of African descent amounted to

approximately one-half of the population of South Carolina, and by 1720 or so

their numbers constituted two-thirds of the population. Their presence gave

this region a unique demographic profile in the British North American

colonies. That story, told brilliantly by the historian Peter Wood in his

classic study from 1974 entitled Black Majority, has dominated scholars’

understanding of forced labor in this area.

Allan Gallay, a professor of history at Western Washington University, has now

complicated this narrative. During the same decades that Carolina became a

stable province, its colonists looked to Native Americans to provide labor for

them. Often this labor was coerced by nothing more than the lure of the market

itself: Native Americans hunted whitetail deer for colonists or offered food to

them in exchange for manufactured goods from Europe. But this free labor was

not sufficient to satisfy colonists, who needed people to produce crops for

export. English colonists recognized that selling captured Indians was doubly

beneficial. By exporting captives to other parts of the Atlantic basin as

slaves, Carolinians made a profit and removed individuals and groups who might

have stood in the way of colonial expansion into the interior.

Gallay’s book is more than a history of efforts by British (and other European)

colonists to enslave and sell Native Americans and then, eventually, to bring

that noxious commerce to its end. In fact, the vast majority of the book has

little to do with the Indian slave trade itself. What Gallay offers here is a

thorough, up-to-date, readable and engaging history of Carolina — and much of

the old southeast — from approximately 1670 to 1717. There is much here on

diplomacy and debates between colonists, including many details that reveal how

difficult it was for Carolina’s proprietors to maintain order in the nascent

colony. Gallay’s real insights about the local slave trade are primarily

confined to the penultimate chapter in the book.

Yet the fact that Gallay, as the journalists’ phrase has it, has buried his

lead should not put off economists and historians who want to understand the

colonial southeast. Quite the contrary: Gallay’s mastery of the primary and

secondary source literature provides readers with abundant information about

crucial colonial politicians, traders, and missionaries. He makes readers

realize that it is irresponsible to lump all Native peoples together under the

heading “Indian.” Some of those Native peoples, captured in war and sold into

bondage, ended their lives far from their ancestral homes. Others, also Native,

were crucial players in this trade, a part of the story that echoes John

Thornton’s analysis of the participation of some Africans in the Atlantic slave

trade (see his Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World,

1400-1800, second edition, Cambridge University Press, 1998). Gallay

provides a series of maps of the entire southeast, a great service to the many

readers who will not know the location of particular indigenous nations. He

shows where Indian slaves went and extracts valuable clues from the writings of

perceptive observers and from legal codes — some of them the product of

northern colonists who came to fear southern Indian slaves and sought to

prevent their continued importation. He recognizes the crucial role of

conflict, especially the devastations of the Yamasee War that raged from 1714

to 1717. Further, Gallay writes with a sense of urgency that should be welcomed

by readers who have grown tired of reading lightly revised dissertations that

would have made better articles than full-length books.

Still, the part of the book that will be of most interest to economic

historians will be the chapter in which Gallay provides some estimates for the

number of Native American slaves. Gallay claims that “the drive to control

Indian labor — which extended to every nook and cranny of the South — was

inextricably connected to the growth of the plantations and that the trade in

Indian slaves was at the center of the English empire’s development in the

American South. The trade in Indian slaves was the most important factor

affecting the South in the period 1670 to 1715: its impact was felt from

Arkansas to the Carolinas and south to the Florida Keys” (p. 7). He adds that

the “Indian slave trade provided the strongest link between the South’s many

peoples in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries” (p. 9). These

are bold claims that can only be supported by careful demonstration of the ways

that the Indian slave trade worked and some quantitative evidence revealing the

actual number of individuals captured and sold for their labor.

To his substantial credit, Gallay shows how the business operated and he makes

a valiant effort to estimate the number of individuals enslaved. The evidence

enables him to describe how individuals and even groups became ensnared. But it

is less useful as a source for quantitative measures for the entire Indian

slave trade. The most important numbers appear in a single table (on p. 299).

Here Gallay carefully separates the number of slaves from various places or

indigenous nations and estimates that from 1670 to 1715 there were between

24,000 and 51,000 Natives enslaved in the entire “South.” The region includes

Florida, which lost the most individuals to slavery, through the southeast to

the lower Mississippi Valley. There were significant differences between the

trade in Native slaves and the African slave trade. Gallay believes that the

commerce in Indian bodies and labor “was akin more to the resale of Africans

from the West Indies than to the African slave trade” (p. 314). But despite the

differences in terms of final destinations and the scale of the trade, Gallay

recognizes that slavery in this period in the Americas meant the same for

Africans and Native Americans: “removal from their homes, denial of their

rights and basic humanity, subjection to lifelong servitude, and the passage of

slave status from mother to child” (p. 314).

The trade in Native slaves came to an end when colonists devoted more of their

efforts to purchasing Africans. By the end of the 1710s the British came to

realize that the capture and sale of Indian slaves was more difficult for them

than participating in the transatlantic African slave trade. The enslavement of

Indians was also a problem for the Spanish and French in the region. Yet though

Gallay describes these other Europeans’ attitudes towards the taking of

captives and the use of forced labor, in the end this is primarily a book about

the British and their ability to overcome internal divisions, ignore their

earlier claims that they would avoid mistreating Indians, and embrace a system

of labor exploitation that sent Native men, women, and children far from their

homes. Later scholars might be able to provide more accurate measures of the

scale of the trade, but Gallay’s work will remain crucial for anyone who wants

to know how the various peoples of the South interacted in the colonial period.

Peter C. Mancall, Professor of History at the University of Southern

California and the President, from 2002 to 2004, of the Forum on European

Expansion and Global Interaction, is the author (with Eric Hinderaker) of At

the Edge of Empire: The British Backcountry in North America, forthcoming

in May 2003 from Johns Hopkins University Press.

Subject(s):Servitude and Slavery
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):18th Century