By 1495, Christopher Columbus was in trouble. The riches he had imagined finding in Asia were not materializing in the New World, and the costs of his voyages were mounting. Sending indigenous people back to Europe as slaves became his solution.
All countries have national myths. The story of the first Thanksgiving, for example, evokes the warm glow of intercultural contact: European settlers, struggling to survive in the New World, and Native American tribes eager to help. But as many of us learned in history class, this story leaves a lot out.
This week on Hidden Brain, we explore an "open secret": that from the time Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World until the year 1900, there were as many as five million Native people enslaved in America. We'll talk about this history, and the psychological reasons it was left unexamined for so long.
Andrés Reséndez is a historian at the University of California Davis, and the author of The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America.
"Unlike African slavery, which was legal for centuries and sanctioned by states and empires around the world, Indian slavery was very early on made illegal," Reséndez says. "However, because Native American labor had been essential to all of the economic activities going on during this first generation of colonialism, it was unthinkable for the European colonists to do without native slaves. And so they very quickly devised all kinds of subterfuges and euphemisms in order to continue to profit from the coerced labor of natives by calling it different names."
Hidden Brain is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Maggie Penman, Jennifer Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen, Parth Shah, and Renee Klahr. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.