Slavery and Servitude in the Colonies

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Why did the Europeans treat the Africans differently from the way they treated the Native Americans from 1492 to 1808?

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European exploration and colonization in the 15th century drew attention to different “races,” planting seeds for racism that would later develop more fully. Before this, the primary distinction was Christians versus heathens, but as Europe’s economic interests and colonies grew, new classifications appeared, (e.g., Africans, Native Americans). These categories were...

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European exploration and colonization in the 15th century drew attention to different “races,” planting seeds for racism that would later develop more fully. Before this, the primary distinction was Christians versus heathens, but as Europe’s economic interests and colonies grew, new classifications appeared, (e.g., Africans, Native Americans). These categories were based on appearance, culture, language, and other factors. The Enlightenment Period (1685–1815) further deepened these sentiments as classical theories and biblical justifications for inherent European supremacy circulated.

With their biblical, moral justifications in hand, the Europeans especially honed in on skin complexion. The Europeans did not need to distinguish themselves from Native Americans to justify them as a source of labor but instead to take tribal resources. Native Americans were considered “red” and although their lack of civilization still put them beneath Europeans, blacks were at the very bottom of this hierarchy. Unfortunately, Africans’ physical characteristics were compared to apes and this animalistic description led Europeans to treat them as non-human savages and helped Europeans justify slavery.

Despite the distinction between Native Americans and Africans, they both faced hardships when confronted by the Euro-Americans. Many Native Americans were displaced and killed during the expansion of the US. Thousands of Native Americans were also exported to colonial New England, but the scope of Native American slavery was much smaller than that of Africans. Whereas Native Americans were thought to have the capacity to become civilized and were offered trade deals and treaties, Africans brought to the colonies were afforded no such opportunities and were exploited for labor purposes. Some Native Americans even owned African slaves.

In the linked source below, the section: COMMON ORIGINS, DIVERGENT PATHS: COLONIAL USES OF AFRICAN AND INDIAN RACE, may be especially useful to you.

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During the period of European colonialism, imperialism, and slavery, race played a big part in the structuring of new societies and the replacement of old ones. White, Christian Europeans were of the belief that God had created many distinct races of the world, but that some were naturally better than others. White Europeans believed themselves to be at the top of this racial hierarchy, considering themselves the most intelligent, most moral, and purest of the handful of simplified racial categorizations- the others being Black, Red, Brown, and Yellow. There were many attempts to scientifically justify these racial categorizations on the basis of bone structure, terminal height, dental health, intelligence quotient, and physical strength, and this gave way to terms like Caucasoid, Negroid, and Mongoloid in referring to people in different phenotypes. Today we know that these socially-structured categories are not based in any scientific, bodily reality, but nonetheless they have a significant impact on  how a person's life is lived.

In the racial hierarchy used during the age of European expansion, white people were considered the only full human beings with rights and reason. People of Color were considered to be closer to non-human animals, by degrees in correlation with skin color. At the bottom of this racial hierarchy were Black Africans, many of whom were captured and forced into slavery in the New World. This was "justified" by the belief that Black people were more animal than whites and needed to be shepherded by white people. Between Black and white people fell Asians and Indigenous Americans. Indigenous Americans were considered to have more of a "capacity" for civilization because they were lighter-skinned and had a culture of respect which Europeans considered noble. 

Though white Europeans killed, enslaved, and forced the assimilation of millions of Indigenous Americans and Africans, there were slightly different attitudes behind both. In their treatment of Indigenous Americans, Europeans felt they could and had given them a chance to convert and become civilized. In contrast, Europeans felt there was no hope to humanize or civilize Black Africans and so treated them essentially as animals for labor. 

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