The invisible slaves

Global Indios: The Indigenous Struggle for Justice in Sixteenth-Century Spain
Nancy E van Deusen
2015, Duke University Press
336 pages, paperback

IT IS NOT often that an original and thought-provoking work of scholarship about the Spanish Conquest of the New World comes along, but Nancy van Deusen’s Global Indios is just that. While the attention of historical research into the conquest and colonisation has concentrated on the appalling mistreatment of the indigenous population on the ground and its subsequent demographic collapse, less is known about its enslavement. Van Deusen’s book provides a welcome contribution to this theme, examining how hundreds of thousands of “indios” from the territories of Spanish America were enslaved then transported throughout the Iberian world, many to Spain itself. Van Deusen applies a lens to this theme through research on lawsuits between 1530 and 1585 brought by indio slaves living in Castile in an effort to secure their freedom. These were complex legal proceedings that touched on the subtle and convoluted ways in which the Spanish imperial system and Catholic Church defined racial categories and rights. Inevitably, a prominent figure in this story was that of Bartolomé de la Casas, the friar who was named legal protector of the indigenous peoples and whose passionate advocacy helped to eliminate some of the more egregious forms of abuse against them. The scale of this task was staggering. At least 650,000 indigenous people were enslaved and relocated within the Iberian world during the 16th century as debates raged about what was permissible and what was not in law and under the eyes of God. Van Deusen zooms in on some 2,000 indios forced to make the transatlantic journey as slaves to the Spanish kingdom of Castile, and the often remarkable legal struggles that were fought by them or on their behalf to be recognised as free. She explores the attitudes of those both passionately opposed to this slavery, and those eager to develop it as a profitable activity. Promulgation of the New Laws of the Indies by Charles V in 1542 was a watershed, incorporating as they did specific articles dealing with the status and treatment of indigenous people and prohibiting slavery in a large range of cases, yet slavery continued, providing the incentive for many of the court cases explored in this book. The author has provided a novel and fascinating insight into a little-researched aspect of Conquest that at the same time makes a valuable contribution to broader debates about indigenous identity and the category – still extensively used in Latin America – of “indio”. – EC