In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section European Enslavement of Indigenous People in the Americas

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Printed Primary Sources, Document Collections, and Series
  • Databases and Other Digital Resources
  • Archives
  • New France, the Great Lakes, and the Illinois Country
  • New England and the Northeast
  • Virginia
  • Southeast
  • Gulf Coast and Louisiana
  • North American West
  • Southwest and Mexico
  • Central America
  • The Caribbean
  • Caribbean South America
  • Brazil
  • The Andes
  • Southern Cone
  • Enslaved Indigenous People in Europe
  • Indigenous Enslavement in European and American Law
  • Indigenous Resistance, Abolition, and Emancipation
  • Women and Gender
  • Contemporary Forced Labor, Human Trafficking, and Indigenous Memory

Atlantic History European Enslavement of Indigenous People in the Americas
Rebecca Anne Goetz
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 April 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 April 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0405


The immensity and longevity of the European trade in enslaved Indigenous people shaped colonialism in the Americas. Europeans enslaved between two and five million Indigenous people in the Americas between 1492 and 1900. About 650,000 Indigenous people were enslaved in the greater Caribbean before 1542 alone. Indigenous enslavement’s chameleon-like qualities contributed to its ubiquity and its longevity. Europeans developed legally sanctioned trades by capturing, enslaving, and selling Indigenous people. Sometimes Europeans slaved based on their understandings of just wars and of slavery as a punishment for crime. At other times Europeans acquired enslaved people through trade and diplomacy with Indigenous polities. On the edges of empire, far from the reaches of imperial authority, raiding and slaving remained common well into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The diversity of enslavement practices meant that European slaving practices could be adapted to different geographies, different circumstances, and different legal environments. Even when slaving was technically illegal, Europeans used a variety of means to extract forced labor from Indigenous people. In the Caribbean, Central America, and South America, these took the form of the encomienda or repartimiento, both forms of labor tribute and obligation that differed very little from slavery in the daily lives of Indigenous people. In other places Europeans coopted Indigenous forms of labor obligation, such as naboría in the Caribbean, mita in Peru, or yanaconazgo in the lowland Andes. In other places, debt peonage or permanent forms of indentured servitude persisted. European slaving had profound impacts on Indigenous societies. Many Indigenous communities experienced severe political and social disruptions. Some Indigenous communities relied on their own traditions to resist slaving, using diplomacy creatively to resist European encroachment. Others formed multiethnic, coalescent communities to protect themselves. Some Indigenous people also used armed resistance against European slaving and colonialism. A note on terminology: older work will often use the term “Indian slavery” or refer to Indigenous people generically as “Indian.” This use is increasingly out of favor and many Indigenous people consider the term inaccurate or even offensive. Accordingly, more recent scholarship will usually use the terms “Indigenous” or “Native,” and when possible use appropriate ethnonyms to refer to particular communities.

General Overviews

While scholarly output on the enslavement of Indigenous people is growing quickly into a vibrant field, most overviews cannot take in all of the Americas, and many are either regionally focused or address research problems in particular places or archives. For short introductions that cover both hemispheres, see Bialuschewski and Fisher 2017, van Deusen 2020, and Goetz 2016. Van Deusen 2023 is a lengthier introduction to some of the research problems and possibilities for the Americas. For North America, see Bossy 2016, Chaplin 2015, and Gallay 2009. Snyder 2014 focuses mostly on the space that becomes the United States South, but also covers the precolonial period and has an intensive discussion of the current literature. For the Caribbean, see Smyth 2022. For South America, see Whitehead 2011.

  • Bialuschewski, Arne, and Linford D. Fisher. “New Directions in the History of Native American Slavery Studies.” In Special Issue: Native American Slavery in the Seventeenth Century. Edited by Arne Bialuschewski and Linford D. Fisher. Ethnohistory 64.1 (January 2017): 1–17.

    DOI: 10.1215/00141801-3688327

    Overview for the Americas generally, with special focus on the ubiquity, persistence, and longevity of the enslavement of Indigenous people across the Americas, but also noting various regional particularities. Touches on the Caribbean and South America.

  • Bossy, Denise I. “The South’s Other Slavery: Recent Research on Indian Slavery.” Native South 9 (2016): 27–53.

    DOI: 10.1353/nso.2016.0000

    A lucid review of recent literature and developing issues in the southeast and Gulf Coast of North America, where the Anglophone literature has been growing in depth and complexity over the last twenty years.

  • Chaplin, Joyce E. “Enslavement of Indians in Early America: Captivity without the Narrative.” In The Creation of the British Atlantic World. Edited by Carole Shammas and Elizabeth Mancke, 45–70. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015.

    Challenges the typical view of Indigenous enslavement as peripheral to rather than constitutive of British North America, and reviews recent literature to show that the enslavement of Indigenous people was ubiquitous and economically significant to Britain’s North American and Caribbean colonies.

  • Gallay, Alan, ed. Indian Slavery in Colonial America. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009.

    Collection of article-length pieces ranging widely over North America before 1800, with an especially useful introduction to recent historiography. Several articles deal with the southeast, but there are also fruitful forays into New France, Michilimackinac, and the southwest.

  • Goetz, Rebecca Anne. “Indian Slavery: An Atlantic and Hemispheric Problem.” History Compass 14.2 (2016): 59–70.

    DOI: 10.1111/hic3.12298

    A hemisphere-wide review of recent scholarship in English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese, with attention to questions of labor, gender, and regional differentiation.

  • Smyth, Noel E. “Indigenous Slavery in the Caribbean.” In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History. 15 September 2022.

    Recent and up-to-date overview of the enslavement of Indigenous people in the Greater Caribbean from the late fifteenth century through the nineteenth century, with a brief examination of Indigenous resurgence in the twenty-first century. Reviews Spanish, Dutch, French, and English slaving practices and sources.

  • Snyder, Christina. “Indian Slavery.” In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. 2 December 2014.

    Overview of Indigenous enslavement in North America from precolonial times to the middle of the nineteenth century, with a helpful exploration of definitional issues regarding slavery and a discussion of the current theoretical literature.

  • van Deusen, Nancy E. “Indigenous Slavery from Out on the Edge.” Ethnohistory 67.4 (October 2020): 603–619.

    DOI: 10.1215/00141801-8579258

    Exploring the archival problem of enslaved Indigenous people’s marginality in the records with case studies from across the Americas and suggestions for how to fruitfully undertake further research.

  • van Deusen, Nancy E. “In the Tethered Shadow: Native American Slavery, African Slavery, and the Disappearance of the Past.” William and Mary Quarterly 80.2 (April 2023): 355–388.

    DOI: 10.1353/wmq.2023.0020

    Wide-ranging think piece on Indigenous enslavement in the Americas in the shadow of, and alongside, the enslavement of people of African descent, with meditations on the archival challenges of this research.

  • Whitehead, Neil L. “Indigenous Slavery in South America, 1492–1820.” In The Cambridge World History of Slavery. Edited by David Eltis and Stanley L. Engerman, et al., 248–272. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521840682.012

    Comprehensive survey of Indigenous enslavement in the northern coast of South America and Peru across three centuries, which particular attention to Dutch slaving relationships with Kalinagos and others in the Orinoco delta across the long eighteenth century.

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