Revisiting American History: Origins of Racism

Warning: The following article wrestles with a difficult topic in American history, and that topic contains some horrid depictions of human suffering.

This article is a continuation of the Revisiting American History Series, where every month, I revisit a section of American history with a critical eye for the different groups of people involved in that history, telling stories not of America as a collective group pursuing a national interest shared by all of its individuals, but as a variety of groups all with competing interests. While this series typically does not delve deeply into current events, I hope that it does help put a lot of conflict rampant in America today into context. I’m mainly following along with A People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn, rereading, annotating, and distilling the content into quick summaries for you here. Remember, any story from history contains bias. Howard Zinn is not exempt from that bias and neither am I. Also, if you ever want more information or perspective, I highly recommend reading the book for yourself!

This article focuses on an exploration of the different groups involved in the institutionalization of racism through human trafficking (slavery) in America’s early colonial period. I purposely use the words “human trafficking” and “slavery” interchangeably, as I’ve become a little too used to talking about “slavery” as just a fact of history, rather than a disgusting treatment of human beings. By using the wording of “human trafficking”, I hope to return to the people abused by this system some of their humanity, and myself a reminder that these were, in fact, humans, just as you and I.

A Black American writer from the 1900s, J. Saunders Redding, describes the arrival of a ship in North America in the year 1619:

Sails furled, flag drooping at her rounded stern, she rode the tide in from the sea… The flag she flew was Dutch; her crew a motley. Her port of call, an English settlement, Jamestown, in the colony of Virginia. She came, she traded, and shortly afterwards, she was gone. Probably no ship in modern history has carried a more portentous freight. Her cargo? Twenty slaves.

We can trace the origins of human trafficking in America back to this first ship. Racism has been embedded into America’s history since its infancy. While some historians think the first black people to arrive in Virginia were considered servants, like the white indentured servants from Europe, the strong probability is that even if they were listed as “servants”, they were seen differently, treated differently, and ultimately, were slaves.

To understand why the American colonists were so open to human trafficking as a means of acquiring labor, we have to understand the conditions in which they made that decision. The first white settlers of Virginia were utterly unprepared for the harsh challenges associated with making a new life for themselves in America.

Many Virginians had suffered through the “starving time” from 1609-1610. By 1609, the population had grown to five hundred colonists from the original one hundred founders. At that point, the colony could no longer support its massive population. Colonists went from eating one small ladle of barley per meal to roaming the woods for nuts and berries, and eating the corpses of those less fortunate. As the Journals of the Burgesses of Virginia, a document from 1619, recounts the story:

… driven thru insufferable hunger to eat those things which nature most abhorred, the flesh and excrements of man as well as of our own nation as of an Indian, digged by some out of his grave after he had lain buried three days and wholly devoured him… one among them slew his wife as she slept in his bosom, cut her in pieces, salted her and fed upon her till he had clean devoured all parts of her head…

By the end of that “starving time”, starvation had reduced five hundred colonists to sixty.

After enduring that traumatic experience, the Virginians were ready for a way out. They needed labor to grow corn for their own subsistence, and tobacco for export. They had just sent out the first batch of tobacco out in 1617, and found it quite profitable. They needed food, and they needed money.

These colonists were searching desperately for a source of cheap labor. There weren’t enough white servants to do the work, and they came with a massive downside. Once their contract expired after a few years, they would have paid off their debts for the voyage to the New World. At that point, a servant was no longer a source of free labor, but just another mouth to feed. The free white settlers in the colony were primarily skilled craftsmen, with a few even being “men of leisure”, who were not so inclined to work for John Smith, who had to organize them into work gangs and force them into the fields for their survival.

In their search for gold in the Carribean, the Spaniards slaughtered and enslaved the Arawaks. Why didn’t the American colonists do the same to the Native Americans in their search for cheap labor? The fact of the matter is that the desperate and starving American colonists were no match for the resourceful Native Americans defending their home. 

Edmund Morgan, writer of American Slavery, American Freedom, a book from 1975, focuses on the frustration and dissonance these colonists must have faced, enraged that even though they had superior firepower, and a supposedly superior way of life, they just couldn’t win against the natives. As Morgan writes:

If you were a colonist, you knew that your technology was superior to the Indians [Native Americans]. You knew that you were civilized, and they were savages… The Indians [Native Americans], keeping to themselves, laughed at your superior methods and lived from the land more abundantly and with less labor than you did… And when your own people started deserting in order to live with them, it was too much… So you killed the Indians [Native Americans], tortured them, burned their villages, burned their cornfields… But you still did not grow much corn…

For all of their pain, suffering, and violence, the colonists gained nothing. Their aggression against the natives resulted only in more of their own suffering. The colonists’ own hubris and arrogance made enemies of the natives who were knowledgeable in survival and might have otherwise helped the colonists survive. Unfortunately, this relationship only grows more strained as America’s history marches forward.

At this point, the colonists were focused on survival, and they needed labor. Unable to get the necessary labor out of the servants and freeman among them, or the natives nearby, they turned to the human trafficking of African peoples.

Even if the institution of slavery had not been regularized and legalized in the colonies at this point, it would be difficult to presume that those first black people forcibly taken to Jamestown and sold to colonists as objects, were anything but slaves. By 1619, a million black people had already been brought from Africa to South America and the Carribean, the Portuguese and Spanish colonies, to work as slaves. Europeans had branded African people as slave labor for a hundred years by this point.

Since slavery had existed in the African states, Europeans sometimes tried to use it as a means of justifying their own slave trade. However, that’s not quite a fair comparison, as the “slaves” of Africa were more like the serfs of Europe. According to Basil Davidson, author of The African Slave Trade, points out that while African slavery was a harsh servitude, the humans enslaved were “altogether different from the human cattle of the slave ships and the American plantations.” One observer from the Ashanti Kingdom of West Africa noted that “a slave might marry; own property; himself own a slave, swear an oath; be a competent witness and ultimately become heir to his master… An Ashanti slave, nine cases out of ten, possibly became an adopted member of the family, and in time his descendants so merged and intermarried with the owner’s kinsmen that only a few would know their origin.”

While African slavery isn’t something to be praised, it is altogether far different from American slavery, which was lifelong, morally crippling, desctructive of family ties, without hope for a future. What made American slavery the most cruel form of slavery in history was the combination of the frenzy for limitless profit that comes from capitalistic agriculture, and reduction of the slaves to less than human status, where white was master, and black was slave.

These African people who had been ripped from their land and culture were in an especially vulnerable position in America. The colonists were in their own European culture, and the Native Americans were in their own land and culture. The African people had to fight with sheer extraordinary persistence just to hold onto whatever they could of their heritage of language, dress, custom, and family relations.

Oftentimes, these African people were kidnapped in the interior of Africa, forced to march to the coast, sold, shoved into pens with people from various African tribes, and shipped off to be sold in the European mainlands or one of its colonies. These marches were death marches, sometimes reaching one thousand miles. The enslaved people were shackled around the neck, and marched under whip and gun. Two of every five of them died during these marches. John Barbot, at the end of the seventeenth century, described the cages on the Gold Coast.

As the slaves come down to Fida from the inland country, they are put into a booth or prison… near the beach, and when the Europeans are to receive them, they are brought out onto a large plain, where the ship’s surgeons examine every part of everyone of them, to the smallest member, men and women being stark naked… Such as are allowed good and sounds are set on one side… marked on the breast with a red-hot iron… The branded slaves after this are returned to their former booths where they await shipment, sometimes 10-15 days…

Olaudah Equiano, c. 1745-1797 , an African man who survived through the slave trade and escaped in 1766, describes his experience seeing a slave ship for the first time in his autobiography. 

The first object which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast was the sea, and a slave ship, which was then riding at anchor and waiting for its cargo. These filled me with astonishment, which was soon converted into terror when I was carried aboard. I was immediately handled and tossed up to see if I were sound by some of the crew; and I was now persuaded that I had gotten into a world of bad spirits, and that they were going to kill me… Indeed such were the horrors of my views and fears at the moment, that, if ten thousand worlds had been my own, I would have freely parted with them all to have exchanged my condition with that of the meanest slave in my own country.

Given the opportunity, many of these people chose to jump overboard and drown themselves rather than continue their suffering. Olaudah Equiano describes one such incident as follows.

One day, when we had a smooth sea and moderate wind, two of my wearied countrymen who were chained together (I was near them at the time), preferring death to such a life of misery, somehow made through the nettings and jumped into the sea: immediately another quite dejected fellow, who, on account of his illness, was suffered to be out of irons, also followed their example; and I believe many more would very soon have done the same if they had not been prevented by the ship’s crew… two of the wretches were drowned, but they [the slavers] got the other, and afterwards flogged him unmercifully for thus attempting to prefer death to slavery.

One of every three African slaves died overseas. Despite the horrific nature of human trafficking, the huge profits, oftentimes double the investment made on one trip, justified the act in the eyes of the slavers. 

By 1800, ten to fifteen million Africans had been forcibly transported to the Americas as slaves, representing perhaps a third of those kidnapped from Africa. As Zinn puts it:

It is roughly estimated that Africa lost fifty million human beings to death and slavery in those centuries we call the beginnings of modern Western civilization, at the hands of slave traders and plantation owners in Western Europe and America, the countries deemed the most advanced in the world.

And thus, the stage was set for the history around race in America. Remember that when we talk about racism and our modern day understandings of race in America, this was where it started. I don’t believe this to be the roots of racism across the world, but it’s certainly the roots of racism in American culture. This article helps illustrate why human trafficking based on race become so integral to American history from its roots, and begins to explore what this actually meant for the African humans caught in the midst of this system.

Next month, I plan to focus on the history surrounding African American resistance to slavery, and the instutionalization of racism as a means of suppressing class conflicts. As the institution of slavery spread thoughout the colonies, so did resistance to the oppression of the black and white lower classes alike. Fearing widespread civil unrest, the landowning elite of America found means of suppressing both while giving up as little as possible in return.

Sources:

  1.  A People’s History Of The United States by Howard Zinn

I’m citing this source again because of how extensively I’ve used it to write this article. Many pieces of this article are either direct quotes or paraphrased paragraphs from Zinn that aren’t explicitly called out. Part of this is due to his unique style of writing I hope to capture in this article, how well he articulates certain ideas, so that I can be certain I’m not misrepresenting any facts presented by Zinn, and to not disrupt the flow of the writing.

  1. The Interesting Narrative Of The Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African. Written By Himself.

This was an incredible autobiography of Olaudah Equiano, c. 1745-1797, an African man who survived and escaped from slavery. He wrote his autobiography specifically to advocate for the abolition of slavery in Britian, and he recounts his journey across various parts of the world and his experience as an African slave.

  1. American Slavery, American Freedom by Edmund S. Morgan

I mainly checked the date the book was published to provide more context to Zinn’s quotation from the book.

Revisiting American History

Warning: The following article wrestles with a difficult topic in American history, and that topic contains depictions of violence. To be clear, it doesn’t contain over-the-top, graphic depictions of violence, but does depict a few scenes and paint an overall picture that may not go well with your morning breakfast.

We are our history, and whether you were born in the United States or arrived as an immigrant, if you’ve chosen to settle here, then you have also inherited America’s history. If you’re merely visiting, then know it has been inherited by those around you. I’m not sure my education fully explored that history in a way that helps to make sense of present-day America and all of its conflicts.  It seems like my classes managed to skip over all of the horrible parts of American history. This includes the human trafficking, the racism, the gender inequality, the warmongering, and all the other parts of American history that my textbooks seemed to vaguely justify and quickly move away from, saying, “Well yes, [fill in the blank] happened, but it was necessary for…. [fill in the blank]”. 

I’ve decided it’s time for me to revisit some of this history, in an effort to better understand the present day. As it turns out, when we take a closer look at all of the people involved in America’s history, not as a collective group pursuing a shared national interest, but as a variety of groups all with competing interests, all of the conflict rampant in America today begins to make a whole lot of sense.

I invite you to revisit this history with me and learn more about topics such as why racism became institutionalized, who the American Revolution truly benefitted, how women resisted the oppressive idea of the “women’s sphere”, and much more in this monthly history series. I’ll primarily be following A People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn, reading, rereading, and annotating as I go along, and distilling the content into a quick summary for you here. Be aware that any story from history contains some bias, both in what parts the storyteller chooses to tell and in how they tell it. Howard Zinn is not exempt from that bias and neither am I. 

If you ever find yourself wanting more information or perspective, I highly recommend reading the book for yourself and looking into other sources. Before we get ourselves too deep into the weeds of United States history, let’s revisit the first interactions between the Europeans and the Native Americans to see how the world stage was first set.

In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue. He was a skilled Portuguese sailor, and he had convinced the Spanish Queen to finance his voyage to the West of Europe in search of a new passage from Europe to the Indies and Asia. They knew the world was round and hoped to reach the Far East by sailing west. This could bring untold fortunes of wealth to the Spanish crown. Instead, he and his crew stumbled upon an island in the Bahamas inhabited by unfamiliar people. They were the Arawak Native Americans.

As the Spanish ships approached the island, the Arawaks ran out to greet them, full of wonder. They brought these odd newcomers food, water, and gifts. The Arawaks lived in sophisticated villages, subsiding off corn, yams, and cassava. The Arawaks did not bear arms, nor have any iron, horses, or work animals. However, they did wear tiny gold ornaments in their ears.

Desperate to pay off his debts to the Spanish crown and to make a profit off his expedition, Columbus took some of these Arawak natives as prisoners and insisted that they guide him to the source of gold. He then sailed to Cuba and Hispaniola (present day Haiti and Dominican Republic), where bits of gold in the rivers and a gold mask presented by a local Native American chief led Columbus to have wild visions of goldfields.

On Hispaniola, Columbus built the first European military base in the Western Hemisphere. He took more Native American prisoners and put them on his ships. When the Spaniards demanded that some natives trade them more than two bows, the natives tried to grab them, and the Spaniards ran swords through two of the natives as the rest fled.

Upon returning to Madrid, Columbus claimed that he had reached Asia and an island off the coast of China. He said:

“Hispaniola is a miracle… the harbors are unbelievably good and there are many wide rivers of which the majority contain gold… There are many spices and great mines of gold and other metals…”

With this report, Columbus managed to secure funding for a second trip, this time with seventeen ships instead of three. He led several expeditions across the various islands of the Caribbean, never finding any of his imagined goldfields, but eventually finding empty villages of natives who had fled when they learned the Spaniards were coming, such was the terror they brought.

Columbus had promised to bring back untold fortunes of gold, but so far had found quite little. As is the nature of debt, he needed to pay his off somehow. In 1495, Columbus and his crew raided Arawak villages for slaves, rounding up, in total, fifteen hundred Arawak men, women, and children, and put them in pens guarded by Spaniards and dogs. They sent five hundred of them back to Spain to be sold as slaves. Two hundred died along the way.

Three hundred Arawak slaves were not enough to pay off his debt. Columbus had promised gold and needed to make good on that promise. To that end, Columbus ordered the natives in the province of Cicao in Haiti, where he believed there to exist huge goldfields, to collect a certain quantity of gold every three months. When a native brought the gold, they were given copper tokens to hang around their neck. If a Spaniard found a native without a copper token, he would cut their hands off and let them bleed to death. There were no goldfields in Cicao, only small bits of gold in the rivers, so the natives fled, and the Spaniards hunted them with dogs and slaughtered them.

The Arawaks began resisting the Spaniards but had no horses, iron, or gunpowder. They also had no immunity to European diseases brought by the Spanish, like smallpox. When the Spaniards took prisoners, they either hanged them or burned them alive. Arawaks began killing themselves and their children in mass suicides through cassava poison. Mothers killed their infants to save them from the Spaniards. Within two years, half of the 250,000 native people in Haiti were dead.

As it became increasingly clear that there was no gold to be found, the Spaniards decided to take the native people as slaves for huge estates. The total control of the natives by the Spaniards led to the Spaniards growing more and more conceited. They would ride on the backs of natives if they were in a hurry, or were instead carried by natives on hammocks, with large leaves shading them from the sun and goose wings fanning them to keep them cool. This conceited behavior was accompanied by disgusting cruelty, as the Spaniards thought nothing of cutting slices off tens and twenties of natives to test the sharpness of their blades. The Spaniards forced the natives to strip mountains from top to bottom, to dig, split rocks, move stones, and carry dirt on their backs to wash it in the rivers. Those who were forced to wash gold would stay in the rivers all day, backs bent until they broke, and when the mines flooded, they would arduously dry them by scooping water out by the pan full.

This story is true, and as such has no happy ending. There are no saviors who will come from the clouds to save our Arawak brethren, but instead, merciless Spaniards who will continue to suck them dry until there are none. By the year 1515, 23 years since Columbus first set foot in the Caribbean, two hundred and fifty thousand natives had dwindled to a mere fifty thousand. By 1550, five hundred natives were left. By 1650, none of the original Arawaks nor their descendants were left on the island.

Oftentimes, history is told to us from the perspective of the victors of history, and we don’t stop to think about the other side of the story. In this case, when we look at the discovery of the New World from the perspective of the Arawaks, we see something very different. We see something depressing, something we have no reason as a collective humanity to ever feel proud of. Las Casas, a priest who traveled with Columbus, witnessed these cruelties firsthand and wrote:

“Who in future generations will believe this? I myself writing it as a knowledgeable eye witness can hardly believe it…”

Las Casas’ transcriptions of the cruelty inflicted on the Arawaks are nothing new, and in fact, were written soon after the original Spanish conquest of the Caribbean, but somehow, his words didn’t end up on my history textbooks when I learned about the glorious discovery and conquest of the new world. 

We have to remember that history is often told by its victors, and not by those who paid the price of conquest and progress. In telling this side of history, I hope we begin to think more critically about history: who’s telling it, why are they telling it, and who stands to benefit from you seeing that side of history?

Further Sources used for Cross-Referencing:

  1. http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/43a/100.html

This is an overview of Arawak culture, and their downfall. It was written from a collection of several sources by Bob Corbett, an instructor of an online course on the history of Haiti at Webster University. I used it for additional context surrounding the Arawak people and their demise.

  1. https://www.latinamericanstudies.org/columbus/Columbus-Journal.pdf 

This is a direct English translation of Columbus’s journal where he recounts his first journey to the Americas. I used it to verify some of the first interactions between Columbus and the Arawaks.

Letter to All First Years

I’m just going to get some thoughts down here for my views on Pass/No Record at Olin and the student body’s perception of Pass/No Record. Pass/No record is a wonderful thing that Olin does to help with what can be a difficult transition from high school to college.

For a lot of people, myself included, their first year at college means their first year being away from home, from people they love, from environments they’ve become accustomed to, and really the start of a new part of their lives. That’s where it helps to have something like Pass/No Record. It takes away some focus from your academic performance and gives you the opportunity to get yourself situated.

Sadly, I don’t think this is the common perception of Pass/No Record at Olin. It seems as though we, as a student body, treat Pass/No Record as a time to slack off and not try our hardest to apply ourselves to what we’re learning. Something that feels very special about a lot of classes at Olin is that you get out of them what you put into them.

You have so much agency with what you choose to focus on in your classes that no two people will come out of the same class having gained the same things from it. This is easy to take for granted when it feels like you’re not learning what you think you’re “supposed to be learning” from a class, but the reality is that you can learn what you want to learn from a class. At least, you have a better chance to than you would with a narrower curriculum.

Let me explain. Over the summer, I had the awesome opportunity to work at Harvey Mudd and go through the course materials of a class there called “CS 35.” This class is the closest equivalent Harvey Mudd has to Software Design here at Olin.

Both classes are designed to teach computation as a tool with exposure to an assortment of powerful Python libraries. The point is to give the students an opportunity to do some stunning things with the power of programming.

However, when you look beyond the goals of the classes, and really pay attention to their structures, you begin seeing the discrepancies. Before I go on, I want to explicitly say that by no means do I think either class is better than the other. Both do a wonderful job of achieving their goal, but they go about it very differently.

Software Design gives students a ton of freedom to go where they want with Python and to develop creative solutions to the challenges it throws at students. The underlying core of Software Design is its open ended projects.

You start with a relatively simple, well-scaffolded project to get you comfortable with string manipulation. All of the high level code architecture is there. You just have to turn the ideas into computer code. The next project is also well scaffolded, this time with an emphasis on recursion. Again, the high level code architecture is there; you just have to turn ideas into computer code. How you do this is up to you.

Then we get to the part of Software Design that gets really interesting. You’re introduced to lots of different libraries in Python: web scrapers, data visualizers, game development, sentiment analyzers, the list goes on!

Then you’re told to go ahead and create projects that utilize these libraries. Software Design is truly an open-ended, project-based class, ending with a final project where you can go nuts with a team of people and develop your software skills in whatever the heck you want.

With this example, it’s fairly easy to see how two people could go through Software Design and get very different things out of the experience. I learned how to utilize object oriented software principles to make a simple game, whereas some of classmates learned how to visualize massive amounts of data. These are two very different outcomes from the same project, and projects are the backbone of this class.

Now let’s take a look at CS 35. CS 35 has students go through a series of problem sets that expose them to different Python libraries and challenges them to do some really cool things with those Python libraries. Students learn how to use Python for image processing, machine learning, file management, web interfacing, and so on.

It’s an awesome class, but it’s structured very differently than Software Design. Students in CS 35 come out of it with a shared experience, and shared knowledge. Everyone going through CS 35 will learn about image processing, machine learning, and so on. Students going through Software Design will have very different experiences depending on where they choose to invest their time. This makes Software Design a strong example of Olin’s self directed learning model.

With all this, the question remains: How does this relate to Pass/No Record? Pass/No Record is the epitome of self directed learning. You’re not doing it for the grade; you’re doing it for your own learning. No one is going to be there to evaluate and hold you accountable for the effort you put into your first semester classes.

It’s up to you to begin taking control of how you spend your time, to start figuring out how you best learn, to get what you want to get out of your classes, and to get what you want to get out of your education.

If you want to get better at sketching and communicating ideas visually, really pour your heart into practicing sketching in Design Nature. If you want to learn more niche programming skills, take what you learned in ModSim about parameters, functions, and arguments, and go work on a project in the Robo Lab. Start searching for the opportunities to work on what you want to work on.

Of course, figuring out what you’re going to want to work on can be really challenging. A lot of Oliners advise that you try everything all at once and see what sticks. It’s Pass/No Record after all, so why not go ahead and take the risk of overcommitment? Well, from my perspective, you shouldn’t because overcommitment is overcommitment.

You could try this approach and spread yourself thin over Baja, OARS, the Robo Lab, Ultimate, and all of your coursework, but there’s no way you’ll get what you want to get out of any one of those things.

Everyone on this earth has exactly 24 hours in a single day, no more and no less. The more things you’re doing, the less time you can allocate to any one thing. The less time you can allocate to any one thing, the lower the chance you can actually get what you want to out of any one thing. Also, the higher the chance that your personal health is going to take the hit for your overcommitments. Your sleep is important, dammit!

To remedy all of what I’ve said, I want to leave you with a piece of advice that I welcome you to follow or not follow as you see fit. Take advantage of Pass/No Record as a time to get yourself situated, to figure out how to balance your coursework, your extracurriculars, and your own personal health.

Don’t fall into the trap of seeing Pass/No Record as an opportunity to slack off and do whatever you want. Use it as an opportunity to prepare yourself for the rest of your time at Olin. Set up good habits now so that when you’re thrown into the more intense classes like QEA, MechProto, or SoftDes, you’re ready for it.

Everardo Gonzalez, your friendly neighborhood ModSim NINJA

One Last Note:
As a ModSim NINJA, I get to work with ya’ll and get some glimpses into your lives and how awesome you all are. There’s so much positivity and awesome questions! Keep that up! Asking questions when I’m lost and keeping a positive attitude in the face of some really intense challenges is probably the reason I’ve survived QEA thus far. Keep those positive attitudes and inquiring minds. Just make sure you’re taking care of yourself and not falling into the overcommitment no-sleep tired-all-the-time trap. It’s not a fun place to be, and yes, I’m speaking from experience.