Preface: October 1462 When Columbus set foot on Watling's Island in the Bahamas on October 12, 1492, he set in train events that would change the whole world. He was, of course, confused about his location. He imagined him- self on the outskirts of Asia, which is about twelve thousand miles west of Watling's Island - half the circumference of the Earth. Scholars believe Columbus erred by relying on old books that estimated latitude in Arab miles, which he mistook for shorter Roman miles. In September 1999, another long-distance voyage failed for similar reasons. Ten months earlier, NASA had fired off the Mars Climate Orbiter. The $125 million device reached Mars but immediately disintegrated. The design team, led by Lockheed Martin Astronautics, had built the machine using English units of measurement - inches and feet - while the navigation team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory did its calculations in the metric system. NASA's accident left a lot of red-faced engineers. Columbus's accident led to Europeans' discovering corn, tomatoes, tobacco, potatoes, sweet potatoes, peppers, pumpkins, peanuts, vanilla, blueberries, and chocolate among some ninety New World crops. These were part of what is now called the Columbian Exchange. Material items flowed in both directions. The New World peoples soon had rice, citrus fruits, and bananas brought by Europeans - and exotic animals including horses, don- keys, mules, pigs, cattle, sheep, goats, chickens, cats, and larger breeds of dogs. Europeans also introduced West- ern technology, including wheeled vehicles and more advanced metallurgy. These days Columbus is more often excoriated than he is celebrated. His accusers emphasize that native peoples had little immunity to the diseases that Europeans brought with them, and the death rates from the result- ing epidemics were appalling. Moreover, in the wake of Columbus's discoveries came brutal Spanish adventurers intent on coercing labor and extracting every bit of wealth they could from the local inhabitants. Columbus, in fact, and at least some Spanish clerics and officials, tried hard to protect native people but failed to impede the demographic disaster that followed contact. They also could not stop the orgy of rape, murder, and plunder, documented by the Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas in a series of reports - giving rise to the "Black Legend" of Spanish cruelty in the New World.1 The Spanish, and soon the Portuguese, saw the opportunity to impose forced labor on the natives. Slavery, first in the mines and soon on plantations, became part of the Columbian Exchange. Slavery itself, however, was nothing new to the New World. It was an institution familiar to many native societies in both North and South America. These popula- tions had been enslaving one another, as far as we can tell, from time immemorial, and forced labor was far from the worst of it. Captured people fed the almost industrial level of human sacrifice at the center of the Aztec Empire. Some New World peoples captured and kept their enemies for rituals and the sport of torture and, in the case of cannibalistic societies, to maintain a mobile food supply. Cortés could not have captured Tenochtitlán without the aid of tens of thousands of indigenous allies who had been suffering under the Aztecs' brutal imperial rule. As Europeans learned of these hideous customs, they were relieved of any qualms they had about extracting labor from or forcing Christian conversion on the people they encountered. Better to have your beating heart ripped out of your chest by a masked man with an obsidian knife, or to kneel to a painted image of the Virgin Mary? Native peoples saw the Europeans as fair game for slavery as well. We have, for example, the account of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, a Spanish nobleman and would- be conquistador who served as the treasurer of the ill- fated Narváez Expedition in 1528. De Vaca and some three hundred compatriots intended to conquer Florida but were shipwrecked on the Florida coast. Within months, all but sixty died; by spring 1529, fifteen were left, and soon just four. They survived because they were enslaved by the local Indians and were traded from tribe to tribe, based on their skills as faith healers. After eight years of this, they escaped to Mexico. De Vaca's description of what he saw ( Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America ) is a key source for anthropologists - of which I am one - and it is among other things testimony to how thoroughly established slavery was in the New World long before any possible influence of European interlopers. The year 1492 changed the world, but not by introducing slavery to the Americas. Slavery was already here. The Spanish initially embraced the idea of enslaving native people, but then thought better of it. First, the Laws of Burgos, adopted in 1512, attempted to restrain the Spanish abuse of indigenous people. But in 1542, with the issuing of the New Laws of the Indies for the Good Treatment and Preservation of the Indians, the Spanish liberated the Native Americans from this yoke: We ordain and command that from henceforward for no cause of war nor any other whatsoever, though it be under title of rebellion, nor by ransom nor in other manner can an Indian be made a slave, and we will that they be treated as our vas- sals of the Crown of Castile since such they are. The exact meaning of this is debated by historians. It seems the Spanish crown wanted to roll back the encomienda, a form of servitude slightly different from the plantation slavery we are more familiar with. The encomienda gave Spanish holders of land-grants the right to demand tribute and forced labor from the local inhabitants. Excerpted from 1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project by Peter W. Wood All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.