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Impearls: HIC 2.07: Debt slavery

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Earthdate 2005-11-12

Debt slavery   by A. L. Kroeber

Slavery was a recognized institution but scarcely an important one.  The proportion of slave population was small, probably not over one-twentieth, certainly not over a tenth.  One Yurok man had three slaves, but he was exceptionally rich, and may not have owned them simultaneously.  Slaves entered their condition solely through debt, never through violence.  Men were not taken prisoners in war, and women and children were invariably restored when settlement was made; solitary strangers that elsewhere might have been oppressed were suspected and killed by the Yurok.  Debt arose from legal rather than economic vicissitudes, Yurok industry and finance being insufficiently developed for a man to fall gradually into arrears from lack of subsistence or excessive borrowing.  The usual cause was an act of physical violence or destruction of property; striking a rich man's son, for instance, or speaking the name of a dead person of wealth.  Slaves made string and nets, fished, and performed similar work.  They were not killed in display of wealth, as farther north on the coast, the Yurok seeing no sense in the destruction of property except when carried away by spite.  Slaves, however, were full property.  An owner might buy his slave a wife to keep him contented; the children then belonged to the master.  The institution seems to have been unknown in California except for the advanced northwestern tribes.

It appears that female relatives paid in blood settlement by poor people became slaves or of kindred status.  It is said that if the man to whom such a woman was handed over wished to marry her, or to give her in marriage to a kinsman, he paid a small amount to her family.  This indicates that the law accorded him a right to her services, not to her person, and the former was the only right in her which he could transfer on sale. 

A bastard, in burning over a hillside, once set fire to certain valuables which a rich man of Sregon had concealed in the vicinity.  He was unable to compensate and became the other's slave.  Subsequently the Sregonite killed a Tolowa, and transferred the slave as part of the blood money.  This was long after the American was in the land; but the slave knew that if he attempted to avail himself of the protection of the white man's law, he would be liable under the native code and probably ambushed and killed by his master.  He therefore arranged with him to purchase his liberty, apparently with money earned by services to Americans.

The Yurok state that their slaves did not attempt to run off.  A slave might evade a new master; in which case his old proprietor would be appealed to and would threaten him with instant death if he did not return to the service of his new owner.  It must be remembered that enslavement of foreigners was not practiced.  Among his own or known people, public sentiment would support the master and not the slave.  If the latter fled to aliens, his status would at best remain the same, his condition would certainly be worse, and he was likely to be killed at once as an unprotected and unwelcome stranger.

Payment for a murdered slave was, of course, due his master, not his kinsmen.  A rich owner would receive a high settlement.  It is the old story of values being determined not only intrinsically but according to the value borne by the owner or claimant.



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