By Lin Fisher

In our fall feature on the digital history projects of History faculty, here we highlight Professor Lin Fisher, who is leading a team of scholars in the creation of the Database of Indigenous Slavery in the Americans (DISA). In addition to creating this important database, Fisher is completing a book entitled Atlantic Passages: The Rise and Fall of Native Slavery in the Atlantic World, which will be published by Oxford University Press.  

Scholars now estimate that between 2.5 and 5 million Natives were enslaved in the Americas between 1492 and the late nineteenth century – an astonishing number by any measure, even compared to the approximately 12.5 million Africans who were brought as slaves from Africa in this same time period. This is a long-neglected aspect of North American history in the age of European empires, one historians are now exploring in much greater depth. To begin to tabulate the immensity of indigenous slavery in the Americas and to centralize the research that is being done, the team of researchers I’m leading are documenting as many instances as possible of indigenous enslavement in the Americas between 1492 and 1900.

The hemispheric study of Native American slavery represents cutting-edge research in multi-lingual and multi-national contexts in the Americas. DISA will allow researchers to compile names and biographical information from hard to access archives and put them out into the wider online world where thousands of historians, researchers, students, tribal members, and families can use the information to reconstruct histories, chart networks, and make connections in ways that have never before been possible. 

The project involves building an accessible website (www.indigenousslavery.org) that explains the project and serves as a public search portal for the database. The core of the website will be the database itself, with an interface that anyone can use to run keyword searches, view entries by region, time, etc. When possible, entries will provide not just the basic biographical of the individual, but also a full transcription of the source.

We have received a Brown University Seed Grant to help launch the project, and we are now preparing to apply for larger grants, which will allow DISA to become a critical scholarly and public resource on a subject that has remained undocumented and little understood for too long.

This image depicts early contact and fighting between Spanish and Natives in Mexico (and in particular, the landing of Francisco de Montijo in 1527). Every European power in the Americas enslaved Natives (including the English), perhaps as many as 5 million over time. (Theodor de Bry, "Franciscus Monteio Lucatanae provinciae praeficitur," 1595. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library.)