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Indians Were the First Slaves
on September 7, 2005
I have to admit that I started reading this book because it was my daughter's assignment in a college history class. We were on a long driving trip and I told her to read out loud figuring it would be better than surfing the radio for a decent station. It soon became very interesting and the radio was forgotten.
LIFE IN A CALIFORNIA MISSION is divided into two sections. The first is a very long introduction written by Malcolm Margolin (about 50 pages). Margolin discusses what it was like for the California Indians.
The second part of the book was my favorite. This is ten days worth of journal accounts of what everyday life for California Indians entailed. In 1786 two French ships arrived. On one of those ships was Jean Francois de la Perouse who wrote these journals.
Perouse describes how the padres of the missions used the Indians for all labor. The men did physical labor, while the women spent most of the day processing grain (maize) for their food. Women were also responsible for cleaning. Even in 1786 there were monetary caste systems in place. The wealthier Indians wore otter skins for clothing, while the poorer people wore cloth. The interesting thing was there was no animosity from the poorer Indians, as they were treated fairly by their own tribe. The problems came when the padres and soldiers treated them differently.
Perouse goes into detail as to punishment of the Indians. If one disobeyed the padre he or she was either put in stocks, manacles or whipped, depending on the severity of his crime in the padre's estimation. Also, the Indians were expected to become Christians and denounce their own beliefs. If this did not happen, they were severely punished.
Throughout the journals Perouse compared California and it's inhabitants to Chile. Interestingly, he was very prejudiced against California and it was very obvious in his writings.
Many facts were discovered in these pages that I had not heard of before. Facts such as how the padres kept the Indians under such tight control. They would lock up the daughters at night saying it was for their own protection, all the while knowing that the families would not leave their children. The treatment of the Indians by the Spanish soldiers was atrocious and included raping the women and children, and beating the men who tried to intervene. Diseases were also discussed. Before the Spanish soldiers and other explorers arrived, there were very few diseases in California. After their arrival, many new illnesses appeared, with small pox being prevalent. Small pox was spread so easily - through the trade of skins and other items - the small pox germs contaminated anything touched by the infected person, and those that came into contact with that item became infected.
The main thing I realized was how depressed the Indians became. They were basically slaves and had no recourse. They had welcomed the settlers to their land and then were treated so horribly. I personally didn't realize how the padres of the California Missions treated these people; I had thought they were peaceful, well-meaning men who helped not hurt the people under their protection. Boy was I wrong!
On a side note, Perouse also describes the land and wildlife of California in 1786. You can imagine the abundance of wildlife when he talks of sending 30,000 otter pelts to Europe. Wow!
Overall this book is incredible! What started off as a reading assignment soon became intriguing. You really get a first hand account of what life was like in California during the 18th century, and what the Indians endured. It may change your way of thinking once you read it, it did mine!