The 1519 Project: An Antidote to Caricature?

Predictably, and with more than average fanfare, The New York Times’s headline-grabbing The 1619 Project is coming to the small screen. Hulu has released a six-part docuseries on the controversial historical revision, which purports to demonstrate the racist foundations of the American Project. Brainchild of Nikole Hannah-Jones and Dean Baquet, this new “origin” myth has become something of a political hot-potato in the culture wars.

Though it’s not likely to go very far, I’d like to toss another potato into the fire and point out that slavery was well-established in North America at least one hundred years before the alleged “beginning” of the American slavery story. Complete with the myriad complexities, contradictions and paradoxes of real life, the Spanish Americas (including much of what is today the United States) were awash in slavery. Slavery between Indians. Enslavement of Indians by Spaniards. Enslavement of Spaniards by Indians. And yes, tragically, enslavement of blacks, ladinos, Moors, and every distinction between. It was messy, it was endemic, and it was very real—but it was certainly not confined exclusively to Blacks, nor to early Americans in Virginia. Perhaps this deeper, more complex history might be called the 1519 Project.

The 1619 Project’s film trailer claims that the “very first enslaved Africans were brought here over four hundred years ago.” This is not only inaccurate (it was well over five hundred years at least), but it promotes the very sort of historical amnesia it professes to redress by entirely ignoring the much-earlier history of slavery in America. 

“Since then,” it goes on, “no part of America’s story has been untouched by the legacy of slavery.” This is true in the narrowest sense, but it studiously misses the larger point: no part of the history of the entire world has been untouched by the legacy of slavery. The 1619 Project makes only glancing reference to sixteenth-century American slavery, and instead seeks to make a special case of colonial English slavery, with a specific political aim to impugn “capitalism” and the “hypocrisy” of revolutionary founding ideals. By carefully ignoring the larger context of slavery in the Americas, it engages in weaponized, cherry-picked history that supports its own motivated ends, amongst which are special race-based preferences and “$13 trillion in reparations.”

Phil Magness and others have already done yeoman’s work in documenting the numerous historical inaccuracies and outright fabrications of the The 1619 Project (and, charitably, what the project gets right), so I won’t rehash except to say that, as a historical product the Project is, shall we say, questionable. But setting that aside, the biggest tragedy of all is that The 1619 Project’s tunnel-vision ignores so much rich history: remarkable people, troubling facts, and brutal truths that cut across all manner of ethnic and geographical boundaries.

It ignores, for instance, the astonishing story of Esteban de Dorantes, the Black Moroccan slave who was shipwrecked in 1527 on the coast of Florida and helped three survivors (out of some 600) walk across most of what is now North America (Florida to Arizona and thence to Mexico City), enduring years of serial enslavement by coastal Indians along the way.

It overlooks “Madalena,” the Tocobaga native who was swept up by conquistadors, sent to Cuba, traveled to Spain and ultimately returned to her people in an epic saga of enslavement, resilience, and redemption.

It discounts black slaves who escaped into what is now North Carolina (in 1539!) to marry and live with the Indian women of Xuala, and the curious reactions of their Spanish owners, who were surprised, “because they were regarded as good Christians and friends of their master.”

It sidesteps the endemic slavery of North America where Spaniards found: 

[M]any Indians native to other provinces who were held in slavery. As a safeguard against their running away, [their captors] disabled them in one foot, cutting the nerves above the instep where the foot joins the leg, or just above the heel. They held them in this perpetual and inhuman bondage in the interior of the country, away from the frontiers, making use of them to cultivate the soil, and in other servile employments.

It neglects the experiences of Spaniards like Juan Ortiz and Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, who were captured and taken as slaves, enduring treatment “more cruel than [that] of a Moorish master.”

And so on. Starting America’s slavery story arbitrarily at 1619 abandons to obscurity these equally important chapters of a collective tale. A 1519 Project, however, adds complexity that counters popular conceptions of a monolithic, European-dominated slavery culture. It would address Pueblo enslavement of Teya women, for instance. It would not shy from Hernando De Soto’s brutal “iron collars.” It would acknowledge the anti-slavery sentiment of large parts of Spanish society. It would, in short, force us to reckon with history as it was, instead of how it ought to have been.

To that end, while a 1519 Project may seem to some like an attempt to trivialize the egregious impact of a brutal institution in the United States, it is not. It is instead an attempt at a more honest, more complete history of slavery, so that we don’t delude ourselves into repeating the tragic mistakes of the past—treating one another differently based on the color of our skin, for instance.

Hulu’s 1619 Project tells us that “the truth is, Black Americans have always been foundational to the idea of American freedom” and that their “contributions are undeniable.” Yes, this is so. But to suggest that the experience of slavery is a uniquely Black, or uniquely North American phenomenon does a great injustice to the Blacks and other North Americans who came before 1619.

Paul Schwennesen

Paul Schwennesen is completing a PhD dissertation on environmental history and Spanish conquest in the Arizona/New Mexico borderlands. He holds a Master’s degree in Government from Harvard University and degrees in History and Science from the United States Air Force Academy. He is a regular contributor to the Property and Environment Research Center and his writing has appeared at the New York Times, American Spectator, Claremont Review, and in textbooks on environmental ethics (Oxford University Press and McGraw-Hill). He is the father, most importantly, of three delightful children. Follow him on Twitter @agrarianfree

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