Slavery, Serra and the California Missions, continued

Diseases, starvation, filthy and crowded living conditions, cruelty and torture–but also depression killed the mission Indians.  As Elias Castillo puts it, “Some may have simply willed themselves to die, unable to stand the terrible stress….Nearly half of the missions populations died each year” and to make up for such losses the friars hunted farther and farther to find tribes from which they could seek a new and free labor force for their plantations.  Castillo continues:

The Ohlone were forced into servitude by the Spanish, who segregated them by gender and lashed them when they refused to work as the missionaries wanted. A firsthand account from the era described the missions as “indistinguishable from slave plantations.” From: “Yes, We Live on Ohlone Land. But What Does That Mean?” by Tommy Alexander.

Much of California including land that was far from the coast, would be turned into a huge and profitable farming area—the legacy of the missions, albeit at a tragic cost to California’s Indians….Newly-arrived settlers were faced with twenty-one missions that were in actuality giant agribusinesses that controlled the best lands with a large pool of free manpower.

French Naval Captain Jean-Francois de Galaup, Comte de Laperouse, sailed into Monterey Bay on September 14, 1786.  He was the first outsider to visit the missions, arriving seventeen years after its founding.  He was “appalled at the treatment of the Indians by the Franciscan friars.” 

“Indian quarters at Mission Santa Clara” Photo by Alice Iola Hare, 1890. On Wikimedia Commons

He makes explicit the slave-like conditions of the Indians “whose state at present scarcely differs from that of the Negro inhabitants of our colonies….” It “brought to our recollection a plantation at Santo Domingo or any other West Indian island.”  The “noise of the whip” was everywhere.  

The neophytes the friars chose to carry out the priests’ commands were “like the overseers of a slave plantation: passive beings, blind performers of the will of their superiors (friars).” They beat any Indian, no matter what age or sex, who violated mission rules. 

Statue of Mohawk maiden Kateri Tekawitha marks the mass grave of 5,515 Native Americans at Mission Dolores Cemetery. Photo by Wally Gobetz on Flickr

The floggings ranged from ten lashes up to fifty which could prove fatal.  Women were not whipped in public but were taken away to be whipped so their cries would not arouse the men to rebellion.  When Indians killed a priest who was especially cruel in his whipping they were caught and sentenced to fifty daily lashes each for nine days and to life sentences of hard labor. 

For Serra, his missions “were little more than forced labor.  This permitted the missions to thrive economically, and allowed the friars to profit personally for the sale of tallow, hides, horns, wine and brandy” which they sold to foreign merchant ships. 

For the Indians it signified the beginning of brutal suffering and cultural genocide.  Most died within two years, with their faith, customs, and way of life torn from them.

“California Native Perspectives” Uploaded to YouTube by Nicole Lim

The Spanish Visitor General wrote to Serra’s close friend Friar Palou that they should “not teach the Indians how to write; for I have enough experiences that such major instruction perverts and hastens their ruination.”

This too followed the methods of the slavery plantations where reading and writing were forbidden.  Castillo comments that this policy endorsed by Serra “proved catastrophic for the Indians when they began abandoning the missions in the 1830s.”  

See: Elias Castillo, A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California’s Indians by the Spanish Missions, pp. 139, 131, 109f, 112-114, 98. 129.

See also: Matthew Fox, Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh: Transforming Evil in Soul and Society, pp. 203-209.   

See also: Matthew Fox, A Way To God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey, pp. 193-200.

Banner image: “Bay Area Indians,” drawing by Louis Choris. On Wikimedia Commons:

Queries for Contemplation

Consider deeply how once again, as with slavery, economics is foundational to the entire system of the missions.  Have we advanced far regarding economic justice since Serra’s time?  Are we working for a just economic system that respects all humans and all earth creatures?

Recommended Reading

A Way to God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey

In A Way to God, Fox explores Merton’s pioneering work in interfaith, his essential teachings on mixing contemplation and action, and how the vision of Meister Eckhart profoundly influenced Merton in what Fox calls his Creation Spirituality journey.
“This wise and marvelous book will profoundly inspire all those who love Merton and want to know him more deeply.” — Andrew Harvey, author of The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism

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4 thoughts on “Slavery, Serra and the California Missions, continued”

  1. Avatar

    Matt Fox my eyes are being opened by your recounting of this history. I’m fairly educated yet I am learning about these missions for the first time!!
    I’m reading Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine and that’s another revelation! Ghandhi was right, the fundamental evil is greed. Thank you for your writing and speaking!♥️

  2. Avatar
    Margaret Nuccio

    This is appalling, I had no idea…….
    Was Rome blind and deaf when it canonized Sera?
    Thank you Matthew for bringing these crimes to daylight and to our consciences.

    Margaret N

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