John Locke, Slavery, and the Indians


The Two Treatises of Government may be regarded as key moments in the ideological preparation and consecration of the event that marks the birth of liberal England. We are dealing with texts deeply impregnated with the pathos of liberty, the condemnation of absolute power, the appeal to rise up against the wicked ones who seek to deprive man of his liberty and reduce him to slavery. But every now and then frightening passages open up in this ode to liberty, where slavery in the colonies is legitimized. As ultimate proof of the legitimacy of the institution, Grotius adduced the example of the Germans who, according to Tacitus’ testimony, ‘ventured their very Liberty upon the Cast of a Die.‘ In Locke’s view, ‘captives taken in a just war‘ (on the part of the victors) had ‘forfeited their lives and, with it, their liberties‘. They were slaves ‘subjected to the absolute dominion and arbitrary power of their masters‘.

Up to now the thinking applies to blacks deported from Africa. But the fate reserved for Indians was not manifestly better. In addition to having an interest in the slave trade as a shareholder in the Royal African Company, the liberal English philosopher was concerned with the white colonists’ expansionist march as secretary (in 1673-74) of the Council of Trade and Plantations. As has been justly observed:

That so many of the examples Locke uses in his Second Treatise are American ones shows that his intention was to provide the settlers, for whom he had worked in so many other ways, with a powerful argument based in natural law rather than legislative decree to justify their depredations.

The Second Treatise makes repeated reference to the ‘wild Indian‘, who moved around ‘insolent and injurious in the woods of America‘ or the ‘vacant places of America‘. Ignorant of labour, which was the only thing that could confer property right, and occupying a land not ‘improv[ed] by labour‘ , or ‘great tracts of unused ground‘ , the Indian inhabited ‘unpossessed quarters‘ , in vacuis locis.  In addition to labour and property, Indians were also ignorant of money. They thus not only proved alien to civilization, but were also ‘not … joined with the rest of mankind‘ .  As a result of their behaviour, they were not solely subject to human condemnation. Unquestionably, ‘God commanded … labour‘ and private property, and could certainly not want the world created by him to remain ‘common and uncultivated.

When he sought to challenge the march of civilization, violently opposing exploitation through labour of the uncultivated land occupied by him, the Indian, along with any other criminal, could be equated with ‘one of those wild savage beasts with whom men can have no society nor security‘, and who ‘therefore may be destroyed as a lion or a tiger‘ . Locke never tired of insisting on the right possessed by any man to destroy those reduced to the level of ‘beast of prey‘, ‘savage beasts‘; to the level of ‘a savage ravenous beast that is dangerous to his being‘.


  1. Losurdo, Domenico, and Gregory Elliott. Liberalism: A Counter-history. London: Verso, 2011. Print. 23-25.

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