[Once again, rather than reinvent the wheel, I am going to incorporate into this tutorial lengthy passages from my Autobiography of an Ex-White Man, this time from Chapter Three. In this way, perhaps, I will win more readers for portions of that book than the hard cover version ever enjoyed.]
When the English adventurers and colonists came to the Atlantic coast of what is now the
We live today in an America in which most of the very hardest physical labor has either been obviated by machinery or else exported to workers in other parts of the world, conveniently out of sight, so it is difficult for us to get an accurate sense of just how hard it was in the seventeenth century to turn virgin forest into farm land and pasture. Try to imagine what sort of job it would be to fell a large tree with hand axes and saws, and then to cut its roots and dig, pry, or drag out the stump. Even with draft animals, which were hardly in good supply in the early colonies, it is crushing work. One large field, cleared of trees and rocks, surrounded by a stone wall, and plowed for planting represented a kind and amount of labor that few people in twenty-first century
Humphrey Gilbert, Walter Raleigh, and the other well-born adventurers who sought to make their fortune in the
Why would an English man or woman voluntarily enter into what amounted to temporary slavery? Some of them did not do so voluntarily. They were coerced, or impressed, or offered indenture as an alternative to the gallows. But for many, even so dismal a prospect was preferable to the life that faced them in their native land. At least in this fabled
If the indentured servants survived the voyage to
The constant and insistent worry of the masters was how to extract from their servants the hard work that would make their investment profitable. Not surprisingly, the indentured servants frequently shirked the most painful of the work, running away, or even turning on their masters. The scanty law records tell many stories of servants who disappeared into the woods, or put down their tools once their masters were out of sight. The response of the masters was angry, frustrated, and incredibly harsh, at least by our modern standards. Whipping was commonplace, as was starvation. Servants were sometimes punished by having their ears cut off. Jacqueline Jones, in her brilliant book American Work, tells the story of "Alice Travellor, the mistress of a little girl named Elizabeth Bibby, [who] showed no remorse after hoisting the girl 'upp by a Tackle which they use to hang deare with', whipping her, holding her 'over the fyre threatening that she would burne her,' and beating her bloody.
Servitude was not an oddity or rarity in Colonial America. It was the norm. Most of the men, women, and children in the early colonies were unfree laborers of one sort or another. Freedom -- the legal right to live where one chose, marry whom one chose, work when and in what way one chose -- was the precious possession of the upper classes, and of very few others. From the very beginning, the American Story has been a story of bondage.
There is nothing unusual about this fact, of course. Bondage of one sort or another had for many centuries been the lot of most of the people living in
Thus far, we have been talking only about White people, but there were others here. There were the local inhabitants, whose wishes, needless to say, had not been consulted when the colonies were planted in their midst. The colonists vacillated between trying to establish friendly relations with the locals and trying to exterminate them. On occasion, their behavior was simply self-destructive. The local inhabitants, after all, had long ago figured out how to live with reasonable comfort in the forests along the Atlantic shore of
In the earliest days of some of the colonies, such as those in