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Saturday, July 2, 2011


[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 United States, they were looking for gold, for jewels, and for plenty of arable land, free for the taking, on which they could grow cash crops for the European market. What they found was vast stretches of virgin forest and local inhabitants whose weaponry was inferior to their own. In the end, the local inhabitants proved conquerable, though not quite so easily as the invaders might have thought at first, but the promise of precious metals was never fulfilled, at least in the Eastern part of the Northern Hemisphere, and to extract a profit from the land they had seized required enormous amounts of hard, unrelenting physical labor.

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 America do anymore.

Humphrey Gilbert, Walter Raleigh, and the other well-born adventurers who sought to make their fortune in the New World had no intention of doing this sort of work themselves. The thought must never have crossed their minds. They needed considerable numbers of people whose labor they could command, people whom they could compel to work in order to make this new land yield a profit. Their first solution was to bring with them from England indentured servants, men and women who were bound by law to work for them for seven years, in return for ship passage and the promise that at the end of that time they would be set free. In short, the New World, like the Old, was built on unfree labor.

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 New World there was the possibility that they might eventually work off their indenture and get their hands on a bit of their own land.

If the indentured servants survived the voyage to America -- which many of them did not -- what faced them was brutally hard work, for which they were very ill-prepared. England, after all, was by the seventeenth century a thoroughly cultivated and subdued land. What virgin forests remained were forbidden to common people by law. The skills acquired there as a farmer, a woodsman, or a herder were not so easily put to use in the New World. Strange as it may seem to us now, it takes experience and skill to cut down a tree or make a field arable, and the workers frequently wounded themselves with wayward axes or broke their tools on the harsh soil.

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. Elizabeth had enraged her mistress by soiling her bed."

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 Europe, and of most of the people living in Asia, for that matter. Colonists from powerful states routinely killed or enslaved the militarily less powerful inhabitants whom they encountered as they established their colonies. But that is just the point. What happened in North America was not exceptional, it was quite ordinary. The traditional American story is simply wrong in its two foundational themes: America was not founded as the embodiment of The Idea of Freedom, nor is it unique, exceptional, unlike all other nations. America got its beginning as simply one more collection of colonies built with forced labor.

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 North America. Simple self-interest might have suggested that they would be a good source of advice to the perpetually hungry settlers. But a combination of ethnocentric arrogance, xenophobia, and just plain stupidity led the settlers again and again to turn their backs on even the friendliest of their new neighbors.

In the earliest days of some of the colonies, such as those in Virginia, the chances of surviving for more than a few years were very slim indeed. It seems incredible to us now, but the records clearly show that as many as eighty percent of those who came to Virginia from England in the first decades of the seventeenth century died of famine or disease or overwork within three or four years. Some were lost in battles with the Native Americans, but their numbers are as nothing compared with those who just didn't make it. Despite this fact, shiploads of indentured servants kept arriving, and eventually the settlers began to tame the land, and learn how to survive. At the same time, thanks to the insatiable demand for tobacco back in Europe, the investors on occasion made some serious profits.

1 comment:

wallyverr said...

There is a short overview article on indentured servitude in the American colonies in an online encyclopedia of economic history produced by the Economic History Association:

It also has a section on slavery.
The article contains an interesting suggestion that the New England colonies had much less indentured servitude among the total European immigration than the other colonies, though this appears to be based on too short a time period to be conclusive. If true, though, since much of the American "social (or collective) memory" comes from New England, it might help explain the source of the foundational themes. As with individual memory, perhaps, highly selective rather than wholly invented.