The American Revolution Reconsidered: Part Four


The Takeaway

The most important thing to take note of here is that the Turkish conquest of 1453, sort of pivoted Western Europe's search for slave labor, for sugar production, away from the Black Sea region, and more toward Africa.

But Britain---not so much at first. This is because they had a native, overabundance of homegrown labor. Britain could not ship out its "excess labor" to distant lands, fast enough.

Why Did England Spawn Overseas Colonies?


The Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople. This conquest cut off Europeans from their supply of slave labor from the Slavic area around the Black Sea. These slaves had provided the major workforce for the sugar plantations on the Mediterranean (1).

Historian Nell Irvin Painter wrote: "Sugar came into Medieval Western Europe around the year 1000 in a linkage of sugar and colonialism... Venice processed and sold the sugar that Italian, Greek, Bulgarian, Turkish, and Tartar laborers (free, slave, and sharecropper) produced primarily in the Venetian colonies of Crete and Cyprus, where the cane grew well. After the Black Death of the mid-1300s created a labor shortage, Christian Crusader kingdoms of the eastern Mediterranean resorted increasingly to enslavement (2).

"With increased enslavement of people from the Balkans near the Crusader kingdoms of the eastern Adriatic---the European slave coast---the word 'slav' turned into the word 'slave.' Faceless masses of slaves from Greece, Bulgaria, Turkey, and the Black Sea region grew sugar for Western tables until the Turkish conquest disrupted the chain of supply" (3).

Its worth the trouble to go on with Dr. Painter's exact words.

"Fairly soon the Americas, especially the Caribbean islands, proved so productive that sugar making became synonymous with America---and with African slaves. These new plantations, with their African workforce have largely obscured the memory of the older, European history of sugar, with its Mediterranean and Balkan workforce, leaving a large conceptual gap. Yet the Gate of the Sugar Workers still marks the old city walls of Syracuse in Sicily and clearly, Western Europe's critical nexus of sugar and slavery. A similar nexus involving tobacco made Europeans, not Africans, the first unfree laborers in British America" (4).

And finally: "This shift to the West did not, however, signal an end to white slavery, for Britain was still in play. With its rapidly increasing population, religious and royal wars, Irish ethnic cleansing, and fear of rising crime, Britain excelled among the European imperial powers in shipping its people into bondage into distant lands" (5).

But we're getting a little ahead of ourselves.

The Takeaway

The noble and gentry siblings lost out when England lost the Hundred Years War, as we looked at in part three.

These would not have been the kind to shrug their shoulders and say, "Easy come, easy go." They would have wanted somebody to "make them whole," as it were. That was 1432.

Some seventy or so years later, the English government is able to do that because:

  • The beginning of the agricultural revolution means that fewer bodies are necessary to grow food for the population.
  • These are people who can be evacuated from the land, the commonly-held lands, so that they can be privatized, and perhaps turned over to the descendants of the English "princes," who had lost out on their French territorial holdings, when England lost the Hundred Years War.
  • The English "princes" we're talking about are the noble and gentry siblings, in a social system of male preference primogeniture, whereby the first-born son gets everything.
  • This system of primogeniture leaves generations upon generations of what I have called "noble siblings," or just "siblings," who get just about nothing, and have to pursue other, limited options to try to get a stake for themselves: clergy, become of knight, or something like that.
  • With the end of feudalism in the fifteenth century, the option of holding land for a lord goes away.
  • But this does not change the fact that you have these noble and gentry siblings standing around saying "what about me?," which constitutes a tremendous social squeaky wheel which requires a tremendous amount of figurative oil.
  • Under these circumstances, the government would find itself coming under pressure to expand England's territorial holding.
  • The end of feudalism knocks out an "employment options" for many working class people as well, all those who are not the first-born son, all those who do not, therefore, inherit the shoe repair shop.
  • One of the employment options, apparently, devised for them is the slave trade in the 1560s

The Early 1500s

The opening of the sixteenth century in England saw two developments which concern us. One is the agricultural revolution, which meant that you did not need as many people on the land, growing food (6). The second is the enclosure movement, whereby the central government began the process of privatizing the commonly held lands (7).

We should be more precise. The agricultural revolution and the enclosure movement are both processes that unfolded over the period of several centuries. What we should say is that: with the beginning of the agricultural revolution, in the early 1500s, you started to not need as many people on the land growing food; and with the start of the enclosure process, at the start of the sixteenth century, you started to push people off the land.


It seems to me that the start of the enclosure movement in the early sixteenth century was enabled by the start of the agricultural revolution. And the enclosure movement must have begun in the sixteenth century by the English government, as a means of compensation to the descendants of the English "princes" (noble and gentry siblings) we talked about in part three---for their losses of land in French territory, when England lost the Hundred Years War. Does that make sense?

These noble and gentry siblings must have constituted a tremendous squeaky wheel in English society, requiring a tremendous amount of figurative oil. And, if these siblings---when they got a hold of some property of their own somehow---also, by habit, followed the tradition of primogeniture, we talked about in part three (first born gets everything, including the title in the case of the aristocracy), in passing down their assets to the next generation, then the problem of generations upon generations of high-born siblings left standing around like Fredo Corleone in The Godfather, saying, ("What about me?"), would have been enlarged exponentially.

I believe this is what happened. And I believe that this factor put tremendous pressure on the English government to expand territorially. Though I have not studied this aspect in detail, I suspect that this is the basic story with England's incursions into Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, ultimately leading to the creation of the Great Britain project.

I suspect that what one will find, upon examination, is that England---driven by the social pressure of primogeniture, specifically as it affected the nobility and gentry (the "commoner" siblings)---spun a tangled weave of lord-vassal relationships, which created much confusion of rightful claims---like the example I gave in part three of bundled mortgages---which often needed to be sorted out with massive amounts of bloodshed.

But all of that is, admittedly, speculation. Let us return to more solid ground.

The Takeaway

  • The agricultural revolution-facilitated, primogeniture-driven enclosure, privatization of commonly-held lands knocks many people off the land, and therefore, out of work.
  • These idle hands, in 1530s England are criminalized; and Parliament passed a slavery law to absorb them in 1547.
  • The slavery law was repealed in 1550s.
  • Parliament, at that point, started to hammer out a labor system which allowed for compulsion (indentured servitude) but not, theoretically, total enslavement, a total loss of freedom.
  • In 1550 slavery is rendered illegal in English law.
  • The question we will consider in part five or six, maybe, is why did the settlers on the North American mainland choose to violate this law

More on the 1500s

The 1530s

This agricultural revolution-facilitated, primogeniture-driven enclosure system I have been referring to seems to have definitely given rise to a tremendous nation-wide social crisis in the 1530s.

There was a tremendous social crisis in England in the 1530s. Historian Winthrop D. Jordan wrote: "From at least the 1530s the countryside swarmed with vagrants, sturdy beggars, rogues, and vagabonds, with men who could but would not work. They committed all manner of crimes, the worst of which was remaining idle. It was an article of faith among Tudor commentators (before there were 'Puritans' to help propound it) that idleness was the mother of all vice and the chief danger to a well-ordered state" (8).

And so on and so forth. Moralists (Tudor commentators) frequently do not make good economists. But, again, the idleness was due to the fact that the enclosure movement was separating masses of people from the use of land (9).

In any case, Parliament responded to this crisis by passing an enslavement law in 1547. Under its provisions, if you could spot someone who was idle, and if you could, somehow, present him to two justices of the peace, convincing them that he was indeed a "vagrant," "idle," and all that, you could have him as your slave for two years. You could brand him like cattle and everything (10).

This very law was repealed three years later (11). Winthrop D. Jordan again: "...Tudor authorities gradually hammered out the legal framework of a labor system which permitted compulsion but which did not permit so total a loss of freedom as lifetime hereditary slavery" (12).

This means that actual slavery was made illegal in English law in 1550. But, of course, indentured servitude was okay.

Winthrop D. Jordan one more time: "As things turned out, it was indentured servitude which best met the requirements for settling America. Of course there were other forms of bound labor which contributed to the process of settlement: many convicts were sent and many children abducted" (13).

Quite right.

The African Slave Trade

The 1560s

The Tudor authorities "gradually hammered out the legal framework of a labor system..." after Parliament's repeal of the 1547 slavery law.

Apparently that "labor system" included employment on slave trafficking vessels. The English seem to have made small incursions into the business of selling African slaves to Spanish dominions in the 1560s.

A chap called John Hawkins was first. Some time in the 1560s he embarked upon three slave trading voyages. These voyages took him to Africa, the islands, and then home. The first two trips were successful but the third--- not so much. On this last occasion at San Juan de Ulua, the Spanish attacked his ships, took most of them, and turned the English seamen over to the Spanish Inquisition (14).

By the way...

The end of feudalism suddenly cramped the options of not only the noble and gentry siblings.

Before 1432, when feudalism with its lord-vassal social and political relations were still operative, becoming a knight was a way out, as it were, for all kinds of people.

Take the Heath Ledger film, A Knight's Tale (2001). I have never seen it but Wikipedia informs us that the film is about a peasant who pretends to be a knight... and so on and so forth. But here is the point.

If you were the third son of a cobbler (shoemaker) in England, during the time of feudalism, with the social structure of primogeniture in place---you could not hope to inherit the shoe shop. Barring anything unusual, that shop is going to the firstborn son.

Suppose you're not much into making and repairing shoes anyway. What are you're options in medieval-period England.

1. You could become a beggar or criminal

2. You could join a monastery (it is unlikely that, with your social standing, that you would be able to join the clergy at a high or senior level).

3. You could, somehow, train yourself to be a knight, so that you might offer your services to someone, who was going to offer himself as a vassal to a lord.

4. Or, having trained yourself to become a knight, you might offer your services to the Crusades.

The end of the Hundred Years War and the end of feudalism which it brought about, cut off a significant career option for many working people---especially in the face of the agricultural revolution-facilitated, primogeniture-driven enclosure movement, which is separating millions from the land.

After all, as author Robin Neillands wrote: "During the Middle Ages, the act of homage was much more than a colourful ceremony. It was the central political act between powers: the basis of medieval society for all those who aspired to any rank above that of simple freeman" (15).

Wow, "..... for all those who aspired to any rank above that of simple freeman."

Mr. Neillands says that as those merely being a free person, in medieval society, was either a tremendous accomplishment or bit of good fortune, or both in itself.

And indeed it was!

But, again, with the ending of feudalism in the fifteenth century, a significant "career option," you might say, has gone away. And this puts social pressure upon English society. These building pressures, obviously, would work over time, to increasingly make the government think it a good idea to ship out its "excess" citizens to overseas colonies.

The reason we are going through this exercise---that of examining the cause for England's overseas colonies---is because I believe that the reason England creates overseas colonies contains the very seeds that would cause the settlers of the North American mainland to revolt against the Crown.

In part five we're going to talk about identity. We're going to talk about the way the settlers found a way to change their identity---how transplanted English society redefined itself on the basis of race as opposed to class, as had been the modus operandi in England.

Stay Tuned and Thanks for Reading!


References and Notes

1. Horton, James Oliver & Horton, Lois E. Slavery And The Making Of America. Oxford University Press, 2005. 13; Painter, Nell Irvin. The History of White People. W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. 39

2. Painter, Nell Irvin. The History of White People. W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. 39

3. ibid

4. ibid, 40

5. ibid

6. Overton, M. (2011, February 17). Agricultural Revolution in England 1500 - 1850. Retrieved April 22, 2015

7. Fairlie, S. (2009 Summer). A Short History of Enclosure in Britain. Retrieved April 22, 2015

8. Jordan, Winthrop D. White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro 1550-1812. University of North Carolina Press, 1968. 51

9. Franklin, John Hope & Moss, Jr., Alfred A. From Slavery To Freedom: A History Of Negro Americans. Alfred A. Knopf, 1988. 29

10. Jordan, W. D. White Over Black. 51

11. ibid

12. ibid, 52

13. ibid

14. ibid, 58

15. Neillands, Robin. The Hundred Years War. Routledge, 1990. 16

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