The American Revolution Reconsidered: Part Six
Background Information: For Reference Only
- Hundreds of men from Massachusetts and Connecticut sailed back to England to fight on the Puritan side against Charles I.
- Royalist Virginia welcomed 'Cavalier' emigres and expelled its Puritans
- Religious-based fighting took place in the colonies as well (25).
- Anglican-Catholic forces in Maryland were defeated by their Puritan enemies at the battle of Severn near Annapolis, Maryland.
- These kinds of divisions almost thwarted the Revolution (26).
The Thirteen Colonies and then the United States, from about the second half of the seventeenth century until the middle of the twentieth with the end of Jim Crow, has always been a 'one drop rule' country, with respect to the slave code and later, the post-Civil War Black Codes for segregation.
That is to say, that after 1666, for example, laws dealing with slaves began to add the language 'and mulattoes,' no doubt to make it clear that mixed blood was no exemption from slavery. From the start on the North American mainland, every colony observed the one drop principle, both with respect to slaves and free blacks (1).
In 1765 the colony of Georgia reached out to free blacks, mulattoes (mixed-race black-white), and mustees (mixed-race Indian-blacks; sometimes used to refer to mixed Indian-white) to come and live there. There was even a provision made by the legislature to naturalize free mulatto and mustee immigrants as "white" men, endowed with 'all Rights, Privileges, Powers and Immunities whatsoever which any person born of British parents' (2).
This is, of course, reflective of the desperate situation of the colony at the time. It had a small settler population with an increasing proportion of slaves; and it was in constant danger from powerful Indian tribes. Georgia was desperate to attract men who might be counted as "white" and who would help strengthen the colony's defenses against both foreign and domestic enemies (3).
The point is, though, that by 1765 (if not sooner), "whiteness" had become a commodity which delivered real, tangible, concrete benefits upon whomever it was conferred. In the case of Georgia, the colonial authorities were making a special exception to expand the franchise, as it were. But this had not always been the case in the Thirteen Colonies.
There had been a time, in the Thirteen Colonies, when a white skin was not a resource. There had been a time when a white-skinned person, in the Thirteen Colonies of the North American mainland was more likely to be an unfree bonded laborer than a free person.
The reason for that seemingly unbelievable state of affairs, is the fact that "before an eighteenth-century boom in the African slave trade," according to historian Nell Irvin Painter, "between one-half and two-thirds of all early white immigrants to the British colonies in the Western Hemisphere came as unfree laborers, some 300,000 to 400,000 people" (4).
Those figures somewhat comport with the understanding arrived at by another historian, Howard Zinn, who asserted that certainly more than half of the colonists who came to the North American mainland, in the colonial period (1619-1776), arrived as indentured servants. They were mostly English in the seventeenth century, and Irish and German in the eighteenth (5).
In Maryland, as late as 1755, white-skinned indentured servants still made up ten percent of the population, for example (6).
Now would probably be a good time to talk about the lot of the indentured servant in the Thirteen Colonies. If one were to compare indentured servitude to slavery, he might readily conclude that while both systems were harsh and brutal, slavery was certainly worse of the two.
On the surface that conclusion certainly seems reasonable. The first thing one might say is that indentured servitude was "voluntary" because the laborers "signed contracts."
That is certainly true. However, one might casually observe that the language barrier would have prevented Africans from "signing" European labor "contracts."
The second thing to say, is that before one is so quick to call the servants' situation "voluntary" and "contractual," one needs to constantly keep in mind the relentless social upheaval being caused by the grind machine back in England.
Historian Howard Zinn wrote: "In England, the development of commerce and capitalism in the 1500s and 1600s, the enclosing of land for the production of wool, filled the cities with vagrant poor, and from the reign of Elizabeth on, laws were passed to punish them, imprison them in workhouses, or exile them" (7).
Dr. Zinn continued: "in the 1600s and 1700s, by forced exile, by lures, promises, and lies, by kidnapping, by their urgent need to escape the living conditions of the home country, poor people wanting to go to America became commodities of profit for merchants, traders, ship captains, and eventually their masters in America" (8).
What we're talking about is the relentless grind machine, I have been characterizing in this series as the agricultural revolution-facilitated, primogeniture-driven enclosure movement, the privatization of commonly-held lands in England. Legions of people were being dispossessed, pauperized, and criminalized through this process; and England could not ship them out of the country fast enough.
According to Nell Irvin Painter, most of those forcibly transported ended up in the Chesapeake area (Virginia and Maryland), but Massachusetts got its share of bond laborers. One-fifth of the early New England Puritans were indentured servants, including eight who died in the crossing on the Mayflower in 1620 (9).
Oliver Cromwell's administration shipped people out as indentured servants, as a way of neutralizing an Irish Catholic insurrection. Around 12,000 political prisoners were sent to Barbados (where indentured servants had been "voluntarily" going since 1627) between 1648 and 1655. To deal with an overflowing prison population, Parliament passed the Transportation Act of 1718, allowing for the removal of convicts to the North American colonies (10).
Between the beginnings of the trade in white-skinned servants and its ending during the American Revolution (that would be roughly 1619 to 1776), some 50,000 convicts were forcibly removed to British North America. Not only that, but shortly after American independence, Britain apparently needed another outlet; and so it began shipping out more convicts---around 160,000 before 1868, when the practice ceased (11).
The point I am making is this: The overwhelming social force of the relentless grind machine of the agricultural revolution-facilitated, primogeniture-driven enclosure movement is the context in which the dispossessed were being pushed into the "voluntary" "contractual agreements" of indentured servitude.
And, as Howard Zinn has noted, the "negotiating tactics" used upon the servants included "forced exile," "lures," "promises," "lies," and "kidnapping." I'm just speculating here, but I would not be surprised if another "bargaining ploy" had been employed: outright threats.
For example, it wouldn't surprise me at all if someone was told something like this: 'Sign this contract' or (fill in vile threat to loved ones here). One cannot help but make the comparison to the human trafficking of today, whereby a young Asian woman, say, from a family in desperate economic circumstances, is told that certain agents can get her a good job as a nanny or housekeeper, somewhere in Western Europe, Canada, Australia, or the United States. She is told that she may even get to go to school.
But, of course, that is not what happens. The young girl is forced into prostitution. She is subject to beatings and rape at the hands of her pimp masters. Her passport is confiscated; and just for good measure she is told that if she runs away or tells the police, her family back in South Vietnam will all be killed---or worse!
But let us return to our survey of the "voluntary" nature of the English/European "contractual" labor "agreement." The "contract" was considered so "voluntary," that after the victim "signed the contract," he would often be imprisoned until the ship sailed, to make sure he did not run away (12).
For some reason, there was some concern that the servants might run away, despite having "signed a contract."
Now then, we all know about the vile conditions under which captured African slaves were brought to the New World; so there is no need to go over that here.
But since these English indentured servants had entered into their pacts "willingly" and "voluntarily," surely their transport was more comfortable than was provided to the Africans, right?
Well, according to Howard Zinn: "The voyage to America lasted eight, ten, or twelve weeks, and the servants were packed into ships with the same fanatical concern for profits that marked the slave ships" (13).
If the weather was bad and the trip took longer than expected, the servants ran out of food. They just ran out of food and that was that. The 'sloop,' the Seaflower left Belfast in 1741. It was at sea for sixteen weeks. When it arrived in Boston, forty-six of its 106 passengers had died of starvation; and six of those were eaten by the survivors. On another trip, 32 children died of hunger and disease and were thrown, unceremoniously into the ocean (14).
What about a comparison of the conditions faced by English/European indentured servants and African slaves, once they had arrived at their destination in North America?
Again, we're all pretty familiar with the conditions faced by African slave. We will just take a snapshot of what the white-skinned servant was up against.
First of all, indentured servants were bought and sold like slaves. An announcement in the Virginia Gazette, of March 28, 1771 read: Just arrived at Leedstown, the ship Justitia, with about One Hundred Healthy Servants, Men Women & Boys... The sale will commence on Tuesday the 2nd of April (15).
Beatings and whippings of servants were common; and servant women were routinely raped. Servants could not marry without permission; and they could be separated from their families at will. A seventeenth century Pennsylvania law said that marriage of servants 'without the consent of the Masters... shall be proceeded against as for Adultery, or fornication, and children to be reputed as Bastards' (16).
There were colonial laws to curb such excesses against servants, but they were not seriously enforced. Servants did not participate in juries. Servants, having no property, did not vote (17).
On top of all of this, white-skinned strangers who crossed state lines, had to produce a passport or certificate proving that they were free. Agreements between the colonies provided for the extradition of fugitive, white-skinned indentured servants. These agreements became the basis for the clause in the U.S. constitution that persons 'held to service as Labor in one state... escaping tin another...shall be delivered up...' (18).
Servants rebelled and resisted in various ways. Sometimes they went on strike. In a Maryland provincial court, in 1663, one master complained that his servants did 'peremptorily and positively refuse to goe and doe their ordinary labor.' The servants responded that they were fed on 'Beanes and Bread' and that they were 'soe weake, wee are not able to perform the imploym'ts hee puts us upon.' The result was that the court found for the master and gave the servants thirty lashes (19).
On top of all that again---and just to complicate things further---we had, in the 1600s, the extreme irony of the Dutch in the colony of New Netherland (before the British took it over in 1664 as New York), treating black-skinned African slaves much better than the English were treating their own countrymen, as indentured servants, elsewhere in the Thirteen Colonies.
Under the aegis of the Dutch West India Company, the Dutch ran a system of slavery called half freedom. Africans could pay a yearly tax and live independently of their masters. Those who married, lived with and supported their own families. Of course, they had to labor for the company when called upon; and their children also owed their labor for life to the company. However, unlike the situation faced by free blacks in the British North American colonies, free blacks in New Netherland could own property, pursue trades, and even intermarry with whites (20).
What about the life of the white-skinned indentured servant, in the British North American colonies, after they had been freed?
The record seems to be mixed-to-poor. Take the indentured servants in seventeenth century Maryland who had been freed, for example. The first batches of freed servants did become landowners, active in the politics of the colony. But by the second half of the seventeenth century, more than half the former servants, even after ten years of freedom, remained landless. They became "tenants," providing cheap labor for large planters, both during and after bondage (21).
Okay, what about a comparison of the length of service that servants and slaves were obligated to? A slave served for life; servant did not.
That is true. But it is also true that survivability could often be an issue for indentured servants. Nell Irvin Painter points out that in the tobacco fields of the seventeenth century, Britons outnumbered Africans. When Virginia's population hit 11,000, Africans made up only some 300. Any of them, says Dr. Painter, be they African, English, Irish, or Scottish, any of them would have been lucky indeed, to even outlive the terms of their service (22).
The survivability of child indentured servants could be appallingly low. For instance, out of the three hundred children shipped from Britain, between 1619 and 1622, only 12 were left alive in 1624 (23). Infanticide continued at epidemic proportions across Europe and colonial America. In the mid-1800s England saw a spike in baby killings. In 1864 infant deaths accounted for 61 percent of all murder cases in England (24).
In part eight (seven will be a simple overview essay) I'm going to take a look at interracial cooperation between black slaves, European indentured servants, and Indians.
We are going to take a look at how the big planter elite responded to this interracial cooperation; and the way the former coopted their social "inferiors."
This was done by redefining identity, moving away from nationality/ethnicity (i.e., Irish, English, German, and so on) and religion to something called "whiteness," which is a uniquely American and recent construction only dating back to the late seventeenth/early eighteenth century.
As we do this, we will always keep in mind the relentless grinding machine, ceaselessly churning back in England: namely, the overwhelming social force of the relentless grind machine of the agricultural revolution-facilitated, primogeniture-driven enclosure movement, which is steadily making desperate paupers out of legions of people who have little choice but to immigrate to an overseas colony, in the hopes of a fresh start.
Thank you for reading.
End Of Part Six.
1. Jordan, Winthrop D. White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro 1550-1812. University of North Carolina Press, 1968. 168
2. ibid, 169
4. Painter, Nell Irvin. The History of White People. W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. (paperback). 42
5. Zinn, Howard. A People's History of the United States. HarperPerennial Modern Classics, 2003. (paperback). 46
7. ibid, 42
8. ibid, 43
9. Painter, Nell Irvin. The History of White People. 41
10. ibid, 41-42
11. ibid, 42
12. Zinn, Howard. A People's History of the United States. 43
15. ibid, 44
18. ibid, 46
20. Horton, James Oliver & Horton, Lois E. Slavery And The Making Of America. Oxford University Press, 2005. 34
21. Zinn, H. People's History... 47
22. Painter, Nell I. History of White People. 41
24. Hvistendahl, Mara. Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls And The Consequences Of A World Full Of Men. Public Affairs, 2011. 62
Background Information Citations:
25. Phillips, Kevin. American Theocracy: The Peril And Politics Of Radical Religion, Oil, And Borrowed Money In The 21st Century. Viking, 2006. 134
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