Britannia's American slaves

By Alasdair Palmer, Sunday Telegraph
Daily Mail


400 years after the first British colony in America, slavery is alive and well.

Virginia, founded by the British. Jamestown, named after King James I, celebrates its 400th birthday this year.

This week, the celebrations to mark the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, Virginia, the first British colony in what would eventually turn into the United States of America, start in earnest with a joint visit by the Queen and President Bush.

The president will probably say something to the effect that Jamestown lit the lamp of liberty in the country that would become "Freedom's Land".

But according to White Cargo, a fascinating new book by Don Jordan and Mike Walsh, Jamestown was, for at least the first 100 years of its existence, a centre for the systematic denial of freedom. And the slaves who were bought and sold were not Africans but free-born Englishmen whose rights under Magna Carta should have prevented such treatment.

The need for labour in the earliest days of the Virginia colony was so acute that the government of the day found ways around the roadblock of Magna Carta. James-town was in the middle of a mosquito-ridden swamp, surrounded by hostile Indians.

More than half the first 104 colonists were dead within six months of their arrival.

The mortality rate decreased over the next few years, but not by much.

By 1615, with the colony on the verge of extinction, the Privy Council decided to authorise the transport of convicts (presented as an act of Royal mercy: rather than being executed, King James I was offering criminals the option of being transported instead). As it turned out, some of the criminals preferred to be executed!!! But most agreed to go, and Jordan and Walsh estimate that by 1776 more than 50,000 had been shipped to the American colonies.

The majority of those transported in the 17th century died pretty quickly, victims of disease, overwork and Indian attacks. But convicts were not the only people who found servitude and an early death in Virginia. There was a small industry devoted to kidnapping children off the streets of London.

The practice was presented as a humane and compassionate measure, a solution to the problem of criminal, feral children roaming the London streets (the problem, if not the solution, has an oddly familiar ring). Many of King James's contemporaries were convinced that shipping "boys and girls that had been starving on the streets" to Virginia was "one of the best deeds that could be done".

The Privy Council legitimised the transportation of vagrant children in 1620. The few records that survive give an indication of their pathetic condition. One Willie Larat, for instance, was described as "a little boy who says his mother dwells in the country of Westminster". Of the 300 children shipped to Virginia between 1620 and 1622, only 12 were still alive in 1624.

Many of those who emigrated voluntarily (they were called "the free-willers") discovered too late that they had made a dreadful mistake. To pay for their passage across the Atlantic, they sold their labour in advance to the 17th century equivalent of a gangmaster: sometimes the period for which they would be "bound" to a master was specified as three years, but it was more usually seven or 11. The gangmaster then sold them on to planters in Virginia. Their new owners might sell them on again, or bequeath them in their wills, along with their land and chattels.

The "free-willers" thought they had agreed to a deal under which they would be adequately fed and housed, taught a trade and, once they had worked off their debt, given a plot of land of their own.

In reality, the masters to whom they were sold were often sadistic bullies who treated them as slaves. Yields of tobacco per worker more than quadrupled over the course of the 17th century. No new techniques were involved: the masters simply learned how to use violence effectively. Of 5,000 servants who sold their labour in advance and who arrived in Maryland between 1670 and 1680, only 241 actually ended up owning their own plot of land. A quarter died while still in bondage.

Debt-bondage is alive and well in Britain today. Only last week, a BBC news report documented the awful servitude that thousands of migrants to Britain from countries in eastern Europe are subjected as a consequence of agreeing to deals like those which enticed migrants to Virginia in the 17th century.

As one writer noted then: "They that have respect only for their own profit entice young people into binding themselves as servants for years to pay for their own transportation... [they force] young persons to serve them upon intolerable conditions." The morality of the gangmasters hasn't improved in the intervening 400 years.

And neither, unfortunately, has the capacity of the law to stop their horrible trade.

White Cargo, by Don Jordan and Mike Walsh, is published by Mainstream, 20

Last edited by Blackleaf; Apr 29th, 2007 at 06:59 AM..