Art Chance: The 1609 Project and the indentured servitude of immigrants - Must Read Alaska
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Art Chance: The 1609 Project and the indentured servitude of immigrants

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By ART CHANCE

There has been attention and controversy swirling around the New York Times’ “1619 Project,” an exercise in revisionist history and fiction, which the Times would like Americans to believe and into which it would have US schoolchildren be indoctrinated. 

As is expected of the New York Times, “The 1619 Project” is leftist propaganda prepared by a hand-picked group of leftist academics; they didn’t let any reputable historians near the project.   

Nobody who knows anything about American history would believe a word of the 1619 premise, but since they haven’t meaningfully taught American history in schools for 50 years or so, you can tell most Americans anything about our history, and if you speak from a position of perceived authority, most will believe it.

The significance of 1619 is that in late August of that year a British privateer arrived near Jamestown, Virginia with a cargo of “twenty-odd” Africans that it had taken from a Portuguese slave ship enroute to the Caribbean.

The British traded the Africans for food and other supplies. The word “slave” had no real legal meaning in the Jamestown Colony or British North America generally, and the notion of hereditary African slavery didn’t become settled law until the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

The word “indenture” did have an established legal meaning in British law and indentured servitude was a common practice in the burgeoning British Empire.   

Indentured servitude was a derivative of the ancient practice of apprenticeship. From Roman times and perhaps earlier, a family would turn their son over to a tradesman or craftsman who would provide the boy with sustenance and teach him the skills of his craft.   

The service was for a term of years and the young man was bound to his indenture and was the chattel of his master. The master had to have a care for his life and physical well-being, but that was about the limit of the obligation. 

Those of you who’ve watched the cable show “Jamestown” know the first indentured servants in Jamestown; the first labor shortage in the Jamestown Colony was women. Thus, they imported some English or Irish women as indentured servants.  

The first recorded indentures arrived in 1609. The usual terms for indenture in America were that you were offered passage and, in exchange, you served a term of usually four to seven years of service to whoever bought your contract.  You were provided with food, shelter, and clothing, perhaps  a modest cash allowance, in exchange you did what the master required. In the case of women, they weren’t universally sex slaves as we understand the term today, but some were essentially that, and houses of prostitution quickly became common.

English settlement in America was a private and largely aristocratic endeavor and in its early days teetered on the brink of catastrophic failure.   1608 – 10 became known as “the starving times.”   

The gentlemen and their manservants lacked both the skills and the character for the grueling work involved in building fortifications and housing, resisting Indian attacks, and growing enough crops to feed the settlement.   Cap’t. John Smith rose to prominence for his role in returning the England to appeal to the directors of The London Company of Virginia to send stalwart laborers and tradesmen, not gentlemen, to America.   

By 1610 the surviving settlers, only about a third of those who had immigrated, determined to abandon the settlement and return to England.  They met re-supply ships on the James River and the settlement was saved.   

The company heeded Smith’s entreaties and sent colonists more suited to the demands of carving a settlement out of the wilderness of America. Throughout the 17th Century, more than half of the labor force in Virginia was indentured servants.   

As the 17th Century progressed and Virginia became more stable and prosperous, African labor became more common.  By the mid-century, hereditary bond slavery for Africans became the common practice though the system didn’t become completely codified until the early 18th Century.

As African bond slavery became more common, a socio-economic divide began to emerge. The wealthy, large planters gravitated to African slaves because they could afford to buy them outright. The lesser landowners, merchants, and tradesmen relied on indentured servants because they were cheaper.    

This had an interesting unanticipated consequence; the expensive African slaves came to be treated better and used less for dangerous labor than the much cheaper English and Irish indentures. The image of slavery in Colonial and ante-bellum America is African slaves working in agriculture, but in The South most of the skilled trades labor was also slave labor; Frederick Douglass was a shipwright and worked as a slave under a contract with his master until he escaped to the North. Most blacksmiths, carpenters, wheelrights and the like in The South were slaves contracted by their masters to do the work for others.   

As the now-country began to industrialize in the early 19th Century, heavy construction began to demand large labor supplies.   Heavy construction even today is hard, dangerous labor; imagine what it was like in 1810.

In the early 19th Century the aborning United States was most interested in connecting itself and the invention of the steam engine and the practical steam powered boat gave great impetus to that endeavor.  Better roads and bridges, rather than ferries and connecting canals, were necessary for the intercourse of a growing nation.  Whether he was a subsistence farmer with a 50-acre headright farm or an aristocratic planter with thousands of acres, the American freeholder had an intrinsic aversion to doing “public work,” or what we call today working for wages.  

My family came to America in 1640, and my sister and I are the first generation on the surname side who have spent their lives primarily living off wages; it is a powerful tradition.  Large construction required large workforces, and the American farmer or tradesman wasn’t going to give up his livelihood in his farm or business to work for wages.   Consequently, the alternatives for labor were slaves, indentures, or new immigrants.  

Then, the rather brutal economics figure in.

In the 17th and early 18th Centuries a young, healthy male African sold for $500 to $1,500 on average, depending on the time and location.  At the low end of that scale was the fresh-from-Africa slave who was likely debilitated from transportation and unused to the diseases of lowland America.  At the upper end was what was called the “seasoned” slave who had survived some time in America.  An African slave with tradesman skills could be worth much more.  A female slave was generally worth about half to two-thirds the value of a male, but it must be admitted that there was a special category of particularly attractive females, who were worth much more.

In contrast an indentured servant could be acquired for the price of passage to America and room and board for a few years.   By the middle of the 17th Century, the price of passage was the equivalent of $100 or so. Sustenance was at most $50 a year.  The typical income for a land-owning citizen was at most $400-$500 a year.   

Indentured servants were cheap.

The Southern Coastal Plain is hostile to human habitation.  Few Native Americans lived very near to the coast; they fished there, grew crops there to some degree, but didn’t live there.  On the other hand, the Coastal Plain was incredibly productive agricultural land.  The early agriculture of British North America and the United States was rice and indigo, which were truly coastal crops and tobacco which was a little more of an upland crop.   In the deep South long-staple “sea island” cotton was also a valuable near-coastal crop.   

The term “fever swamp” remains in our vocabulary today: Malaria, typhoid, and Yellow Fever were rampant in the Southern lowlands; they remained so until near the middle of the Twentieth Century.  Yet the produce of British North America and the United States wanted most were first, the timber of the northeast to build the ships of the Royal Navy and then the crops of the coastal South.

The labor in the rice and indigo trade was almost exclusively African slaves. The attrition was terrible, but the profits were substantial. Cotton production was somewhat safer, but really nowhere within a hundred miles of the coast was safe.   

There are the remains of a town called Summertown near my hometown in Georgia about 100 miles from the coast and the Savannah River lowlands. Summertown had homes of the wealthier residents of the lowlands, to which they evacuated in mid-summer to escape the insects and disease.

As the roads, canals, and later railroads came to the fore, particularly in The South, the wealthy men had to choose how to do that work; they could use their slaves who were worth a thousand dollars or more a head, or they could use indentures who cost room and board, or, where they were available, immigrants who were worth day labor wages and nothing more.   

Every canal, roadway, bridge, and canal built in those days has the unmarked graves of men who had little or no value marking them.   

It is said that the wealthy planter who gladly served up his sons to the Confederate Army to “bare his breast to the storm” would resist with all his might giving up his slaves, even on contract, to build fortifications for the Confederate Army.  The history of America from 1609 is more compelling than the history of America from 1619.  

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Suzanne Downing had careers in business and journalism before serving as the Director of Faith and Community-based Initiatives for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and returning to Alaska to serve as speechwriter for Gov. Sean Parnell. Born on the Oregon coast, she moved to Alaska in 1969.

Latest comments

  • A great insight into the early years of settlement. They say “history is written by the winners”. Nowadays, history is re-written by a national socialist party driven by their religious beliefs as intensely as the Taliban.

  • A large number of indentured servants weren’t sent here voluntarily. A pretty easy way to clean up the U.K. streets of undesirables was to get them drunk, trick them or just hit them over the head an take them to the ship there were even bounties being paid in U.K. for bringing men in. Some were even brought to the Caribbean, where life expectancy was very short.

    • Getting them drunk or hitting them over the head certainly worked for the Royal Navy. It’s certainly true that large numbers of people were tricked or simply captured, brought to the colonies and simply auctioned off. Commonly they were the property of the ship’s Master and he would simply advertise an auction of their contracts for indenture. The servant had no say in it.

  • Certainly is as I learned it.

  • Another masterpiece by Art Chance. I sure wish you were my History professor at UAF, rather than Terrence Cole, who was a terrible speaker and projected his Leftist tastes and vile dislike for Republicans at every turn. I ended up dropping his class, as did many students, because of his inability to teach the true facts of History from the record.

    • Good comment, Julia. Dermot Cole, Terrence’s identical twin, was the Lefty mouthpiece of the Fairbanks paper for about three decades. Between Terrence and Dermot, a lot of history and true facts lie buried in liberal Democrat rubble. These two Communist characters have altered a lot of young minds in Alaska. What a shame that they were allowed to get away with it for so long. Now, one is pushing up weeds and the other is unemployed and trying to get anyone to buy another of his fairytale Alaska paperbacks. Pass the hard liquor, please.

      • There was a film documentary about cemeteries that featured Terrence Cole. In that documentary he egotistically states that he is “immortal” and never plans on personally ending up in a cemetery.
        I wonder if his twin, Dermot, ever waters the daisies on his brother’s plot?

      • A foil to these abject left wankes who never had a date in high school and will forever HATE America because of it was ultra conservative professor Sarkis Atemian. Spelling of his name is probably wrong. Anyone remember him?

        • HE was a rare conservative sociology prof at UAF in the 70’s/80’s/90’s…

          • I remember him well, Gary. He was Dr. Atamian at UAF in the Sociology Department. A badass professor with oratory skills and intellectual horsepower that made Terrence Cole look like a girl scout. (No offense to Girl Scouts).

  • Not to excuse slavery anywhere or anytime, however North and South America Natives(including Alaska) had slaves long before 1619.

    • Everybody did, including Africans and native Americans.

    • And still going on today. Sex trafficking is slavery and is alive and well in Alaska.

      • Elizabeth, if we think clearly, any government that has conscripted men by military draft has engaged in slavery by doing so. Few, if any, governments have clean hands in this respect.

  • Pretty good history lesson, Art, but those first Africans also brought another gift to America: Plasmodium species, malaria. Prior to that, it was confirmed in the New World as far back as Columbus, but after Africans arrived, carrying the parasites, it spread out over the south. This became another disease devastating most of the people, especially arriving northern Europeans until they became ‘hardened’ after their first infection, a process causing loss of productivity up to a year if they survived. Africans had lived with Malaria for thousands of generations and developed some resistance to the symptoms, making them much more desirable as laborers.
    And, upon manumission the Africans became freemen just like any others. One of the first court cases involving duration of servitude was by a black holder over white servants. As the trade shifted to primarily Africans, however, the terms became for life (just like back in Africa), then generational to the practice which we know led to the Civil War. But when it started, we were British, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese or Dutch, not Americans.
    As n aside, I highly recommend the Movie Amistad about the 1839 mutiny on a slave transport-true story.

  • Interesting overview. But there’s another 1609 that’s also important from a historical POV: the year Henry Hudson’s mixed Dutch-English crew sailed into what would become New York City. Inspired by that event, I wrote the world’s first historical novel about the birth of NYC (and Manhattan) from its earliest beginnings.

    • Right on, Harald. Welcome to MRAK.

      • Thanks for the welcome!

        • Hope you stick around, Mr. Johnson. Suzanne truly is the best, and inclusive, unlike her inferior counterparts at ADN.

  • People who didn’t know their bible, from the Old Testament to New Testament, they didn’t know how to live beyond their own greed and lusts. Their guided by the events of the day instead of guided by the Spitit. An accurate history reflecting people who only lived for themselves.

  • Thank you Mr. Chance for a well written and fascinating piece. I love history but have never paid much attention to the roll of the indentured in our early history! One of my husband’s ancestors came here as an indentured servant, a cabin boy on the ship that brought him here in 1627. He settled in what is now Mystic Connecticut during the early formative years of that community. Not sure of the terms of his indenture but he became a land owner in adulthood. We actually have primary source document copies of that period, land transmittals and letters. It seems the left has no problem weaving together what they want to be believed and then touting it as truth. Illusory truth effect is a well used common tool of the left.

    • In some jurisdictions there was a “headright” bonus on completion of indenture of a parcel of land.

  • Thanks Art, another informative piece, done your way. I so enjoy every thing you share, I will see that my 14 year old grandson reads this, to counter what ever he has been fed to this point, or will see in high school.

  • A captivating article; thank you Art. Reducing the article to its essential purpose, it describes a misinformation campaign (a problem) and proves the point with an edifying recounting of factual history. The article also alludes to the ease with which the US population is deceived by false narrative.
    .
    Obviously, the solution is in reclaiming our education system which has been perverted from kindergarten through graduate school. The Marxist teacher unions and college academics are controlling the brainwashing of our citizens and electorate into a leftist, unthinking, mob.
    .
    Solution in one word: vouchers.

    • While I support the money following the kids, it isn’t a panacea. I pose the same question to voucher supporters that I have to the governors and lawmakers that are trying to mandate civics classes and better history classes; where are you going to get the teachers? If you’re under 60 or so, unless you’re an autodidact, every bit of what little you know about civics and history is wrong. If you had history at all it was the Howard Zinn communist version. The textbooks are written by leftist professors, published by leftist publishing houses, and selected by teachers’ union owned school boards and education departments.

      • Ah yes, very good question as to where would voucher-holding parents find high quality educational services. Please refer to Milton Freidman’s book “Free to Choose.” Nothing through history has done more to liberate mankind from deprivation, darkness and poverty than unrestrained, free-market, competition in the form of economic capitalism. We need to trust the free market to allow the highest quality educational services to rise, like cream, to the top. People have a sense for finding quality; a free market sorts it out. We must have faith in it.

  • Anthony Johnson, who was born in Angola, and became an indentured servant in Virginia. Ultimately he completed his servitude, purchased his own land and became a wealthy farmer. Among his indentured servants was John Castor, who eventually completed his contract and indentured to another employer. In 1654 Anthony Johnson sued in court to force John Castor to remain in indentured servitude but the court ruled against this. In 1655 the same judge reversed the ruling, and without any existing Virginia statute, ruled that John Castor would remain in servitude for life. It wasn’t until 1662 that laws were passed that enslaved people for life based on the status of their mothers. History is far more complex and interesting than the inaccurate nonsense being promoted currently.

  • Yes, if Dr. Atamian had a loose nut feminist come into his class with their BS about being victims, the Good Dr. Would kick them out of the class. Wonder what he would do with CRT gross liars and such commie propogandist today?

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