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.