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Colonial Currents

Mercantilism, Immigration, and Slavery in the American Colonies


British colonial government in the American colonies took up three forms: provincial colonies, charter colonies, and crown colonies. Regardless of which type of government a colony claimed, all colonies were directly subject to the King of England and had no explicit connection with Parliament; this would become a bone of contention in the years between the French and Indian War and the American Revolution. Each colony had a colonial agent in London tasked with promoting its interests. These men were selected and paid a salary by the colony they represented, and they served to be the voice of the colonies in the England. These men didnt deal with the King face-to-face, but worked within the sphere of the Board of Trade, trying to smooth out issues with land disputes, military affairs, and Indian problems. Some of these men would rise to prominence in American history; Benjamin Franklin, for instance, served as the colonial agent of Pennsylvania for a decade and a half. Charter Colonies were colonies that were ran as corporations, and they were created by letters patent (published written orders issued by the monarch, granting an office, right, monopoly, title, or status to a person or corporation). The grantees received control of the colonys land and the powers of legislative government. The charters served as a pseudo-constitution, dividing powers between legislative, executive, and judicial functions. Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Providence Plantation, and Connecticut were all charter colonies (though Connecticut became a provincial colony in 1662, and Massachusetts Bay followed in her footsteps in 1691). Proprietary colonies were governed like royal colonies (see below) except that land proprietors, rather than the monarch, appointed the colonys governor. These colonies were established following the Restoration of 1660, and they enjoyed more civil and religious liberties than provincial colonies. Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maryland were all proprietary colonies. Provincial Colonies were a type of royal or crown colony. The ruling monarch created commissions and appointed the governor. The King gave the governor executive powers, and these governors were authorized to call locally elected assemblies. The governors council served the function enjoyed by the Upper House in colonial assemblies and directly advised the governor. The members of the colonial assemblies were elected by the colonys freeholders and planters. These assemblies were to make local laws and ordinances, insofar as they were consistent with the laws of England. As a general trend, colonial assemblies comprised of men belonging to the colony sought to enlarge their powers and constrain those of the governor and the crown. The governor

had the authority of absolute veto, and he could prorogue (delay) or terminate the assembly at will; thus political subterfuge ran high between the assemblies and the governor and his council. Any laws passed by the assembly (and not vetoed by the governor) had to be examined by the Board of Trade, whose main interests werent the good of the colonies themselves but their profitability for England. New Hampshire, New York, and eventually Massachusetts were provincial colonies, as well as all the southern colonies.


Adam Smith coined the term mercantilism in his Wealth of Nations in 1776, though the theory itself had been in operation since the late 16th century. Mercantilism has been called a sort of nave bullionism, and its ideals began to dominate European thought and trade long before anyone set an actual name to it. The economic theory of bullionism defined wealth by the amount of precious metals a nation owned. Such thinking drove Spains colonization of South and Central America, and she succeeded. England sought gold in Virginia and failed (but once tobacco exportation began, that failure became a success). France went a different route; her bullion became copper and beaver furs in New France. Mercantilism takes a different route than bullionism, putting the emphasis on the circulation of money through trade rather than on the packrat hoarding of gold and silver. Mercantilist thinkers advocated increasing national power and wealth by tightened governmental control over the entirety of the national economy; emphasis shifted from being purely on the accumulation of precious metals to focusing on building a favorable balance of trade, the development of agriculture and manufacturing, and the establishment of foreign trading monopolies. In A New Economic History America, historian Gerald Gunderson called mercantilism a philosophy of nation building, a series of economic controls intended to strengthen a country and its colonies against other antagonistic empires. A major tenet of this view was self-sufficiency: sources of supplyraw materials, agriculture, and industryshould be developed domestically, or in the colonies, to prevent interruptions by hostile foreigners. A large merchant marine was also deemed important. Cargo vessels of that era were designed to repel pirates and thus could be easily adapted to military roles during wars. Finally, the mercantilists were preoccupied with specie (gold and silver), then a universal foundation of money. Short on possessing gold mines, as Spain did, specie could be acquired with a favorable balance of trade, that is, through earning foreign exchange by selling exports

that brought in more money than as paid out by imports. Thus, though differing significantly from bullionism, mercantilism arose in an attempt to gratify bullionism through unconventional means. Mercantilism put its power in the central government; such a localization of power came about largely due to the fear that if a society lacked a strong central government, that society risked plunging into the chaos of feudal parochialism; or, in other words, another Dark Age, the memories of which remained present in societal consciousness. The interests of businesses and workers were secondary to the interests of the nation, and thus to the interests of the central government. Such thinking paved the way for how Great Britain perceived the colonies not in terms of English outposts but as cash-cows to enrich the trade surplus. Great Britain, however, didnt embrace mercantilism alone: France, Spain, and the Dutch Republic did so, too, although each in their own ways suited to their specific situations in global trade. At the heart of mercantilist thought lies a favorable balance of trade. When a nations exports exceed its imports, that nation enjoys a favorable balance of trade, or a trade surplus. If, however, imports exceed exports, that nation is rutted in an unfavorable balance of trade, or a trade deficit. Mercantilism declared that when merchants of one country had to purchase product from merchants of another, such trading weakened the purchasing country in relation to the selling country. Mercantilism in England fleshed itself out in laws enacted by the crown and Parliament: high tariffs (trade taxes) on manufactured goods, constructing networks of overseas colonies, and refusing to allow said colonies to trade with other nations. Such policies did indeed strengthen national wealth but at the expense of the colonies, and thus these policies fostered colonial resentment and, in time, helped fuel a passion for independence. Mercantilism declared that the interests of any colony were to be wholly subordinate to those of the mother country. The crown and Parliament saw the colonies as weapons in the continual trade warfare between the other world powers. As such, the colonies were to serve as export markets and as suppliers of raw materials to England. Tariffs were placed on imports; bounties (monetary gifts) were put on exports. What this meant in practice is that the colonists had to pay taxes for imports, and English merchants were given money from the government for exporting goods. The export of some raw materials were banned, and the Navigation Acts restricted Englands domestic trade to her and her colonies, cutting out foreign nations. The colonies were denied the right to manufacture; raw goods were sent across the Atlantic for

manufacture in England, and then England shipped the goods back across the Atlantic to the colonies where the colonists had to pay taxes on the imports. Its important to note that most of the exchanged wealth didnt go to the crown but to the merchants involved in the trade. Mercantilism fostered a partnership between the central government and the nations merchants; in doing so, private power and private wealth blossomed, and the government received a pretty penny through duties and taxes. The government protected its merchants interests through trade barriers, subsidies to domestic industries to maximize exports and to minimize imports, and through policies of regulation. This setup built up trade surpluses so that bullion would flow into England, and much of the wealth claimed by the central government went straight to the undying build-up of its Royal Navy, which in turn protected the colonies (because of their trade value) as well protecting the merchants ferrying goods back and forth across the Atlantic.


Mercantilist thought governed the crowns perception and relationship with the colonies. Parliament focused its first mercantilist legislation on the burgeoning colony of Virginia in 1621, declaring that Virginia had to ship its tobacco only to English ports, and that the ships used to transport the tobacco had to be English with English captains. The legislation also decreed that certain items could only be shipped to Britain or to other British colonies. Later mercantilist laws came to be known as The Navigation Acts; navigation laws were common in mercantilist nations, and such laws limited trade exports and imports to the particular countrys citizens, either in the homeland or in the colonial outposts. The goal, aforementioned, was to increase the wealth of the nations merchant marine to dominate trade and the circulation of bullion. The first law enacted in relation to the colonies to be considered part of The Navigation Acts came in 1651. The infamous thirteen colonies were not in existence yet, as many had yet to be founded. Those already established included Virginia, Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, New Hampshire, Maryland, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Delaware. Following the English Civil War, England became the Commonwealth of England, a republic with Parliament at the head. The end of the 80 Years War in 1648 saw the Dutch winning their independence, and the Dutch Republics wartime efforts had garnished it with a vast merchant marine and a heavy hand in global trade. Spains defeat against the Dutch Republic resulted in the Spanish lifting their trade embargoes

against the Dutch, which served only to exponentially increase the Dutch Republics trading sphere. To counter the Dutch Republics prominence in global trade, England sought to cut the Dutch out of her shipping. The Navigation Ordinance of 1651 (also known as the Act of 1651) banned foreign ships from transporting goods from outside Europe to England or to her colonies, and third-party ships were banned from transporting goods from a country elsewhere in Europe to England, as well. The Act didnt specify which global power was in viewall foreign shipping was bannedbut the Dutch were targeted, and they knew it, since they boasted one of the largest segments of Europes international trade, not to mention a good portion of Englands coastal shipping. The Act of 1651, not-so-subtly aimed at the Dutch, would become a point of contention leading to the outbreak of the 1st Anglo-Dutch War. The Act of 1651 didnt last more than a decade: when Charles II took the throne following the Restoration of 1660, all the Commonwealth laws were revoked as having been decreed by illegitimate, usurping powers. The Restoration government scrapped the Act of 1651, but because the act served England well, the government reworked the law and renewed it in the Acts of 1660 and 1663. These two acts were known shorthand as the Navigation Acts, and they remained in place for nearly two centuries. The navigation Act of 1660 added a twist to the Act of 1651: the English ships captained by English captains tasked with importing and exporting also had to have crews that were English or colonial. The Act decreed that [No] sugars, tobacco, cotton-wool, Indigoes, ginger, fustic, or other dyeing wood shall be shipped, carried, conveyed, or transported from any of the said English plantations to any land, island, territory, dominion, port or place whatsoever, other than to such English plantations as do belong to his Majesty. The Molasses Act of 1704 added molasses to the list, aimed at both restricting molasses from the hands of the Dutch and French, and persuading Englishmen to drink rum (made from molasses) over against French-made brandy. The Navigation Act of 1663 (or the Act for the Encouragement of Trade) required all European goods bound for English colonies to be shipped through England first; in England, these goods would be unloaded, inspected, duties would be paid, and then the goods would be reloaded onto English or colonial ships. Enumerated commodities (such as sugar, rice, and tobacco, among others) had to be landed in England, where duties would be paid on them, before being shipped to other countries. This boosted the cost to the colonies as well as the time it took to ship goods. This legislation essentially meant that Parliament took over the import business, and this set-up lined the pockets

of shippers and merchants, since materials had to be exported not once but twice if they were coming back to the colonies. These two navigation actsthe Acts of 1660 and 1663served as the bedrock foundation of Englands mercantilist relationship with the colonies. Further legislations throughout the 17th and 18th centuries sought to close loopholes, curb smuggling, and strengthen imperial enforcement of the laws. Colonial merchants often resented the curtailing of their freedoms for the profits of the English merchants, and sometimes these colonial entrepreneurs turned to smuggling to avoid the duties. English merchants griping about not being as rich as they could be didnt sympathize with the colonial merchants who found themselves scraping by at times, insisting that these colonists were being ungrateful, failing to recognize that the navigation acts were for the good of the nation rather than for the good of each and every merchant (of course, it is far easier to declare the virtuosity of a law if ones wealth is being enriched because of it). The English merchants turned to Parliament and the crown for help in curbing colonial smuggling, but they didnt find much help. Because the national government made only a fraction of the wealth accrued through the acts (most of the money went to the merchants in bolstering the merchant marine), the government lacked enough money to really enforce the acts against those circumventing them. Had the English government had financial backing, its unlikely they wouldve begun enforcing the laws with a high hand, anyways: France, Englands long-time enemy, also had territory in North America, and the English leaders knew it was but a matter of time before war against the French erupted on that continent, and they didnt want to foster resentment in the colonies when the time came for the colonists to take up musket and powder horn. Thus an unspoken policy of salutary neglect developed as the English leaders turned a blind eye to smuggling, noting, of course, that the trade laws they did enforce werent by any means easy on the colonists (it forced some people out of work). Those colonists negatively affected by the laws were in the minority: colonial merchants only comprised one to two percent of the colonial population. These merchants may have enjoyed positions of power in colonial assemblies, but they couldnt cultivate a colonial voice to convince England to curb the acts. The vast majority of colonists found it easier to live within the system (and more profitable to smuggle), and there were advantages in the navigation acts, not least of all the protection of colonial industry from foreign competitors (New Englands shipbuilding exploded through the roof, thanks in large part to the Navigation Acts cutting out foreign shipbuilding competitors and forcing the merchant marine to look to New England for its timber). Nevertheless, the growing

complaints from Englands merchant marine paved the way for The Act of 1696, which sought to curb smuggling by authorizing colonial customs officials to seize unlawfully shipped goods, and by decreeing that colonial merchants accused of smuggling were to be tried in special colonial courts without juries (since colonial juries tended to be sympathetic towards colonial smuggling). By the time of the next act in the series of Navigation Acts came about, all thirteen colonies had been founded. The Molasses Act of 1733 placed heavy duties on the trade of sugar from the French West Indies to the American colonies, forcing the colonists to buy the costlier sugar from the British West Indies. This would be the first of whats been called the Sugar Acts; it was set to expire in 1763, and it would be renewed as the Sugar Act of 1764. The logic of the Molasses Act lies in whats been called The Triangle Trade that benefited colonial merchants. The triangle comes from the pattern of the trade routes between Africa, the West Indies, and the North American colonies (note that England proper doesnt find herself within the triangle). Massachusetts and Rhode Island produced some of the best rum in the world, a testament both to colonial talents and the high quality materials used in the production, notably molasses from the West Indies. Both molasses and sugar are key ingredients to rum, and they were available only from the Caribbean. The demand for rum was high in Africa, but Africa didnt have any chief exports (except, of course, for black slaves). The plantations in the Caribbean were owned by a host of countries scattered about the strewn islands, and these plantations ran off slave labor. Colonial merchants exported rum to Africa in return for slaves and gold, and then they shipped these slaves on a torturous journey to the West Indies (the journey has gone down in lore as The Middle Passage, being the second journey of three in the triangle trade). Once the slaves arrived in the West Indies, they would be traded for sugar and molasses, and the Caribbean commodities would be shipped to New England to be used in the rum distilleries. This trade met the greatest desires of the countries involved (African countries got their rum, the West Indies got their slaves, and New England got their sugar and molasses); the cycle became engrained in the colonial merchant marine, and the trade bolstered New Englands capital. England found herself left out of the loop (or, in this case, the triangle), and even English plantations found themselves spiffed: molasses from the British West Indies was more expensive than the molasses from French, Dutch, and Spanish plantations, so the colonial merchants tended to trade with the plantations belonging to Englands competitors.

Because the Navigation Act of 1633 was tailored more against European trade than trade in general, the colonists found themselves able to get away with avoiding the English plantations. The greatest losers in the trade, then, were the English gentry who owned plantations in the West Indies; these gentry (who usually lived in England to avoid the awful heat and disease of the Caribbean, hiring managers to work in their stead) petitioned Parliament and the crown to do something about the triangle trade, since they were losing money. Parliament paid attention to the British gentry, and for more than one reason. First, the British West Indies were Great Britains biggest trading partner, and because the Navigation Acts gave England a share in the wealth through tariffs and duties, the triangle trade indirectly affected England proper. Second, France remained Englands long-time enemy, and Parliament feared that by trading with French plantations rather than British ones, the colonial merchants were promoting the French islands over against the British ones. Third, some in Parliament feared that the colonists were raising themselves too high, succeeding on their own initiative and outside the constraints of England, and they feared they could keep rising to a point of detached independence. Parliament acted to curb the trade and bring the British plantations back into the triangle; instead of making trade with foreign plantations in the West Indies illegal, they passed a prohibitively high tax on the colonies for the import of molasses from French islands (nine pence on every gallon of French West Indian rum, six pence on every gallon of foreign molasses, and five shillings on every hundredweight of foreign sugar). Thus molasses from British plantations became cheaper than those from foreign ones weighed down by the tax, but because British sugar and molasses were still exorbitantly expensive, the colonists were emaciated as the British gentry stuffed themselves on gold. The high taxes wouldve dismembered New Englands economy if the colonies played by the roles. To prevent themselves from collapsing, the colonial merchants turned to smuggling, and smuggling became more endemic than ever before. Customs officials were bribed by colonial merchants, and those wh o couldnt be bribed were harassed and intimidated to the point of being rendered powerless. Smuggling continued up through the French and Indian War, and many British soldiers who served in North America were alarmed and outraged at the apparent apathy of colonial merchants to Great Britains interests, not to mention their defiance in smuggling in the face of Great Britains titanic Royal Navy. The Navigation Acts fostered a spirit of resentment in colonial merchants, and this resentment only intensified following the end of the French and Indian War. France found itself excommunicated from North America, and Great Britain, now rid of the French

presence which served to foster their own salutary neglect, and greatly in debt due to Pitts policies of waging (and winning) the Seven Years War, tightened its mercantilist acts and their enforcement of the acts: the Sugar Act of 1764, the Stamp and Quartering Acts of 1765, the Townshend Acts of 1767, the Tea Act of 1773; all these acts were mercantilist in nature, aimed at building national wealth at the expense of the colonies, and justified by the thought that the colonies owed this money because of the cost of waging the last war with the French. Historian Page Smith notes, [The] colonists had to find ways to do as they wishedwhatever was desirable, convenient, profitable, or, in their view, simply necessarywithin the increasingly restrictive framework of laws and regulations promulgated by a body of men, indifferent, for the most part, to colonial needs and desires, whose notion was that the colonies existed and should exist, primarily if not exclusively, for the benefit of the mother country. The British, for their part, persisted in seeing the American colonies less as a collection of people whose needs should be attended to, than as the means by which the wealth and power of England could be enhanced. Colonial interests were, above all, subordinated to those of Englishmen in England.

Studies of the Navigation Acts and the conflict arising from them can paint a portrait of massive colonial dissent; the reality is that such colonial dissent remained in the minority (usually constrained to the wealthy colonial merchants), and that such dissent didnt swell into epic proportions until the eve of the American Revolution. Although England did indeed see the American colonies as cash cows to be milked for the good of England as a whole, the American colonies held their own incentives for immigration, and hordes of people streamed into the colonies during the 17th and 18th centuries. Their reasons for coming, however, varies far more than is often imagined. Historian Alan Taylor writes, Myth insists that the seventeenth-century English colonists fled from religious persecution into a land of religious freedom. In addition to omitting economic considerations, the myth grossly simplifies the diverse religious motives for emigration. Not all colonists had felt persecuted at home, and few wanted to live in a society that tolerated a plurality of religions. Perfectly content with the official Anglican faith of the homeland, many colonists sought to replicate it in the colonies. And although some English dissenters, principally the Quakers, did seek in America a general religious freedom, many more emigrants wanted their own denominations to

dominate, to the prejudice of all others. His point is poignant: Indeed, at the end of the seventeenth century, most colonies offered less religious toleration than did the mother country. Such sentiments run against the grain of American history textbooks, and the multicolored fabric of colonial emigrants reveals not a tapestry of peaceful pluralism but one of varying factions striving against one another. Public morality, political harmony, and social order required religious uniformity, or so many of the colonial founders believed, and such sentiments led to friction when founders religions differed. Although Englands American colonies were almost wholly Protestant (with some Catholic and even Jewish outposts), the different Protestant denominations experienced an enmity far exceeding anything experienced in todays ecumenical world. The Congregational Church of the Puritan colonies set its teeth against the Dutch Reformed Church of New Netherland (later New York), but not to the extent of the Puritans loathing of the Church of England favored in Virginia and many of the Caribbean islands. All this to say, some people did emigrate to the Americas to escape persecution in Europe, such as the Separatists of Plymouth Rock, the Puritans of Massachusetts, and the Quakers of Pennsylvania. French Huguenots (Protestants) fled persecution from Catholic France; and Catholics of Protestant England found a safe haven in Maryland. Still others fled political and social unrest in Europe: scores of Germans fled their home states to evade the military drafts or the heavy taxation of exacting princes, and hordes of the Irish emigrated to America to escape English exploitation and a destiny of endless poverty. All tallied, however, those fleeing Europe to find sanctuary across the Atlantic were in the minority; most who emigrated to the English colonies simply sought to escape the constant revolutions and civil unrest of England in the 17th century. Droves of emigrants crossed the Atlantic to avoid having their heads placed on the chopping block for being on the wrong side of the popular political party, and those who fled carried with them seeds of dissidence and resentment towards the monarchy. The biggest incentive for emigration, however, lay in the opportunity for a better life. London in the early 18th century had in its own district 6000 adults and 9300 child beggars. Englands population of ten million boasted an estimated 10,000 rogues, 10,000 idlers, 20,000 vagrants, 50,000 beggars, 80,000 criminals, and 100,000 prostitutes. Half of England lived in poverty, many of those so poor they faced starvation on a daily basis. Those poor lucky enough to have a form of employment often worked from six in the morning to eight at night, making barely enough to support themselves. There were no holidays except Christmas and Easter, not to mention hanging days, when the

crowds were entertained by watching people hanged for offenses that are classified as misdemeanors today. These working class adults drowned their sorrows in beer and gin; there were around 7000 gin shops in the London suburbs, and by 1750 there were 16,000 in the city itself (although only over one thousand were licensed). Once these working poor were goodly drunk, they entertained themselves with cockfighting, bullbaiting, and badger-baiting. England promised nothing but a continuance of such drudgery, and America came to be seen as a bail-out, a fresh start. Transport across the Atlantic was expensive, but the colonies themselves were in need of laborers. The answer easily presented itself: slavery. We dont call it slavery today (we differentiate it from southern slavery by calling it indentured servanthood). Colonial agents paid for the ships passage of men and women who couldnt afford to pay their fare and who were willing to contract themselves out in America to work off the cost of the voyage. This idea found its seed in the most common form of apprenticeship in England, except this indentured servanthood took it to the next level. Middlemen looking to make money off the dreams of the working poor took to the streets to try and buy such slaves to sell off to merchants heading for America. These people were called Spirits and Crimps, because they spirited away unwilling lads and sold them into bondage. Such men would pay for information on those who might want to come to America, and finding these dreamers, they would sweet-talk them into embracing indentured servanthood. When the dreamers were convinced, the Spirits would sell them to a merchant for twice the price of the informations cost. Hostlers, brewers, and tavern keepers became adept at the game, because they were able to get people drunk, making them less cautious in their decisions. Whether duped in drunkenness or wholly sober in the decision, those who signed up for indenture found themselves heading for America with a few preconditions: they were basically slaves with the promise of freedom, and they would work off their debts, no matter how long it took (and for some, this turned into a lifetime). Masters had to provide food and clothing to their servants, and if servants were foreigners, the Masters had to teach them English. Once the debts were paid off, the servants would be freed and provided with an agreed sum of money and a cache of presentable clothes so they could start a proper life. In some colonies (such as North Carolina), freed servants also received land at the end of their terms. The experience of servanthood decimated most dreamers idealism; a letter from an indentured servant to her father in 1756 recounts, What we unfortunate English People suffer here is beyond the probability of you in England to Conceive, let it suffice that I am one of the

unhappy Number, am toiling almost Day and Night, and very often in the Horses druggery, with only this comfort that you Bitch you do not halfe enough, and then tied up and whipped to that Degree that youd not serve an Animal, scarce anything but Indian Corn and Salt to eat and that even begrudged by many Negroes are better used, almost naked no shoes nor stockings to wear what rest we can get is to rap ourselves up in a Blanket an ly upon the Ground. These unlucky dreamers made up more than half the immigrants to the Middle and Southern colonies. Another class of immigrant, the Redemptioners, were skilled artisans (mostly German or Swiss) who journeyed to America and then, upon landing, sold themselves out to the highest bidder. These craftsmen had skills in high demand in colonial America, and though they were but one step removed from indentured servanthood, they still had to submit themselves to a master and pay off the debt from their voyage across the Atlantic. Most indentured servants werent so well off, and these more unfortunate ones included spouses abandoning the other, those seeking to escape creditors, and convicts fleeing justice (not to mention a good number of prison escapees). Indeed, a good number of Americas indentured servants were the scum and offscourings of the earth: paupers and prostitutes, vagabonds and rogues, and criminals. Rogues and vagabonds were the hippies and dropouts of 17th and 18th century English society. These were clever beggars, the swindlers, the fortune-tellers and penniless philosophers. They were the ones who didnt fit anywhere in the mold of English society; they were the nonconformists, eschewing English society and constructing their own in its place. They wandered job-to-job, often scamming the unsuspected. Often they impersonated bill collectors, lawyers, physicians; they had a knack for acting, and they used it to their advantage. Parliament saw them as scourges on English society, and those caught found themselves subjected to exacting punishments: they were stripped to the waist and whipped until ribbons of flesh hung from their bones, and then they were either released to collapse in the street, or they were shipped to corrections houses. The most dangerous ones werent released or sent to the corrections houses, but loaded into ships and sent overseas to serve as labor in the American colonies. Goodbye and Good Riddance. The portrait of the American colonies as a sort of English penal colony has a good bit of truth to it. Englands jails were overfilled, and one way of dealing with the swelling numbers of criminals was to send them to the gallows. English law prescribed the death penalty for all felonies, and in the 1600s, there were almost three hundred

felonies, including petty crimes such as burglary and theft. Those sentenced to hang had two possible outs: benefit of clergy and royal pardon. Many well-educated criminals would call for the book, usually the Bible, and if they could read it, they were branded on the thumb and released. This practice derives from the Medieval era, when the literate were far fewer (generally only those in holy orders could read) and when the clergy were subject to their own courts. Because literacy was the deciding factor, a murderer who could read could walk away from the gallows, but an illiterate pickpocket had no recourse, and so would hang. Perceiving the ridiculousness of it all, in 1705 Parliament decreed twenty-five nonclergyable felonies; the number continued to grow, and in 1769 it had reached 169 crimes. Convicts unable to read often appealed for royal pardons; they would go before the judge, and if the judge felt so inclined, he could put them on a list, and they would be pardoned by the king. Because many of these pardoned convicts simply returned to their lives of crime on the streets, the royal pardon adopted an unwritten clause: those pardoned had to leave England. Thus royal pardons lie at the backbone for thousands of immigrants to the American colonies, and in 1717 Parliament decreed that in clergy convicts would be shipped to the colonies as well. Its been estimated that 30,000 convicted felons were shipped to the Americas in the half-century before the American Revolution. Virginia and Maryland were the hotspots for convict immigration, and the constant arrivals of convicts led to a significant leap in colonial crime. In the late 17th century, these colonies passed laws forbidding the importation of criminals. At the start of the 18th century, Parliament overruled these colonial laws. Thus the convicts kept coming in, working under masters to pay off their debts; once freed, most began heading west towards the frontier. A good number took up cattle ranching in the western frontier of Carolina, where cattle were turned loose to graze over the vast lands, then yearly rounded up into pens (hence the name of Cowpens, South Carolina). From these pens they would be driven en masse to the seacoast markets to be bartered and sold for hides and meat. Others headed to the frontier not to make a living as cattle ranchers but to continue their pattern of lawlessness and banditry, preying on farmers. Some convicts did migrate towards the cities: Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Charles Town; all these were prime real estate for freed convicts. In the cities they tended to drink a lot, work hard labor jobs, and commit petty crimes. These men were susceptible to rioting and violence, and they tended to form the nucleus of revolutionary mobs; many of them gladly became members of the infamous Sons of Liberty (who were viewed by most colonials as nothing but trouble-causing misfits and

criminals; and for good reason!). This isnt to say that all freed criminals returned to rustic living and lives of crime; when the Great Awakening swept through the colonies, many converted into Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians, and they settled down and lived orthodox Christian lives in their Christian communities. Indentured servants, Redemptioners, vagabonds and rogues, and not to mention criminals: these made up a good number of the immigrants pouring across the Atlantic to find a new life in the Americas. Many of these colonists found more land, property, and a higher status of living than they found in England; after 1640, the majority of free colonists were better fed and clothed than their relatives in England, where half the people lived in poverty and misery; but many didnt find prosperity but early graves or grudging lives, beset by disease and intermittent Indian wars. Those who made the most of themselves did so only at the expense of the native Americans, the indentured servants, and the black slaves. By the eve of the American Revolution, the first fragile colonies of Jamestown and Plymouth had burgeoned into more than a dozen British colonies stretching up and down the Atlantic coast. The hardiness of the first settlers opened the doorway for thousands upon thousands of immigrants, and by the Battle of Lexington and Concord, nearly two and a half million people of European descent lived in the American coloniesand they often lived off the work of another sort of immigrant who had no choice in the matter, the African slaves condemned to a life of slavery under colonial masters.


Most emigrants of the 18th century didnt come to the American colonies in search of liberty; they came to bolster the liberty of their masters, and they were forced to cross the Atlantic and work on plantations raising colonial crops for European markets. These slaves were considered to be in chattel slavery, a system by which people are treated as property to be bought and sold to owners who could use them however they saw fit (chattel slavery still exists in some places in the world; its estimated that as of 2014, 27 million people are held in slavery throughout the world). Chattel slaves are deprived of the right to leave, the right to demand compensation, and the right to refuse to work. Between 1500 and the beginning of the 18th century, over sixty percent of the 6 million people emigrating to the New World were involuntary slaves. Great Britain imported over 1.5 million of these slaves to her colonies, more than three times the number of free immigrants. Of this 1.5 million, 600,000 slaves were imported into the British colonies

on the eastern seaboard of North America. Most of the 12 million slaves traded by European powers were taken to the West Indies; 96% of the slaves carried on British ships in the 17th century wound up working on Caribbean plantations. During the 18th century, this percentage dropped to around 80% as more and more slaves were carried to the Chesapeake and Carolinas. At the turn of the 18th century, there were nearly 10,000 slaves in the Chesapeake region, and a few hundred in the Carolinas. By 1750, more than 170,000 more were ferried to America, so that there were more than 250,000 slaves in the colonies on the North American seaboard, and sixty percent of the Carolinian population lived in chains. Half the slaves in the Chesapeake were born into slavery in the respective colonies, but most slaves in South Carolina were born in Africa. The first post-colonial census determined that 20% of the population was comprised of African Americans, of which only around 10% were freed. Such mind-boggling importation of African slaves changed West Africa forever; the native West African population went from 25 million in 1700 to 20 million in 1820. The cruel practice of the slave trade weakened West Africa, rendering her vulnerable to European exploitation in the 1800s, and the effects of this European rape (no term is more accurate) continue to ripple throughout West Africa to this present day. Nearly of the slaves imported by Great Britain came from the African coastline between the Senegal River to the north and the Congo River to the south. British slave ships departed England and sailed south to Africa; after loading up on cargo, they sailed across the Atlantic and, upon reaching the British colonies, sold the slaves for colonial produce or bills of exchange, and then they returned to England to cash in. Contrary to popular belief, the British didnt disembark on the African coast and push inland, rounding up Africans left and right and then ferrying them to their ships. The vast majority of the time, the British purchased their slaves from African middlemen, usually leading merchants and chiefs of the coastal kingdoms. European slave merchants who pushed past the African chieftains and merchants found themselves in dire straits: the African kingdoms in the 18th century had the manpower and ferocious spirit to persuade British traders to act within the confines set up by the African traders. These African traders charged high prices for slaves, and the British paid, often with a good bit of grumbling. Also contrary to popular belief, the Europeans didnt inaugurate the African slave trade; the African slave trade had been alive and well since, at least, the Medieval era, though it tended to be confined to the African interior. African kingdoms had practiced slavery for a long while: some slaves were starving children sold by desperate parents; others were debtors or criminals sentenced to

slavery; the majority were captives taken by warring kingdoms or simply snatched up by armed gangs. The Europeans came onto the scene and exploited the African slave trade, promoting the violent wars between African kingdoms and encouraging armed gangs and their kidnapping antics. The Europeans provided guns to some kingdoms, with the understanding that the chosen African kingdom would use the guns to expand their territory and capture members of other kingdoms, who would in turn be traded to the Europeans. The Ashanti and Dahomey kingdoms grew fat and wealthy off such arrangements. Those kingdoms facing neighbors armed with guns knew they had to find guns of their own or suffer the consequences, and so kingdom after kingdom sought guns from the Europeans. Its estimated that by the end of the 18th century, the British alone were exporting 300,000 guns to West Africa yearly. Victorious African traders marched their captives to the coast in long lines called coffles. Dozens of captives would be yoked together by the neck, and sometimes these marches traversed half a thousand miles and took up to half a year to complete. About a quarter of the captives died along the march from disease, starvation, beatings, and, not least of all, suicide. Those who were lucky to reach the coast were soon herded into walled pens called barracoons. Here they were stripped naked and closely examined by European traders looking for only the healthiest and fittest slaves for transport. Those chosen were branded by the traders image, and the traders ferried their slaves in large canoes to their ships anchored off the African coast. Lifted onto the decks, the slaves were thrust belowdecks and shackled in pairs, the right wrist and ankle of one chained to the left wrist and ankle of the other. Ethnic groups were shattered so that the slaves were unable to communicate with one another, an attempt at preventing any coordinated attempts at escape. Lacking clothes and bedding, the slaves slept on tiny wooden shelves and in the wastes their bodies produced. On larger ships (some carried up to 450 slaves; one reportedly carried 740), each morning turned up slaves who had died and who had to be thrown overboard. Those sailors tasked with going belowdecks to retrieve the dead were often overwhelmed by the heat, the stench, the human excrement and bodily fluids covering everything. Twice a day, morning and late afternoon, the crew forced the chained slaves up on deck to eat. Usually no more than ten were brought up at a time. Crew members used whips to force the slaves on deck to exercise by dancing and singing to the tune of a drum, fiddle, or even bagpipes. One crewman recalled, The captain ordered them to sing, and they sang songs of sorrow. Their sickness, fear of being beaten, their hunger, and the memory of their country are the usual subjects. The awful shipboard conditions were hotboxes for diseases, and

in the 17th century, nearly twenty percent of the slaves taken onboard the ship died en route to the colonies. During the 18th century, improvements made by the traders (not out of any humanitarian ethos but from concern for the health of their products) cut the en route mortality rate in half. The biggest killer, even greater than disease, was what British slavers called the fixed melancholy. One doctor reported, No one who had it was ever cured. The symptoms are a lowness of spirits and despondency. Hence they refuse food. Hence the belly ached, fluxes ensued, and they were carried off. Captives overwhelmed by this deep-seeded depression often sought escape through taking their own lives: willfully drowning themselves or through self-induced starvation. African slaves often bought into a form of paradise after death: they would be returned to Africa, to their lost families, to home. Death thus became a violent doorway into their old lives. Upon arriving to the colonies (most slaves went to the West Indies, only a small fraction being sold in the Chesapeake and Carolinas), the slave-ship captains directed the sales. The captains invited prospective buyers onboard or landed the slaves to auction them off. Before auction the slaves were cleaned, shaved, and greased with palm oil. Some captains had the ships surgeons stuff the anus of each slave with oakum to mask the bloody signs of dysentery. The youngest, healthiest ones (usually males) sold first and at the highest prices. The older, weaker, and sicker slaves were more difficult to sell; women, too, didnt go for steep prices. As a general rule, any families onboard the ship were broken up upon reaching prospective buyers to break familial bonds that could lead to revolt or escape plots. African slaves first stepped foot on the shores of the Chesapeake in 1619, but their numbers would remain low for a little over three decades (there were only about 300 slaves in Virginia by 1650). Plantations had sprawled out by then, but most of the labor came from indentured servants who served the function of slaves. The numbers of indentured servants began to decrease, due mostly to economic growth in England: better able to sustain themselves in the mother country, far fewer people were willing to venture across the Atlantic and submit themselves to pseudo-slavery in the hope of attaining a better standard of living. Those who did disembark for the colonies preferred to avoid the struggling economies of Virginia and tried their luck in Pennsylvania, Carolina, or Jamaica. To say that the Chesapeake planters felt the decrease of servants is an understatement: during the 1660s, the average York County household boasted two servants; by the 1690s, York County averaged two servants per every ten plantations. The wealthiest Chesapeake planters, feeling the strain of losing indentured servants, turned

to African slaves to replenish their supply. Though these African slaves were twice as expensive as indentured servants, they were a better investment, since they were slaves for life: 25 to 30 pounds for lifelong servitude far outweighed 15 pounds for four years of servitude. Slave traders, aware of the shortage of indentured servants and the desperation of the Virginia planters, flocked to the Chesapeake; because slave traders were so numerous, they had to supply slaves at a steady price in spite of the huge demand. By 1700, Africans constituted thirteen percent of the population of the Chesapeake; by 1750, African slaves numbered around 150,000, comprising forty percent of the population. Halfway through the 18th century, the South had about 650,000 inhabitants, and about 250,000 of these were slaves. The Chesapeake (Virginia and Maryland) had most of these slaves, 33,000 were numbered in the northern colonies, and 60,000 in the Carolinas and Georgia. Most of the slaves in the Chesapeake toiled on tobacco plantations. These slaves lived in large enough populations to engage in marriage and bear children; and thus the numbers of slaves dramatically increased through childbirth. Because of this, African imports began to decline after 1750 as the slave population increased; thus most of the slaves in the Chesapeake were Creole. African slaves and their descendants came to adopt evangelical Christianity, though not without integrating it with their own form of African magic, emotive singing, and celebratory funerals that portrayed death as a spiritual liberation and restoration to Africa. They added European instruments to their banjos, drums, and rattles, creating their own form of music with an emphasis on rhythm and percussion (Jazz aficionados must give a nod to the slaves of the Chesapeake). South of the Chesapeake, slaves in the low country (Carolina and Georgia) endured harsher working conditions as they toiled in rice and cane fields. Here they outnumbered whites 2-to-1. Because slave populations on rural plantations were so large, these slaves were able to preserve much of their African culture, and they developed a composite language called Gullah based on a handful of African languages; Gullah was grammatically and structurally distinct from English. Deep south slave masters sought to impose the West Indian gang system on their plantations, but the slaves resisted, forcing the masters to embrace a compromise: the task system. The slaves day became his or her own once the days tasks were accomplished. If they rose early and worked hard, they could leave the fields come afternoon, escaping the worst heat and humidity of the day. Such slaves found time to tend their own gardens and raise some livestock, which they could then sell to acquire a few personal goods. Slaves

living in the port cities of Charles Town and Savannah worked as house servants, skilled artisans, and boatmen. Many were silversmiths or cabinetmakers. A good number of these city slaves were lighter-skinned mulattoes, offspring of white masters and their female slaves. These slaves often adopted colonial words, ways, and dress, so much so that they felt a great divide between themselves and their African brothers and sisters working on the rural plantations. One might wonder why African slaves were made slaves for life. Indeed, this wasnt always the case: there are many instances, at least in the early 17th century, of African slaves being freed. As the numbers of slaves grew, however, it became apparent that few of them, torn from their homes in Africa and thrust into an entirely different culture on the far side of the world, could cope with the changes on their own. African self-identity wrapped around the context of their tribes, and they had a collective consciousness rather than an individualistic one; being torn from their tribes resulted in a psychological dismemberment: they had no consciousness of themselves as individuals as the Post-Reformation West understood the term. In many ways it was impractical to free the African slaves, because most of the time they were unable to sustain a living in the entirely different world of European colonial culture. Its true that plantation owners couldve freed their slaves, but in a sense, it would have been an act of cruelty on its own; though giving plantations owners a smug feeling of self-righteousness, it would have thrust slaves into a world few could really cope with. Its important to note that many white Southerners decried the growth of African slavery. Many of the most volatile indictments of slavery came from southern slave-owners themselves, such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and even George Washington. Thomas Jefferson wrote, Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probably by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take sides with us in such a contest. The Englishman Thomas Paine, author of the indelible Common Sense, wrote about southern plantation-owners and their liberties, saying, With what consistency, or decency, they complain so loudly of attempts to enslave them, while they hold so many thousands in slavery; and annually enslave many thousands more, without any pretence of authority, or claim upon them? How just, how suitable to our crime is the punishment with which Providence threatens us? We have enslaved multitudes, and shed much innocent blood in doing it; and now are threatened with the same. And while

other evils are confessed and bewailed, especially and publically; than which no other vice, if all others, has brought so much guilt on the land? As revolutionary sentiments built in the colonies following the French and Indian War, southern plantation owners often felt the hypocrisy in their bones. As historian Page Smith notes, For a people who were engaged in a struggle not only for their own liberties and rights as Englishmen but for, as they so often said, the universal rights of men, the anomaly of black servitude in their own household was a grim reminder of the compromised nature of all human aspirations. On a final note, myth asserts that black slavery came about due to prejudice against skin color; in other words, racism lay as the bulwark of black slavery. The reality is that racismdefined as a sorting of peoples by skin color into white, red, and blackwas a byproduct rather than a cause of colonization. Elitism did exist in the early days of colonization, but the root of this elitism lay not in something as trivial as skin color but in ones cultural conditioning. European civility and pride in Christianity made European colonizers feel a step above black Africans and red native Americans. Racism developed in the British colonies as a matter of course: these colonies relied on local colonial militias to protect their borders against Indians and to patrol the huge slave population to prevent slave uprisings. These colonists, ethnically diverse, found common ground in asserting themselves over against Indians and Africans. Colonial elites sought to solidify the cohesion of the militia by affirming a white racial solidarity over against the blacks and reds. Racism thus developed as a social phenomenon among the white militia, promoted by the colonial elite, and it spread into the bones and self-identity of southern colonists. That this pigmentation-based racism sank deep is evident in that it continues to be prevalent into our own day and age; like a cancer, it has swept through the western hemisphere, and much like cancer, it is difficult to repress, and almost impossible to remove. Such is the nature of evil.