Sunday, June 5, 2016

White Servants, Black and Indian Slaves, and the Turning Point of American History

All right, here's a history lesson about 17th century colonial plantation labor. It actually started as a reply to someone on Facebook talking about "white slaves" and just kept getting longer and longer, so I decided to put it in this format.

In the beginning, in Jamestown, most of that plantation labor was done by white indentured servants. These were not "white slaves." They were poor white Europeans, mostly from the British Isles, who paid their way over the Atlantic to the new colonies by selling their labor -signing contracts ranging from four to seven years. During that service they were essentially at the mercy of the owners of those contracts. When the time was up, they were free. 

Beginning in 1619, white indentured servants were joined in the tobacco fields by African slaves- a little later, they started to be joined by American Indians who had either been captured by the English or traded for from other tribes who had captured them. At first the labor was mostly white, with a limited amount of black and red; later the number of Indian slaves (for such they were) increased quite a bit, and blacks were still the smallest group. 

Because the planters held the white workers' contracts, they wanted to get their money's worth out of them, so they worked them like crazy, in fact often working them to death... so most indentured servants in the first decades of the century did not survive to the end of their contracts (plus there was disease, hunger, Indian wars, and general hardship adding to the high mortality rate.) But by the late 1600s, most white servants WERE living to the end of their contracts, and theoretically -this is why they came- they were entitled to land. But most of the good land had already been taken by the planters by that time. So you had increasing numbers of newly freed poor white people with no land and no job. They started calling for the colonial government to wipe out ALL the Indians, including those allied with the English, so they could get THEIR land. The colonial govt. refused to do so, and a rebellion occurred in 1676 led by a charismatic member of the ruling class named Nathaniel Bacon who presented himself as a "man of the people." 

It was a serious conflict; the rebels burned down Jamestown. Both sides offered freedom to any black slaves who would help fight on their side, but oddly enough not many slaves trusted the planters. Quite a few joined the rebels. In fact, after Bacon himself died of disease, the last hundred rebels to be brought to heel were a group of a hundred, 80 slaves and 20 white indentured servants. Colonial leaders realized that using indentured servants for plantation work was a bad idea -it just increased the number of frustrated poor white people- so that practice was ended. There were still indentured servants (for about another century) but they were no longer used for plantation labor, so there were far fewer of them. 

It occurred to the political and financial elites that it was also just generally a bad idea to let black and white workers unite, so they started passing new laws (this trend had actually already started before the rebellion, but it intensified afterward) making it illegal for blacks and whites to marry. This had actually become fairly common. They also passed a lot of laws restricting the activities of African slaves, which did not apply to white indentured servants, to reinforce the idea that BLACKS ARE RACIALLY INFERIOR, and poor whites should not trust them or treat them as equals. It was to the advantage of the planters to give the poor whites a RACE to hate instead of a CLASS (them). If there were a racial line instead of a class line, the poor whites would side with the planters rather than the black workers. 

As I like to illustrate it, it's like three guys sitting down to a table that holds a plate with ten cookies: a rich guy with eight cookies, and a poor white guy and a black guy, each with one. In this scenario the guy with eight cookies tells the poor white guy, "you better watch that black guy, I think he wants to steal your cookie." And then while the two poor guys are watching each other, the rich guy gets all the cookies.

So by the late 1600s, plantation labor was not being done by white indentured servants, but rather by black and Indian slaves. Indians still outnumbered blacks as slaves in some areas. That changed as a result of the Yamassee War of 1715-17 in South Carolina. That war, in which one of the big factors was the disruption in tribal life caused by the Indian slave trade, was essentially all the tribes in the region (starting with the Yamassees) versus South Carolina; the colony was in danger of being destroyed. Although one group of Cherokees were fighting against the English, the larger number of them came in as English allies and helped prevent disaster for the colony. The result of all this: Southern planters concluded that using INDIANS as slaves wasn't the best idea, either, as they often had well-armed relatives nearby.

So by the early 1700s, plantation labor -and slavery -had become an exclusively black experience, Throughout the eighteenth and into the nineteenth centuries both the legal and social norms were an ever more restrictive way of life for blacks -slave or free -and an ever sharper defined racial barrier, with blacks portrayed as lazy, inferior, shifty and shiftless, violent, and untrustworthy -in order to make it easier to keep them separate and controlled. And to make poor whites feel better about themselves, because no matter how bad they had it they were better than Negroes, and so they were willing to sacrifice their own best interests, and sometimes their own lives, to keep the planter class in power and wealth. Whenever the poor whites would get antsy or start to complain about their lot, the elites would remind them how dangerous the blacks were and how we need to work together to keep them under control.

And here we are.

And the big turning point was Bacon's Rebellion, when poor whites and blacks worked together against the elites -out of a desire to kill all the Indians and take their land, which would have hurt the elites economically- and when the rebellion was put down racial lines were firmly and sharply drawn to prevent it from happening again. It is the ultimate American story.