Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Beyond Its Beginning: Our Legacies and Heritage from Jamestown - Part 6

The Taste of Independence

The English Civil War and succeeding eight years of rule without a royal governor had an important effect on Jamestown’s and, subsequently, our history in two ways. According to historian Henry William Elson, “For the first and only time during the colonial period Virginia enjoyed absolute self-government. Not only the assembly [sic], but the governor and council were elective for the time, and the people never forgot this taste of practical independence.” This memory is a thread that continued in the increasingly contentious political disputes among the colonies and factions in the British government and establishment from the late 17th and on through the first three quarters of the 18th centuries, when the colonies famously rebelled for our independence.

Elson continued, “The other respect in which the triumph of the Roundheads in England affected Virginia was that it caused an exodus of Cavaliers from England to the colony, similar to the great Puritan migration to Massachusetts…twenty years before.” These new aristocratic immigrants – while a fraction of the number of Puritans – exacerbated social stratification, for the “Cavaliers …were of a far better class than were those who had first settled the colony.” Their incursion began to harden the colony’s societal structure into a new form of American aristocracy. It also began to marginalize some descendants of early settlers who had come on either the strength of their hopes for better economic prospects or to flee the arbitrary class constraints that their offspring now saw emerging to hinder their own upward mobility and freedom.

Billings further says, “For ordinary Virginians, hard times started with the restoration of King Charles II in 1660. The king, his brother, James, Duke of York [later, James II], and their underlings came back to England determined to mold Virginia to their conceptions of empire. They presupposed an imperial system grounded in social order, political obedience, military security and the exclusion of the Dutch from the Virginia trade. [The Dutch, one of the colony’s major trading partners, were soon to be evicted from New York, née New Amsterdam.] Achieving the vision meant limiting [Virginia’s] independence. ”

Meanwhile, the unique and extraordinary opportunity for land ownership by the private citizen had materialized as a reward for indentured servitude in raising tobacco and other forms of labor. This inducement drew shiploads of opportunity seekers from throughout economically distressed and overpopulated England, plus many from Europe. The result of this new wealth creation was that by the second half of the 17th century, “more than 40 percent of members of the House of Burgesses had previously been servants.”

The Bitter Legacy

The first group of “20. and Odd” Africans is known to have been landed at Jamestown in late August 1619 in an unknown state of bondage. They joined a number who were already there, which would gradually increase from between thirty and fifty to the low hundreds during the colony’s first half century, while the English influx grew by tens of thousands. They are thought to have been initially bound to agricultural labor and service under terms similar to the contracts or indentures for specified numbers of years with which many English immigrants had paid for their passage, as “no such condition of lifetime servitude was recognized in English or Virginia law at that time.” An indeterminate number achieved their freedom and the capacity to acquire land and property of their own, but others later found themselves bound by what proved to be indefinite terms.

These were the beginnings of the form of chattel slavery that ultimately became a bitter and divisive social legacy for the new American nation. In the 1640s, following the leads of the Massachusetts and Connecticut colonies, the Virginia Assembly began enacting policies and laws that fated almost all Africans and African Americans in the colony to a permanent underclass and involuntary servitude.

In 1661, the new Commonwealth began institutionalizing racially based slavery, "making it de jure". With the emergence of the new elite ruling class during Berkeley’s governorship came an attitude among its members toward the lower classes, particularly Africans and African-Americans, that reflected much less humanity and tolerance, and a facility to arbitrarily relegate them to an inferior or the lowest position in society.

Virginia’s tobacco labor force was predominately composed of English indentured servants until the 1670s, when that immigration flow slowed to a trickle and increasing numbers of laborers were needed to work the colony’s tobacco fields. Historian Martha W. McCartney wrote that, “It is estimated that 75,000 whites emigrated from the British Isles to the Chesapeake colonies between 1630 and 1680, when tobacco consumption was on the rise. Half-to-three-quarters of these people were indentured servants, many of who were poor, unskilled youths. Planters were especially eager to procure male workers to work in their tobacco fields and during the 1630s six times as many men as women became indentured servants”. However, she also tells us that for several decades onward, “…approximately four out of five newly arrived immigrants still perished”.

As economic conditions in the mother country improved in the last third of the century, the attraction of the servitude arrangement faded and it became more difficult to recruit this form of labor. The options of a slave-based work force became more interesting and were enhanced by a new source of supply, as restrictions on the slave trade disappeared and ships under numerous flags, including Boston, brought confined and constrained Africans to Virginia. Almost three generations after the Africans’ first landing, the appalling legacy of racially based slavery took hold as part of Virginia’s economic foundation in the 1660s, and slaves had become dominant in the work force by the mid-1680s. By 1705, relatively few English indentured servants were arriving in Virginia, and chattel slavery was fully institutionalized, so to remain for another 160 years. Its vestiges would remain well into the 20th century.

According to McCartney, “One of the reasons that the history of the seventeenth century continues to command so much of our attention is that, through the first three quarters of that century, alternative, less deplorable, outcomes appear to have been possible”. Jamestown’s legacies, thorns and all, would soon spread beyond Virginia.

This is the sixth of nine parts
Copyright 2008

No comments: