Monday, May 6, 2013

Indentured servants and other old world influences on the new

1738 Indenture contract signed with an X


I was looking for information on Scottish indentured workers in America—remembering something from Charles Mann’s book, 1491, about indentured Scotsmen dying of malaria on southern plantations  so quickly that owners turned to African slaves. Googling around, I realized that my memories had simplified the story, but, as always, I bumped into other facts and ideas that, meshed with current interests and reading and rereading Josephy, have me relearning U.S. history.

I didn’t remember learning much about indentured workers at all on my first, school-time run through American history. Certainly not that as many as 80 percent of white immigrants to North America—those from the British Isles and the Continent—from the early 1600s to the Revolution, were indentured. Feeding and keeping the laborers shipboard cost more than a year’s plowman’s wages in England, some workers did not survive the long voyage, and there was no international banking system to broker labor contracts and amortize the risks of the voyage, so old world Fathers would take teenage sons and daughters to the docks and sign their lives over to a ship’s captain, who would sell them with a labor contract on the American end. The fathers weren’t paid, but, as with parents forever, were looking for a better life for their children.

Terms of indenture were most often from four to seven years, depending on labor needs, health and skills of the immigrant. A good prospect might serve less time; maybe even gain some wages or promise of a few acres of land at term’s end in addition to food and shelter. The freemen went on to build farms and enter trades of their own, joining the burgeoning colonial economy. As a footnote, I found less information about the women involved in these transactions—other than the fact that they were there, and brief mention of domestic servants. One wonders at the numbers—were they roughly equal? Did men send for sisters, wives, and sweethearts as they became established? Again, women’s roles and stories are hidden and submerged behind those of fathers, brothers, and husbands.

How Scotsmen figured into this equation had something to do with events in the old world. In the mid-1600s, at the time of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms—English and Scottish civil wars, Irish Rebellion, Cromwell and all that—the numbers of Irish and Scots who gambled on New World indenture apparently rose dramatically.  And, by the way, according to the “History Detective’s” website, black Africans followed indentured servants to Jamestown by about a decade—in 1619—and were initially treated as indentured servants. It didn’t last long. Slave laws were enacted in Massachusetts in 1641 and Virginia in 1661.

Events in the Old World always influenced what happened in the Western hemisphere. The Dutch were early entrants into North America and the fur and slave trades. Their trading and imperialism played out over the world stage, and Dutch interests in North America were bargained away with the British as part of bigger deals that included South American holdings. For years, from the French and Indian War through the Revolution and the War of 1812, North America was a battlefield in larger conflicts between France and England, and Native Americans were immediately caught up in their disputes.  As tribes most often joined the French in these battles—it  was of course always complicated, as intertribal relations and local conditions and the personalities of British and French actors entered into Indian decisions—one wonders how history would have played out for them had the French played a stronger and longer hand.

In fact, I can’t resist the urge to generalize and speculate further. It seems to me that the Dutch were primarily merchants and traders—easily shoved aside as the colonies developed. The French were traders and adventurers with a romantic bent. There were French settlers too, but not in the numbers that came from the British Isles. And it was the French philosophers who rhapsodized about Indians in the “state of nature,” and French trappers who traversed the continent and left Cajun and Metis cultures—blends of the old world and the new—in their wake. But New France, which begins with Cartier on the St. Lawrence in 1534, well in front of English colonization, was gone in 1763—traded away to Spain and Great Britain.

The English, Irish, and Scots—farmers, merchants, and indentured servants fleeing poor working, religious, and governing conditions—came early in large numbers and they came to settle. And to set farming, business, religion, and politics right. Somewhere in this seventeenth century mix are the seeds of Anglo-American Manifest Destiny, that unique blend of hutzpah and cultural superiority that said that this group was going to--and should--set the agenda for North America.. 

Even the Germans, who comprised the largest immigrant group by far in the nineteenth century, contented themselves with ethnic farming communities in the Midwest and “little Germanys” in Milwaukee, St. Louis, New York, and even Texas. The German immigrants brought their beer, foods, religions, and languages—and they held on to them as long and hard as they could. 

But they—and it seems just about everyone else—have left governance and the ideas of governance to the British. It is a very small way in which the Germans, Italians, Chinese, Japanese, Russian Jews, Korean Presbyterians, and scores of smaller ethnic groups and their German towns, Chinatowns, and little Vietnams have been and are on the same side of the assimilationist equation as are the original Americans.

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