In the horrendous history of black slavery in the Americas, the existence of something in the order of 300,000 Englishmen who, during the seventeenth and eighteenth century, were sent as "indentured servants", transported convicts or prisoners of war to toil in the tobacco fields, sugar or cotton plantations is largely forgotten.
The book "White Cargo" by Don Jordan and Michael Walsh, opens with the story of the discovery of the skeleton of a boy of 16 in what had been the cellar of a 17th century house. He had been buried in a hole under a pile of household waste. Forensic examination showed he had died of tuberculosis around 1660 but worse his skull showed evidence of a mouth infection and herniated discs and other injuries to his back bore evidence of a short life of hard toil. When he had died he had been of so little account, he had simply been tossed into the garbage.
The failure to find gold in the new land in the early seventeenth century, led English authorities to look for another form of wealth, tobacco, but tobacco needed people to tend it and to find cheap labour the landowners turned their eyes back to England and the people that society considered "surplus" - the homeless, the destitute and the criminal.
They began with children. Some were sent by their impoverished parents in the promise of a better life (in a sad evocation of what was to come in the 1950s with the expatriation of children from the slums of Liverpool). Others were urchins, rounded up off the streets of London and forcibly deported them to Virginia. There they were sold to planters who worked them to death, often within a year. The fate of the young man mentioned above?
The next group of people were the sweepings of England's gaols. Between 50,000 - 70,000 convicts were transported to Virginia, Maryland, Barbados and the other possessions in the years before 1776*. These included political prisoners such as royalists or religious persecutees such as Quakers. Prostitutes were rounded up and sent as "breeders".
Following the battles of Dunbar (1650) and Worcester (1651) thousands of Scottish prisoners of war were sent to labour in the sugar plantations of the West Indies. Some survived and having earned their freedom did quite well in the new lands but for many it was a death sentence. (see my novel THE KING'S MAN)
|Irish women and children being loaded on to ships|
And when labour began to run short, the authorities turned to kidnap. Innocent young men were duped or just forcibly coerced on the ships bound for the colonies. Kidnappers were reputedly paid 2 pounds by the planter's agents for strong, fit young men and if this reminds you of R.L. Stevenson's novel "Kidnapped", then you are right. It is the basis for that plot. It is also the basis of the Steeleye Span song that I have included below.
The plight of the indentured servant is illustrated in the life and death of Thomas Hellier. In 1677, Thomas Hellier of Whitchurch, in Dorset an educated young man of 28 in somewhat dire straits, signed up as an indentured servant and sailed to Virginia. There he was delivered first to a planter called Connor who then sold him to Cuthbert Williamson of the ominously named "Hard Labour Plantation". Although he was promised a role as tutor to Williamson's sons, Hellier was put to work in the tobacco fields. Not only was he subject to the hard labour in the fields but also the continual haranguing of Williamson's wife. Hellier ran away, was recaptured and his period of indenture extended. With his hair clipped to mark him as a runaway he was put back to work, subject to even more abuse from Mrs. Williamson than before.
One May morning in 1678, Hellier rose, dressed in his best clothe and taking an axe and a knife murdered Williamson and his wife, and a servant. After a few weeks on the run he was captured and sentenced to hang. On his gallows he gave a moving speech against the tyranny of the plantation owners. After he was dead, his body was hung in a gibbet at Windmill Point on the James River as a warning to indentured servants not to defy their masters.
This song by Steeleye Span, "Gone to America", exemplifies the plight of the young men who just "disappeared" and those they left behind...
For further reading I commend the book WHITE CARGO mentioned above.
*I found this a fascinating post to research because it made the link in my mind with the transportation of convicts to Australia, After the American War of Independence, the transportation of convicts shifted to Australia and in 1788 the First Fleet arrived with its cargo of prisoners. For those transported for "seven years" it may as well have been a life sentence. Few would ever return to England. My own great+ grandmother was transported in 1798 for stealing. She arrived as a young girl of 17 in a colony that was only 10 years old. The women were lined up like cattle for selection as "servants", although one can imagine the reality of their fates, particularly if you were young and pretty. Fortunately for Mary Hyde, she was taken on by a young man who loved her and looked after her, before his untimely death only a few years later...but that's a story for another day.