More properly called slaves, part 2

As I stated in the previous post, colonial serfdom began in rudimentary form in the 1570s. Ironically, at about the same time Raphael Holinshed (Shakespeare’s favourite historian) boasted:

“As for slaves and bondsmen, we have none. Nay, such is the privilege of our country by the especial grace of God and the bounty of our princes that if anyone come hither from other realms so soon as they set foot on land they become so free… all note of servile bondage is utterly removed from them.” 

In a sense he may have been right for people coming from other countries to England, but for those going from England to the Americas it was utter crap. Ever since the English Reformation (when England broke away from Roman religious authority, began in 1532) and Inclosure Acts (when land formerly considered common could be snatched up by private landowners, began in 1604), the divide between rich and poor opened wider and the Renaissance period became something of a luxury. To the rich, obviously.

The poor increased in number and so did the criminals, the population jumping from ~3 million in Henry VIII’s time to ~4 million in his daughter Elizabeth I’s time. This scared the rich; they were scared the poor and lawless would overwhelm the country so something had to be done about them.

(Same as many English believe today. What’s changed in 450+ years?)

And that’s when the American slavery system was initiated, by

Humphrey Gilbert, half-brother to the historically more renowned

Walter Raleigh.

Just to give you a sense of the kind of guy Humphrey was, like Walter he was a soldier. His reputation was as a merciless bloodthirsty bastard who took no prisoners; during the French religious wars of the 1560s he hanged everyone unlucky enough to fall into his hands. He was in charge of the ethnic cleansing campaign of Ireland 1569, and anyone who displayed any degree of resistance or disapproval was killed. He even stuck people’s heads – men, women AND children alike – on rows of spikes on the path leading to his tent! Just for the fun of scaring people!

Just to make it worse, Queen Lizzy got a boner and knighted him!

Later Humphrey gained a fascination (later obsession) with America, as well as helping England get rid of its paupers. He drew up a treatise on how to colonise the ‘New World’. The treatise was immensely detailed: the colony’s size (only 9 million acres!), street layouts, number of churches and more were all planned. Unfortunately his geographical knowledge was piss-poor, and even his contemporaries knew that. He believed north America was just an island. However, his theory sounded good and his treatise looked well-researched so the Queen gave him the go-ahead. Reluctantly because he was so good at slaying Irish, but his more persuasive brother Walter stepped in and convinced her. She gave him 6 years to establish a colony.

Possibly emulating Columbus’s use of Spanish convict labour in his 3rd trip to the Americas, as well as the Marquis de la Roche’s use of Breton convicts, Humphrey used the “needy people of our country” as his manpower for the trip. He probably felt he had to outdo de la Roche as they were long-time enemies.

Ironically, as much as she liked Humphrey the Queen refused to pay for the venture. He had to raise all the money on his own, which he just about managed after begging friends, relatives & fellow adventurers and “selling the clothes off my wife’s back”! And in 1578 he was off, with a fleet of 10 ships, 500-strong crew, Walter tagging along and Lizzy’s official prohibition against plundering any land already taken by the Spanish & Portuguese.

Official being the operative word.

Leave the Spanish & Portuguese territories alone! Nah fuck it, take whatever you can get.

However, due to a quadruple whammy of bad weather, bad luck, bad leadership and infighting the voyage never happened!

In 1583 they went again (minus Walter) and made it to St Johns, Newfoundland. He claimed it property of England – which left the Basque, Portuguese & French fishermen who were already there confused. Then he left them alone to get back to fishing and looked for somewhere else to dock.

However, the oncoming storms and fogs didn’t allow it. They were so bad his biggest ship got lost and his crew demanded to go home. Despite his high-flying war antics he didn’t have the balls to face them down and risk mutiny, so he agreed. BUT! Just so no-one at home thought him a coward, he took all his crew, provisions & weapons and packed them onto the smallest shoddiest ship in the fleet! Of course the worthless piece of shit sank. As if that weren’t bravado enough, as the tidal waves approached Humphrey just whipped out a book* and started reading!

* said to be Thomas More’s Utopia. Must have been damn good.

When news got back to England, Humphrey was called a martyr and national hero!

Then Walter made his move. After waiting to make sure Humphrey’s cavaliering ass was really dead, he continued the American colony project – again with the Queen’s same special permissions. He made a deal with her, that he’d give her 20% of all gold & silver he found, leaving him with 80%. How she agreed to that I’ll never know. He hired Richard Hakluyt, who was a clergyman and the world’s best geographer at the time.


It was Richard’s idea to put the lawless wretches to work for the salvation of the homeland. He even planned out industries for work to be done in, over 40 in total including gold mining, tar making, pearl diving and cotton picking. Most of them flourished over time.

Just in case the image of ‘white’ cotton pickers doesn’t come to mind easily

Walter was the one who named present-day Virginia, after Lizzy the virgin queen. Don’t know how true that was but with her bad breath I wouldn’t be surprised.

However, Walter was in for some  bad luck too. He chose the mosquito-ridden island of Roanoke to start the colony and struggled for 3 years to keep hold of Virginia, then the colonists had to go without supplies as England went to war with Spain and they disappeared, with Walter never managing to find them again. That’s the story of Raleigh’s Lost Colony.

But after all that he became very rich, so very rich that reports say he returned to the English court covered from head to toe in jewels! However, the exploits in America had used up all his dosh so in 1590 he leased out his patent to the colony – but somehow retained the right to keep 20% of all gold & silver and veto anyone else from setting up a colony in Virginia!

Three guys held the patent now: Richard Hakluyt, John White (the colony’s nominal governor) and Sir Thomas Smythe Jr (who became THE MAIN driving force behind the Virginia project and ‘white’ slavery).

Smythe played a leading role in most of the newly-emerged joint stock companies, making him England’s (and by extension America’s) first tycoon! He was stupidly rich and business-minded; almost all companies set up in the first 35 years were either set up or run by him:

  • East India Company
  • Muscovy Company
  • Levant Company
  • Somers Island Company
  • Northwest Passage Company
  • Merchant Adventurers
  • Virginia Company

On top of all that, he also became the city auditor, Sheriff of London, captain of London’s militia AND collector of customs!!!

In the 1590s legal debates arose about what to do about the still rising numbers of poor people. Parliament made a new law; the then Lord Chief Justice Sir John Popham drew up a bill requiring parishes to look after the “impotent poor” and threatened severe punishments for the “rogues and vagabonds” (basically all able-bodied poor who could theoretically take care of themselves). One of those punishments included transportation – but they hadn’t decided on where to! Besides, that law never took effect because they were too wrapped up in who should take over after Lizzy – who was getting old and crusty by then.

Then in 1596, Robert Devereux (Earl of Essex and Smythe’s friend) participated in an attack on the Spanish town Cádiz, from which the men returned loaded with booty. Then when he wanted to launch a coup on Lizzy the Earl expected Thomas to help – instead Thomas convinced him to give himself up! Robert was executed that same day, and Smythe would’ve been too as his liaison with the Earl had been spotted. He and his wife were dragged off to the Tower of London, where he claimed he was just passing on some message from the Lord Mayor to the Earl – which no-one believed. However, he escaped the chop!


Maybe because he’d lent the Queen £31,000 to equip the fleet that beat the Spanish Armada? Maybe because it would’ve been stupid to kill the richest guy in the damn country?

So instead he was deprived of his offices and heavily fined. Then in March 1603 after Lizzy finally died, James I became King and gave Thomas his offices back, knighted him and made him his Chief Adviser on trade for life! Maybe James’s involvement in the Essex plot had something to do with it, as he gave similar favours to everyone who’d taken part in it.

As good as Smythe’s luck was, when he turned his attention to the Virginia colony he gained an enemy: the guy who almost executed him, Lord Chief Justice Sir John Popham…

“It is best for man not to seek to climb too high, lest he fall.”

Back to Part 1

On to Part 3

2 thoughts on “More properly called slaves, part 2”

  1. Just an aside, but I think the French had slaves in North America before the 1570’s. White, African, and Panis (native) slaves. Where there were ships there were slaves, for all of history probably.


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