Back to the first slaves of the TAST: ‘white’ Anglo-Saxons…
On Good Friday 1622, the English presence in Virginia very nearly met its end. Opechancanough, paramount chief of the Powhatan Confederacy, had planned an all-out attack on the them the very next day. However, they were saved from extinction by the warnings of Chanco, a young Algonquin traitor who’d converted to Christianity. Despite his warnings, 347* of the 1240 ‘whites’ were killed, and 20 of the women taken as slaves from John Martin’s plantation.
* Possibly more since some plantations didn’t keep death records.
Some people, e.g. Edwin Sandys’s brother George, used the recent attack as an excuse to enslave native Americans en masse indiscriminately. He/ they claimed their bodies were better suited to the climate & workloads. Though some tribes were enslaved via this indoctrination, the ‘whites’ found it easier & more practical to just genocide their asses. Powhatan villages were incinerated, and hundreds of Chesapeake natives slaughtered.
In May 1623, Capt Willian Tucker and his delegation went to the Potomac river to meet Opechancanough to negotiate the release of the 20 women. Of course Opechancanough didn’t go alone; he took hundreds of his own warriors with him. However, the negotiations soon rotted into a bid to convince Opechancanough’s lot to drink from a flask prepared by Dr John Pott*. Though he didn’t know that, Opechancanough ordered the English to drink first, and they did – but from a different flask thanks to some sleight of hand. The chief himself didn’t drink but 200 of his warriors did and died from the poison in the drink!
* Wikipedia says he was (also?) known as Potts, and the first physician in America. As if the natives & pre-Columbian African-Americans never had any.
However, Opechancanough wasn’t quite so lucky. 2 of his chiefs and 48 others were shot down in an English ambush later that same day! So much for getting the 20 women back.
9 months later, Dr Pott paid 2lb of coloured beads to ransom a Jane Dickenson. He insisted she was to serve her (dead) husband’s last 3 years of enslavement. She was released back to them, as were all the other hostages. But soon she appealed to the Virginia company to free her, complaining her time with the English was no better than with the Powhatans! Records don’t reveal if her appeal succeeded or not, but Pott became so popular he briefly became Governor of Virginia!
As stated in previous posts, even with the threat of showers of arrows & attacks, slaves often preferred to take their chances with them than live on the tobacco plantations! It was so bad, Thomas Jefferson (America’s 3rd president AND SUCCESSFUL PLANTER) said the plantations impoverish the land and turn men & animals alike into underfed wretches.
Back to 1622. To recover from the native attack’s effects, Capt Thomas* Nuce advised the company to drop the sharecroppers (tenants) and enslave them to increase profit. Which happened; within 6 years 90% of the labourers were enslaved, even though the company’s slave supply was already increasing through other means. More on that in another post.
* Thomas was a stupidly common name in the 1600s!
One group of 100 men originally contracted to be tenants were made into “tenants by halves” as soon as they set foot on America. In other words, 100 guys were supposed to become planters and 50 were enslaved en route without their knowledge!
2 years after the Good Friday attack, abuse of slaves became widespread. One of the most poignant examples was of Elizabeth Abbott, one of the cockney street kids spirited away back in 1618! She was used to getting beaten for bunking off work for days, as well as scandalising her master & mistress, but her latest absence ended that. A fellow slave was ordered to whip her, an eyewitness claiming to have counted 500 lashes. She barely managed to drag herself away afterward and lay dying on the neighbouring plantation. As she did a neighbour tended to her – then offered to take her back to apologise to her master!
In an enquiry into her death, another case of death by battery arose. The previous year Elias Hinton had complained of being hit on the head with a hoe by his master before he died. But that master and his wife were let off charges of cruelty.
These instances weren’t rare. According to the book, courts’ records of such brutalities totalled “libraries” (quote from p.106) but punishments were lenient or non-existent. Why? Most judges were planters themselves, and they refused to side against their own.
Besides, the old stereotypes of slaves as scum was still in wide circulation. Probably the most famous example was of Thomas Hellier; to most planters at the time he was evil incarnate.
Originally from Whitchurch, Dorset, who at 28 was propositioned for indentured servitude. He was suspicious at first but a few drinks sorted that out. Cue face palm. He was sold to Cuthbert Williamson and promised he’d only be made to tutor children “unless necessity did compel.” Befittingly, Williamson’s plantation was named Hard Labour Plantation, and Hellier never got to tutor. At first he tried to brave it out but Williamson’s nagging wife drove him nuts. He ran away but was caught and worked even harder.
Then the springtime came. He donned his best clothes, took a knife and axe and killed the Williamsons. He also killed Martha Clark, another slave who tried to stop him. Of course he was caught and sentenced to death by hanging. On the scaffold he repented, but also gave a long verbal attack on masters deceiving and abusing their slaves. I refer to it as the “They are not dogs” speech – full version here.
Worse than the scum stereotype, though, was the legal treatment of them as chattel. This began with the very first convicts and spirited street kids. Slaves were listed as items in masters’ wills, and often less valuable than a horse or a blanket or curtains!
(for examples of such wills, see White Cargo, pp.108-110)
English servitude was unlike American servitude, hence why it became so easy for those back home to deny the latter’s cruelty. In England service was for 1 year, the slaver was legally forbidden to sell the slaves on or force an extension, nor could they easily get away with whipping them to death. But the planters were away from home so they were free to do whatever the hell they wanted.
But then came James I, who set up an inquiry of how the colonies were run. He commissioned Governor of the Somers Isles, Nathaniel Butler for the task. All the company chiefs and supporters tried to blame Thomas Smythe, but Butler ignored them. In his report Butler wrote that if the colony’s evils weren’t sorted out it should be called a “slaughterhouse… both odious to ourselves and contemptible to all the world,” and they colonists had “wilfully strayed from the law and customs of England”. When this report got back to Jamie, he withdrew its charter and replaced it with a royal government in 1624.
Which for the slaves changed absolutely nothing…
Back to Part 5
On to Part 7