This post may seem insignificant in the greater picture of the TAST, but I feel it goes a long way to setting the scene of the early slaves in north America. It’s basically the story of Fort St George (the American one, not the Indian one), built in 1607 by some of these enslaved Englishmen.
What’s so important about this fort? It was one of the most hated features of English rule in America, and for good reason as you’ll read below.
Judging from the blueprints left behind it would’ve been a really sturdy powerful edifice – but it was deserted and left to crumble well before completion!
In the early 1600s England was realising that allowing individual entrepreneurs to try their luck in the ‘New World’ was a mistake. They all got too greedy and ultimately failed. The solution was to use the newly-invented concept of joint stock companies; that way there’d be more benefit for more people and less chance of failure. Thus colonialism was reignited in 1602 by
Bartholomew Gosnold, a good friend of both Richard Hakluyt and Walter Raleigh. At this point England hadn’t yet worked out that they wouldn’t find gold in north America, despite Gosnold’s expeditions not uncovering a scrap of evidence for the existence of a single mine! Somehow his expeditions still sparked in the popular imagination legends of cities made of gold and the Spanish El Dorado (golden man)!
Then came along Sir John Popham (remember him at the end of the last post?). He was the principal investor in the northern Plymouth division of the Virginia company, while his rival Thomas Smythe was the treasurer of the southern London division. Popham came from money; he was born into an affluent family in Somerset, read law at Balliol College in Oxford and was called to the Bar!
Regardless, in his 20s he was a heavy gambler, alcoholic and HIGHWAYMAN – yes, a common robber! One rumour of the day claimed he was also a garrotter, someone who murders by strangulation/ breaking the neck. And somehow he was NEVER caught! Then in his 30s he decided that he could make just as much money legally and put his law education to use. That’s when he gained the attention of Queen Lizzy; she made him Speaker of the House, then Attorney General, then Lord Chief Justice.
He was just as barbaric as a judge as he’d been as a highwayman. He was the one who sentenced our boy Raleigh to death, was involved in the trial of Mary Queen of Scots AND had Guy Fawkes hanged! In fact he loved hanging people, so much he became known as the hanging judge – except women, they’d be crushed or strangled then burnt at the stake. He hung damn near everybody, including Jesuits, Puritans, Catholic priests and other highwaymen! People feared him, not just for his mercilessness but also for his face – he was a big ugly fucker, with coldness pouring from his bullying eyes.
Just because he’d turned to the side of the law didn’t make him virtuous by any means though. Like all other Elizabethan judges, if the price was right he was willing to let a few minor – and major – crimes slide. Perhaps the best example is one of his cases; a midwife had gone to a client’s house to deliver a baby when a masked man burst into the house, grabbed the newborn baby and threw it into the fireplace! The masked man was caught and identified, but he got away with it scot-free because he gave Popham his mansion – Littlecote House, Wiltshire!
But despite his otherwise ruthless methods of execution and reputation he never managed to eliminate crime, so in his late 50s he focused his attention on colonisation of the Americas. In 1597 he pushed through a new Vagrancy Act (see previous post) to have persistent criminals banished, but it was only in 1602 that he drew up an order stating where to banish them to! They were to be dumped in
“Newfoundland, East and West Indies, France, Germany, Spain and the Low Countries or any of them.”
In short, everywhere away from us.
Some time later he added Virginia to the list. In 1605-06 Popham came up to then Attorney General Sir Edward Coke and proposed using America as a dustbin for England’s unwanted. Coke agreed. However the Spanish Ambassador to London, Don Pedro de Zúñiga, was scared it could threaten Spain’s interests in America.
He was promptly reassured it wouldn’t happen, the order was just to get rid of England’s crooks.
In 1606, Popham and his friend Ferdinando Gorges (who was English, despite his Spanish name) did a trial voyage. They used 29 prisoners and 2 captured native Americans as guides. The voyage flopped, mainly because the captain Henry Challons went the “safe” traditional route – south along the west African coast then veering westward* instead of directly west as Popham ordered. They ran into a Spanish fleet, the ship was captured, and the whole crew were turned into galley slaves. (Un)luckily, Popham & Gorges were never aboard the ship and weren’t affected by the mishap. Of course Popham made no attempt to get them back; like he’d really go out of his way to rescue a bunch of criminals!
* It was pretty common knowledge back then, especially to west Africans, that you could reach America from west Africa – either on purpose or by accident since the westward currents were so strong and predictable. See Ivan Van Sertima’s They came before Columbus: The African Presence in Ancient America for clarification, ISBN 9780812968170.
The next year they did a second trial voyage, this time with 120 men and 2 ships. Again Popham and Gorges were absent. Popham had given special instructions to the ships’ captains, only to be revealed upon landing. Once they landed and gave thanks to God, those secret instructions were given –
Find gold or your white asses are banished in Virginia!!! (or something to that effect)
The prisoners were set to work on the fort as well. At this point it makes sense to name the ships’ captains: Humphrey Gilbert’s son Raleigh Gilbert, and John Popham’s nephew George Popham. While nowhere near as deadly as his uncle (some reckoned he was quite timid) no-one dared refuse; just the name Popham was enough to send waves of terror tearing through their bones like earthquakes! Their only alternative was to go back to England to be hanged, or re-imprisoned then hanged. After weeks of failure and setbacks* they finally got a report from Abenake natives claiming there was a huge stretch of water only a week’s walk away.
* Much of which was the colonists’ own fault. After an incident where 4 native men were dragged on board one of the ships by their hair, their compatriots attacked. Unsurprisingly.
This turned out to be bollocks. The natives knew these invaders were so stupid they’d scurry like bloodhounds at the faintest mention of gold.
At some point during this scurry George died, fully believing he’d finally secured the English presence in America. Raleigh then took over the project temporarily, but suddenly packed up his stuff and went home! WHY? Because he’d received news that his brother John had died and left him his estate!!! Then news came that John Popham himself had also died, at which point EVERYONE packed up and went home! Whatever of the fort had been built was left to crumble.
And that’s the story of how Fort St George never got completed.
However, that’s not the end of the ‘white’ slavery story. That was just the northern Plymouth division. The southern London division had a different fate…
Back to Part 2
On to Part 4