Conclusion: New World, new societies

3.1 Migration
3.1a Varieties of migrant
3.1b Numbers
3.2 Native encounters
3.3 New societies, new economies
3.3a Slave societies
3.3b Servants and convicts
3.4 Conclusion: New World, new societies
3.1 Migration
3.1a Varieties of migrant
There were many different types of migrants to the British and French Americas, not all of them French or British. There were many different reasons
for moving. Some chose to move, while others, most notably African slaves
and European criminals, were compelled to do so. The official processes
for staffing the colonies with military forces and administrators also differed markedly. Enticements to emigrate, promises of work and land, were
mixed with forms of more forceful inducement. A key group of migrants,
indentured servants – les engagés for the French – remained an important
element of migration to many British colonies, particularly for Maryland,
Virginia, and Pennsylvania until the War for Independence, providing particular skills for the plantation and urban economies. This was the case
despite the predominance of African slaves which had been established by
1700 in tobacco production. In the Caribbean, too, their early recruitment
was vital, and they became indistinguishable from the forced migrants of
military and criminal expulsion, from Ireland as well as Britain, up to the
end of the civil wars. Their economic importance declined sharply by 1700,
as their labour in sugar production was replaced by African slaves. French
attempts at recruiting servants in this way were intermittent, faltering by
the end of the seventeenth century and negligible in the eighteenth (Debien
1952; Gaucher et al., 1959, 1961). This group of migrants points to major
3 New societies
New societies 23
interpretative difficulties, too, which will be addressed here: the thin distinction between ‘free’ and ‘forced’ migration, and the importance of economic
changes in determining the demand for different types of labour. Even if
indentured servants were not captives in war, as during the Jacobite rebellions, or convicted criminals sent in large numbers after the English 1718
Transportation Act, the idea that all chose freely to move to America needs
careful sceptical scrutiny. There were too many allegations of young people
being ‘spirited away’ by force in the late seventeenth century, and attested
examples such as that of Peter Williamson from Aberdeen in the eighteenth,
to be confident that free migration was universal. Yet some servants had
skills to offer. Wareing (2017) has established these were at a premium, in
the sense that the skills were needed in the colonies and allowed negotiation of better terms for both passage across and final employment in the
colonies. Others, less skilled, poorer, or more desperate to leave, were likely
to be at the mercy of the shippers and their captains, with less certainty of
favourable conditions once their contracts had been sold to employers on
Slaves from Africa were the largest category of forced migrants, and were
chosen by gender as well as for their particular skills. The development of
the rice economy of South Carolina after 1700 led to attempts at deliberate
recruitment of slaves from rice-growing areas of West Africa. By contrast,
many ‘free’ settlers joined their co-religionists in the New England colonies
in the seventeenth century, and there was some interchange of people during the English Revolution of the 1640s as Puritans on both sides of the
Atlantic joined in a common cause. Opposition to the religious exclusivity
of places such as Massachusetts also took on an Atlantic dimension, as
networks of Quakers published accounts of their repression in America by
way of protest in England in the 1660s, the outcome of a remarkable growing exchange of print culture (Morgan and Rushton, 2013: 44–48). Forcing migrants was also part of Oliver Cromwell’s policies in Ireland in the
1650s, when people dreaded being ‘Barbadosed’ into servitude. These were
not slaves, however badly they might have been treated, and remained
with the same rights as other indentured servants (Newman, 2013; Handler and Reilly, 2017; see Section 3.3c below). For military migration there
were also contrasts. Whereas the French Ministry of the Marine had its
own armed forces and posted them throughout the French colonies, British colonies tended to rely on local militias for their defence, recruited
from white settlers and their servants, with only the occasional injection of
troops from Britain in times of war. Only colonial governors were sent out
from Britain, with few troops or support staff, before the mid-eighteenth
century wars.
The problem of gender imbalances remained in many French and British
colonies: most migrants, unless they were travelling in family groups (as
happened frequently among emigrants to New England), were single males.
There were steps to counter this: Louis Dumont recorded the arrival of 60
24 New societies
‘girls’ on an East Indies ship, sent by the French government to Dauphin
island off Mobile (now in Alabama, then part of French Louisiana) in the
early 1720s to populate the colonies (Dumont, 2012: 125). By contrast, the
British tended to leave things to the colonial market for labour to attract
different kinds of workers: the result was that a sizeable minority of servants sent from Britain were female. This was true even of transported convicts. Though men could make up 90% of transported convicts from most
rural areas, women at times comprised a third or even a half of the convicts
from cities such as Bristol and Newcastle upon Tyne, particularly from the
lower courts on conviction for petty larceny (Morgan and Rushton, 2004:
48–50). Among slaves, the concentration on the strength of men produced
early gender imbalances, particularly in the Caribbean, and it seems that it
took several generations for a more balanced distribution to develop. The
role of women in the slave economy seems to have been slow to develop as a
result, but in the eighteenth century they had specific roles in the plantation
economies, particularly in weeding gangs. Here they replaced earlier gangs
of servant women who had been used in places such as Barbados in growing
indigo and cotton. The presence of many women slaves and the advantages
of having a self-reproducing slave population, however, did not mitigate
the levels of exploitation in places such as Jamaica, where labour discipline
and punishments remained severe until the end of slavery in the nineteenth
century (Beckles, 1985; Paton, 2017; see Section 3.3b below).
All these types of migrants – soldiers, slaves, free settlers, indentured servants, transported convicts, and state-sponsored women – took part in the
collective enterprise of forming new societies in the Americas, alongside,
and sometimes with, Native Americans. However forced their migration,
their impact on native peoples and the local environment made them actors
rather than just passive witnesses. The official intentions of both metropolitan administrators and local colonial officials came up against many difficulties and challenges that forced new solutions and institutions into being.
The process was not one of wholesale transfer of European social relations
and institutions to the other side of the Atlantic, but one of selective adoption or reproduction, innovative forms of law and legal processes, and new
forms of political management.
3.1b Numbers
Historians have expended great efforts over the years calculating the numbers of migrants, their characters, and destinations. Karen Kupperman
notes that:
Huge numbers of people migrated westward across the Atlantic in the
centuries after 1492. Millions were enslaved and had no choice about
either embarkation or destination. The others were free, but a very high
proportion of the free migrants felt some compulsion in the choices they
New societies 25
made. Many fled economic restrictions at home and signed up for a
period of servitude to pay their way over. Others feared or experienced
interference with their ability to practise their religion and chose emigration in hopes of being able to worship as they saw fit. The Americas
offered opportunity to some, and the fortunate were able to make good
on that promise.
(Kupperman, 2012: 44)
Christopher Tomlins – whose book is significantly called Freedom
Bound – notes ‘the simple ubiquity of movements of population – whether
indigenous, European, or African, whether transoceanic or intraregional,
vast or small, voluntary or coerced – and an accompanying consciousness
of movement’. Secondly, imbalances arose rapidly through the swift growth
of the ‘introduced populations’: during the two centuries up to 1800 the
non-indigenous peoples of the mainland English colonies grew by more than
2.7 million. ‘Though rates of population growth varied across regions and
periods, natural increase quickly outpaced increase attributable to immigration’ (Tomlins, 2010: 67). Settlers were simply more successful than natives,
and free whites more than black slaves. By 1700 there had been more than
390,000 British migrants to the Americas (in addition to 200,000 to Ireland), compared with 45,000 French: this contrast remained throughout
the eighteenth century, too, and the French colonies in North America were
never as populous as the 13 British (Benjamin, 2009: Table 5.3, 259). Death
rates varied, of course, depending on patterns of disease and near-starvation
in the early years, but after 1650 natural increases accounted for the population growth in the British colonies almost more than immigration. In
parallel with this European rise, Native American peoples experienced catastrophic declines in population, displacement from the territories, and loss
of economic security. To the Shawnee of the Ohio valley, white people were
like pigeons: invite in one couple and they would be followed by ‘troops’
who would take the land from the inhabitants (Tomlins, 2010: 67–68; Benjamin: Table 6.2, 321). As the weeks needed by ships to cross the Atlantic shrank, and the frequency of sailings increased, there were both more
opportunities to migrate or to join an increasing number of seafarers and
traders criss-crossing the ocean (Steele, 1986: 50–54). Though slow by modern standards, communication became easier and more routine after 1700,
even safer for those on ordinary voyages. For slaves, there was a different,
more dangerous, journey.
After initial difficulties, therefore, white settler societies flourished, yet
were extraordinarily diverse in character, with people of many different origins. Religious diversity was one feature, particularly in the British colonies,
as different incomers concentrated in different places. Puritans fled to New
England to achieve religious freedom, while Sephardic Jews settled the English and Dutch Caribbean islands, escaping from under the shadow of persecution from the Spanish (Kupperman, 2012: 47–48; Zacek, 2009). British
26 New societies
colonies also attracted French Huguenot and German settlers (mostly Protestants), as well as British and Irish. There were class differences, most notably in the slave colonies where gentry and business families invested in land
while poorer whites were recruited to do the work, soon to be followed
by African slaves. The result is that relatively few were free settlers, with
precise numbers in each of the categories of free, indentured, or enslaved
difficult to establish. Overall, Davies argues, ‘it appears that by the end
of the seventeenth century the king of England had perhaps 350,000 to
400,000 subjects, including slaves, in the New World; and that the king of
France had about 70,000, also including slaves. What proportion had been
born in the New World is anyone’s guess’ (Davies, 1974: 85) The British
had also ‘settled’ about 200,000 in Ireland in the course of the seventeenth
century (Benjamin, 2009: 259). Everywhere, opportunity was seized by
some: as Steele comments, ‘by 1675 those who had migrated to escape the
Old World were succeeded or outnumbered by those who intended to reap
the harvest of the New World’ (Steele, 1980: 3). Servants may have been
the largest category of white migrants, estimated at 350,000 in just under
200 years by Dunn (1984: 159). Philip Morgan suggests that white emigrant
labourers may have totalled even more, perhaps as many as 500,000 out
of a total European migration to the British colonies of 750,000 (Morgan,
1993: 18). It is generally agreed that about 50,000 of these were British
criminals, largely English, who were sentenced to, or pardoned for, transportation in the eighteenth century. The use of pardons provided increasing
numbers who had escaped hanging and been sent to the colonies (Morgan
and Rushton, 2004). The crucial shift from the seventeenth to the eighteenth
centuries was from the Caribbean to the North American colonies, Canny
(1994: 64) suggests: whereas about 190,000 British migrants went to the
West Indies before 1700, thereafter the huge majority of migrants aimed for
further north.
The situation in the French colonies was very different. There were few
instances of waves of migration and the populations of many North American colonies remained small until well into the eighteenth century. DuBois
(2009) summarises the evidence:
Though the French government focused much energy on the colonization of Canada, over the long term, especially when war with England
forced it to make choices, it centered its military and political attention on the Caribbean. The French colonies in North America, in contrast to the British colonies, attracted comparatively small numbers of
settlers. A maximum of 70,000 settlers departed for French Canada,
and another 7,000 to French colonies in Acadia, ÃŽle Royale, and Terre
Neuve. Louisiana, meanwhile, received no more than 7,000 settlers during its time as a French colony, with about 6,000 slaves arriving during
the same period. Many more French settlers, meanwhile, went to the
New societies 27
French Caribbean, though no historian has established a precise figure for this migration. Some have estimated as many as 300,000 over
the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, although that
number is probably too high, and the total may have been as low as
100,000. By far the largest group of arrivals in the French Americas
were African slaves.
(DuBois, 2009: 139)
By contrast with the Caribbean, the French North American territories were underpopulated compared with both their Caribbean and the
northern British colonies. Settlement was intermittent and sparse, and the
rate of natural increase in the settlements seems to have been low. The
evidence for individual places confirms this overall picture: in Canada,
New France’s population grew from about 4,000 in the 1660s to more
than 16,000 by the early 1700s, and more than 37,000 in the 1730s
(Pritchard, 2004: 423). ‘The main point of contrast with New England
is of course in immigration. Only in the late 1660s and early 1670s did
New France receive relatively large numbers of recruits from the mother
country. For the whole period of 150 years of French rule in Canada, the
total of immigrants has been put at no more than 10,000, roughly what
Virginia expected to receive in half a dozen good years’ (Davies, 1974:
78). The whole of North America had fewer than 42,000 white French by
the 1730s, with perhaps another 32,000 in the Caribbean, who controlled
about 160,000 black slaves, though the total number of slaves transported
remains obscure for the seventeenth century (Pritchard, 2004: 424).
Pritchard argues that there were five types of migrants to Canada and the
West: indentured servants (les engagés), soldiers, ‘eligible’ young women
(500 poor white women were sent from the general ‘hospitals’ or prisons
of Paris and Rouen, for example), convicts, and freemen. Of these the
indentured servants were the most important settlers, with perhaps 39%
settling in Canada, nearly all in the seventeenth century. The idea seems
to have been abandoned by the 1670s. Significantly, more than 20% of
the soldiers may have stayed, though up to a quarter died. Between 1683
and 1727 more than 4,500 soldiers were sent to ‘New France’ (Pritchard,
2004: 23–24).
The French, therefore, despite inducements and coercion, never created
a steady stream of white emigrants to the colonies. Unlike the British, they
forbade the settlement of both Protestants and Jews. By the last quarter of
the seventeenth century little had been achieved – ‘settlement had been left
largely in the hands of devout lay Catholics who aimed to erect a colonial
society of Christian perfection in order to aid the conversion of the natives’
(Pritchard, 2004: 73, 78). Perhaps only in Acadia (Nova Scotia) did settlers create a well-founded agricultural society comparable to, say, that of
New England. Gradually parts of New France followed that pattern in the
28 New societies
eighteenth century as farming replaced trading with the natives. In Louisiana, developing slowly after the 1690s,
fewer than 5 percent of the whites were free men. Given that 91.7 per
cent were indentured servants, transported prisoners, women, soldiers,
and children, the remainder are best viewed as some form of coerced
labour. Despite the impressive numbers though, the entire scheme failed.
An estimated 2,000 white immigrants deserted or died of ill treatment
during the crossing or returned to France. At least half of all the white
migrants either died or abandoned the colony before 1726.
(Pritchard, 2004: 26)
Even without the fears of disease and death, the French empire remained
only in part one of emigration and settlement, which left the North American colonies at a disadvantage compared with the growing prosperity and
population of the British. Even when a sizeable population had developed,
their opportunities in their own colonies were restricted. Most colonial officials were appointed from France and were not born in the colonies. These
administrators, moreover, had a great degree of control over local economic
life, licensing trades and occupations and regulating their collective associations (which the English called guilds). Only the church deliberately
created patterns of local recruitment, and by the mid-eighteenth century
more than three quarters of local clergy in French Canada, the curates, were
Canadian-born. This reflected a policy that had also been applied earlier to
native peoples, as the Catholic church to some extent tried to adapt to different communities through conversion and recruitment of local personnel
(Moogk, 2000: 189, 213, 259).
3.2 Native encounters
In the Caribbean as much as in North America, European intruders came in
contact with native peoples. The initial impact was often one of disastrous
epidemics and population loss as natives succumbed to European diseases,
but displacement and war added to the decline. Despite the polite words of
Charles de Rochefort praising the French and British for being more civilised
towards natives than the Spanish, populations declined steadily once land
was needed for European settlement. This did not mean that they became a
negligible force affecting the development of the colonies. On the contrary.
As Pritchard remarks:
The most extraordinary feature of this dismal account of death and
social destruction is that, despite the devastation visited upon the native
peoples of the Americas, the survivors continued to play important
roles in the history of the French colonies: as warriors fiercely resisting
New societies 29
colonial incursions, as partners in trade, as agents of imperial conflict,
and as independent actors pursuing their own tribal policies.
(Pritchard, 2004: 10)
Pritchard notes the collapse of the native population in St. Domingue and
suggests that native communities declined to a few hundred in the Lesser
Antilles by the last quarter of the seventeenth century. Some fled to St. Vincent, where there were about 6,000 in 1683, two thirds of whom were said
to be Black Caribs (that is, a fusion of native and African). At the same time
there were estimated to be 1,500 native ‘bowmen’ in St. Vincent, Dominica,
and St. Lucia of whom 400 were black (Pritchard, 2004: 8–10, quotation
on 10). The ‘Black Caribs’, in part at least native and African, were a force
to be reckoned with after the British took over St. Vincent in 1763 and the
object of two wars, resulting in their eventual expulsion and transportation in the 1790s (see Chapter 5.). The evidence from the British Caribbean
in the seventeenth century is less specific: the small Indian population in
Barbados was probably brought in as slaves from South America or from
other islands, and Jamaica had been emptied of its native population by
the Spanish long before the English took it in 1655 (Davies, 1974: 262).
In the Lesser Antilles, however, fierce conflict was experienced. Caribs, in
contrast to the Arawaks, offered fierce resistance to colonisation, mounting
attacks on the English in Antigua as late as 1640 and forcing the French
into a long war between 1636 and 1639 in Martinique and Guadaloupe.
Their absence from Barbados might have been a key factor in the success
of the initial English settlement. ‘The Caribs are interesting and important
for their relatively long resistance to Europeans and European influences.
This resistance was not total even in the seventeenth century’ (Davies, 1974:
265). Elsewhere the impact of the British paralleled that of other European
nations. ‘For Native Americans, the encounter with Europeans unfolded in
a disastrous context. Beginning with sixteenth-century explorers and traders and intensifying as permanent European settlements developed in their
midst, native peoples throughout coastal North America experienced devastating epidemics of Eurasian diseases’ (Davies, 1974: 219).
Meinig emphasises the wide contrasts between the colonies of different
nations in their strategies towards Native Americans. In many ways these
reflected the different economic interests of the Europeans, particularly
clearly in the case of British and French relationships with native peoples,
both rather different to those of the Spanish and Portuguese predecessors.
In part, relationships with natives varied according to the different patterns
of dependency on each side. New Englanders famously needed native assistance in growing corn (maize – hence Thanksgiving in November), while
natives developed an increasing demand for metal tools, woollen clothing,
and guns. In exchange, beaver pelts and deerskins became a major items
in European demands on Indian traders. The modes of exploration and
30 New societies
settlement established priorities in ways that had profound consequences
for the natives. In addition, colonial outposts varied as to whether the contacts with natives were for commercial reasons such as trade, by association with them, such as the fishing of the Newfoundland Banks, or were
for deliberate settlement and farming, as in the New England colonies.
The development of permanent settlements of large populations produced
dynamic interactions with native societies very different from those of outposts, where trade and barter for rare goods were the key objectives. Despite
the fact that ‘a powerful sense of European superiority was latent in all such
encounters’, there were different relationships established with the natives
(Meinig, 1986: 65–66, 70). Meinig therefore proposes contrasting models
of relationships with natives, depending on imperial intentions and then
the varied systems created by the different empires. To start with, he says,
there were eight ‘recurrent general patterns’, with exploration and ‘gathering’ resources such as fish part of those early expeditions. Once contact with
natives was made there could be barter, on relatively equal terms, or plunder
through ‘military opportunism, seizing whatever might be of value in European markets’. This would naturally lead to a fifth stage of development,
the creation of outposts for the purposes of control and exchange, leading
to a sixth stage of ‘imperial imposition’, the appointment of governors and
formal structures of command. Finally, there was permanent settlement by
outsiders and the creation of ‘imperial’ colonies, with a ‘transfer of full complex of institutions’ (Meinig, 1986: 65–66).
These suggest different structures of power between incoming Europeans
and natives: plunder, implantation, and imperial imposition and inclusion
of territory into an official colony all reflect dominance over native peoples
and denial of their claims to place or economic rights. This might arise
with an accompanying ideology of terra nullius – holding that the land
was empty of any population with a claim to it, and therefore belonged
to no one except the Europeans who seized it. The others indicate concessions to the natives, of equality in exchange or barter, or rights to land
if not offshore resources. Perhaps the dominance of economic interests is
over-emphasised here. There was also the more cultural and racial aspect
of identity, as Sandberg remarks: ‘from the earliest contacts between Native
Americans and Europeans, ethnic identities shaped violence in the Atlantic’.
Within the borderlands, individuals’ identities seem to have been
incredibly flexible and changeable. Studies of ethnicity and violence in
the Atlantic world often oppose ‘colonizers’ to ‘indigenous peoples’,
envisioning a statist imperial programme suppressing resistance by
the colonized. Yet, the importance of nonstate actors in early modern
Atlantic world ethnic violence makes such a focus on states extremely
(Sandberg, 2006)
New societies 31
Above all, ‘where Native American and European colonial communities
lived in close proximity in borderlands, blurred cross-cultural identities and
mixed-ethnic populations emerged’ (Sandberg, 2006: 6, 7, 8). Therefore
relationships were not quite so hostile, involving absolute differences and
uncompromised opposition, as some contemporary narratives imply. Nevertheless, Meinig’s model of native-European relationships has some value.
He suggests that three largely distinct types of social relationship developed.
First, the earliest of all in date, there was stratification, as in Mexico, where
the subordination of suppressed natives in a racial hierarchy of exploitation through the forced labour of natives (the encomienda system) was the
foundation of the new economy. Second, there was articulation, as in French
Canada, where European and native economies coexisted and interacted,
exchanging goods while remaining to some extent distinct from one another.
The relationship was one of practical equality. Finally, there was expulsion –
as in Virginia and Massachusetts, where there was literally no place for
natives in the economy or society (Meinig, 1986: 71–72; G. Morgan, 1984).
Therefore, while the Spanish developed forms of stratified exploitation of
peoples subjected to compulsory labour, at least while the native population was sufficiently numerous, the French in Canada attempted to develop
relatively equal links of exchange between their economy and those of the
natives, with a growing interchange or even merger of personnel in order to
secure mutual trade benefits. The French fur trade in Canada depended on
native suppliers and Europeans needed native skills to participate in the supply. By contrast, in colonies such as Virginia and Massachusetts there was a
consistent policy of expulsion of native peoples after the initial careful negotiation: once sufficient numbers of settlers had been imported, land hunger
dictated aggressive policies towards native territories and peoples. As noted
below, natives had a residual role as forced labour in Massachusetts, a role
allocated to African slaves in Virginia. Despite the different racial attitudes
among the whites, it seems that economic circumstances were more critical
in deciding which strategy was adopted.
Within both the British and French colonies, therefore, there were great
variations in the developing relations with Native Americans. By 1700 Virginia had become set in its policies of ethnic cleansing, yet further south, in
newer colonies, relations with Indians were very different. Rather like the
French in Canada, English settlers in Carolina had extensive trade relations
with Native Americans, depending on the Indian trade for deerskins and, at
the beginning, slaves. ‘In fact, Carolinians founded their colony on Indian
trade for deerskins and Indian slaves. They found no difficulty in finding
allies who provided deerskins and slaves in exchange for metal goods, clothing and guns’ (Benjamin, 2009: 313). At the same time, unlike in the French
Canadian colonies, many whites, and rising numbers of Africans, arrived
there after 1700. Increasing hostility among natives resulted as white farmers and planters sought land up-country, but there were still extensive trade
relations with them during the first half of the eighteenth century. In many
32 New societies
colonies, therefore, self-interest forced colonists into relationships with Indians. The result, suggests Thomas Benjamin, was that ‘the most complex
political and commercial relationships between Europeans and Indian peoples anywhere in the Americas existed in North America in the seventeenth
and eighteenth centuries’ (Benjamin, 2009: 298–299). In every zone of fluid
border and frequent contact, a ‘frontier exchange economy’ developed and
mutual demands for goods led to substantial and profitable trading (see
Grant-Costa and Mancke, 2012, and Usner, 1987).
Trade relations of relative equality and mutual need, however, did not
mean that natives could not be enslaved, nor that they could not in their turn
create slaves from the European intruders. One of the key forms of interaction between native and European societies was the exploitation of enslaved
captives on both sides. Warfare produced captives who, in places such as
Massachusetts, were treated by Europeans as servants or slaves. Native warfare, whether against fellow natives or Europeans and their native allies,
also involved attempts to replace their own losses by capture – an essential
process for powers such as the Iroquois, who experienced serious losses
of fighting men in their wars of expansion. One of the people they preyed
on, the Huron, suffered continual losses, despite French attempts to redeem
Christian Huron from the Iroquois through a kind of ransom market. In a
similar fashion, many British colonists found themselves either becoming, or
dealing in, native slaves. This complex pattern of practices has only recently
been re-emphasised in the histories of British colonies, though it had been
noted and studied in the early twentieth century (Lauber, 1913). In these
relationships some captives could therefore become part of the society of
their captors. Others could be profitably enslaved and traded, or exploited
locally. Following this pattern, Europeans often had native Indian slaves,
and natives often held European captives.
This pattern of native enslavement has been underestimated, according to
Newell (2015), with regard to New England in particular, where the unfree
labour of native servants was common: ‘slavery flourished . . . and Native
Americans formed a significant part of New England’s slave population’. Yet
more attention has been paid to the situation of white servants, and, particularly, white captives among the Indians, than Indians among white settlers. ‘Somehow Indian slavery virtually disappeared from post-World War
I scholarship on New England.’ There were similar patterns of native slaves
being actively sought and exploited by the French in Louisiana, though
there the slaves were in larger groups on small plantations rather than in
the households of family farmers (Newell, 2015: 2–4; Usner, 1992). Yet,
as Newell has established, ‘throughout New England before 1700, Native
Americans represented the dominant form of non-white labour’ (2015: 5).
The brutal wars against natives, such as the Pequot War in 1636 which led
to the enslavement and expulsion of many Indians, and King Philip’s War of
1675–1676, both close to being ‘total wars’, were key events in this process.
After the Pequot War, 15 boys and two women were sent to Providence
New societies 33
Island, off the Nicaraguan coast, where they were described as ‘Cannibal
Negroes’. These wars could be described as the first ‘total’ wars, yet this was
not the aim of either side involved. In terms of strategy, Starkey concludes,
the New Englanders followed a piecemeal approach and accepted the limited
aims of Indian warfare. In effect, though, for some of their enemies in particular, the wars were total, as Indian communities were destroyed or driven
out (Starkey, 1998: 80; Kupperman, 2012: 178). This reflects longstanding
practices of extreme violence in these northern colonies, and generated a
level of hatred among the whites of their native enemies not found elsewhere
(Perrault, 2006). After King Philip’s War, enslavement and indentured servitude were integrated into penalties in the judicial system: ‘colonial courts
increased the sentencing of Indians to terms of servitude and even slavery
as punishment for crime and debt. This new technique of judicial enslavement added many hundreds of additional Indians to an already sizeable –
and reproducing – population of additional Indian slaves and servants in
New England cities, towns and households’ (Newell, 2015: 11). Masters
could also impose conditions where their slaves married free Indian women.
Patience Boston, a Maine Indian woman, recalling the circumstances which
led to her killing her master’s grandson, recorded in 1738 that in one indentured contract ‘I was Married to a Negro Servant; and because his Master
would have it so, I bound my self a Servant with him during his Life Time,
or as long as we both should live’ (Boston, 1738a, unpaginated). This pattern of native enslavement had equivalents in other British colonies where
Europeans either tapped into established native networks of slave trading or
practised the enslavement of captives in war. In South Carolina there were
1,400 Indian slaves in 1708 (500 men, 600 women, the rest children), taken
in the recent wars against the French and the Spanish as well as against Indians themselves, the governor reported, making up a quarter of the total slave
population. Yet this declined soon after as African slaves were imported in
large numbers and came to be the dominant element of the workforce by
the 1720s (Lauber, 1913: 106; Gallay, 2002). After 1700 the presence of
Indian slaves declined, partly because of metropolitan interference. Whereas
during the Pequot War ‘English colonists asserted their right to Indian slaves
under the doctrine of the “just war”, which permitted enslavement of enemies captured in a defensive conflict’, 100 years later the Duke of Bedford
told Governor Shirley of Massachusetts that he regarded Indian captives as
prisoners of war, not slaves or captives. With legislation against trading in
native slaves in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, at least in the northern
colonies, Indian slavery had all but disappeared by the mid-eighteenth century (Newell, 2015: 10, 202; Lauber, 1913: 188–195). Levels of violence
remained high, but the gradual reduction in the native presence in Massachusetts reflects inconsistent policies in the eighteenth century. Contrary to
images of simple removal, expulsion, or extinction, however, a complex and
lengthy process is documented by Jean O’Brien in one part of Massachusetts. The native population suffered continual restrictions, harassment, and
34 New societies
exclusion as a result of the deep mistrust towards them held by the white
settlers. In the end they were squeezed out entirely (O’Brien, 1997).
French practices differed little from those of the British. As Rushforth
comments, ‘between 1660 and 1760, French colonists and their Native
allies enslaved thousands of Indians, keeping them in the towns and villages
of New France or shipping them to the French Caribbean’. A continentwide network of slave raiders and traders developed, he suggests, and both
colonists and Indians alike engaged in the violence that generated slaves
and kept them under French control. In the North, in New France, native
slaves were the major source of unfree labour in the seventeenth century
and beyond, while in Louisiana and the Caribbean there were increasing
numbers of African slaves. This goes against our conventional image of the
French ‘cultural adaptations and creative innovations’ that accompanied
coexistence in New France (discussed above), as proposed by Meinig. For
example, in Louisiana in the first quarter of the eighteenth century it was not
unusual to come across small plantations with only Indian slaves, though
Africans were steadily increasing (Rushforth, 2012: 10–11; Dumont, 2012:
148). Despite sharing many of the same social structures of unfreedom and
exploitation with other European cultures in the Americas, it seems that
racist attitudes of absolute differences of superior and inferior races were
lacking in much of French America (Aubert, 2004).
Our knowledge of the other ‘side’ of this seizure and enslavement process, namely European captivity among the Indians, is detailed and highly
personal. This is partly the product of the explorers’ narratives discussed
in Chapter 2, some of whom endured lengthy periods of confinement,
partly also from the regular reports of the French Jesuits, and also from the
burgeoning pamphlet literature pouring from the printing presses of British America. Concepts of natives’ ‘savagery’, supported by the evidence of
those who had endured captivity among them, for the British settlers and
the French Jesuits alike, provided a consistent worldview of the cultural gulf
between the civilised and the savage. This dichotomy survived to the end
of the nineteenth century. The texts also give us some of the most moving
narratives of suffering and survival. In the north-east, one fear was of cannibalism, a genuine threat to some prisoners among the Iroquois, though
the general impression from the first encounters in the Caribbean was that
natives everywhere were cannibals (Boucher, 1992). This was a danger to
French Jesuits, who celebrated several ‘martyrs’ to this practice while also
living in dread of it. The Jesuits, adopting the Huron as their main allies,
were willing to understand their practice of cannibalism during times of
starvation, according to Kelly Watson, but regarded the practices of their
enemies, the Iroquois, as gratuitous barbarism, a judgement reinforced by
allegations of sadism and sodomy. In part, because Iroquois women were
closely involved in deciding which prisoners to keep and which to kill, the
fear of cannibalism and torture reflected deep anxieties among European
men about their own masculinity. Both Jesuits and Puritan captives, in their
New societies 35
writings, regarded their ability to endure suffering as a reflection of their
strong faith, and in some individual instances they were able to survive
astonishing levels of pain. Nevertheless, these seventeenth-century experiences of native warfare and capture set a pattern for the future, and fear of
torture and painful death haunted white men’s minds in North America for
another two centuries. (Watson, 2015: 129–133, 140–142).
Captivity narratives became something of a genre in the English-speaking
colonies of North America, in parallel with the stories of torture and martyrdom produced by the Jesuits in New France. Because the New England
colonies had their own printing presses by the late 1680s, stories of all
kinds were published for an eager public. A culture of story-telling, memoirs, pamphleteering, and preaching allowed for colonial experiences to
be made public. Many of the features of later captivity narratives were
already established by the early 1700s. One common theme was the fear
of capture and enslavement of white women, which held a fascination for
British colonists and for white Americans in general, until the end of the
1800s. The John Ford 1956 film The Searchers, starring John Wayne and
set in the late nineteenth century, encapsulates some of the oldest legends,
racist fears, and ambiguities. Absorbed into Indian society, women might
be forcibly married and the mothers of native children, and therefore
unable or unwilling to return to be objects of pity or contempt in white
society. Those seized as young children might be so assimilated as to be
indistinguishable from Indians themselves, and incapable of being reintegrated into white society. Captivity narratives printed in English began in
New England as a result of captures in King Philip’s War (1675–1676),
when the fears of captivity were accentuated by the severe loss of lives on
both sides. The very religious tone of Mary White Rowlandson’s account
of her 11 weeks’ captivity, the death of one child, and the loss of others set
the framework for many of the other early narratives from New England,
which emphasised divine providence and personal faith as the key forces
ensuring endurance (Vaughan and Clark, 1981: 29–76). The survival of the
story-teller is related to the goodness of God and their own personal faith
in Him and his goodness. These New England stories are therefore, in a
sense, redemption narratives. Later accounts of their experiences by former
captives were more factual and perhaps less striking, often concentrating
on the details of Native American society and culture, and their personal
treatment. This seems to mark a shift to a more secular worldview, or at
least one that placed less stress on personal salvation and destiny, by the
middle of the eighteenth century. Certainly, the captives’ stories seem to
have become factual, and are almost ethnographic in their detail about
native societies, practices, and attitudes. Pauline Turner Strong notes the
shift between the late seventeenth and the middle of the eighteenth century
as one from ‘providential hermeneutics’ – that is proof of God’s judgement
and forgiveness, as preached by people such as Cotton Mather in Massachusetts, mixed with some secular elements – to a more matter-of-fact style
36 New societies
of ‘proto-ethnographic’ narrative which offered authentic experiences and
details (Strong, 1999: 152).
Many stories published in the eighteenth century, both factual and fictional, made promises of being based on ‘authentic’ experiences, from Daniel Defoe’s novels such as Moll Flanders to the biographies of criminals – and
their confessions on the way to the gallows – published as pamphlets or by
the chaplain of Newgate Gaol in London (now known as The Newgate
Calendar). Many stories included details of events and experiences in the
American colonies, such as the biographies of English criminals sentenced
to transportation there, which described the sufferings of servitude, their
escape, and return to Britain. It was these that influenced Defoe. Thus the
language of ‘authenticity’ was a particularly strong feature of the mass of
personal publications produced in the eighteenth century. For British readers, the account by Peter Williamson, reprinted many times in Britain in the
mid-eighteenth century but only much later in America, was reinforced by
his publicity tours of Britain performing Indian dances and songs. In several
versions of his life he alleged that he had been sold to ‘spiriters’, and ended
up in the colonies as a young indentured servant, where he was apparently
captured by Indians as well as being involved in fighting them. His story
fuelled fears of a different kind of captivity – that of being being kidnapped
and taken to the colonies (Colley, 2002: 188–192).
If there was a degree of predictability in the literary form of these captivity narratives, suggesting that the printers probably had a controlling part in
their production and acted as authors and editors to influence the narrators’
styles of expression, the range of people at their centre became more varied
in the later eighteenth century. Clearly some stories were told by those who
never thought they would be caught in Indian country. This is most obvious
among the small group of captives taken from ships that were wrecked on
the Florida coast. One was unusual in being the memoirs of an AfricanAmerican servant: as Strong remarks, ‘Black captives are relegated to the
background in these narratives, often remaining unnamed. The publication
of A Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings and Surprizing Deliverance
of Briton Hammon, A Negro Man—Servant to General Winslow in 1760
broke this silence and anonymity, at least to a degree’ (Strong, 1999: 184).
Certainly, when African slaves were killed or captured, or even liberated
by European forces, they were rarely named. Another of what might be
called these accidental captivity narratives was the story of New Englander
Jonathan Dickenson, who at the beginning of the eighteenth century published his account of being wrecked in Florida, threatened by Indians, and
rescued by Spanish soldiers. His narrative, deeply religious, was titled God’s
Protecting Providence, Man’s Surest Help and Defence (1700). There were
other Florida episodes and shipwrecks: an English sailor from Workington
in north-west England had a similar experience to that of Briton Hammon
after a shipwreck in Florida. The Surprising Adventures and Sufferings of
John Rhodes, seaman of Workington (New York, 1798) is a very long and
New societies 37
detailed account of capture by Indians and imprisonment by the Spanish.
What makes both of these men remarkable, it should be noted, is that they
belonged to the poorest class of servants and hired men, in effect the proletariat of the Atlantic World who have left few personal records or memoirs.
More large-scale captures, however, occurred in war as part of Native
American strategy. This disproportionately affected some border communities, though, as Calloway points out in his overview of ‘north-country’
captives from New Hampshire and Vermont, the idea of a clear and welldefined border is scarcely applicable in this period (Calloway, 1992). Border territories were porous areas of cautious co-existence of Europeans and
natives, where peaceful relationships of trade and exchange may have been
countered by the exploitation of forest and hunting, or the straying of cattle
into native fields of corn (a particular issue behind King Philip’s protestations). In these circumstances capture might have been intermittent, almost
personal, or systematically directed at whole populations of intrusive Europeans. There were also, particularly as sporadic raiding moved to large-scale
conflict, systematic captures – in 1704 in Deerfield, for example, when a
large raid took dozens. This was the worst of a series of raids over many
years. Deerfield lost at least 125 captives between 1677 and 1712. Two
accounts concerning Deerfield men survive, most famously in a personal
account by John Williams, The Redeemed Captive Returning to Zion, and
in Quentin Stockwell’s story ‘of his captivity and redemption’ as reported by
him to Increase Mather: they were taken from Deerfield in 1677 and 1704.
As Colley points out, many of these captives were sold or transferred to the
French and had to be recovered in either prisoner exchanges during war or
in the post-war bargaining over prisoners (Vaughan and Clark, 1981:79;
Colley, 2002: 153). Smaller-scale captures in marginal places were equally
deliberate but could be even more devastating for a small community. Well
into the eighteenth century there were repeated patterns of threat of capture
as raids and seizures destabilised communities which had thought themselves relatively safe.
Land and captives were, therefore, the key areas of dispute between Europeans and Native Americans throughout the period. Yet there were also
strategies of trade and alliance on both sides that produced collaboration
and shared experiences of war in the conflicts firstly between France and
Britain and, later, between Britain and its colonies. Diplomacy was an essential part of the formal relations between settlers and natives, though the
British were more inconsistent and piecemeal in their strategies. In the mideighteenth century they acquired key mediators with the Indians and perhaps came to trust them as allies. Yet, even when agreements were achieved,
there is much to be said for Calloway’s denunciation of the long history of
white deception and treaty-breaking: very few treaties were observed by
the Europeans, and the British settlers in particular repeatedly broke agreements about territorial limitations to their own settlements. Land hunger
was a recurrent feature as populations grew (Calloway, 2013).
38 New societies
3.3 New societies, new economies
Colonial societies in the Caribbean and North America were highly diverse,
depending on the character of their settlers, the social relations they created among themselves, and the forms of economic production and trade
that developed. Neither Britain nor France could control the social and economic development of their colonies, and the different economies developed
without any central direction. A comparison of the diversity of colonial
societies in British and French North America reveals some similarities in
the kinds of social relations developed, particularly where slavery prevailed,
but also some remarkable contrasts. In no sense did either imperial power
create a single type of colonial society in the Americas. John M. Murrin,
quoted by Philip Morgan, pointed out that ‘the seventeenth century created, within English America alone, not one new civilization on this side of
the Atlantic, but many distinct colonies that differed as dramatically from
one another as any of them from England . . . not one, but many Americas,
and the passage of time threatened to drive them farther apart, not closer
together’ (Morgan, 1993: 2). Another way of characterising this variety is
summed up in the historical survey by Eric Nellis (2010), who calls the British colonies ‘an empire of regions’. A broad view incorporating British and
French colonies reinforces this perception and requires exploration of the
reasons for the colonies’ varied development. As we have seen, the history
of white expansion in North America could be divided into distinct phases,
each exercising greater pressure than before on the native peoples: encounters were followed by colonies, and colonies became empires. The common
process did not produce a convergence of the colonies, whether British or
French, into a North American ‘society’. On the contrary, their origins lay
with a diverse collection of promoters, some of whom retained influence
over the colony for a long time: many concerned with Virginia had been
involved in Ireland, and others were impressed by the trading companies
which had been set up to make profits in Russia and India. Settlers in general had little involvement in the first steps and thus little influence on the
initial direction of the colony, although Puritan interests in Massachusetts
bought up the initial stock company in order to establish their own controlling, and intensely religious, interest. Even in religion, English colonies were
divided, with Virginia implementing Church of England structures while
Maryland was a Catholic colony and New England was divided into rival
forms of Calvinist Protestantism. Each had its own supporting proprietors
and stockholders, who had different levels of control over the direction of
their development.
The hopes of the promoters were reflected in some of the unrealistic advice
they gave to the early settlers. Richard Hakluyt thought that, in conquering
lands which were very hot, the English might replace the Italian and Spanish suppliers of wine and olive oil: he optimistically regarded the natives
as likely labourers in these vineyards. There were repeated exhortations to
New societies 39
Virginia’s settlers to dig for gold or silver or, as second-best, copper. Within a
couple of years of the 1607 settlement the fertility of the land was noted, but
it was still unclear what should be grown. One early governor and planter,
Sir George Yeardley, wrote to London:
For the present state and condicon of this Countrie, it wants only Supportes, round and free supplies, both of men and moneyes, to make
good the mayne and profitable endes of a moste happy plantation.
Concerning the Countrie and the soile thereof, wee finde it fertile and
full of encrease, bringing forth goodly Corne, many kinde of Fruites,
naturall Vines and quickly rendring us our owne Countrie seedes, and
Rootes which wee bury therein, as prosperous and unchangeable for
tast and quantitie as England it selfe. For these Comodities of pitch and
tarr Soape ashases. Wood Iron etc. most true it is Noble Sir, that there
they bee most plentifully to bee returned home, if soe bee it the meanes
and skifull workemen together which fit provisions for those Labourers
(untill the Colour may quitt some of theis Charges, by planting their
owne Vines, sowing their owne Corne, and broodinge their owne Cattaile, Kine, Swine, Goates etc. which would shortly be, and had bin ere
this, had the Government bin carefully and honestly established and
carried here theis 3 yeres passed) may be provided and sent over to
worke in those businesses.
(Records of the Virginia Company Vol. 3, 1933: 30)
Under John Smith, food supply and proper planting in Virginia, following the Indian style of mixing rows of maize between ones of vegetables and
fruit, was regularised, but the adoption of the sweet form of tobacco from
the West Indies provided the key step to a profitable economy. Tobacco, and
the money to be made from its large-scale production, continued to shape
Virginia’s history until the nineteenth century. No such choice was available
to those further north, where both religious inclination and the environment
dictated an economy of mixed farming. Elsewhere in the South, in South
Carolina in particular, the best crop proved to be rice, given the low-lying
and humid land close to the coast. Further inland, conditions were more difficult, but the colony began by supplying timber and tar for the ships of the
Royal Navy; the switch to large-scale plantation production between 1700
and 1730 was driven by the profitability of rice. This shaped the rise of slavery and was the basis of the recruitment of slaves from rice-growing areas
of West Africa. The use of Native American slaves was rapidly surpassed by
the increasing numbers of Africans, who provided the labour force for the
export economy. As Ira Berlin noted, in South Carolina, ‘throughout the
low-country, rice was king’ (Berlin in Morgan, 1993: 88, 89, 90).
At the base of the new societies were new forms of economic production
drawing on a variety of crops and animals from Europe, Africa, and the
Americas themselves. In the early modern Atlantic there were many forms
40 New societies
of biological exchanges and transfers, not least the movement of deadly
diseases such as smallpox from Europe and yellow fever and malaria from
Africa. Diseases invisibly accompanied the people on the move and had a
devastating impact on native peoples in the Caribbean and North America.
More deliberate and experimental were the movements of commodities for
production by Europeans, who also adopted local products of value such as
indigo, tobacco and, above all, maize and potatoes as additions to some of
the standard crops of European agriculture. Products were exchanged and
production on both sides of the ocean was transformed: by the eighteenth
century, crops such as potatoes had become part of the means of survival for
the poor in Europe. There were parallel experiments in transferring the production of European and African crops across the Atlantic – cereals such as
wheat, barley, and oats, and, for the Europeans, relatively new crops such as
cotton, sugar, and rice, along with animals such as cattle, horses, pigs, chickens, and sheep. Finding which environments suited which commodities took
time and sometimes near-disastrous experimentation. Initially Europeans
depended on local knowledge and native advice, as suggested above, before
developing economies that could be profitable in the growing transatlantic
markets. They were often bewildered by native farming techniques and it
often took at least two generations for these to be copied successfully. If the
sponsors and financiers of colonies thought in terms of profitable exports
to Europe, most settlers were more concerned with land and economic survival on what land they could acquire. With many commodities undergoing
uncertain conditions and fluctuating prices, particularly for crops such as
indigo, there were recurrent problems even for the best-organised producers. Even if the colonial relations of production seemed pre-capitalist, as the
reinvention of slavery was – it had died out in the Middle Ages in countries
such as England – the value of many of the products depended on the burgeoning systems of capitalist trading and marketing. In many ways this was
the first stage in economic globalisation, albeit under conditions of imperial
rivalry and colonial control. Fortunes could be made and the customers in
Europe became accustomed to the new consumer goods, even if they understood little of the conditions under which they were produced.
After initial struggles with food, disease, and the natives, the colonies
established a reasonable standard of living; yet, in Virginia in particular,
people would remember the ‘starving time’. By the 1650s the Englishspeaking colonies had attracted large numbers of settlers and were in
many ways economically stable, with Virginia exporting large quantities
of tobacco while the New England colonies became deeply involved in supplying foodstuffs and timber to the Caribbean. Within this complex of possibilities it is not surprising that colonies could develop in contrasting ways,
depending on the commodities which they found viable and profitable, the
kinds of migrants they attracted or imported, and the social relations of
their production. Though both France and Britain had slave and non-slave
economies, and concentrated on sugar and tobacco in the former, there were
New societies 41
great differences between the plantation economies and the rest. This variation was greatest among the British economies of North America, with its
differences between northern and southern colonies. Contrasts between the
image and reality of the British colonies are pervasive: the image of New
England is one of free settlers seeking freedom of worship, compared with
the repressive character of early Virginia, peopled by fortune hunters, the
sweepings of jails and bridewells, and forced migrants from Britain and,
after a short time, Africa. They were united in a need for land, and expansion into native territories began from the beginning; but in terms of social
and class relations the resulting societies, with one a society aiming at being
one of ‘saints’, were a contrast between what Daniel Boorstin has called the
New Englanders’ ‘city upon a hill’ and Virginia’s rule by ‘English gentlemen,
American style’ (Boorstin, 1958). The key institution in New England was
the town, a legal and constitutional entity rather than a large urban settlement. It was through towns that land was allocated, law administered, and
taxes raised. Later the welfare system that in some ways reproduced the
English Poor Law of 1601 was managed through towns and townships.
There was little like this in the southern colonies, Virginia and the Carolinas, where urban centres were a coastal feature while the key units in rural
areas were the county and the parish. The novelty of the New England town
has been stressed by historians: Powell (1963: xviii) pointed to the way that,
from the first (to quote Edward Winslow of the Plymouth colony), New
Englanders claimed that ‘we came here to avoid the hierarchy, the holy days,
the Book of Common Prayer, etc.’, meaning the structures of deference and
rituals of the Church of England. Yet they also claimed a level of equality
before their God and in their dealings with one another that British colonial
governors, for one, found at times impossible to tolerate. Given the many
hierarchies of England – economic, legal, civic, and in terms of religious
exclusion – the nature of the Puritan society in America was bound to be
different in significant ways. Some political developments occurred outside
the formal character of the charters, such as the town meetings of Massachusetts and New England, an extension of Congregationalist principles of
self-government to the secular sphere. ‘The distinguishing characteristic of
the first New England towns was the primary assembly of adult males as
the ruling body. The assembly in the beginning in several towns was held
weekly but soon gave way to a monthly meeting.’ While all adult males were
allowed to attend and speak, only freemen could vote and being admitted
to the freemanship was a slow and grudging affair – most were shareholders
in the Massachusetts Bay Company (Zimmerman, 1999: 19, 20–22). New
England created new inequalities between servants and employers, freemen
and others, but the population had a sense of being a breakaway society.
The gradual disintegration of the original egalitarian Puritan communities in New England can be seen in the classic study of Dedham, Massachusetts, by Kenneth Lockridge (1970), which was in his view unmistakably
an ‘American society’ in its original Puritan ideals. Yet as time went on
42 New societies
it also suffered growing internal inequalities accompanied by differences
between political factions that undermined that original sense of equality. It
was characterised by unusually favourably economic conditions, longevity,
and good health, as well as organisation. He notes, though, that the era of
‘communal utopianism’ came to an end as social diversity, growing inequalities, the changing character of New England, and the general broadening of
horizons altered the community. This process was also partly because of the
internal problems of maintaining communal coherence which had already
developed by the middle of the seventeenth century, reinforced by legal disputes with local Christian Indians over land. Equality at the practical level of
the economy simply proved impossible. This study was an idealistic view of
an early Puritan community and regarded as over-simplistic at the time of its
publication. Massachusetts was wracked by many problems, some of them
fiercely religious and of its own making. There were always inequalities of
wealth and power, partly in terms of education and religious training, which
meant that Puritan ideals of equality could be sustained theologically – all
were equal before the throne of God – but were unworkable as the economy
developed. The levels of inequality in the growing towns such as Boston,
and between the coastal settlements and those further inland, were a feature
of New England society by 1700.
British colonies in the South might over-simply be described as plantation
or slave societies (see below). There were great differences between large
and small farmers, and the numbers of acres and slaves they owned, and it
is clear that politics in colonies such as Virginia was mostly dominated by
a few very rich families. The differences between the British northern and
southern colonies, however, can be exaggerated. Both had slaves, for example, and employed and dealt in slaves. As Adams and Pleck put it (2010:
5), ‘most New England masters owned only one or two slaves who lived in
spaces such as the attics of their master’s home. In 1700 the black population
of New England numbered about a thousand, roughly half of whom lived
in Massachusetts’. Most lived in towns, working alongside white servants
(p. 5). There were few plantations in the rural areas of the North, unlike in
the South where large numbers of slaves were employed in producing cash
crops for export. The absence of towns (except for the ports on the coast) in
the South marked a very different form of society. Respectable white people
gathered for crucial rituals in the management of the colony, such as the
monthly meetings of the county courts, which met at courthouses as often
there were few other buildings (apart from taverns) nearby. Some communal
entertainments such as race days or the theatre in Williamsburg (Virginia) –
which George Washington personally appreciated – also provided a forum
for meeting and socialising. This was more of a gentry society than that
found in New England, and the elite made use of any opportunity for gathering and socialising. Yet society in the slave colonies was also distinctive
in that the subordinated groups, servants and slaves, made many efforts to
escape and the result was a surveillance society that was constantly alert to
New societies 43
the threat of wandering escapees and accustomed to stopping and interrogating suspect parties of travellers. A key mechanism for masters of slaves
and servants was advertising runaways in the colonial newspapers, whose
role in policing the society became increasingly important after their establishment in the 1720s and 1730s. These advertisements have provided historians with many accounts of the character and appearances of the ‘silenced’
groups in southern society; the individuality, defiant attitudes, and forms
of personal resistance of the runaways emerge in some of the details. Their
styles, adopting distinctive forms of dress or personal decoration despite
their poverty, suggest that in the face of oppressive economic circumstances
there was an underlying need to express their own identities. The challenge
represented by runaway servants and slaves was different: slaves were taking their masters’ property, literally ‘stealing themselves’, when they ran
away (‘Steal away, steal away to Jesus,’ the nineteenth-century spiritual
went), while servants were in breach of contracts and were often punished
with extensions to the length of their service to compensate their masters for
the financial losses incurred. Both could be whipped – servants by order of
the courts as well as by their masters – but the punitive mutilation or even
killing of slaves by their owners were not crimes. For both, running away
was a form of resistance. Servants had a measure of protection from abuse
through their resort to the courts, which had the duty to enforce and supervise their contracts, but slaves had no such support. Though there were
some parallels with the kinds of anxiety that mobility and running away
provoked in Britain, this society was far more like an open prison for many
of its inhabitants compared with the mother country (see Chapter 5 for running away as resistance).
Few of these characteristics were shared by the French colonies. The
authorities had a clear idea of urban life and tried to export their model
when towns were founded. New Orleans, among others, was laid out on a
distinctively French urban design when founded in 1718, complete with a
grid layout of streets and, where diagonals met, a circular roundabout. This,
ironically, influenced the layout of crossroads and intersections in the first
planned city following US independence – Washington, D.C. Njoh (2016:
25) remarks that ‘efforts to export French urban culture to North America
were deliberate and elaborate’. French rural outposts followed more military designs with defensive bulwarks, though these were also found around
towns such as New Orleans and Quebec. French colonial societies were,
though, like those of the British, varied, and this reflected their economic
bases. Settler farmers were found in the North, particularly in the Acadian
area of Nova Scotia, where artful management of irrigation and drainage
produced prosperous family farms. Quebec, by contrast, was a place of small
towns which had built up close relationships with the natives to exploit the
fur trade, and, increasingly, small scattered farms. Only towards the mideighteenth century did farming develop. Further south, in Louisiana, a plantation economy was established despite great difficulties in relations with
44 New societies
local native groups. As for its major town, New Orleans, its latest historian,
Dawdy (2008: 234) remarks that ‘the “founders” of Louisiana came from a
culture of military privateers and coureurs de bois [literally ‘hunters in the
woods’; i.e., vagabonds] whose livelihoods depended on the violation of
imperial law’: they skimmed profits from the Indian trade, used royal ships
for their own purposes, and, unsurprisingly, she calls it ‘rogue colonialism’.
Unlike British colonies, French settlers do not seem to have developed a print
culture of their own, so the kinds of locally produced memoirs, pamphlets
and, above all, newspapers, so common for Anglo-America, are missing,
along with the insights they might have given to ordinary social relations.
The degree of variety of these colonial societies was to some extent limited by the central controls exercised in the two empires. It would be only
a slight exaggeration to say that the French empire tended to impose legal
uniformity on its colonies: the laws of slavery, for example, the Code Noire,
were the same everywhere. Ironically, in the early 1700s Louis XIV declared
slavery to be illegal in France itself, 70 years before the same decision was
made in England. By contrast, the laws governing servants and slaves in the
British colonies had to be invented in each one because there were no clear
laws of slavery in England (see below). There was considerable mutual influence, and creative copying, but the laws had to be passed in each place. With
regard to more general laws, of crime for example, it was usually assumed
the common laws of England prevailed in the colonies. This was sometimes
stated explicitly in the founding charter of a colony, and the involvement of
governments in their charters made a difference as to whether there was a
transfer of the ‘full complex of institutions’ complete with a governor and
other formal structures (Meinig, 1986: 66). Throughout the British colonies
some form of legislature, assembly, or council, usually highly unrepresentative initially, was formed to enact new laws and regulations for the new
society. Unlike in the French colonies, therefore, the governors of British
colonies always had to deal with local law-making and the need to persuade
local representatives of different kinds to implement both British trade regulations and policies. The potential for conflict was there from the beginning.
Debates were often genuine: for example, to what extent did English laws
passed after the foundation of a colony apply there? Were they automatically extended to the colonies? This was occasionally a highly important
political matter, as in the case of the 1679 habeas corpus law giving guarantees against arbitrary imprisonment. Many assumed that the law enshrined
much more ancient common-law liberties and therefore did not need to be
copied or inserted into colonial statutes, while others took steps to do just
that explicitly. The ‘rights of Englishmen’ were assumed and continually
evoked in the colonies, even if the legislation underpinning them was vague
and uncertain.
There were policy continuities in the British colonies, all of which had
some semblance of a Poor Law to deal with the problems of poverty and
other forms of distress. Yet even here there were differences in both the
New societies 45
methods of financing and the units of administration of the system, which
varied from one colony to another. The basic principle of local responsibility was retained, so the legal framework was exported almost intact to the
colonies which adopted a ‘close copy’ of the English system: for example,
‘individual relief, local control and a “parish of settlement” requirement’
were all put into force in Virginia by the late seventeenth century (Hitchcock, 2016: 10–11). This was not universal, as the role of the Church of
England parish was unusually prominent in Virginia and South Carolina.
Colonial administration of the poor laws was left to the smallest unit of
government. In New England, the town was responsible for executing
the statute. The Town Meeting made the decisions, which were carried
out by the selectmen, tithingmen, or overseers of the poor, civil officials.
In the southern colonies where, as in England, the Anglican church was
established, the parish was the administrative unit. There, the board of
vestry, a group of men, usually twelve in number, chosen by the freeholders to oversee the religious affairs of the parish, was also charged
with the responsibility of caring for the poor.
(Trattner, 1999: 18)
As in England, aid for local people, particularly to neighbours known
to the authorities, was often generous, but there was a great reluctance to
help strangers. It did not take long to become ‘local’ (usually three or six
months’ residence, far shorter than in England), but seaport towns and
other communities were grudging towards those who arrived poor and who
seemed to expect instant assistance. Through these provisions in the British colonies, communities accepted their responsibilities for, and obligations
to, their unfortunate members. In the late eighteenth century several even
experimented with urban institutions such as a poorhouse (Philadelphia and
Charleston) or a mental hospital (Williamsburg). In effect they were also
accepting the inevitability of poverty and other misfortunes striking their
fellow Americans (Lockley, 2005; Mackey, 1965). This is only one example
of the apparent similarity between the home country and the colonies, but
it demonstrates the way that different conditions in North America affected
the implementation of what may seem a standard English institution. There
were many other areas of difference and innovation, not least the law of
land and property, which was much simpler and more easily administered
than in England. The convergence or divergence of the colonies from the
home country’s legal and political culture became more than just a theoretical issue in the eighteenth century, and some historians such as Jack P.
Greene have suggested that after 1700 there was a process of convergence
among the colonies in British North America, with the formation of a distinctively American collective culture and political setting. This common
ground overrode any social and religious differences between the colonies.
46 New societies
A key factor may have been the social character that marked the free white
Certainly in the 1760s and 1770s, as earlier, the most impressive aspect
of the free population of Britain’s American colonies was the extraordinarily large number of families of independent middling status, which
was proportionately substantially more numerous than in any other
contemporary Western society.
(Greene, 1993: 37)
This group was far more independent-minded and, in economic and political terms, more active in its own interests. And those in it knew their own
3.3a Slave societies
The idea of a slave society is not as simple as it might appear. Even if the
economic base of exploitation is understood, it is still difficult to grasp how
such a system survived the potential for violent conflict. Yet slave societies had persisted for centuries and, while the European colonial form of
slavery differed significantly from both classical European and traditional
African models, it was in essence the same structure of oppression as its
predecessors. ‘Slavery took many forms in the early modern Americas, and
this variety persisted in both indigenous and colonial settings long after the
African slave trade overshadowed other slaving cultures’ (Rushforth, 2012:
8). The scale of forcible migration and the intensity of the work regime in
producing some of the cash crops were unprecedented. For both Britain and
France, therefore, slave relations were new and required considerable innovation, both legally and economically. One area that needed foundation was
law – as noted above, the slave laws in the colonies had to be created and
enforced, and for the British colonies the crimes and punishments created by
slave laws drew on some ancient British traditions and some Europe-wide
styles of punishment. The principle of destroying the bodies of rebels and
those who committed treason, wives who killed their husbands (by burning), and servants who killed their masters (hanging, frequently followed by
the corpse being hung in chains or ‘gibbeted’) was part of English law at the
time, but some of the punishments inflicted on rebellious slaves were even
more savage. This became widely publicised in the rebellions in Antigua in
1736 and the New York ‘conspiracy’ of 1741 (though a particular focus
of alarm in the latter was the participation of disaffected poor whites (see
Chapter 5). Whites were hanged but slaves could be burnt alive; in Antigua,
slaves endured the continental European punishment of breaking on the
wheel. Even lesser punishments were distinctive: slaves convicted of serious
crimes against their masters could be transported out of the colony, as some
of the New York rebels were. This became more common in slave laws after
New societies 47
the American Revolution. For no other category of offender was transportation inflicted in the British colonies.
The colonial laws validating and enforcing slavery often contradicted
the freedom offered in the imperial centres of Europe. In the eighteenth
century both France and Britain declared that, legally, there could be no
slaves in those countries. Brett Rushforth notes that in 1704, when the slave
‘Louis’ demanded his freedom on setting foot in France despite the opposition of Michel Bégon, the author of the Code Noire, Louis XIV declared
that slavery had been abolished years previously. So, while ‘Louis’ was free
in France, the slave traders were free to go on buying African slaves, and
the slave holders in the Americas were free to go on exploiting them. ‘Legal
pluralism, rather than legal uniformity, defined slavery in the French Atlantic world’ (Rushforth, 2012: 77, 133). Seventy years later, in 1772, the case
of James Somerset came before Lord Chief Justice Mansfield in London,
the question being not whether slavery was legal in England but whether
someone could be taken out of England into slavery. Somerset had been
brought to London by his master, and when plans were made to leave for
the colonies he sought legal help from the abolitionist movement to challenge his master’s right to take him back. There were ancient laws from the
eleventh century forbidding the export and selling of people into slavery,
and this was one factor that led to the plaintiff winning his freedom. From
then on it was said that once slaves set foot in England they were, in practice, free. This did not, however, alter their status in the colonies, where they
could still be subject to extreme repression and violence (Ogborn, 2008:
265, 279; Gould, 2003). The growing idea that slaves should have rights in
law affected practices towards the end of the eighteenth century.
The British Parliament was forced by political opposition to both the
slave trade and slavery itself to introduce some safeguards for slaves: they
could no longer be regarded as property and killed by their masters. This
was partially established in a crucial case in Grenada in the 1770s, which
came to the notice of the London authorities when they sent a questionnaire
in 1788 to all their slave colonies requesting information on the economic
and legal standing of slaves. In a prosecution of a white man for murdering
a slave, the prosecutor quoted Edward Coke on the definition of murder as
the slaying of a sentient being, and, moreover, used him to argue that since
the thirteenth century (in Magna Carta, no less) a feudal subordinate – a
‘villein’ – had legal rights of address against crimes such as assault and murder committed by his feudal lord. If slaves were like feudal serfs, went the
argument, they shared these rights. In at least one case in Grenada in 1775
these arguments were decisive in securing the conviction and execution of
a man who killed a female slave (see Document 3.3). It was the rights of
‘villeins’ that had run through the discussions in Somerset’s case. In the British colonies of the Leeward Isles in 1798 there were major reforms, known
as the ‘Amelioration Acts’, encouraging marriage among slaves, protecting
female slaves from violence during pregnancy, and even making killing a
48 New societies
slave murder, though prosecutions of masters were hesitant and at times
unsuccessful. In this way the slave-owning class attempted to forestall the
criticism of the anti-slave-trade campaigners and the abolitionists who were
successfully portraying an image of cruelty as being the central characteristic of slavery. In many ways the legal confusions of the new French Republic, which officially abolished slavery in 1794 and then allowed its return,
was matched by the profusion of laws in the British colonies. In this period,
at the end of the eighteenth century, both empires found themselves confronting challenges to the established inequalities of rights between classes,
races, and even genders.
Slavery depended on the reduction of individuals to mere property, and
it has been one of historians’ aims to try to reconstruct the lives and experiences of individuals within the mass of the exploited. This is not easy for
the earliest period, the seventeenth century, in particular. Whereas there are
some memoirs of indentured servants, the printed lives of slaves only emerge
(in English, notably) at the end of the eighteenth century. Most of what we
know about slaves’ appearance, attitudes, and actions is given to us by their
owners, when they ran away or are recorded as otherwise troublesome in
diaries and journals. Slaves rarely speak to us directly. Resistance is visible in
many small personal actions of disobedience, non-compliance, and escape.
Yet it is also true that full-scale slave revolts were rare, with the exception
of Haiti in the 1790s (see Chapter 5). Most slave societies worked within
a structure fraught with conflict and a potential for extreme violence – but
they worked, for the most part. In some circumstances, remarkably few
white people dominated a large African population. At Golden Grove plantation in Jamaica, in 1765, there were only five white men – a senior overseer and four assistants who also acted as accountants – in charge of more
than 371 slaves, of whom 190 were male. ‘More than 80 per cent were
adult men and women, suggesting that a large proportion had been brought
to Jamaica in the Atlantic slave trade.’ That year there was a near-revolt by
the slaves, with one overseer from the estate attacked, shot dead, and then
beheaded by what were described as ‘new negroes’, that is, new arrivals
from Africa. While there were numbers of children on this plantation, they
were not at this time sufficient to replace the older workers as they became
‘wore out’, and newly shipped slaves were continually needed to replenish
the workforce. In this, Golden Grove was typical of a great many Jamaican
plantations (Higman, 2005: 172, 197, 201).
Comparison with plantations in British North America offers a glimpse
into two very different economic and demographic regimes. Both were settler
societies in terms of the white experience, and yet also slave societies. Dunn
(2014) took a plantation in western Jamaica, Mesopotamia, and one from
the Virginian tidewater, Mount Airy, and undertook a careful analysis of the
slaves, their forms of work and treatment, and their opportunities for family
life in the two places. The most striking difference lay in the life expectancies
of the two slave groups: in Jamaica the plantation was frequently having to
New societies 49
import new slaves to replace those who had died, while in Virginia the estate
in the latter half of the eighteenth century exported a surplus to be marketed
to other plantations. The regime of discipline seems to have been different,
too, with greater severity – perhaps reflecting fear of revolt – in Jamaica
compared with Virginia. Another crucial difference seems to have been that
the Jamaican owners were rarely present at this plantation after 1750, many
living in England, while the Virginian planters treated their estates as their
homes. This was the key distinction – the Virginian landowners were Virginian, in ways that, for most of the period before 1800, the Jamaican planters
were not Jamaican. Yet both elite racial groups wanted to be seen as essentially embodying British values, to be judged accordingly, and, in the American case, demanded what were regarded as the traditional legal and political
liberties of British subjects. Zacek (2010) confirms that this was already the
ideal of the Leeward Islands’ planters by 1700, and their political system, of
assemblies and legislation, resembled that of Britain’s two houses of Parliament. In the face of conflict with their colonial governors sent from London,
both they and their North American equivalents became more strident in
demanding their rights.
The lives of ordinary slaves are only recorded in fragments, usually when
they caused trouble for their owners by running away or being intransigent
in other ways. The physical realities of slavery emerge from an increasing
combination of archaeology and history. The small buildings that comprised
slave houses, grouped near the big house of the owner, are often found in
both contemporary paintings and in the archaeological record. This can
be seen in those few plantations open to the public today. Carter Grove in
Virginia is one example (with the tourists in mind as well as educational
purposes). The sizes of the slave houses seem to have been variable, with the
smallest little more than three metres by two and the largest three or four
times that size. It is likely that dimensions varied according to the family
size in Virginia and other northern colonies, and, as Philip Morgan points
out, some were for families and others for single people rooming together.
Whatever the variety of inhabitants, these were not barracks: the planters
accepted that the accommodation should afford slaves a degree of privacy
(Morgan, 1999: 111–112). A number of excavations have reflected on the
stories indicated by both the built and working environment and the burial
practices of slave societies. Slave graveyards have been a particular focus of
archaeological ambition, though very few have been identified and excavated. The largest number of slave interments so far identified was excavated on Barbados by Jerome Handler and his colleagues at the Newtown
plantation. The excellent state of the plantation’s written records provided
an unusually detailed framework for the excavation. Most of the evidence
consisted of the way bodies had been interred, the range of people buried,
and the evidence displayed on the bones and teeth. Cultural information can
be inferred from the forms of the burials and the condition of the bodies.
A few of the Barbados skulls displayed teeth which had been filed in what
50 New societies
seemed to the excavators to be a West African style, and a prone burial (face
down) was also considered to be a possible survival of African practices.
Most characteristics of the layout of the body, an east-west orientation for
example, were typical of all eighteenth- and nineteenth-century interments.
Thus, of the 104 remains discovered by Handler and his colleagues, there
was evidence of what might loosely be described as ‘survivals’ of African
practice and of the adoption of new practices influenced by both European
and New World experiences (Handler and Corricini, 1983; Handler, 1995,
Some caution should be taken when seeing these practices as simply African or European: as Jamieson has commented (1995: 40, col. 2), ‘neither a
search for “survivals” nor an anthropological emphasis on “phenomenology” seems suited to the study of African-American mortuary practices’. In
other words, we cannot simply assume that features found in the ground
can be interpreted as transfers from Africa, nor can we make simple guesses
concerning their meaning for those who took part in the burial rituals. With
that in mind, the use of mounds to mark burials, and practices such as leaving gifts and objects on the grave subsequently, do suggest a determination
by slaves to mark someone’s passing and their continuing value to their
community in ways that seem similar to African practices (Jamieson 1995:
48). The scattering of shells on Gullah graves (on the islands off South Carolina, largely from the nineteenth century) also suggests some continuity.
Moreover, slave narratives indicate, as Jamieson suggests, that ‘funerals may
have been one of the few times that antebellum communities could assume
control of the symbolism around them, and thus create the dignity at death
that negates the “social death” of their slave status’ (1995: 55, col. 1). The
concept of ‘social death’, by which slaves were non-persons in law and society, was introduced most powerfully by Orlando Patterson (1982): though
almost a non-person in life, it is a paradox of slavery that through death
and burial the individual may finally have achieved the standing of personhood. Farnsworth (2000) argues that archaeologists have failed to explore
evidence of brutality and violence towards slaves: in a small number of
instances, Jamaican graves contained heavy weights attached to slave bodies, suggesting they were buried with the instruments of punishment (being
chained to a weight was one of a range of penalties for trying to run away).
Other bodies suggest that hunger and near starvation were common experiences, as teeth in particular show evidence of ‘growth arrest lines’ where
normal growth had been halted temporarily by poor diet (Watters, 1994;
Corrucini et al., 1982; Handler and Corrucini, 1983). In some islands, such
as Montserrat, widespread deaths of slaves from starvation were reported
in the late eighteenth century as the food supply was reduced by exceptional
climatic conditions (Watters, 1994).
The health of slaves, as Dunn’s work indicates, differed in the Caribbean
and North America, with the latter showing increasing self-sufficiency of
supply as plantations encouraged and maintained large numbers of slave
New societies 51
children. The West Indian regimes were more deadly, not just because of the
prevalence of diseases but because of the forms of work and exploitation.
The health of women was the key to the difference in African population
growth, and there is evidence that Caribbean women were worked harder
during pregnancy, and their children less valued, than in the North. Paton
(2017) suggests that, even though from the 1780s the Jamaican authorities
became keener to encourage slave fertility, providing a bounty for babies
born and in a number of colonies passing laws forbidding the flogging of
pregnant women, the measures had little effect on the poor rate of reproduction of the slave population. The owners still depended on the slave trade.
Work remained hard and the pressure to undertake heavy labour whatever
the slave’s condition undermined all official efforts to encourage a rising
population of slaves through natural reproduction rather than importation
of new individuals. Interestingly, one white indentured servant, William
Moraley, commented on the Virginian planters’ practice of encouraging
marriage and family life among their slaves, regarding it as being to their
financial advantage (see Document 3.1). This is to some extent confirmed
by historians, though, as Kenneth Morgan points out, there were some differences between Virginia and the other slave colonies in the Carolinas and
Georgia (Morgan, 2007: 84–95). Certainly, family life among slaves in the
Caribbean was more difficult to achieve as so many factors undermined its
stability (Moore et al., 2001). In other respects, things were improving for
slaves in the British Caribbean at the end of the eighteenth century, as several colonies passed laws for the ‘amelioration’ of slave conditions, clearly
with an eye to the mounting criticism and widespread campaigning for the
abolition of both the slave trade and slavery itself. Masters’ powers were
gradually restricted as laws against cruelty – and, above all, the right to kill
your own slaves – were passed. It was a small beginning on the way to abolition of the slave trade (1807) and slavery (1833).
3.3b Servants and convicts
As mentioned earlier, the deployment of servant labour was one of the characteristics of British colonies. Yet the use of indentured servants – that is,
workers bound for a set number of years to work for an employer, often by
way of compensation for the cost of their travel to the New World – was
one of the features of both the British and French colonies. They should
properly be distinguished from their fellow unfree workers, African slaves,
despite the recent use by some historians of ‘white slavery’ to describe their
condition. In many ways this idea follows the popular eighteenth-century
usage of ‘slavery’ to describe servants’ conditions (see Document 3.2, Father
Mosley’s account). This modern adoption of the term, though, is criticised
from both the historical and political viewpoint by Handler and Reilly
(2017). They argue that ‘white slavery’ is a misreading of the history of the
main features of servitude in the colonies, however convenient it may be
52 New societies
for those trying to establish that Europeans suffered comparable abuse to
that directed at slaves. Nevertheless, the mixture of voluntary and forced
migrants who made up the population of indentured servants endured a
structure of exploitation and, at times, brutal discipline, but it was not
lifelong or hereditary. The colonial system of servanthood bore superficial
resemblance to that set up in England in 1563 by the Statute of Artificers.
The indenture signed at the start specified a term of service, the mutual
obligations of master and servant, and the rights of the servant on completion of the term of service. In England and Wales the usual term of service
in agriculture was a year (or a day less, to prevent the servants establishing
rights of settlement and poor relief in the parish). Customary rules specified
the maintenance, wages, and clothing to be given to the servant, according to age, gender, and level of skill. Above all, the conduct of both parties was subject to legal scrutiny through local magistrates. Studies suggest
that servants in a largely rural economy, serving in a framework of annual
contracts, could generally rely on magistrates to safeguard their interests.
Examples of abuse were usually penalised and the servant released from the
contract. With the exception of the young, physical punishment by masters
and employers became increasingly illegitimate. This was not a perfect or
tension-free system, but large parts of the agricultural economy depended
on it until the nineteenth century. The annual contracts of English servants,
supervised very carefully by local magistrates and without the employers’
rights of corporal punishment, abandonment, or neglect, were very different
from the forms of indentured service in the colonies, even if they contained
some of the same elements, such as redress through the law.
Adaptation of English structural relationships therefore involved their
transformation. British colonies departed substantially from the 1563
model, varying both the legal length and the practical realities of this form
of labour. From the beginning, in the first half of the seventeenth century,
colonial conditions were much harsher. The laws were very different: all
colonies, beginning in the first half of the seventeenth century, passed laws
regulating servants which specified severe penalties for disobedient behaviour or trying to escape. By 1700 all had followed the examples of the pioneers such as Barbados and Virginia, with the latter in 1661 developing
complex rules and regulations as well as severe punishments. The penalties
involved both corporal punishment and extension of the length of service
(Hay and Craven, 2004, have the most comprehensive survey of the statute laws). Female servants who became pregnant might have their service
extended and their child also bound to labour. There was no standard practice with regard to the length of service, which varied in time and place,
for nearly 300 years: reasons for this diversity were partly due to the quality of the worker, their age, gender, and level of skill. Whereas the English
law carefully distinguished apprentices from servants, day labourers from
annual contracts in agriculture, and domestic from other types of servant,
the colonial legislation tended to lump them together under a single law.
New societies 53
The kinds of work and the local economy varied between colonies. Another
reason for diversity was political, as the rebels of Ireland and Britain in the
Civil War, and those from Monmouth’s rebellion in 1685, were sentenced to
ten years’ servitude. There were waves of political exiles after every defeated
rebellion: it solved the problem of what to do with those who surrendered.
As Davies comments:
the list is a long one; scarcely a civil commotion took place in the British
Isles between 1650 and 1700 that did not deposit some human sediment
on the other side of the Atlantic. It is not a record to be proud of. But
there is no reason to think that these reluctant emigrants necessarily
made bad colonists; on the contrary, those who survived and stayed in
America were probably as good as orthodox indentured servants, if not
(Davies, 1974: 92)
British criminals, increasingly sent in the seventeenth century to the Chesapeake colonies of Maryland and Virginia as an alternative to the death penalty, and in the eighteenth as a routine punishment for petty thefts, mostly
served seven years. The usual sentences in British courts were seven years
for minor theft and, for those reprieved from the death sentence, 14 years or
life, but in the northern colonies there are no records of any indenture for
more than seven years for convicts. This was the case even if the sentence of
reprieve had specified 14 years or life (Morgan and Rushton, 2004). Elsewhere, Handler and Reilly (2017) argue the norm was three to five years in
places such as pre-1660 Barbados. For voluntary servants, Virginia had four
years as standard, in contrast to the seven for convict servants.
The treatment of servants was much harsher than in England, where (with
the exception of adolescents) servants could not be flogged by their employers. Yet such punishments, often, but not necessarily, with the approval of
magistrates, were common in the colonies. Working there was more like
being on a naval ship than an English farm. Edmund Morgan argues that:
in Virginia a master had little reason to treat his servant well in order
to obtain a renewal of his services at the expiration of his term; and a
servant had little reason to work hard in order to assure being rehired,
because men would not bind themselves out for a second long term
when they could make more by working for themselves.
(Morgan, 1975: 92)
This may not be the whole picture: in many parts of the mid-Atlantic colonies there were few opportunities for independent landowning, or working as free labourers, so many servants fled to cities such as Philadelphia.
The status of servant was different from that of slave, as William Moraley
acknowledged from his own experience (see Document 3.1), but they could
54 New societies
be sold – or, rather, their contract could – to another employer without their
permission and even left as a legacy on the employer’s death. They were to
some extent a commodity with a price. Though some servants were able to
complain to magistrates about abuse, and obtain some degree of redress,
the odds were stacked against them. Their work was on isolated plantations and farms in colonies such as Virginia, and there was no freedom of
movement for them to go to court. Moraley was sure that few of them won
their cases. Servants were kept under strict control and, despite their various
forms of defiance and resistance (see Chapter 5), they could not threaten
the system. Importantly, ‘no servant rebellion in Virginia ever got off the
ground’ (Morgan, 1975: 217) – not even in Barbados. Newman regards the
servant system as ensuring ‘total control’ over all the servants’ time: this,
he argues, was – particularly in the seventeenth century – a loss of freedom
worse than that suffered by African slaves.
It was white men and women from the British Isles who first experienced such a dramatic reduction of personal freedom, not African
slaves. Labourers were the most expensive commodities purchased
by planters, and local laws and the “customs of the country” allowed
planters to fully exploit their investments. Consequently, and because of
the lengthy terms that many served, these servants more fully resembled
pauper or vagrant apprentices, bound to serve a master for as long as
a decade.
(Newman, 2013: 95)
Controversially, he portrays the situation, whereby ‘the heavy deployment of vagrants, convicts and prisoners – people judged to have forfeited
many of their rights, including the right to life in the British Isles – meant
that in seventeenth-century Barbados white labourers could be, and were,
worked as virtual “white slaves”’ (Newman, 2013: 246). Though this was
often an image used in British printed accounts of colonies throughout the
period, this is very much an extreme view of the situation of workers who,
though clearly exploited and severely regulated, had a different future from
that of slaves once their period of servitude was over.
In the first half of the seventeenth century Barbados and Virginia were
the main destinations of servants. In Barbados by the 1650s Richard Ligon
The Island is divided into three sorts of men, Masters, Servants, and
slaves. The slaves and their posterity, being subject to their Masters for
ever, are kept and preserved with greater care than the servants, who
are theirs but for five yeers, according to the law of the Island. So that
for the time, the servants have the worser lives, for they are put to very
hard labour, ill lodging, and their dyet very sleight.
(Ligon, 1657: 43)
New societies 55
At the same time, Royalist soldier Heinrich von Uchteritz was one of 1,300
prisoners taken after the Battle of Worcester (1651) and transported to Barbados a few months later in 1652 to indentured servitude. He was the only
one to have escaped and returned home, he claimed. He described the workforce of great plantation owners: his own had 100 ‘Christians’ (white servants), 100 Africans and 100 ‘wilde’ (i.e., ‘savages’) or Amerindians. He was
fed largely on potatoes and cassava, both strange to him, and forced to do the
work usually performed by slaves who, he thought, lived in cabins resembling
dog kennels (Handler, 1970). Ligon noted the wretchedness of the servants
and attributed to it their rebellion in combination with the African slaves.
Mischiefe has been done, by the negligence and wilfulnesse of servants.
And yet some cruel Masters will provoke their Servants so by extream
ill usage, and often and cruell beating them, as they grow desperate,
and so joyne together to revenge themselves upon them. A little before
I came from thence, there was such a combination amongst them, as the
like was never seen there before. Their sufferings being grown to a great
height, and their daily complainings to one another (of the intolerable
burdens they labour’d under) being spread throughout the Island; at the
last, some amongst them, whose spirits were not able to endure such
slavery, resolved to break through it, or die in the act and so conspired
with some others of their acquaintance, whose sufferings were equall.
(Ligon, 1657: 45)
The rising was given away by an informant, and the leaders executed. It
seems that African slaves did not join in, but this was the nightmare of a
society where both servants and slaves were employed together – particularly
if the servants were Irish (because their loyalty was always doubted by the
authorities, given that their transportation had often arisen from conditions
of resistance to the British in the first place). The levels of cruelty directed at
white servants are not easy to establish, though printed accounts by those
who returned later in the century suggest the discipline remained severe. By
the late seventeenth century, as the black to white ratio grew to one of overwhelming African dominance, there seems to have been a kind of grudging
acceptance and integration of the poor whites among the planters in places
such as Barbados.
The major destinations of British servants after 1700 were the mid-Atlantic
colonies of Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland, with the smallest, Maryland, taking remarkably high numbers of servants, including transported
convicts. Overall, according to a 1764 survey, Maryland had more than
23,000 adult white freemen and 5,000 adult male servants – 1,507 of them
transported convicts. In addition, the numbers of free women matched those
of men, but there were fewer servants, only 2,200 with 386 convicts among
them. There were more than 20,000 adult slaves and slightly more than
21,000 slaves under the age of 16. The servants were heavily concentrated
56 New societies
in just four of the 14 counties, making up 20% of the labourers there, the
rest being black slaves (see Document 3.4). In other, poorer, counties, both
free servants and convicts were fewer in number, indicating that it was the
richer, more productive areas with larger farms and plantations that drew
in the white servants. There was also active recruitment of convict servants
in particular to the ironworks of Maryland, which were being developed
by investors such as the Baltimore Company to produce a major export
from the colony. In the tobacco plantations, servants generally seem to have
worked in digging ditches and hoeing the rows of tobacco plants. Details
of how their work differed from that of slaves are hard to find, but clearly
some artisans such as carpenters and blacksmiths were in great demand
as servants. This kind of data are missing from elsewhere in British America, but estimates of 50,000 convict servants, and many more through free
migration, suggest that, until the American War for Independence, this form
of labour was vital for large sectors of the colonial economy. The prospects
for these servants were not good, as it seems that few achieved success. In a
western county of Virginia, according to one historian:
slaves and white servants ranked lowest in both status and opportunity, and
their record as freeholders reflects this state of affairs. Only one free black
owned real estate in Augusta County, and former indentured and convict
servants hardly fared better. Out of the 216 bound adult males known to
have served before 1770, only sixteen (7.4 percent) eventually acquired
land in the county. Of those sixteen successes, nine immigrated as members
of freeholding households before the establishment of Augusta County’s
independence in November 1745. These retainers apparently used their
masters’ successes to enhance their own prospects for attaining a freehold.
(McCleskey, 1990: 452)
This was from a county still expanding westwards, with some opportunities for striking out into new lands. But success was rare for the poorest
whites. Moreover, contemporary accounts from the coastal areas further
east confirm this: Father Joseph Mosley, a Jesuit on the eastern shore of
Maryland, wrote to his sister in England about the fate of servants who, he
thought, had been deceived by wild promises of a prosperous future.
It has been a fine poor man’s country; but now it is well peopled; the
lands are all secured and the harvest for such is now all over. The lands
are mostly worked by the landlords’ negroes; and, of consequence,
white servants, after their term of bondage is out, are stroling about the
country without bread.
(Hughes, 1908: 342; see Document 3.2)
Nowhere in the British colonies were there real opportunities for advancement, and this perhaps explains the continual pressure for new lands in the
west to be taken and exploited.
New societies 57
Neither servants nor, particularly, convict servants were as common in the
French colonies. Though some Indians, such as Caribs in the West Indies,
were indentured as an alternative to enslavement in the seventeenth century,
servants from France were in short supply. Political repression produced
some candidates: at least 2,000 Huguenots in 12 ships were sent to the Caribbean colonies as indentured servants in the 1680s. Assisted migration was
tried in the 1660s and early 1670s but the French government received complaints that the resultant servants were of poor quality and were requested
to send no more ‘idiots and cripples’. Nevertheless, the engagés made up
about 39% of seventeenth-century migrants to French Canada (Pritchard,
2004: 8; 19, 23). Without volunteers, the French authorities turned to compulsion. As Davies observes, ‘transportation in seventeenth-century France
was seldom inflicted as a punishment by the courts; it would have reduced
the number of convicts needed for the Mediterranean galleys. On the other
hand, more as an administrative than as a judicial act, intendants from time
to time rounded up rogues and vagabonds and sent them to the colonies’
(Davies, 1974: 92). The result was that, in the early eighteenth century at
least, small numbers of indentured servants and convicts (from the jails)
were found in Canada. In Louisiana, where half of the 9,000 migrants and
African slaves imported between 1718 and 1721 died or fled, there were
only 233 indentured servants. Slaves had quickly come to dominate the
labour force. Nevertheless, census data suggest that servants were still useful. In the 1720s, Louisiana census records indicate that ‘the largest plantations in Natchez were the Sainte Catherine and White Earth concessions,
worked by 38 French indentured servants, 50 African slaves and 4 Indian
slaves’ (Caillot, 2016: 90 fn. 185).
The official policy of criminal transportation was therefore intermittent
and almost randomly applied. There was nothing in France to match the
comprehensive legislation of the English 1718 Transportation Act (which
excluded Scotland). The lingering commitment to the use of Mediterranean
galleys provided an incentive to continue galley slavery as a major criminal punishment. This was managed in Marseilles, where there were jails
to hold and then distribute the prisoners. An Atlantic policy developed in
the mid-eighteenth century, when Brest in Brittany was chosen for a site of
penal hard labour in reconstructing the port. Out of this, convicts became
available for shipping across the ocean. Yet this was not deliberate policy,
and few were sent (Pierre, 2017: 27–29). Servants in general proved problematic in several of the French colonies, particularly where the fur trade
was the dominant form of the economy: there were simply not enough basic
labouring jobs for servants to do. In other places the hard labour was better
performed by slaves. Women were even more difficult to accommodate. As
Kupperman has observed:
Young women did go as servants, and colonial promoters always urged
the colonies to make sending women a priority, but they faced life in
largely male establishments with few of the protections they would have
58 New societies
had at home. In the middle of the seventeenth century, the French government sent a large number of women under the age of twenty-five as
potential wives for settlers.
(Kupperman, 2012: 60)
These young women – les filles de roi (literally the ‘king’s daughters’) –
were sent out with the added attraction that they brought a dowry and were
under the tutelage of nuns until they married. Only slowly, however, did the
French Canadian colonies develop a settled population on this basis and,
while their local militia were a formidable addition to the French army in
times of war, there were never enough people to provide a rival to the more
heavily populated British colonies.
3.4 Conclusion: New World, new societies
The kinds of societies produced in the British and French colonies were
not foreseen by their founders and were in many ways always changing in
certain respects throughout the period from 1650 to 1800. Little that was
taken across the Atlantic remained the same as it had been in Europe. Laws,
political institutions, forms of economic and social relations, and cultures
all had to adapt and change. Much had to be invented since there were no
templates for a slave society in western Europe at the time, and new forms
of economy grew up around those oppressive relationships. The cash-crop
monocultures producing sugar, rice, tobacco, and cotton that were created
in the slave colonies were the first imperial outsourcing in European history
and set a pattern that was later followed in the production of tea or rubber
in the Indian subcontinent, south-east Asia, and Africa in the nineteenth
century. The plantation ‘complex’ became a global phenomenon throughout the British empire long after the death of slavery itself. Other social
relations in the colonies that shaped their development were with native
peoples and, as we have seen, these extended from relatively equal patterns
of trade to ethnic cleansing and enslavement. The biggest losers in conflicts,
first between Britain and France and then between Britain and its 13 colonies, were the natives. Among white settlers, social differences between the
economically secure and the poor were characteristically one-sided, particularly where indentured servitude prevailed, and the poor in general found
themselves under greater regulation and control as such class differences
grew. The poorest were often found in the growing cities such as Philadelphia (Pennsylvania) where welfare programmes were often made up of
a doubled-edged strategy of aid and institutionalisation, where economic
help was accompanied by enhanced forms of incarceration in workhouses
governed by a regime of hard work. The French colonies in North America
did not experience this level of poverty, though the people in New Orleans
came closest in the variety of their origins and their economic problems.
In the Caribbean the French colonies seem to have had a wider range of
New societies 59
plantations in terms of size and numbers of slaves, and this formed a middling group of whites who were absent in British colonies such as Jamaica.
This had profound implications for the ability of the white population to
suppress slave uprisings, since poorer whites were essential to the formation
of armed militias (see Chapter 5).
The nature of the social identities of these colonies posed a fascinating
but difficult problem. In fighting each other, the British and French colonies grew to some degree closer to their metropolitan authorities, partly
because of the necessity of asking them for help and support during the
wars. This does not lead to the conclusion that they thought of themselves
in any simple way as ‘British’ or ‘French’. Though the leaders of the British
colonies maintained strong relationships with Britain, often sending their
sons to be educated there, and had widespread trade links with British ports
and businesses, they increasingly felt distinctively different. In the end the
North American colonies became alienated and fought a long and bitter
war for independence. Historians debate whether this was in part due to
ideological and cultural differences with Britain that had grown up since
the seventeenth-century processes of colonisation. The British conquest of
French North America cut off the French settlers from France – yet these
settlers had already become the first population to be designated as ‘Canadians’. By 1800 this identity was shared by the settlers of British origin, too,
still loyal to Britain (to the puzzlement of the newly independent Americans)
but distinctively different. Colonial identities were therefore more fluid and
uncertain during this period, perhaps because it was also a process through
which the British and French in Europe were also going at the same time.
National identities were to some extent still under formation in this period,
a work in progress. Only gradually were patriotic certainties developed –
‘We shall never, never, be slaves’, sang the British in the cheap patriotic
song Rule Britannia – but the slavery they referred to was rule by an absolute Catholic monarchy, such as those in France or Spain. In 150 years of
continual warfare, the two ‘nations’ came into much clearer focus, both in
Europe and in the colonies.

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