Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Hunger Games (1607)

Colonial Virginia was a site of brutal promise

The following post is part of series on the history of the self-made man in America.

The dream of the self-made farmer may once have been the dominant model in American history. But it began as a consolation prize. When the first permanent English settlement in North America was founded at Jamestown, Virginia in 1607 (a previous attempt two decades earlier had failed), the goal was not farming. Nor, notwithstanding some boilerplate rhetoric about the papal Whore of Babylon and his imperial Spanish minions, was God. Jamestown was a commercial enterprise of the royally chartered Virginia Company, and its reason for existence was to make money any way it could. The fondest hope of its investors was they would find (or take) gold, just as the Spaniards had in Mexico and Peru. 
It didn’t take long to figure out that wasn’t going to happen. It took longer to figure out how wealth could be produced in Virginia, largely because that was going to take a lot of work. This was something those first arrivals were not particularly inclined to do without the prodding of the unpleasant but undeniably efficient John Smith, whom they had planned to execute for insubordination while sailing to Virginia (it would be neither the first nor last time that Smith, a soldier who escaped enslavement by the Ottoman Turks, would cheat death). When sealed orders were opened revealing that Smith was in fact to lead the colony, the disorganized settlers reluctantly accepted his direction, under which fortifications were strengthened, crops planted, wells dug and products such as pitch, tar and soap ash produced for shipment back to England. Smith also learned the local Algonquin dialect, and conducted sometimes tense negotiations with the region’s prevailing chieftain, Powhatan. (As we all know, he also and struck up a friendship with Powhatan’s daughter, Pocahontas, who would eventually marry settler John Rolfe and move to London, where she created a sensation).  
Following Smith’s departure from Jamestown in 1609 to be treated for injuries sustained in an accidental gunpowder explosion, the colony nearly vanished amid the notorious “starving time.”  After foundering for years in the face of Indian attacks and wobbly finances, the Virginia Company went bankrupt in 1624. It then became a royal colony (in contrast to other charter colonies like Massachusetts, or proprietary ones like Pennsylvania). Disease and death sapped its population, which probably would have disappeared without a steady stream of immigrants, which largely consisted savagely competitive young men willing to take their chances in a lottery of life and death.
             In the face of these odds, Virginia survived. The reason it did so was the cash crop that would become the pillar Virginia’s economy, and that of the South generally for the next two centuries: tobacco. This agricultural commodity, introduced to the English by local Indians, may well have been a “vile weed,” in the words of King James I. But it was undeniably, addictive, and thus undeniably profitable, especially to a chronically cash-starved monarchy that taxed tobacco as part of a larger strategy to maintain its own precarious solvency.
For the first quarter-century of its existence, Virginia was like an American version of the Hunger Games, a free-for-all in which desperation and ambition collided in a furious quest for fortune (or survival).  In one mythic version of its story, a young Englishman would become an indentured servant by borrowing the cost of his transportation, food and lodging in exchange for seven years worth of labor, part of a headright system in which an investor received fifty acres of land for every immigrant whose passage he paid. Upon discharging this obligation, the servant would receive his “freedom dues,” which would allow him to buy land—and, perhaps even more important, labor. This would take the form of other indentured servants, and, if he generated enough assets, slaves. Though the first Africans were imported to Virginia in 1619, it would be many decades before they became the major source of labor. For most of the seventeenth century, English settlers relied on Indian peoples selling each other into slavery as part of their own response to changing political and economic conditions. If our hypothetical young man managed to survive his own exploitation, the caprices of disease, and the violence of a racially charged frontier, he might become a successful planter able to attract a wife who would bear him heirs. (If the wife survived him, she could parley his estate into another marriage, particularly since women were also relatively scarce commodities in these years.) All told, this didn’t happen all that often. But it happened often enough for people with few other prospects to take their chances on a notably brutal system of self-making whose essence was controlling the exertions of others.

Next: the rise and fall of a self-made plantation baron