Monday, June 25, 2012

Immigration And Unfree Labor In Pre-Revolution America

I am co-author of a new American history textbook for college students, The American Challenge: A New History of the United States. Below, in a passage I co-authored with Norwood Andrews, we discuss the impact of German immigration, slavery and unfree labor on the 13 colonies in British North America before the War for Independence. 

By the 1760s, rapid growth—in population, wealth, economic activity, and settled territory—transformed the British North American colonies.  The population reached 2.5 million by 1775.   The colonists no longer saw themselves as remote, isolated frontiersmen dependent upon the mother country’s protection.  Increasingly, they no longer saw themselves just as New Yorkers  or Virginians, but as part of something larger.  In a fiery pamphlet titled Common Sense, Thomas Paine exhorted readers to view themselves not as colonists but as Americans.  “There is something absurd in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island,” Paine insisted.  “In no instance hath nature made the satellite larger than its primary planet.”  The island kingdom and its colonies, he claimed, “belong to different systems: England to Europe—and America to itself.”

New waves of immigration across the Atlantic further increased the population.  Between 1760 and 1775, an estimated 220,000 immigrants poured through colonial ports of entry and spread out across the hinterlands.  After the Seven Years War ended in Europe, some 12,000 German-speaking members of various Protestant sects came to Pennsylvania. Not everyone welcomed these newcomers.  Benjamin Franklin, soon to be a leader of the revolutionary movement in the 13 colonies, feared the impact of German immigration and saw these immigrants as backwards, racial outsiders with an inferior culture.  He called for an end to German immigration in a 1751 essay.

[W]hy should the Palatine Boors [Germans] be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.
. . . [T]he Number of purely white People in the World is proportionably very small. All Africa is black or tawny. Asia chiefly tawny. America (exclusive of the new Comers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English, make the principal Body of White People on the Face of the Earth. I could wish their Numbers were increased . . . [W]hy increase the Sons of Africa, by Planting them in America, where we have so fair an Opportunity, by excluding all Blacks and Tawneys, of increasing the lovely White and Red?


Over 55,000 other migrants to America in the mid and late 1700s were Protestants arriving from Ireland—some of them Catholic native Irish, many other settlers Protestants whose families who originally came from Scotland. Most of them were fleeing from heavy taxes and extortionate land rents.  From Great Britain itself, one group of migrants consisted of young artisans and laboring men, many of them securing passage by signing themselves into indentured servitude, embarking from London and arriving at labor markets in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia.  The indentured servants sold up to seven years of their life to a master in return for the cost of transportation to North America, and their travel here was often miserable.  A German musician, Gottlieb Mittleberger, traveled with indentured servants on a ship bound for North America in 1750 and recalled little but horrors:

During the journey the ship is full off pitiful signs of distress — smells, fumes, horrors, vomiting, various kinds of sea sickness, fever, dysentery, headaches, heat, constipation, boils, scurvy, cancer, mouth rot and similar afflictions all of them caused by the age and the highly salted state of the food, especially of the meat, as well as by the very bad and filthy water . . . Add to all that shortage of food, hunger, thirst, frost, heat, dampness, fear, misery  . . . as well as other troubles . . . On board our ship, on a day on which we had a great storm, a woman about to give birth and unable to deliver under the circumstances, was pushed through one of the portholes into the sea.

Many indentured servants would not live to see the end of the seventh contracted year of service.  Those who did reach the emancipation date traditionally were paid a small amount of money by their former masters, so-called freedom dues.  But although they were no longer subjected to beatings by their one-time masters, and the women were no longer sexually exploited by them, life remained incredibly hard for most former servants.  Only about 20 percent of former indentured servants ever achieved anything better than miserable poverty.  On the other hand, their masters raked in a handsome profit of about $5,000 a servant.

Another stream of immigration, about 70,000 newcomers , brought farming families from rural northern England and Scotland to the frontiers of settlement in western North Carolina and northern New York.  But the largest single category of new migrants was brought to the colonies in chains, as survivors of the horrors of the “Middle Passage.”  Slave importations reached peak levels in the early 1760s, as British military successes and the European peace settlement reopened trading routes with West Africa.

Approximately 84,000 Africans disembarked at North American ports during the 1760-1775 period.  A large majority of these—over 57,000—were brought to the Lower South colonies of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, where rice and indigo planters relied on imported Africans to sustain slave labor forces and compensate for high rates of disease and death.  In the Chesapeake, by contrast, slave populations had begun to reproduce themselves and grow more rapidly through sexual reproduction.  Virginia and Maryland masters reduced their purchases of Africans, encouraged (or claimed to encourage) the formation of strong families among slaves, and in some cases even advocated for an end to the transatlantic slave trade itself.  The southern colonies in British North America, and the American states they became, represented the only slave societies in human history in which the population increased naturally.  In the sugar colonies of Cuba and Brazil, for instance, there was need of constant importation of new slaves because the masters, enjoying huge profits from their cash crop, found it cheaper to work their slaves to death and purchase replacements.  Even after the British Navy began suppressing the transatlantic slave trade after the Parliament banned it in 1807, the smuggling of newly captured slaves to Cuba and Brazil continued until slavery became illegal in those countries in 1886 and 1888, respectively.  Tobacco and cotton growers enjoyed slimmer profit margins and the skill level in tending these crops required training, so out of self-interest masters in the Southern colonies often provided more food and somewhat better treatment to their slaves. 

This doesn’t mitigate the cruelty of American slavery.  As slaves would say in Texas, they worked from “can see to can’t see” – from sunrise to sunset and sometimes beyond.  Most masters provided two sets of clothing, one set for the winter that usually provided scant protection against the cold, and another set during the warmer months.  Slaves received uncomfortable, one-size-fits-all shoes that the servants usually abandoned when the weather got warm enough. Masters generally provided slaves monotonous and sometime unappetizing corn and pork diets.  Lucky slaves could supplement their diets by tending small gardens near their slave cabins, or by hunting or fishing.  Malnutrition, nevertheless, became commonplace as indicated by the high number of slaves reported suffering from pica, the compulsion to eat dirt as the body craves needed minerals.  Slaves who escaped or disobeyed their masters often received cruel punishments ranging from whipping to hobbling, in which a hammer was swung to hit knee joints from the side in order to displace the joint and impair future escape attempts.

A small but significant number of Africans—roughly 6,500—were imported to the Northern colonies, where slave labor was well established in larger cities and particular rural areas, such as the Hudson River Valley.  In 1770, the slave population in New York was actually larger than in Georgia.  Until the Revolution itself, a large majority of transatlantic immigrants—including slaves, indentured servants, and convicts sent into exile—came to the colonies as unfree workers.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

No comments: