I. The period of transition
European philosophers were still debating the merits of "civilization" versus the "state of nature." The Christian clergy were pondering the possibility of dark skin color being the mark of the Biblical Ham's curse, with Africans as his descendants. But the great African empires of
There was, therefore, nothing fixed about the position of Black people when the English began their settlement drive in what became the American colonies. During the period of European exploration, people of African descent had entered the "
When the British began to plant their colonies in
The 1641 Body of Liberties in Massachusetts Bay Colony attempted to clarify the situation. It stated that slavery was only for "strangers" and then as punishment for crime or captivity in war.
However, before the end of the seventeenth century people of color and those considered "white" would be treated very differently in the colonies. The need for huge supplies of labor to establish English domination over land where other people were already living, the techniques of dehumanization and dispossession which
II. The British in
Michael Stevenson has described "the systematic devastation of the Irish" by British colonists under the first Queen Elizabeth. It included "the routine burning of crops and villages, the regular killing of women and children and cutting off of heads, as well as the willingness to pay bounties for them." 2 Techniques used against the Irish by the English leader Oliver Cromwell in the mid seventeenth century would be immediately transferred across the
Stereotypes were also recycled. In the words of Nicholas Canny, "the same indictments being brought against the Indians, and later against the blacks, in the New World...had been brought against the Irish....Both Indians and blacks, like the Irish, were accused of being idle, dirty and licentious" [lacking morals]. 3
People were dehumanized not because of "race" in the biological sense, but because they were in the way, or to force them to serve the needs of the colonizer. The heart of the issue was not simple prejudice against a people depicted as "idle" or "dirty," but relationships of power and submission. "Race" was defined and mobilized to justify colonial domination.
The historian David Brion Davis has summed up where "race" serving the interests of power has led the
"If American expansion required the forcible dispossession of the Indian, the American economy was long dependent on a system of coerced labor which began with the violent seizure of native Africans and which led to a militant society dedicated to the preservation of white supremacy and terrorized by the fear of racial war." 4
This is not a picture that finds a home in textbooks or co-exists easily with our founding myths. But this history is fundamental to the nation we became. To recognize it is to take an important step in the fight against racism today.
III. The British in
The historian David Stannard has documented the colonial military campaigns which, without "just" cause, practically exterminated Powhatan's people near
The renown Puritan clergyman Cotton Mather later gave thanks that "in a little more than one hour, five or six hundred of these barbarians were dismissed from a world that was burdened with them." 5 The handful of Pequot survivors were shipped to the
To Jeffrey Amherst, the British general who gave his name to a town in western
"Upon the first Hostilities they May be Guilty of, they Must not only Expect the Severest Retaliation, but an Entire Destruction of their Nations, for I am firmly resolved, Whenever they give me an Occasion to Extirpate them Roots and Branch." 7 He then ordered that small pox be sent to wipe out the "disaffected tribes."
IV. Who was "white" and free?
What was clear in the early years of settlement was that it was very difficult to attract and hold a substantial labor force. Once it became obvious that the native peoples could not be successfully enslaved it was too easy for them to be rescued or to escape other forms of forced labor were sought. At a time of severe economic stress in
The need for labor was so huge that it could not be met through voluntary migration. Many Europeans were simply kidnapped and forced onto ships bound for the American colonies. Prisoners of war and convicts were shipped over and children, vagrants and beggars were rounded up and sold as indentured servants to merchants. In
David Roediger in this important work The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (1991) has described the seventeenth century as a period in which "in certain places and at certain times...the 'lower sorts' of whites appear to have been pleasantly lacking in racial consciousness." There was considerable social mixing among white and Black indentured servants and slaves before 1680. The transition to an openly racist society, in which the color line was sharply drawn at the bottom of society, had not yet been made.
But it was not long in coming. The motive was one which had fueled the earlier stage of the European conquest of the Americas the need to extract wealth from the colonial adventure. The plantation system in the West Indies proved that enormous profits could be made from slave labor. By the seventeenth century, the African slave trade was the way to quick wealth for merchants in Portugal, Holland, France and England. The North American colonies had an insatiable need for labor why not supply it with a work force which would not be easily able to blend into the crowd? Which would have no pre-existing ties with indigenous peoples and hence nowhere to run? And one which could be bought for life, and one just for the period of five to seven years?
These economic arguments proved persuasive at a time when the swiftly expanding capitalist system was in search of new sources of raw materials and markets to maximize profits. Sugar and tobacco production would serve the interests of southern plantation owners and merchants in New England and
V. Towards a racial social order
By this time, a slave code had been compiled in
As the institution of slavery was defined in law, so, gradually, was the color "white." In the process, white and Black people were driven far apart. White servants ("Christians") were legally given rights to a certain standard of treatment. A naked white Christian, for instance, could not be publicly whipped. Black persons were meanwhile reduced to the status of non persons, who could be killed without any penalty to the white perpetrator. Any slave who ran away or who was found violating any provision of the codes could be viciously punished. Slaves were simply chattel, or property. They had been written out of the human race.
1 Bill Rolston, "The training ground: Irish conquest and decolonisation," Race & Class, April-June 1993.
2 Michael Stevenson, "
3 Nicholas Canny, "The ideology of English colonisation: from
4 David Brion Davis, From Homicide to Slavery, Studies in American Culture (Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 46.
5 David Stannard, American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the Nwe World (Oxford University Press, 1992), quoting from Mather's Magnalia Christi Americana, p. 114.
6 David Stannard, American Holocaust, p. 115.
7 Quoted in