February 29

Enslavement in Colonial America: Research for a book

Like most writers, I do research for my books. I’m aware of the argument that since I write fantasy I don’t necessarily need to as I can make anything up so long as it works within the world I’ve created, but I find that research can easily make your story richer, whether the research sparks an idea for your story or helps you understand your world better. I’ve done a lot of research on Colonial America to get a better sense of what Arabella is like as a character, her views on the world and what her life experiences would be.

Something I found interesting in my research was that slaves were both Black and White. Had I read that right? I didn’t recall learning about an Irish slave trade along with African Slave trade in American history class.  So I dug deeper. This is what I found:

Originally slavery started off being called “Indentured Servitude.”  The way most people hear about this is that immigrants would find a sponsor, promise to work for them for a certain number of years to repay the debt that brought them over, and travel to Colonial America, where they would keep their word. Becoming an Indentured Servant was not always voluntary though. Anthony Johnson was captured  by neighboring tribesmen in 1620 and sold to a Merchant. He was shipped to Virginia and sold to a tobacco farmer as an Indentured Servant. Indentured Servants were treated like slaves.

Servants had to obey their master’s whim, endure whatever punishment they deemed proper.  The master could also sell, loan, or trade them out. If a servant tried to run, punishments could be severe, and not necessarily fair.  A famous example of this is John Punch.  He ran away from his master with a Dutch and a Scott.  All three were recaptured and brought to court.  The Dutch and Scott were given several lashings and a few more years of service were added to their contract as punishment.  John, being from Africa, was sentenced to  indentured servitude for the rest of his life–not the rest of his master’s life, but his life.  The main difference between slavery and servitude was that if the servant survived to complete his term, the servant received a small compensation, like land or money to help the former servant set out on his or her own.

Anthony Johnson served fourteen years as a servant. Once completed, he was granted some land and the basic necessities to start his own farm. He and his wife started sponsoring other people to come to the colonies, taking advantage of the fact that by doing so they’d be awarded 50 acres of land. In 1654, Johnson’s servant, John Casor, claimed his contract was only for seven or eight years and that he’d paid it and should be made free.  It is unknown if  Johnson granted his freedom and changed his mind or if Casor left him to work for another man on his own.  But Johnson filed a lawsuit saying that Casor was his servant until Casor’s death, and won.

Some argue Johnson, from Africa, became the first legal slave owner of another man from Africa. However, some argue that John Punch was the first legal slave, making Hugh Gwyn the first legal slave owner.  And others argue that African slavery occurred from the moment the first one stepped on the American shores in 1619.  Whatever side you stand on, seven years after Johnson earned Casor as a slave, Virginia made this legal for everyone. And it spread from there.

So how do whites get into this atrocious playground?

From 1492 to 1921, the Irish fought for independence from England. In December 24, 1601, The Battle of Kinsale  took place. It was one of the major bids for freedom. The English won and were left with 30,000 prisoner of wars to deal with. King James I sold them to settlers in the New World. According to Dailykos,  “the first recorded sale of Irish slaves was to a settlement in the Amazon in 1612, seven years before the first African slaves arrived in Jamestown.” In 1625, James signed a proclamation that required Irish political prisoners to be sold to English settlers. According to global research, “Ireland quickly became the biggest source of human livestock for English merchants. Most of the early slaves to the New World were actually white.” The traders, in their zest, would sometimes steal English or French citizens by accident.

Ireland’s population in 1641 was 1,466,000 but by 1652 the population was down to 616,000. Some of the drop was due to people dying or being banished during the Confederation War, but 300,000 were sold as slaves. Since those who were banished or sold as slaves were not allowed to take their families with them, their was a growing number of homeless women and children.

As a solution to the growing homeless population, over 100,000 Irish children were sold as slaves in the West Indies, Virginia and New England. Upon their arrival to their new “home,” most of the children were given new names with the hope they’d eventually forget their nationality and ideals.

From 1651 to 1660 there were more Irish slaves in America than the entire non-slave population of the colonies! This was because the Irish were cheaper to buy. African slaves cost 50 sterling. The Irish cost 5 sterling. Since an Irish slave was easier and cheaper to replace than an African one, the owner was less worried about losing an Irish slave to abuse, or age.

Not all the Irish that were sent into slavery made it to their destination. Typically 37% to 50% of the people transported died, and in at least one incident 132 slaves were thrown overboard to drown. The ships’ supplies were low and insurance would only pay if the slaves died by accident instead of by starvation. Similar stories are found in regards to African slaves. If the slaves were “lucky” enough to reach their destination, they were inspected like cattle and sold. Because their skin color was so similar to their masters, they’d be branded with their master’s initials–women on the arm, men on the buttocks–to distinguish them.

Women were sold as sexual slaves to plantation owners and brothels. They were often bred, because while a woman may only have to serve ten years as a servant if she survived, her children were slaves for life. Most mothers would stay in servitude to stay with their children after their time was up.  Eventually Irish women and African men were coerced into having children together, though there were some voluntary matches. Eleanor Butler is a famous example of a white Indentured servant voluntarily marrying an African slave named “Negro Charles.” The goal for the, often forced coupling, was to produce children with lighter skin for a higher price. When this practice started to affect the profits of the Royal African Trading Company, it became illegal to breed the Irish and Blacks together.

From 1600 to 1699, far more Irish were sold as slaves than Africans. And selling the Irish as slaves didn’t stop. In fact, thousands of Irish slaves were sold to both America and Australia after the 1798 Rebellion.

In 1839, the English forbade the slave trade.

I knew from the beginning that my character Arabella was Irish and born in the late seventeenth century.  She could have been born a slave, or brought over to be made one. And if she managed to escape slavery, she was lucky to have done so. I have a new angle to explore because of this history. What is something that inspired an event, tradition or history in your story?  How’d it turn out?









Posted February 29, 2016 by RobinConnelly in category "Uncategorized

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