Chronicles of America ´╗┐

The Problem Of Labor

The problem of obtaining labor in a frontier country where agriculture is the main pursuit was, in colonial days as at the present, a difficult one, for the employer could not go into a labor market and hire what he pleased, since a labor market did not exist. For this reason labor was always scarce in America during this early period, and all sorts of ways had to be contrived to meet the demand for "help, " particularly in the Middle and Northern colonies. The farmers, who constituted the bulk of the population, solved the problem in part by doing their own work with the assistance of their wives and children and such men as could be hired for the busy seasons of planting and harvesting. Such hired help was usually obtained in the neighborhood and was paid in many ways — in money, food, clothing, return labor, and orders on the country store. It was never very steady nor very reliable. On special occasions, such as raising the framework of a barn, house, school, or meetinghouse, all the neighbors turned out and helped, satisfied with the rum, cider, and eatables furnished for refreshment. Necessary household service was supplied either by some woman of the locality who came in as a favor and on terms of equality with the rest of the family, or by a young girl bound out as a servant, with the consent of her father or mother, until she was of age.

Skilled labor was not often called for, except in the towns or for shipbuilding, as the farmers were their own shoemakers, coopers, carpenters, tanners, and ironworkers, and even at times their own surveyors, architects, lawyers, doctors, and surgeons. Nearly every one was a jack at many trades, for just as the minister physicked and bled as well as preached, so the farmer could on occasion run a store, build a house, make a boat, and fashion his own farming utensils.' His house╣

Joshua Hempstead of New London, for example, was not only a farmer but at one time or another, from 1711 to 1758, a house builder, carpenter, and cabinetmaker, shipwright, cobbler, maker of coffins, and engraver of tombstones, a town official holding the offices of selectman, treasurer, assessor, and surveyor of highways; a colony official, serving as deputy sheriff and coroner, many times deputy to the General Court, justice of the peace, and so performing frequent marriages, and judge of probate. He was also clerk of the ecclesiastical society, lieutenant and later captain of the train band, and surveyor of lands. He did a great deal of legal business, drawing deeds, leases, wills, and other similar documents, and was general handy man for his community was a manufactory as well as a residence, and his barn a workshop as well as a place for hay and livestock. Of course as the eighteenth century wore on and men of the Huguenot type, with their love for beauty and good craftsmanship, came into the country, and as social life became more elaborate and luxurious, industrial activities were organized to meet the growing demands of a prosperous population. Artisans became more skilled and individual, and a few of them attained sufficient importance to occupy places of some dignity in the community and to produce works of such merit as to win repute in the history of arts and crafts in America. But these cases are exceptional; labor as a rule was not highly specialized, and the artisan usually added to his income in other ways. We find among the trades farriers, blacksmiths, whitesmiths, joiners, cabinetmakers, tailors, shipwrights, millwrights, gunsmiths, silversmiths, jewelers, watch and clock makers, and wig and peruke makers. For such highly skilled industries as snuff making, sugar refining, and glass blowing labor was imported from England, but not on any large scale until just before the Revolution, when agreements not to import English merchandise stimulated domestic manufacture.

Throughout the colonies the people as a whole depended not on hired labor but on bound labor —the indentured servant, the apprentice, the convict, and the slave — and everywhere these forms of labor appear in varying degrees.

The covenanted or indentured servant was one who engaged himself for a certain number of years in order to work off a debt. In itself such bond-service involved no special disgrace, any more than did going to prison for debt seriously discredit many of the fairly distinguished men who at one time or another were residents of the old Fleet Prison in London or those men of less repute who for the same reason found themselves in colonial jails. The reader must dismiss the notion that the position of an indentured servant necessarily involved degradation or that the term " sold " used in that connection referred to anything else than the selling of the time during which the individual was bound.' It was not uncommon for one

The writer has seen a manuscript diary of a German servant who came to America by way of Rotterdam, in which the words imprisoned for debt in the colonies to advertise his services to any one who would buy him out; and sometimes this form of service was used to pay a gambling debt.

But the most frequent form of indenture was that which bound the emigrant from England or the Continent to the captain of the ship on which he sailed. The captain paid the passage of the emigrant, furnished him with all necessary clothes, meat, drink, and lodging during the voyage, and then sold his time and labor on the ship's arrival in port. People went to the colonies in this way by the thousands and were to be found in every colony including the West Indies, although Georgia seems to have had on the whole very few. They were of all nationalities, but Germans, Swiss, English, Scotch, Irish, and Welsh predominated, with an occasional Frenchman. Probably the largest number were Germans, for the majority of those who came over were extremely poor and had to sell their time and that of their children to pay for their passage. Such methods continued for many years even after the Revolution.

"sell " and " sold," though used merely in the sense of binding to service, have been carefully erased by an outraged and uninformed descendant and the seemingly less invidious terms " hire " and "hired " inserted in their place. German servants were shipped from Rotterdam, and British from Gravesend and other ports. To prevent enticing or kidnapping, all servants were registered before sailing and sometimes, as at Bristol, where the mayor and aldermen interfered, the ship was searched before sailing, the passengers were ordered ashore, and all who wished were released. When the vessel reached its American destination, word was spread or an advertisement was inserted in the newspapers saying that the indentures of a certain number of servants, men, women, and children, were available, and then the bargaining went on either aboard the ship or on shore at some convenient point to which the servants were taken. Such selling of indentures took place at all ports of entry from Boston to Charleston and gave rise to a brutal class of men popularly known as "soul drivers," who "made it their business to go on board all ships who have in either servants or convicts and buy sometimes the whole and sometimes a parcel of them as they can agree, and then they drive them through the country like a parcel of sheep, until they can sell them to advantage." (Harrower's " Diary," American Historical Review, vol. p. 77.)

The men thus disposed of for four to seven years, ranged from sixteen to forty years of age, and brought from sixteen to twenty-four pounds. Children began the period of their service sometimes at the early age of ten. The abilities of these imported servants varied greatly: many were laborers, others were artisans and tradesmen, and a few were trained workmen possessed of exceptional skill. Among them were dyers, tailors, upholsterers, weavers, joiners, carpenters, cabinetmakers, barbers, shoemakers, peruke makers, whitesmiths, braziers, blacksmiths, coachmen, gentlemen's servants, gardeners, bakers, house waiters, schoolteachers, and even doctors and surgeons. Many could fence or could perform on some musical instrument, and one is described as professing "dancing, fencing, writing, arithmetic, drawing of pictures, and playing of legerdemain or slight of hand tricks." Benjamin Harrower, who served in America as clerk, bookkeeper, and schoolmaster, was an indentured servant, and so was Henry Callister, a Manxman, who was an assistant to the merchant Robert Morris, of Oxford, Maryland, and whose account books, preserved in the Maryland Diocesan Library, are today such a valuable source of information. Many of these servants were well-born but for offenses or for other reasons had to leave England: Jean Campbell, for instance, was related "to the very best families in Ayrshire"; William Gardner was the son of a Shropshire gentleman; John Keef claimed to have been an officer in the British Army; William Stevens and Thomas Lloyd of Virginia, who wrote home with regret of their former "follies," were evidently of good families; while the "light finger'd damsel" who ransacked the baggage of William Byrd, 2d, was a baronet's daughter sent to America as an incorrigible. Doubtless there were many such, though the total number could hardly have been large enough to affect the general statement that the indentured servant was of humble origin.

Many of these servants came over with the expectation that relatives or friends would redeem them, and in cases where these hopes were not realized the captain would advertise that unless some one appeared to pay the money the men or women would be sold. The indenture was looked upon as property which could even be bought by more than one purchaser, each of whom had a proportionate right to the servant's time, which could be sold, leased, and bequeathed by will, and which in the case of the sale or lease of a farm or plantation could be transferred to the buyer or tenant. Sometimes a colony, through the Governor, would buy the time of white servants for service in the militia or for work on the defenses of the province. It not infrequently happened that a master allowed a servant to exercise his trade at large through the colony, as in the case of Stephen Tinoe, a servant of one of the Virginia planters, who had dancing schools at Hampton, Yorktown, and Williamsburg, but who handed over to his master all the money which he received for his instruction. When the time named in the indenture expired, the servant became free, and the master was obliged to furnish him with a suit of clothes and to pay certain "freedom dues. " There are many instances of servants bringing suit in the courts and contending that their masters were keeping them beyond their lawful time or had failed to give them their perquisites.

Inevitably under such a system the lot of the servants became very hard as the years passed and their status for the period of their service grew to be little better than that of slaves. While in the North they were usually treated with kindness and their position was not as irksome as it was in the South, yet in Maryland, Virginia, and the West Indies they suffered much abuse and degradation. William Randal of Maryland said in 1755 that the colony was a hard one for servants to live in, and Elizabeth Sprigs wrote of "toiling day and night, and then tied up and whipped to that degree you would not beat an animal, scarce anything but Indian corn and salt to eat and that even begrudged." Governor Mathew of the Leeward Islands spoke of them as "poorly cladd, hard fedd, a worse state than a common soldier." As early as 1716 these indentured servants were called runaway thieves, disorderly persons, renegadoes, a loose sort of people, cheap and useless, and were said to grow more and more lazy, indolent, and impudent. Even in the North the later arrivals were deemed greatly inferior to those of the earlier years — a falling off which one observer ascribed to the want of good land wherewith to attract the better sort who desired to become farmers after serving their time.

There is no doubt that indentured servants in general made very poor laborers. The Irish Roman Catholics especially were feared and disliked and were not bought if others could be obtained. It is not to be wondered at that indentured servants were continually running away. The newspapers, North and South, were full of advertisements for the fugitives, describing their features, their clothes, and whatever they carried, for many of them made off with anything they could lay their hands on — horses, guns, household goods, clothing, and money. All sorts of laws were made, particularly in the South, to control these indentured servants. Should they absent themselves from service without permission, they had to remain so many days longer in bondage; should they run away, they were liable to be whipped and to have their time extended; should a female servant have a child, she was punished and the master of the child's father was required to pay for the time lost by the mother. In Virginia a freed servant was obliged to have a ticket or certificate of freedom and if found without one was liable to arrest and imprisonment.

In addition to indentured servants there were also apprentices, usually children bound out to a master, until they were of age, by their poor parents to serve at some lawful employment or to learn a trade. There was nothing, however, to hinder a servant, or even a negro, from being bound out as an apprentice. Colonial apprenticeship, except in its educational features, was simply the system of England transferred to America, and the early indentures, of which there are copies extant for nearly all the colonies, were almost word for word the same as those of the mother country. Such apprenticeship was more than merely a form of labor; it was also a method of educating the poor and of implanting good morals. The apprentice on the one hand was bound to serve his master faithfully and to avoid taverns, alehouses, playhouses, unlawful games, and illicit amours; and the master on the other hand was obliged to provide his apprentice with food and lodging and to teach him to read and write and in the case of a doctor "to dismiss said apprentice with good skill in arithmetic, Latin and also in the Greek through the Greek Grammer. "╣ A girl apprentice was to be taught "housewifery, knitting, spinning, sewing, and such like exercises as may be fitting and becoming her sex." At the end of the apprenticeship, the master was expected to give his apprentice two suits of clothes as a perquisite; but in the case of one girl he gave a cow, and of another "two suits of wearing apparel, one for Sunday and one for weekly labor, with two pairs of hose and shoes,

Working one's passage to the medical profession was the only way in which a medical education could be obtained in America at this time. The first hospital, at Philadelphia, was not founded until 1751, and the first medical school, also at Philadelphia, not until 1765, and admission to that required a year's apprenticeship in a doctor's office two hoods or hats, or such headgear as may be comely and convenient, with all necessary linen." Sometimes an apprentice was scarcely to be distinguished from an indentured servant, as for instance when a minor bound himself to serve until a debt was paid off. Apprenticeship proved a useful sort of service in the colonies, for, though it was at times much abused and both masters and apprentices complained that the contracts were not carried out, it trained good workmen and satisfied a real need.

Though originally in quite a different position, the transported prisoner was in much the same condition as the servant and apprentice, for he too was a laborer bound to service without pay for a given number of years. Persons transported for religious or political reasons were few in number as compared with the convicts sent from Newgate and other British prisons and known as " transports, " "seven year passengers, " and "King's prisoners." Not less than forty thousand of these convicts were sent between the years 1717 and 1775 to the colonies, chiefly to Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and the West Indies. Some were transported for seven years, some for fourteen, and some for life, and though the colonies protested and those most nearly concerned passed laws against the practice, the need of labor was so great that convicts continued to be received and were sometimes even smuggled across the borders of the colony. Determined to get rid of an undesirable social element, England hoped in this way to lessen the number of executions at home and to turn to good account the skill and physical strength of able-bodied men and women. When a certain Englishman argued in favor of transporting felons for the purpose of reforming them, Franklin is said to have retaliated by suggesting the reformation of American rattlesnakes by sending them to England.

As convicts were often transported for very slight offenses, it is stated that, at times when conditions were very bad in the mother country, the starving poor, rather than continue to suffer, would commit trifling thefts for which transportation was the penalty. Thus though there were many who were confirmed criminals, those who had been merely petty offenders were distinctly advantageous to the colonies as artisans and laborers. Men and women alike were transported either in regular merchant ships or in vessels specially provided by contractors, who were paid by the Government from three to five pounds a head. Besides the ordinary passengers, indentured servants and convicts were frequently on the same ship and would be advertised for sale at the same time. Before the voyage was over, however, exciting things sometimes happened: one case is on record where the convicts mutinied, killed captain and ship's company, and sailed away on a piratical cruise; and another mutiny was foiled by shooting the ringleaders. On arrival at port the convict's time was sold exactly as was that of the indentured servant, and on the plantations both worked side by side with the negro. At the expiration of his term of service the convict was free to acquire land or to work as a hired laborer. As a rule, however, he preferred to return to England, where he frequently fell again into evil ways and was transported a second time to America.

The story is told of a barrister who had been caught stealing books from college libraries in Cambridge and had been sentenced to transportation without the privilege of returning to England. Though it was customary for the commoner sort of prisoners to be conducted on foot, with a sufficient guard, from Newgate to Blackfriars Stairs, whence they were carried in a closed lighter to the ship at Blackwall, this barrister and four other prisoners, including an attorney, a butcher, and a member of a noble family, were allowed to ride in hackney coaches with their keepers. Because the five were able to pay for their passage, they were treated on board ship with marks of respect and distinction. While the felons of inferior note were immediately put under hatches and confined in the hold of the ship, the five privileged malefactors were conveyed to the cabin which they were to have for the duration of the voyage. "It is supposed," says the narrator, "that as soon as they land they will be set at liberty, instead of being sold as felons usually are, and that thus a criminal who has money may blunt the edge of justice and make that his happiness which the law designs as his punishment."

Though many convicts became useful laborers and farmers, others were a continual nuisance and even danger to the colonists. They ran away, committed robberies, — "poor unhappy wretches who cannot leave off their old trade, " they are called —turned highwaymen, set houses on fire, engaged in counterfeiting, and were guilty even of murder. In the West Indies they corrupted the negroes and lured them off on piratical expeditions. Governor Hunter wrote from Jamaica in 1731 that people who had been accustomed to sleep with their doors open were obliged, since the arrival of the convicts, "to keep watches on their counting and store houses, " since several robberies had recently been committed. Many were caught and imprisoned; others, when convicted a second time, were hanged. The convicts were an ill-featured crew, often pockmarked, sly and cunning, and garbed in all sorts of nondescript clothing, and whether at home or at large their evil propensities and uncleanly habits, together with their proneness to contagious diseases and jail fever, made them a menace to masters and communities alike.

Negroes, the mainstay of labor on the plantations of the South and the West Indies, differed from indentured servants in that their bodies as well as their time and labor were bartered and sold. Though the servant's loss of liberty was temporary, that of the negro was perpetual. Yet in the seventeenth century negroes were viewed in the light of servants rather than of slaves, and it is noteworthy how rarely the word "slave" was used in common parlance at that early period. But by the eighteenth century perpetual servitude had become the rule. Indeed, so essential did it become that before long few indentured servants were to be found on the tobacco plantations and rice fields of the South, for their places had been everywhere taken by the negroes. Though in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina the whites outnumbered the blacks two or three times to one, in South Carolina and the West Indies the reverse was the case, for there the blacks outnumbered the whites ten and twenty fold.

The negroes came from the western coast of Africa, north as far as Senegambia and south as far as Angola, where lay the factories and " castles " of those engaged in the trade. For Great Britain the business of buying negroes was in the hands of the Royal African Company until 1698, when the monopoly was broken and the trade was thrown open to private firms and individual dealers who controlled the bulk of the business in the eighteenth century. The independent traders were both British and colonial — the former from London, Bristol, and Liverpool, the latter from Boston, Newport, New York, Charleston, and other seaports — who brought their negroes direct from Africa or bought them in the West Indies for sale in the colonies. The voyage of a slaver was a dangerous and gruesome experience, and the "Guinea captains," as they were called, were often truculent, inhuman characters.

The negroes were obtained either at the African Company's factories or from the native chiefs and African slave drivers in exchange for all sorts of cloths, stuffs, hardware, ammunition, and for rum of inferior quality made especially for this trade. The slaves were taken to America chained between decks during the passage, a treatment so brutal that many died or committed suicide on the voyage. In such close and unhealthy confinement epidemics were frequent, and diseases were so often communicated to the white sailors that the mortality on board was usually high — ordinarily from five to ten per cent and sometimes running to more than thirty under particularly unfavorable circumstances. Many cases are recorded of uprisings in which whole crews were murdered and captains and mates tortured and mutilated in revenge for their cruelty.

Male negroes from fifteen to twenty years of age were most in demand, because women were physically less capable and the older negroes were more inclined to moroseness and suicide. Those from the Gold Coast, Windward Coast, and Angola were as a rule preferred, because they were healthier, bigger, and more tractable; those from Gambia were generally rated inferior, though opinions differed on this point; and those from Calabar, if over seventeen, were not desired because they were given to melancholy and self-destruction. All were brought over naked, but they often received clothing before their arrival, partly for decency's sake and partly for protection against the cold and the water coming through the decks. Some prejudice existed against negroes from the West Indies who spoke English, because they were believed to be great rogues and less amenable to discipline than were the American-born, who always brought higher prices because they could stand the climate and were used to plantation work.

In the North, at Boston and Newport, the negroes were sold directly to the purchaser by the captain or owner, or else were disposed of through the medium of advertisements and intelligence offices. But in Virginia and South Carolina they were more frequently sold in batches to the local merchants, by whom they were bartered singly or in groups of two or three, to the planters for tobacco, rice, indigo, or cash. They were frequently taken to fairs, which were a favorite place for selling slaves. Probably the most active market in the colonies, however, was at Charleston, where many firms were engaged in the Guinea business, either on their own account or as agents for British houses. Henry Laurens, a "negro merchant" from 1748 to 1762, has given in his letters an admirable account of the way in which negroes were handled in that city. Planters sometimes came seventy miles to purchase slaves and "were so mad after them that some of them went to loggerheads and bid so upon each other that some very fine men sold for ú300" in colonial currency, or ú40 sterling. "Some of the buyers went to collaring each other and would have come to blows," and, adds Laurens, by the number of purchasers he saw in town he judged that a thousand slaves would not have supplied their wants. Every effort was made to prevent the spread of disease, and vessels with plagues on board were often quarantined or the negroes removed to pens to guard against contagion. In spite of this, however, many negroes arrived " disordered " or " meager, " with sore eyes and other ailments. Those that were healthy and not too small were kept in pens or yards until brought to the auction block. The amount for which they were sold depended on the state of the crops and the price of rice and indigo.

As soon as the negroes were purchased, they were taken to the plantation and put to work in the tobacco, rice, and indigo fields or were employed about the house at tasks of a more domestic character. In the North they served as household servants or on the farm, clearing the woods and cultivating lands. Some were coachmen, boatmen, sailors, and porters in shops and warehouses. As many of them became in time skillful shoemakers, coopers, masons, and blacksmiths, they not only did the heavier work incident to these crafts but at the same time became something of a financial asset to their owners, who hired them out to other planters, contractors, and even the Government, and then pocketed the wages themselves. In Newport hired slaves aided in building the Jewish synagogue; in Williamsburg the slaves of Thomas Jones made shoes for people of the town; and in Charleston large numbers of slaves were employed to work on the fortifications. They had their own quarters to live in, both on the plantations and in certain sections of the towns, and even the domestic servants, commonly in the South and occasionally in the North, had shanties of their own. The clothing which the slaves wore was always coarse in texture; their bedding was scanty, merely coarse covers or cheap blankets bought specially for the purpose; and their food consisted of corn bread, ash cake, rice, beans, bacon, beef on rare occasions, butter, and milk.

The slaves in domestic service were well cared for, and Laurens once said that his negroes were "as happy as slavery will admit of; none run away and the greatest punishment to a defaulter is to sell him. " Van Cortlandt of New York offered for sale a valuable negro woman who had been in his family a number of years and could do all kinds of work. "I would not take two hundred pounds for her," he wrote, "if it were not for her impudence; but she is so intorabel saucy to her mistress. " Thomas Jones once wrote to his wife: "Our family is in as much disorder with our servants as when you left it and worse, Venus being so incorigable in her bad habits and her natural ill disposition that there will be no keeping her " ; and later he added: "There is no dependence on negroes without somebody continually to follow them. " Dr. McSparran records in his diary how he was obliged to whip his negroes and how even his wife, "my poor passionate dear, " gave them a lash or two. On the other hand in many instances the devotion of negro servants to their masters, mistresses, and the children of the family is well attested, and many were freed for their continued good service and faithful loyalty.

They had their pleasures, were fond of dancing and music, attained considerable skill as dancing masters and players on the fiddle and French horn, and in South Carolina were even allowed to carry guns and hunt provided their masters obtained tickets or licenses for them.

The field hands suffered from their condition more than did those who served on the place or in the house. The work which they had to do was heavier and more exhausting, and the treatment which they received was far less kindly and considerate. For the cruelty to negroes the overseers were largely responsible, though the planters themselves were not exempt from blame. In the case of a master murdered by his slaves, the opinion was widely expressed that, as he had shown no mercy to them, he could expect none himself. Whipping to death was a not uncommon punishment, and in one case an overseer and his assistant in Virginia were hanged for this offense as murder. A South Carolinian who killed a negro "in a sudden heat of passion" was fined fifty pounds, and Quincy reports that in the same colony, though to steal a negro was punishable by death, to kill him was only finable, no matter how wanton the act might be. Many illustrations could be given of cruel treatment — such as suspension over a sharpened peg in the floor as a means of extracting a secret, or scraping the back with a currycomb and rubbing salt into the wounds, a procedure known as "pickling" — but the list is too long and harrowing. It is recorded that a negro who took part in the New York uprising of 1712 was hanged alive in chains. A negro who committed arson or who killed another negro was ordinarily hanged and quartered. One who murdered his master or mistress was burned at the stake, for such murder was construed as petty treason. In Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, North and South Carolina, and the West Indies negroes were burned alive for various crimes. In one South Carolina case, the negro who was burned had set fire to the town on a windy night. Negroes were castrated for rape; one for attempted assault on a white child was whipped around the town at a cart's tail; and another for a lesser crime was sentenced to be "whipped and pickled around Charles Town square. "

Negroes were almost as frequent runaways as were the convicts and indentured servants. If they resisted when caught, they (in South Carolina at least) might be shot about the breech with small or swan shot. They were put in jail with felons and debtors or in the workhouse, where they were " corrected " at fifteen shillings a week and returned to their masters. They frequently fled to the back country or attempted to escape to sea by passing themselves off to the captains of ships as free negroes.

Miscegenation was probably very common. Instances of white women giving birth to black children, and of white men living with colored women are rare but nevertheless are occasionally met with. Joseph Pendarvis of Charleston left his property to his children by a negro woman, Parthenia, "who had lived with him for many years," and the will may be seen today among the records of the probate court of Charleston. Indeed so scandalous did such illicit intercourse become in South Carolina, that the grand jury of 1743 presented the "too common practice of criminal conversation with negro and other slave wenches as an enormity and evil of general ill-consequence," and Quincy bears witness to the prevalence of this practice when he says that it was "far from uncommon to see a gentleman at dinner and his reputed offspring a slave to the master of the table."

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