During the 15th century the minds of the merchants in the rising European commercial States were agitated by the attempts to discover another way to the East Indies, for the customary caravan routes across the Continent of Asia were threatened, and in some cases completely blocked, by the growth of Arabian and Moorish power. Portugal, through Diaz and da Gama, tried round the Southern part of Africa, while Spain sent Columbus across the Western waters.
Columbus eventually reached America, and the land he discovered is thus described by Prescott (Prescott’s Works, edited by John Foster Kirk) in his “Biographical and Critical Miscellanies":
All around was free,—free as Nature herself: the mighty streams rolling on in their majesty, as they had continued to roll from the creation; the forests which no hand had violated, flourishing in primeval grandeur and beauty: their only tenants the wild animals, or the Indians nearly as wild, scarcely held together by any tie of social polity. Nowhere was the trace of civilized man or his curious contrivances. . . The only eye upon them was the eye of heaven. (Page 127)The dealings of Columbus, the slave trader, with the natives of this virgin land is a record of fraud, cruelty, and force perpetrated on innocent, generous, and credulous savages. As the immediate pecuniary gains from his discoveries did not satisfy those who financed his expedition, Columbus frequently offered to send to Spain cargoes of the natives to be sold into slavery.
The colonists who followed in the track of Columbus were Court adventurers and companies of merchants, who were granted tracts of land with almost unlimited rights of settlement, being empowered to make their own laws, etc. The settlements were originally on the Eastern coast, but could be extended, if desired in strips right across the continent to the Pacific coast.
From the beginning the attitude of the colonists toward the innocent savages was one of cruelty and rapine, as the following quotation will bear out (in Reference to Rayleigh's settlement on Roanoke Island, N. Carolina, 1585) :
Treachery and cruelty, however, marked the brief existence of even this first English colony; a leading Indian chief and his principle followers were massacred by pre-concert at an audience at which no sign of hostility was shown by the Indians.—“War of American Independence,” Ludlow, p. 27.As the new land was opened up the settler commenced to do a roaring trade with the mother country, and the need for workers arose “Voluntary emigration ceased in 1685, and the only additions from England to the white population were by means of transportation and kidnapping, the latter practised chiefly from Bristol.” (Ludlow, p. 31.) “Kidnappers as well as slave buyers, the colonists broke the treaties with the Indians, harried them with commandoes, and sold them as slaves to the West Indies.” (Ludlow, p. 36.)
The history of America up to the period of the Revolution is the record of the rise to enormous wealth of a land-owning, slave-holding, and trading autocracy. The property qualificacation excluded the workers from the vote [and the same was true long after the Revolution), all wealth and power being in the hands of the wealthy class.
During this time there were frequent revolts of the oppressed, all of which were ruthlessly suppressed by the future advocates of eternal liberty.
The enclosure of the common lands in France, Germany, and England gave rise to a multitude of starving outcasts, some of whom turned their eyes toward the New World in the hope of finding an amelioration of their lot. These provided ready material for the kidnapper and emigration agent, who enticed them across the Atlantic and then sold them into a species of slavery (indentured service) even worse than the slavery of the blacks.
The records of the American white slave traffic exhibit an almost unbelievable barbarity. This traffic is fully discussed by James O’Neal in “The Workers in American History,” where the worst evils of Negro slavery are shown to be paralleled if not surpassed by the system of indentured service.
Of course, the followers of the “meek and lowly one” had to have a finger in the pie, and we read that—
The famous Whitfield, and the two Wesleys, visited America at this period (1743) and urged the expediency of allowing slavery. (Ludlow, p. 38.)
In his “Story of the Negro” Booker T. Washington points out that the white man sold his own people in America years before the first black slaver sailed into Jamestown, Virginia (1619).
These, then, were the conditions from which the wealth of America had arisen.
When the English capitalists realised what a prize was within their grasp they tried to keep their hands upon it, and in doing so, overreached themselves. Navigation laws were passed confining to English vessels, navigated by Englishmen, all importation into and exportation from the colonies, and even forbidding any importation of European commodities except those commodities coming from England.
Subsequently a further Act was passed forbidding all colonial staples to be imported otherwise than to England, so that a duty equivalent to the English customs duty was laid on the importation of such articles from one colony to another. Says Gibbins:
It is quite obvious, apart from any consideration of national policy, these regulations were dictated by the class interests of British manufacturers and merchants. (“Industry in England," p. 366.)
All these restrictions, however, failed in their object An extensive contraband trade developed and American smugglers waxed wealthy.
It was the time when the great inventions were revolutionising industry in England. The production of wealth in prodigious quantities was commencing, and the world lay waiting to absorb all the English manufacturers could produce. So we can guess with what consternation they viewed the attempt of the Americans to produce and export on their own account, instead of remaining producers of raw material for English manufacturers and a dumping-ground for British manufactures:
The revolution commenced with some skirmishes in Boston and the upsetting of the East India Company's tea in Boston harbour. For some time this vast company was on the verge of ruin owing to the large stocks of tea and other Indian goods on their hands. The English Government magnanimously (!) agreed to accommodate the Company by taking off as much duty in England as would make the Company’s tea cheaper in America than any foreigners could import. This struck a mortal blow at the smugglers. The latter were consequently roused to righteous and indignant action, and stood right sturdily for the “Rights of Man” by throwing the pernicious tea into the Atlantic.
Washington, one of the principle figures in the Revolution, prior thereto was engaged in surveying land, and O'Neal states that on the eve of the war a case was pending against him for illegal surveying. He was also deeply involved in the white slave traffic. His “poverty” may be estimated from the fact that he offered to raise and equip at his own expense a force of 1,000 men to relieve Boston.
Benjamin Franklin also was not above turning a honest penny in the slave traffic.
The delegates who had been chosen for the Philadelphia Congress of 1774 “Had known what it was to breakfast in a villa on the Hudson River with a very large silver coffee pot, a very large silver tea pot, napkins of the finest materials, plates full of choice fruit, and toast and bread and butter in great perfection. But in Philadelphia . . there was magnificence, and, above all, abundance, under many roofs. 'A most sinful feast again,' John Adams wrote, 'everything which could delight the eye or allure the taste. Cards and creams, jellies, sweetmeats of various sorts, twenty sorts of tarts, fools, trifles, floating islands, and whipped sillabubs. These dainties were washed down with floods of Madeira.' ” (Trevelyan, vol I., p. 225.)
Such were the poor down-trodden whose souls the times were trying (according to Thomas Paine), and who proposed vindicating the Rights of Man! Another comic tragedy was in process of production upon the stage of history. In relation to the above it is well to remember that the vast majority of the population at that time (excluding Indians) was composed of poor whites and slaves both black and white.
To prosecute the war the English proceeded to engage German mercenaries and disaffected Americans. By the offer of freedom to indentured servants they attracted many to their ranks' so that the rebels were compelled to offer the same inducement.
The stock jobbery and wrangles of the English capitalists, in the attempt of each to make the war as lucrative as possible to himself, put England out of the running from the start. On the American side similar jobbery prevailed. I will quote Washington’s own words:
Such a dearth of public spirit, and such want of virtue; such stock-jobbing, and fertility in all the low arts to obtain advantages of one kind or another in this great change of military arrangement, I never saw before, and I pray God's mercy that I may never see again. (Trevelyan, Vol. I., p. 403.)
His letters during the war are full of similar complaints. All along he complains of the enormous desertions, sometimes of whole regiments. and of the difficulty of getting recruits. High bounties had to be offered by the different States before the various armies could be raised, and immediately their term of service was up they departed.
On both sides the aid of the Indians was extensively employed, and they were urged on by bribes to acts of the greatest barbarity.
The gentle refinement of Washington, the glorious example of American schoolboys of today, may be judged by the following:
During the summer (August and September, 1779) a terrible revenge was taken on the Iroquois for the Wyoming massacres by General Sullivan, who with 5,000 men devastated their whole country between the Susquehannah and Genesee rivers,—covered, we are told, with “pleasant villages and luxurient cornfields"—burning every village, giving no quarter. At one village, which is termed the “metropolis of the Genesee Valley," no less than 160,000 bushels of corn were destroyed. The Indians were pursued as far as the British fort of Niagara, and Indian agriculture was destroyed throughout the district. The total American loss did not exceed 40 men. The responsibility for these cruel measures lies at Washington's own door. His instructions to General Sullivan (May 31st) were “that the country may not be merely over-run, but destroyed." (Ludlow, p. 164.)
At length England agreed to evacuate America. It is noteworthy to mention (bearing in mind the much-vaunted Rights of Man) that one of the articles in the final capitulation stipulated the restoration of slaves and “prohibited the British from carrying away any Negroes or other property of the inhabitants."
Such was the great American Revolution. At bottom it was a fight between the privileged class of America and England to decide who should enjoy the wealth wrung from the slaves of both colours.
In early times to have imported free workers into America would not have sufficed for the needs of the privileged class, as the workers would have spread far and wide and gained their subsistence without working for a master. Hence workers had to be introduced in two particular forms of servitude (chattel slavery and indentured service) which tied them to their particular masters for a definite period or for life.
Long after the Revolution these forms of servitude continued. When economic development had rendered wage labour possible and more profitable, then the old forms of slavery disappeared.