The Peopling of British North America

If, as I speculated recently, all the books, news, magazines and video materials I’ve been reading are a sneaky way for me to avoid returning to my book they at least have the salutory affect of reminding me about the importance of keeping clear eyed vision. I’ll deal a little of that out in a post later today one my favorite subject the Red Plan and the future of the Duluth Schools. But for now I’ll retreat to my reading last night from the book Barbarous Years.

The title of this post is part of that book’s subtitle. After a tough slog through chapter one on the nature of the Early American (Indian) tribes of the Atlantic seaboard prior to the first British invasion I’ve managed to get page 100. The last chapter was pretty gripping much like a slasher film.

I’ve long known that the early British “settler” of Virginia dropped like flies. I didn’t know all the details until last night. Much is still left to my imagination but the numbers make D-Day casualties look like a picnic. The Jamestown settlers had several tough years of losing better than fifty percent of the settlement. Settlers came unprepared like astronauts without enough oxygen landing on some other planet. They fought with each other. They starved. Some resorted to canibalism. They offended their Indian neighbors who thought nothing of killing them and vice-versa. They as yet did not have the advantage of their immunities to long standing European diseases which had yet to sweep over the Native Americans and so they clung stubbornly to a tiny nipple of land on a vast unknown continent.

The primary owners of stock in the joint-stock company did a bang up job initially getting rich investors to part with their money and sent a couple thousand people to Virginia over the first two years. A few hundred of them were still alive three and four years later and in short time they discovered that a foreign tobacco could be grown and sent back to England. But the toe hold was precarious and tobacco was not enough to make the colony anything other than a great loss for the initial investors. Something had to be done to keep supplying the early survivors of the colony with labor (and potential countrymen) before all that early investment was lost. Thank God the owners had friends in high places.

They persuaded the government to sweep up thousands of street urchins, orphans, and destitute childrem over the decade and sent them to the first colonists to do with as they wished. Typical of the many shipments was one batch from the Seaflower. “Of the 120 men and boys sent on the Seaflower to Bennett’s Welcome [a plantation] in 1621, only 10 were alive in 1623.” (page 96) And so the shipments continued boys and girls many with no skill other than those of survival on the muddy streets of London. Those who had not died on shipboard and who were not to sick to stand were parceled out to colonists to use as required.

Reading this history (and I have yet to start the chapter on the first major massacre of settlers by Indians) got my mind ranging far and wide about how the poor in all societies are dealt with, the care or indifference of the rich, and the changes over time.

I thought back to all the reading I did two years ago before embarking on our month-long sojourn to New Zealand and Australia. After North America was closed to British jails and convicts could no longer be transported to the American colonies Britain turned to Australia. One hundred and eighty years had seen great improvements in wooden ships. They were larger. The British fleet was the best in the world and frankly its now much richer government took a more paternal attitude toward its downtrodden. Even so, one must only think about Charles Dickens depiction of Georgian England to remember it was a callous place toward the poor. Australia was not a month long trip, however. It took half a year to reach Australia from Britain or longer. Australia was no picnic however. Much like the Virginia colony of the Australian colonists, many of them convicted essentially of being poor, were no more suited to life in a hot dry unforgiving continent than the Virginia settlers were prepared for the heat and humidity of a Virginia summer.

Many settlers died in Australia but the two centuries had seen great improvements. Occassionaly a contagion could sweep through a ship on the sixth month journey. Many settlers unused to an agricultural life pined away in the new Australia. However, there were no years when 50 to 75% of the total population died or that percentage of a single boatload of transportees.

As I said I’m just beginning the chapter on the life and death struggle with Powhattan’s confederacy. The Chapter is titled “A Flood, a flood of bloud.” That gives a pretty good idea what it will be all about. And yet the massacres to be inflicted by the much threatened and aggrieved Powhattans will likely not match the passive violence of the British Crown which oversaw the transport of malnourished innocents in conveyances with all the charm of German rail cars destined for death camps. It was all to enhance the glory of Empire and shore up the fortunes of big investors anxious not to lose their shirts. Oh yeah, and to bring the savage Indians into the sanctuary of the Church.