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The Ultimate Reality Show

The brutal history of Virginia Company,
“a prison without walls” (1607-1624)

How’s this for a prime time concept? Take a few dozen British gentlemen, the type who like to search for gold and challenge each other to duels, but who have never done anything useful or practical in their lives. Make sure each brings along one or two footmen to powder his wig, shine his buckles, and prepare his afternoon tea. Add a few specialized workers, such as jewelers and glassmakers, and a few with more down-to-earth skillsbut just a few. Then fill up the rest of a ship with half-starved street vagabonds, poor children, the widows of executed thieves, and various petty criminals. Transport the group across the Atlantic Ocean and drop it off on some land under the control of a preexisting nation of indigenous people. Check back in a few years’ time and count how many people are still alive. That, in a nutshell, describes the dismal story of the Jamestown colony, the one and only business venture of the London-based Virginia Company.

As I began looking into what happened in Virginia, I didn’t have to go far. From the coffee table in my living room I picked up a copy of the National Geographic. The article, “Unsettling Discoveries at Jamestown: Suffering and surviving in 17th-century Virginia,” described recent excavations on the banks of the James River, 60 miles from the mouth of Chesapeake Bay near the city of Newport News, Virginia. Here, the first permanent settlement on the Atlantic coast was established in 1607.

In 1992, archeologist William Kelso discovered the site of the original James Fort, and his excavations confirmed in graphic detail the desperate accounts penned by survivors of the Starving Time, the winter of 16091610. The butchered bones of horses, cats, dogs, rats, and snakes indicated the downward spiral that the Virginia settlers had found themselves in. There were also many haphazard graves, hastily dug. Some contained multiple human bodies. Overall, of the 215 settlers who began the winter, only 70 were alive by spring.

Yet even as the first wave of settlers were starving to death, promoters continued to issue breathlessly optimistic new tracts, with titles such as “Good News from Virginia.” The new land, it was reported, “bringeth foorth all things in aboundance, as in the first creation, without toile or labour.” Cedars grew taller than in the Azores. Game was plentiful. And as for grapevines, “in all the world the like abundance is not to be founde.” As for the native inhabitants, they were reported to be “most gentle, loving, and faithfull, void of all guile, and treason.” Such people, it was thought, would take to the gentle hand of English rule, the “faire and loving meanes suting to our English Natures,” as readily as the primitive Britons had taken to the civilizing influence of the Romans.

Excitement about the Company ran high, and was tinged with the idea of adventure. One did not have to join the expedition to qualify. “Adventurer” included anyone who purchased a £12 share in the company, and the list included not only wealthy aristocrats and merchants but also such notables as William Shakespeare. Members of the Drapers’ Guild were especially active. Of course, the organizers were frank about the goal of the Company: to make a profit, mainly from the discovery of precious metals or minerals, or at least by the production of useful goods like glass, furs, potash, pitch, tar, and sassafras, considered a cure for syphilis. It was also whisperedthough officially the idea was a no-no, since King James I had recently made peace with Spainthat the location of the planned settlement would be ideal for launching piracy missions on the rich and poorly guarded Spanish colonies of the West Indies. Some organizers even saw the potential for the English to join forces with rebel Caribbean groups such as the Cimarrons, a group of fugitive slaves, and the Chichimici, a nation of Indians in northern Mexico, and eventually to dislodge the Spanish from their lucrative colonies. If that long-shot scenario came to pass, the Virginia Company might produce returns beyond all imagining.

To its backers, prospects that investing in the Virginia Company would pay off seemed greatly enhanced by the availability of a virtually unlimited conscript workforceBritain’s dispossessed rural tenants, imprisoned beggars, and petty criminals. Thousands of English people were transported to Jamestown, most against their will. They worked under harsh conditions of forced labor, with poor food and shelter, and brutal punishment. Only one out of five people sent to the colony survived to see the end of their seven-year period of servitude. Among transported children, the survival rate was only one in ten.

The Virginia Company’s aggressive and careless use of indentured servants had its roots in the conditions of severe stress that characterized English society at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Under feudalism, the nobility had made their earnings on the backs of the peasantry. But in the 1400s and 1500s, many nobles concluded that they could do even better by getting rid of the peasants. The ongoing practice of “enclosure” converted peasant subsistence lands into sheep pastures, driving countless people from the countryside into rural vagabondage or urban destitution. The scope of enclosure was vast: aerial photographs and archeological excavations have revealed more than a thousand deserted settlements, lending support to estimates that nearly a quarter of the land in England was affected by enclosure. Meanwhile, the English conquest of Ireland, and the banishment of Gypsies and Africans, created further waves of social disruption.

To lose one’s land was to become by definition a criminal. Under Henry VIII (15091547), vagabonds were whipped, had their ears cut off, or were hanged. During the reign of Edward VI (15471553) they were branded on the chest with the letter V. The Beggar Act of 1598 required first-time offenders to be whipped until bloody; second-time offenders were banished to work the oars of galleys or to serve time in the poorhouse.

The organizers of the Virginia Company presented their idea of converting the excess population of England into a new colonial workforce as a neat solution to two problems: gaining a foothold in the New World, while at the same time ridding the England of its unwanted people. Perhaps even more immediate on the minds of British leaders was fear of rebellion. During the Midlands Revolt, a large-scale uprising that took place in 1607, the same year that the James River settlement was founded, a group of peasants called Levellers took action to fill in (i.e. level) the ditches used to enclose and drain peasant fields.

Edward Hakluyt, who spent twenty years promoting the ideas that led to the Virginia Company, was quite frank in calling it a “prison without walls.” In 1609 the company applied to the city of London “to ease the city and suburbs of a swarme of unnecessary inmates, as a continual cause of death and famine, and the verey originall cause of all the plagues that happen in this kingdome.”

At the request of the company, Parliament in 1618 passed a bill allowing the Virginia Company to capture English and Scottish children as young as eight years of age. John Donne, one of the leaders of the company, promised in 1622 that the Virginia Company “shall sweep your streets, and wash your dores, from idele persons, and the children of idle persons, and imploy them.”

Historian John Van der Zee describes children “driven in flocks through the town and confined for shipment in barns.” Those who survived the Atlantic passage encountered regimentation and institutionalized cruelty as routine aspects of everyday life. Each person, including children, received a military rank, and those who violated the detailed rules were tied “neck and heels” for the first offense, whipped for the second, and forced to work on a convict galley for the third. Such methods of discipline had been devised by Maurice of Orange for training Dutch soldiers; they were introduced to the Virginia colony by Sir Thomas Gates and Sir Thomas Gale. Even petty crimes were harshly punished. Stealing an ear of corn or a bunch of grapes while weeding a garden was punishable by death. For stealing two or three pints of oatmeal, one worker had a needle thrust through his tongue and was then chained to a tree until he died of starvation.

Speaking out against the leadership of the company earned even worse punishment. For making “base and detracting” statements against the governor, the Company managers ordered one servant to have his arms broken, his tongue pierced with an awl, and finally to be beaten by a gauntlet of 40 men before being banished from the settlement. For complaining that the Company’s system of justice was unfair, a man named Thomas Hatch was whipped, placed in the pillory, had an ear cut off, and sentenced to an additional seven years of servitude.

But of all the offenses an employee of the Company could commit, the worst judging by the severity of the punishmentwas merely to quit. When one group of runaways was found living among the Indians, Governor Dale responded with a frenzy of executions: “Some he appointed to be hanged, some burned, some to be broken upon wheels, others to be staked, and some to be shot to death.”

Although some accounts describe the children sent to the Virginia Colony as “apprentices,” the implication that young people were being educated in a trade in exchange for their uncompensated labor is deceptive. According to historian Edmund S. Morgan, “Almost all servants were … in a condition resembling that of the least privileged type of English servant, the parish apprentice, a child who (to relieve the community of supporting him) was bound to service by court order, until he was twenty-one or twenty-four, with no obligation on his appointed master’s part to teach him a trade or pay him.” Ill treatment of children is reflected in the death rate. In 1619, several hundred children between the ages of eight and sixteen were shipped from the London poorhouse to Virginia. Of these the names of 165 were recorded; six years later, only 12 of the group remained alive.

Degrading treatment of servants appears to have known few if any limits. Elizabeth Abbott was beaten to death by her masters, John and Alice Proctor. A witness counted five hundred lashes inflicted on Abbott prior to her death. A second servant of the Hintons, Elias Hinton, was beaten to death with a rake. It is not recorded what offenses the two had committed.

In some ways, the ill treatment of servants in the Virginia colony merely reflected the harshly enforced class structure that characterized the times. But the corporate organization of the company actually made conditions for servants worse in Virginia than in England, since the absolute power enjoyed by the company’s managers over their workers led to the abandonment of English laws and customs that traditionally had given servants at least a small degree of control over their own lives. Buying and selling of servants became a common, and even a casual, practice. A Dutch sea captain observed Virginia landowners playing cards, with their servants as gambling stakes. An English sea captain reported seeing servants “sold here upp and downe like horses.” In a remarkably short time, the grandees of the Virginia Company had organized “a system of labor that treated men as things.”

Exacerbating the difficulties faced by the Virginia Company was a major dispute among its investors over company strategy. One group, consisting of large merchants, was content to let the company remain unprofitable for a long period. A second group, led by Lord Robert Rich, had obtained privateering commissions from small nation-states such as Savoy, and saw the colony as a convenient base for preying on Spanish shipping in the Caribbean. A third group, led by Sir Edwin Sandys, favored more aggressive programs to wring a profit out of the colony. Finally, the investors managed to unite in support of Sandys’ plan, which included creative new incentives for the privileged members of the colony, transporting more servants and laborers, and initiating a diversity of economic projects including production of lumber, silk, wine, and glass.

As part of the Sandys plan, the Company made an effort to coax free settlers not to abandon the colony by forming a governing body consisting of the governor, his appointed councilors, and 22 burgesses elected by the landowning settlers. The Virginia General Assembly convened for the first time in 1619the same year that African slaves were first brought to the colony. Thus, the Virginia Colony, despite its record as a deadly work camp for the English poor and as the starting place for the 244-year holocaust of African slavery, gets credit as the New World’s “cradle of democracy” for establishing the first legislative body among Europeans in America. To the north, the Massachusetts Bay Company similarly spawned a representative legislature among its most privileged members. And as more settlements were organized, the use of legislatures expanded accordingly. New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Connecticut all modeled themselves after Massachusetts; the southern colonies (except Georgia), after Virginia. Pennsylvania and Delaware, both organized by William Penn, adopted legislatures modeled after those of Virginia and Maryland. In 1682, the Duke of York, responding to a petition, authorized the governor to call an assembly in New York like those of the New England colonies.

Sandys’ plan might be termed the “Enronization” of the Virginia Company because of the way the officers of its spin-off subsidiaries managed to enrich themselves while the company itself collapsed. As described by historian Edmund Morgan:

The company reserved a “quitrent” of a shilling a year on every fifty acres granted. The amount was small … but land was abundant. …[I]t would yield a small income in quitrents to the company, increasing with the arrival of every new settler. …[I]n order to speed up settlement, [Sandys] induced various members of the company to join in subcorporations or associations to found “particular plantations” peopled by tenants on the same terms. Investors in these associations obtained a hundred acres for every share of stock in the company plus fifty acres for every tenant…. In other ways, too, the company encouraged the formation of special-interest groups within itself. …It seems evident that while the Virginia Company was failing in London, a number of its officers in the colony were growing rich. …[W]e can see not only the fleeting ugliness of private enterprise operating temporarily without check, not only greed magnified by opportunity, producing fortunes for a few and misery for many. We may also see Virginians beginning to move toward a system of labor that treated men as things.

Eventually, the bitter splits among the Virginia Company’s investors led to an outside investigation of the company. A stockholder named Samuel Wrote had made a few calculations. Out of 3,570 people sent to the colony under Sandys, joining 700 people already there, only 900 remained alive just three years later. Approximately 350 people had been killed by Indiansbut that left 3,000 deaths unaccounted for. Most, it appears, had died of starvation, disease, abuse, or simply overwork on the tobacco plantations. “It consequentlie followes that wee had then lost 3000 persons within those 3 yeares,” noted the disgruntled Wrote.

Wrote and others asked the king for an official investigation, and after receiving the commission’s findings the king moved quickly in 1624 to revoke the charter of the Virginia Company and place the colony under direct governmental control. Overall, since the founding of the colony, 6,000 adults and children had gone to the Jamestown colony. Of those, an estimated 4,800 had died. 

The Virginia Company was not an anomaly, but instead just one island of misery in an archipelago that circled the Atlantic rim, from Ireland to West Africa to the Caribbean to the coast of North America. Around this circle, a cross-ethnic culture emerged among the conscript workforces of sailors and plantation workers. News traveled around the circle. Thus, in 1619, a request from the Virginia Company to the London Common Council for a shipment of children from Bridewell prison sparked a revolt among the children. Despite the glowing reports being fed to investors about conditions in the colony, more accurate reports about the deadly conditions in Virginia had apparently reached the inhabitants of Bridewell.

This subculture of resistance resurfaces repeatedly throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, most dramatically in street battles between sailors and press-gangs. During the Stamp Act protests of 1765, British General Thomas Gage noted that the rebellion was “composed of great numbers of Sailors headed by Captains of Privateers.”

By themselves, the indentured servants and conscript sailors who rebelled throughout the eighteenth century in port cities like Boston and New York were not sufficiently organized to pose a serious threat to the established order. As we’ll see in the next chapter, the spirit of rebellion that produced the American Revolution did not gain critical mass until it was picked up by more privileged members of society, including intellectuals like Tom Paine and merchants like John Hancock. But the connections are undeniable. Groups like Sam Adams’ Sons of Liberty,  made up of small and well-to-do merchants, consciously modeled themselves after the Sons of Neptune, a group of New York sailors. Men with one foot in each world such as George Hewes, a shoemaker and former sailor who “was mixed up in every street fight, massacre, or tea party that occurred in the Boston of his day,” carried the notions of freedom and equality with them as they crossed the boundaries that separated one class from another. There is no doubt that the eloquent ideas that flowed from the quill of Thomas Jefferson had gestated among generations of indentured servants, plantation workers, and conscripted sailors. These ideas are the legacy of the men, women, and children who suffered and died of starvation, overwork, and brutal treatment on the tobacco plantations of the Virginia Company and the ships of the East India Company.

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