From the Folks Who Brought You the Weekend: A Short, Illustrated History of Labor in the United Statesby Priscilla Murolo
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Hailed in a starred Publishers Weekly review as a work of "impressive even-handedness and analytic acuity . . . that gracefully handles a broad range of subject matter," From the Folks Who Brought You the Weekend is the first comprehensive look at American history through the prism of working people. From indentured servants and slaves in the seventeenth-century Chesapeake to high-tech workers in contemporary Silicon Valley, the book "[puts] a human face on the people, places, events, and social conditions that have shaped the evolution of organized labor" (Library Journal).
From the Folks Who Brought You the Weekend also "thoroughly includes the contributions of women, Native Americans, African Americans, immigrants, and minorities, and considers events often ignored in other histories," writes Booklist, which adds that "thirty pages of stirring drawings by comic journalist’ Joe Sacco add an unusual dimension to the book."
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LABOR IN COLONIAL AMERICA:
THE BOUND AND THE FREE
* * *
The New World looked much like paradise to European voyagers in the fifteenthand sixteenth centuries. Christopher Columbus's first expedition(1492-93) took him to the Bahamas, Cuba, and Hispaniola, all of which heclaimed as colonies for Spain's King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella and describedas modern-day Edens in his report to the crown. He found Hispaniolaespecially breathtaking: "In that island ... there are mountains of verygreat size and beauty, vast plains, groves, and very fruitful fields, admirablyadopted for tillage, pasture and habitation. The convenience and excellenceof the harbors in this island, and the abundance of rivers, so indispensable tothe health of man, surpass anything that would be believed by one who hadnot seen it ... and moreover it abounds in various kinds of spices, gold, andother metals." The island's inhabitants seemed "exceedingly liberal with allthat they have; none of them refusing any thing he may possess when he isasked for it, but on the contrary inviting us to ask them."
Such impressions were not confined to the balmy Caribbean. In the1580s, Englishmen hoping to colonize the rougher shores of today's NorthCarolina thought they had found an Eden on Roanoke Island. There, wroteArthur Barlowe, "The earth bringeth forth all things in abundance, as in thefirst creation, without toil or labor." Thomas Harriot forecast a happy relationshipwithRoanoke's natives, whose desire for "friendship & love"seemed certain to imbue them with "respect for pleasing and obeying us."These were stock images in the earliest reports from European colonists inthe Americas.
Many also told of astonishingly rich mineral deposits, which caughtEurope's attention above all else. These rumors began with Columbus, whoannounced at the end of his first voyage that the islands he had claimedwould supply Ferdinand and Isabella with "as much gold as they need." Theislanders would presumably be happy to serve it up. In fact, Caribbean golddeposits fell far below Columbus's estimates, and only brutal force couldmake mine slaves out of the region's natives, a collection of tribes known inretrospect as the Arawaks. The islands he likened to paradise in 1492 soonbecame hellholes where Spain enforced its rule with troops, heavy armaments,and attack dogs as the Arawaks were literally worked to death harvestinggold. The same befell Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and other islands thatcame under Spanish control in later years. By the 1530s, the Caribbean'sgoldfields had been stripped bare; the Arawak population had dwindledfrom about ten million to a few thousand at best, and a new cycle of miseryhad begun as colonists turned from mining to cultivating sugar cane withcaptive labor from Africa as well as the Americas.
Dreams of mineral wealth in the New World remained alive and wellthanks to Spain's conquests of the Aztec empire in Mexico (1519-21) andthe Inca empire in Peru (1532), both exceptionally rich in gold and silver.For decades to come, colonists throughout the Americas would dig for orebefore getting down to the more mundane business of farming. Over thelong haul, however, agriculturethe production of cash crops for Europeanmarketsproved more lucrative than mining; and so did the commerce inslaves, who raised the lion's share of colonial crops.
These developments vindicated Columbus's first impressions of the NewWorld in one respect. Though the soil did not teem with gold and the peoplewould not volunteer for servitude, the profits Europe extracted fromAmerican enterprises fully met his expectations. Many nations partook ofthe wealth: Portugal, England, France, and Holland joined Spain as majorcolonial and slave-trading powers, and their proceeds fueled economicgrowth throughout Europe.
Commerce across the Atlantic was not an entirely new phenomenon.Pre-Columbian journeys both to and from the Americas may have been numerousto judge from fragmentary evidence such as Roman coins found inthe Americas, Eskimo harpoon heads unearthed in Ireland and Scotland,and ancient Mayan sculptures that bear faces with African features. TheNorse voyages described in Icelandic sagas are confirmed by archeologicalevidence of a short-lived settlement in Newfoundland in the early eleventhcentury, and timber from the region was shipped to Greenland for another300 years. Columbus himself found evidence of commerce between Africansand Americans: Arawaks sometimes used spearpoints of "guanine" an alloyof gold, silver, and copper developed and used in West Africa, where it wasalso called guanine. The Arawaks said the alloy had come from dark-skinnedtraders. Columbus's son Ferdinand met people "almost black in color" inwhat is now eastern Honduras; the Balboa expedition to Panama encountereda "tribe of Ethiopians."
While transatlantic travel and trade predated Columbus, colonial ventureswere something new. Unlike their predecessors, the voyagers of 1492and after came from societies that had developed military technology to unprecedentedlevels during the Christian Crusades to seize the Holy Landfrom Muslims in the eleventh through thirteenth centuries. The new toolsof war went hand in hand with the certainty of entitlement to any and alllands inhabited by non-Christians. And just as merchants had bankrolled theCrusades in return for trade monopolies, the men who pioneered Europe'scolonization of the New World combined Christian piety with a keen eyefor business opportunities.
Exploiting the colonies was never a simple matter, however. Europeanmonarchs gave giant tracts of American land to favorite courtiers, explorers,military men, and merchants, but land in and of itself could not make the recipientsrich. It seldom contained precious metals; when it did, someone hadto mine the ore. Contrary to Europeans' first impressions, moreover, the soilwould not feed people without cultivation, let alone yield up cash crops. Tomake a colony pay, its proprietors had to acquire and control a labor force.
Though colonial labor systems differed from place to place and changedover time, bondage was invariably their linchpin. Slaves, indentured servants,and other captives vastly outnumbered wage workers, and the latter enjoyedfew civil liberties beyond the enviable right to quit an unbearable job. Forfree laborers as well as the unfree, subordination was the central fact of life.Yet both groups repeatedly challenged their masters' authority. The thingsthey endured and the ways they resisted form the core themes of coloniallabor history in territories now part of the United States.
Legacies of Conquest
The first colonists to arrive in the future United States were Spaniards whoexplored Florida in the early 1500s, hunting for gold and for Indian captivesto work Caribbean gold mines. By 1565, when Spain claimed Florida as acolony, Spanish expeditions had also explored much of what is today thesouthwestern U.S. and had established outposts as far north as Virginia andKansas. By the mid-1700s, the Spanish frontier in North America was confinedto southern latitudes but stretched all the way from Florida to California.Free laborersSpaniards, Native Americans, Africans, and many peopleof mixed ancestrywere part of the work force on this frontier. They includedartisans, domestic servants, cotton sharecroppers, and herders on cattleand sheep ranches. Indian servitude was the mainstay of Spanish colonies,however, and fairly common in the sections of North America controlled byEngland and France.
In the late 1500s, the Spanish crown forbade the outright enslavement ofIndians, but other forms of Indian bondage remained legal, and slavery wasoften practiced despite the law. From Florida to California, Spain's NorthAmerican colonies were dotted with missions established by Franciscan friarsworking to convert Indians to Christianity. This project proceeded on anespecially large scale in the colony of New Mexico, established in 1598. By1629, there were fifty Franciscan missions in the colony, and a reported86,000 Pueblo Indians had been baptized. The majority of the convertslived in the mission settlements, where men, women, and children spentmost of their waking hours at labor under the friars' supervision. Mainly,they raised crops and livestock, not only feeding the settlement but also producingsurpluses that the friars marketed for consumption in America or forshipment to Spain. While Spanish law did not define mission Indians asslaves, neither were they free to come and go as they wished. Floggingsawaited those who failed to do their assigned work, missed the compulsoryreligious services, or otherwise broke the friars' rules. Soldiers guarded themissions to keep marauding Indians out and the converts in.
Still, many Indians preferred mission life to their treatment under secularSpanish rule. In New Mexico, colonists regularly violated the law by sendingNavajo and Apache captives into slave labor in Mexico's mines. Outside themissions, Pueblo peoples labored under the encomienda system in which recipientsof royal land grants collected tribute from the land's inhabitants.Under this system, the Pueblos produced maize, cotton blankets, and hidesfor export to Mexico or Spain. Tribute in the form of forced labor was prohibitedby the crown, but encomenderos repeatedly ignored that rule.
In both New Mexico and Florida, colonists also foisted repartimiento andrescate on native peoples. The system of repartimiento de indios drafted Indiansfor labor on public works projectsunloading ships, transporting supplies,building and repairing roads, bridges, and fortifications. By law, the drafteesserved for limited terms, labored only on public projects, and received faircompensation. In practice, colonial officials often extended service beyondthe legal term, dispensed with wages, and compelled repartimiento workers tolabor for private businesses and households. Rescate was practiced in allSpanish colonies: Indians taken captive by other Indians were ransomed andbound over for domestic service in colonists' households. Technically theseindios de depósito were not slaves, and did not pass their condition to theirchildren. But they could be bought and sold, and some were sold into slaveryin Mexico.
In New Mexico unbaptized Indiansespecially women and childrenwereoften seized and sold as domestic slaves in violation of the law. Officialstolerated the practice on the theory that it "civilized" the slaves; but likemost forms of slavery, this one was more likely to barbarize the masters. In1751, the wife of Alejandro Mora complained to authorities in Bernalillo,New Mexico, that he mistreated the Indian woman Juana, a slave in theMora household. The investigating constable found Juana covered withbruises and burns, her ankles raw from manacles, her knees festering withsores. Mora had broken her knees to keep her from running away and periodicallyreopened the wounds with a flintstone. Juana gave this testimony:
I have served my master for eight or nine years now but they have seemed more like 9,000 because I have not had one moment's rest. He has martyred me with sticks, stones, whip, hunger, thirst, and burns all over my body.... He inflicted them saying that it was what the devil would do to me in hell, that he was simply doing what God had ordered him to do.
Mora protested that he was only looking out for Juana's welfare. He hadraped her, he said, only to test her claim to virginity, and he had tortured heronly to keep her from becoming a loose woman. Authorities removed Juanafrom the Mora household; that was her master's only penalty.
English and French colonists enslaved Indians too, though never in thesame numbers as did the Spanish. In 1622, Virginians sold Indian survivorsof Powhatan's War into slavery in the West Indies; in 1637, Indian survivorsof the Pequot War in New England were enslaved in Bermuda. During theTuscarora and Yamasee Wars (1711-15), Englishmen and their Indian alliescaptured and enslaved natives of the Carolina interior. In 1731, the French inLouisiana rounded up most of the surviving Natchez nation for sale to WestIndies plantations. And while English and French colonies typically sent Indiancaptives to the Caribbean, quite a few were enslaved on the mainland.About a tenth of the slaves in French Louisiana were Indians, mostly womenassigned to domestic work. French settlers in Detroit bought Pawnee,Osage, and Choctaw captives and held them and their descendants as slavesfor most of the 1700s. A census of South Carolina in 1708 counted 3,960free whites, 4,100 African slaves, 1,400 Indian slaves, and 120 indenturedwhites. In New York in 1712, about a quarter of all slaves were Indians. InKingston, Rhode Island, in 1730, a census counted 935 whites, 333 Africanslaves, and 223 Indian slaves. By the late 1700s, Indian and African slaves hadamalgamated to the point that census takers did not distinguish between thetwo, instead listing all slaves as "colored."
Indians also labored for Europeans in relationships that did not involvebondage. Many hunted and trapped for pelts to sell to colonial fur traders.Since Indians valued commodities differently than Europeans, they oftenfailed to get market value for their goods. From the mid-1600s onward,some New England Indians were wage earners, working as farmhands,domestics, whalers, and construction laborers. This movement into wageworka pattern that would eventually extend across the continentreflectedthe losses of land that undermined Native American's ability to livewithout hiring out.
In 1742, the Seneca leader Canassatego spoke to Pennsylvania officials onbehalf of the Iroquois nations: "We know our lands are now become morevaluable. The white people think we do not know their value; but we aresensible that the land is everlasting, and the few goods we receive for it aresoon worn out and gone.... Besides, we are not well used with respect tothe lands still unsold by us. Your people daily settle on these lands, and spoilour hunting. We must insist on your removing them, as you know they haveno right to settle." In this instance and countless others, colonial authoritiesfailed to remove the squatters, and Indians' economic independence eroded.
Indentured Labor in British Colonies
Indentured workerscommonly called "servants"were a key source oflabor for British colonies. They planted the first crops at the Jamestowncolony founded in Virginia in 1607, Britain's first permanent settlement inwhat is now the United States. Twelve of them were aboard the Mayflowerwhen it brought the Pilgrims to Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620. By thetime the American Revolution broke out in the mid-1770s, more than halfof all European immigrants to the colonies had entered as indentured servants.Estimates put their proportion at 60 to 77 percent. In the 1600s, thevast majority came from England as individuals, and the males far outnumberedthe females. The next century saw a large influx of Irish and Germanfamilies, and the sex ratio grew more even.
Until the 1660s, most black immigrants to British North America arrivedas indentured workers too. The first twenty, at least three of themwomen, landed in Jamestown on a Dutch ship in 1619. Over the next forty-oddyears, many hundreds of black indentured servants entered Britain'smainland colonies, from New England in the north to the Carolinas in thesouth. The majority came from England, Spain, or Portugal, where Africanshad lived for two generations or more; others came from the West Indies.
Indenture placed workers in bondage for a limited termtypically threeto five years, though some served considerably more time. What had promisedto be a short term might stretch into a long one. Magistrates routinelyextended the terms of servants hauled into court for fleeing their masters orotherwise breaking the law. For the duration of the indenture, they weretheir master's property, and many were repeatedly bought and sold beforetheir terms expired.
Excerpted from FROM THE FOLKS WHO BROUGHT YOU THE WEEKEND by Priscilla Murolo and A. B. Chitty. Copyright © 2001 by Priscilla Murolo, A. B. Chitty, and Joe Sacco. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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