Sunday, 23 February 2014

A tribute to the strength of the slaves who populated the US. And the white settlers too. They had much to overcome

Black friends, and not just black ones, have often pointed out to me the sheer courage and strength that must have animated the unfortunates who made the dire crossing of the Atlantic from Africa, to enter slavery in North America. 

It must indeed have taken great resolve and reserves of will to avoid being crushed and live through both the journey and slavery itself. Black Americans – or African Americans if you prefer the terms, and I don’t, because they are wholly American – can at least pride themselves on being descended from tough stock.

Slaves on the 'Middle Passage'. It took strength to survive
It strikes me, however, that white Americans were also fortunate to survive the process of colonisation. 

It has often surprised me – though perhaps it shouldn’t – that quite a few Americans labour under the illusion that the first English-speaking settlement in their land was in Massachusetts: the Pilgrim Fathers from the Mayflower expedition. It’s comforting to think that these were the first, as they’re presented as victims of persecution escaping to a land where they could be free. 

In passing, it needs to be said that this does ignore the awkward truth that the freedom they sought also involved denying any to those who were of a different faith from theirs. The Salem witch trials were perhaps the most celebrated example of the intolerance of the Massachusetts Puritans, but it was far from the only one.

In any case, they were not the first settlers. These were in what would be turned by their descendants into the slave-owning, tobacco-growing colony of Virginia. Two attempts at colonising Roanoke island failed in the 1580s. Then in 1607, settlers were sent to what became Jamestown.

Now here come the breathtaking stats: two years later, by 1609, 1000 colonists were down to just sixty.

No slaver could possibly have stayed in business with that level of losses. These guys just couldn’t make a go of things. In fact, the remaining sixty were heading down the river, ready to make a dash back to England, when they were met by a new fleet coming upstream which forced them to return to the hellhole they were escaping.

What had been the problem? Well, they certainly had their share of attacks from the local Algonquin ‘Indians’. The latter, perhaps not entirely unfairly in the light of subsequent developments, were distrustful of these new arrivals who were encroaching on their ancestral lands. There must have been problems with disease too, no doubt. But the biggest difficulty of all was that the colonists just couldn’t feed themselves.

Now, hold on and think about that. By the seventeenth century, ‘Indians’ had been living on those lands for perhaps 10,000 or 12,000 years. For some centuries, they’d developed an agricultural way of life, growing such crops as maize, which they supplemented with meat from hunting in the forests that covered most of the landscape.

They weren’t dying of hunger.

In fact, just as happened in the later Massachusetts colony, the local people made the big mistake of taking pity on the settlers and showed them how to grow food to stave off starvation. A gesture of kindness for which they were thanked by a war of extermination which started in the 1620s (but, of course, a justified war: those vicious savages had attacked some English settlements which they viewed as threatening more of their lands).

Jamestown. Settlers faced many obstacles, not least their own ineptitude
In my view, it’s time to salute those early colonists. They had much to overcome. Hostility from the local population. New diseases. But above all their sheer incompetence at carving out a living for themselves from highly fertile land.

Not sure why I can’t feel quite the same degree of admiration for them as for the slaves who survived the ordeals they faced...

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