A People’s History – Chapter 2, Drawing the Color Line continued…

In the second of installment of our deconstruction of Chapter 2 of Zinn’s book, we look at a rather odd excerpt. Zinn attempts to show that the early British settlers of the New World felt drawn to slavery due to the harsh years the colonists experienced. The hardship drew them to slavery, apparently. First we will look at an extended excerpt from Zinn. Then I will make some comments:

Everything in the experience of the first white settlers acted as a pressure for the enslavement of blacks.

The Virginians of 1619 were desperate for labor, to grow enough food to stay alive. Among them were survivors from the winter of 1609–1610, the “starving time,” when, crazed for want of food, they roamed the woods for nuts and berries, dug up graves to eat the corpses, and died in batches until five hundred colonists were reduced to sixty.

In the Journals of the House of Burgesses of Virginia is a document of 1619 which tells of the first twelve years of the Jamestown colony. The first settlement had a hundred persons, who had one small ladle of barley per meal. When more people arrived, there was even less food. Many of the people lived in cavelike holes dug into the ground, and in the winter of 1609–1610, they were

. . . driven thru insufferable hunger to eat those things which nature most abhorred, the flesh and excrements of man as well of our own nation as of an Indian, digged by some out of his grave after he had lain buried three days and wholly devoured him; others, envying the better state of body of any whom hunger has not yet so much wasted as their own, lay wait and threatened to kill and eat them; one among them slew his wife as she slept in his bosom, cut her in pieces, salted her and fed upon her till he had clean devoured all parts saving her head.

Zinn tells us about how the settlers at Jamestown were starving in the early years. The so called “starving time” in the Winter of 1609-1610 was particularly dreadful. But, then in the very next paragraph, Zinn talks about the settlers growing so much tobacco they needed extra labor:

The Virginians needed labor, to grow corn for subsistence, to grow tobacco for export. They had just figured out how to grow tobacco, and in 1617 they sent off the first cargo to England. Finding that, like all pleasurable drugs tainted with moral disapproval, it brought a high price, the planters, despite their high religious talk, were not going to ask questions about something so profitable.

In 1610, the settlers were eating their spouses to stay alive, but in 1617 they were exporting tobacco? I must be missing something? Or rather, Zinn must be omitting something. And he is. The early years of the Jamestown colony were brutally spartan for a reason, and it wasn’t the lack of slave labor. The first several years of the colony as communist, with all property being held in common. The result was a lack of incentive for anyone to work combined with rampant thieving. That is the cause of the “Starving Time.”

By 1614, new leadership had come to the colony and done away with the initial system, instead parceling the land out to individuals and families and allowing them to keep all the fruits of their labor but for a small amount set aside for newly arriving settlers, so that they may have grain for their first winter. The result was a great surplus of grain. And within a couple years time, the ability for the settlers to grow cash crops such as tobacco.

The laziness of the settlers in the early years of Jamestown wasn’t an inducement for slavery, it was an inducement for more freedom. By that logic, every unemployed basement dwelling millennial would be pressured into taking slaves if their mom were to cut rhetorical umbilical cord.

And the Virginians at Jamestown in 1619 were no longer desperate to for enough food to stay alive. It was still a hard life in the colony, but with the land reforms, the “starving times” were largely a thing of the past.

In part three of Drawing the Color Line, we look at Zinn’s backwards rationalization for why black slavery took hold in British Colonies.