Thursday, May 15, 2014

Night Comes to Cumberlands (excerpted Child Slaves from Britain) by Harry Caudill

The cities and greater towns of Britain were not places of beauty
or comfort for anyone in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries —not even for the most favored classes. And for many—indeed,
for most—they were nauseous hell holes of crime and venality.
The streets were unlighted by night and swarmed with footpads,
pickpockets, thieves, robbers and prostitutes at all hours.
open sewers contaminated air and water and helped to make life both unpleasant and short. Constables were able to maintain only a
semblance of order in such a setting, even though, with the help of
the assize judges, gibbets and scaffolds were seldom bare of their
grisly fruit. It was an age in which a child of seven could be hanged
for stealing a loaf of bread; an age in which the father of a large
brood of children could be locked in a cell for life if he was so unfortunate as to incur debts which he could not pay. It was also an age in which many men were slain in perilous occupations, and in which many others went to the scaffold or died in military service or of recurring plagues. It was an age in which countless mothers died of "childbed fever" and other complications arising from pregnancy.

These and many other factors resulted in great hordes of orphans,
who roamed the streets of towns and cities and the countryside itself, and whose care and protection the Crown was wholly unprepared to assume.

It was to these orphans and to the debtors' prisons which the labor-hungry planters of the Southern coasts turned. Parliament wanted
to get rid of these social outcasts, who so proliferated and burdened
the respectable classes of England, and the agents of the plantation
owners were able to paint glowing pictures of the wonderful new
world waiting beyond the Atlantic, where the weather was sunny
and where men might perform honest labor under wholesome conditions.

The inevitable result was a series of Parliamentary acts making
it possible to transport street orphans, debtors and criminals to the
New World, their transportation costs to be paid by the planters.
Of course, these wretched outcasts were obliged by law to repay the generous planter with the sole commodity they could produce—
their labor. The period of indentureship was usually seven years,
though sometimes it was much longer.

And so for many decades there flowed from Merry England to the
piney coasts of Georgia, Virginia and the Carolinas a raggle-taggle of humanity—penniless workmen fleeing from the ever-present threat of military conscription; honest men who could not pay their debts, pickpockets and thieves who were worth more to the Crown on a New World plantation than dangling from a rope, and children of all ages and both sexes, whose only offense was that they were
orphans and without guardians capable of their care.

Not all persons who came to the New World under such circumstances were brought legally, even by the loose standards prevailing atthe time. Not all children who found themselves in a ship's hold outward bound for Charleston were orphans. Gangs of thieves prospered in the sordid business of stealing or "nabbing" children for the plantations. In the parlance of their day they were called "kidnabbers," a term later converted by Cockney English to "kidnapers." But the peril of kidnaping was not restricted to hapless boys and girls. Judging from an ancient song, adults, too, were shanghaied, and sometimes under truly agonizing circumstances:

The night I was a-married,
And on my marriage bed,
There come a fierce sea captain
And stood by my bed stead.
His men, they bound me tightly
With a rope so cruel and strong,
And carried me over the waters
To labor for seven years long.

It is apparent that such human refuse, dumped on a strange shore in the keeping of a few hundred merciless planters, was incapable of developing the kind of stable society under construction in the Puritan North. Instead of the hymn-singing pilgrim to whom idleness was the badge of shame, we must start with the cynical, the penniless,
the resentful and the angry.
Many of them died on the plantations under the whips of taskmasters. Some ran away and became pirates whose Jolly Rogers terrorized the oceans. A few, perhaps, rose over the heads and shoulders of their suffering fellows to become planters themselves. Others—and it is these with whom we are concerned
— ran away to the interior, to the rolling Piedmont, and
thence to the dark foothills on the fringes of the Blue Ridge. These latter were joined by more who came when their bonds had expired. And here we have the people— few in number, but steadily gaining recruits, living under cliffs or in rude cabins —who were the first to earn for themselves the title of "Southern mountaineers

Night Comes to Cumberlands by Harry Caudill

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