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The George

The George
Jamestown Colony

Unheralded and unmourned, the George, under the command of master William Ewens, arrived to the Jamestown docks in May of 1619, her cargo, the first slaves in Virginia. Children ranging from the ages of eight to sixteen, the 80 survivors of the 125 that were sent from Bridewell, chained in the hold. Of the children sold; in the late fall of 1619, Nathaniel Tatum; age 14 years, (sold as ‘indentured’ to Sherley Hundred and still alive in 1625); Nicholas Granger; age 14 years, Elizabeth Abbott; age 13 years, were three of the one hundred and twenty-five kid-nabbed children off the backwater streets in the slums of London. These ‘vagabonds’, caught roaming were seized, herded into Bridewell[1]and dispatched with great speed in leg and neck irons to “His Majesties plantations in Virginia”[2].

The second ship, the Bona Nova, under the command of Master John Huddleston, who worked for the Virginia Company, was for the transporting of reprieved felons. These two ships inaugurated the beginning of England’s profitable venture into the white slave trade under the guise of the transportation of convicts.

The reasons and explanations that came to this point are threefold.

  1. In the last decade of the 16th century and into the first years of the 17th, England’s small yeoman farmers were unable to survive a series of bad harvests which ravaged their crops. This misfortune in turn unleashed higher food costs due to near famine conditions. The consequence created an endemic of displaced and poverty-stricken families from the country villages clogging the major cities in hopes of recovery. In their efforts to improve their lives, these individuals were perhaps unaware that the abandonment of their farms placed them in an even more precarious situation, one from which escape was deemed impossible: the Vagrancy Act of 1597. Included in the Act was the option of banishment “if one persisted in remaining unemployed and idle”. The term “vagrant” was applied if one was not working after a three-day period. The difficulty lay in economics; too few jobs and too many people lining up for what little work there was.
  2. In the early years of the 1600’s, known global trade was with the East, and predominately in the hands of the Portuguese, while the Dutch were attempting to lay claim to their portion. For England, in addition to pursuing trade in the East, her position was to seek the fabled Northwest Passage through the North American continent between Greenland and Canada. On the last day of 1600, Queen Elizabeth had granted a Royal Charter to Sir Thomas Smythe, as the governor of the East India Company[3]. This charter was to establish substantial territories and outposts in every part of the known and unknown world. These territories and outposts would act as ports of call for shipping, and to further explorations in light of the rumors of Spain’s finding and controlling gold and silver finds in South America. The impediments for the British crown were not necessarily probable war with Spain and/or France, or being embroiled in detrimental politics with foreign crowns, which she could ill afford at the time, but the divergence of her attention and time away.
  3. England’s involvement of the slave trade during the 17th century was contained within her own country, for it involved her own; the convicts and children off the streets. As her sea power gained rapidly in the beginning of the 18th century, the English Crown and her merchants added to her transport of convicts and children, the 2,600,000 from Africa to the American colonies and her territories in the West Indies. The estimate of all slaves transported by England and Scotland to the American colonies and the West Indies from 1619- 1783, is 300,000, based on the records of an approximation of fifteen hundred per year per country[4].
    London, that great overwhelmed city, became the main beneficiary of the country-wide exodus, which instigated a furious outcry from the upper classes. The city was already overpopulated and the further increase aggravated the existing conditions which spawned further overcrowding, a proliferating crime rate and the rapid contagion of diseases. The infections ran rampant in the cramped neighborhoods allotted to the poor, but also along the main greatest need became victims of the whims of a changing religious regime.
    To augment these conditions and somewhat reduce the steadily increasing of ‘rogues, here is a copy of the letter written by Sir Thomas containing a communication from King James to the Lord Mayor of London, reciting the following, on the date of 13 Jan. 1618:—

That “the King to Sir Thomas Smyth, states that the Court had lately been troubled with divers idle young people, who, though twice punished, still continued to follow the same ; having no other course to clear the Court from them, had thought fit to send them to him, that -at the next opportunity they might be sent to Virginia to work there, and remarking that some of these by the Laws of the Realm are adjudged to die for the sundry offences though heinous in themselves, yet not of the highest nature, so as his Majesty both out of his gracious Clemency, as also for diverse weighty Considerations Could wish they might be rather Corrected than destroyed, and that in their punishments some of them might live, and yield a profitable Service to the Common wealth in parts abroad, where it shall be found fit to employe them.”[5]

The other proliferating “nuisances” that the aristocracy was insisting on to the King for immediate dismissal, were the street urchins throughout the city. Sir Thomas Smythe sent out the order; his issuance of removal decreed that local magistrates were given the power to clear the streets of those aged eight to sixteen, these children were to be bound over and sold as slaves to the colony of Virginia.[6]

The term ‘employe’ was a euphemism, the actuality was sale to the highest bidder. With four working tobacco plantations within ten to twenty miles of Jamestown in 1619[7], that prospect was a virtual certainty.

As the Crown was unable and unwilling to subsidize the cost of transporting, all fees were undertaken by the Virginia Company. A per head charge of £1 to £2 pounds, (approximately $34.00-$68.00 in 2015 American Currency)), included jail fees, the fees of the clerk of the appropriate court, fees for drawing up the pardon, and the minimum required for food on the journey. Provided they arrived alive, they would be sold to the highest bidders on the docks, anywhere from £5 -£25 pounds. The profit margin was rather successful, spawning a new business and the dubious sidelines which came in under “supply to provide the demand”.

  1. Bridewell Prison and Hospital was established in a former royal palace in 1553 with two purposes: the punishment of the disorderly poor and housing of homeless children in the City of London. Located on the banks of the Fleet River in the City, it was both the first house of correction in the country and a major charitable institution (reflecting the early modern definition of a "hospital"). Its records provide valuable evidence of both petty crime and pauper apprenticeships in the eighteenth century. From London Lives 1690 to 1800 Crime, Poverty and Social Policy in the Metropolis ↩︎

  2. Robert Hume, Ph.D., Early Child Immigrants to Virginia 1618-1642, Magna Carta Book Company, Baltimore, Maryland, 1986 ↩︎

  3. SMYTHE, Thomas II (c.1558-1625), of Fenchurch Street ↩︎

  4. White Cargo, The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in America. By Don Jordan and Michael Walsh. New York University Press. 2008 ↩︎

  5. From King James’ Transportation Act 1618 from the Commission sent to the Privy Council 1615 ↩︎

  6. The Records of the Virginia Company of London;
    by Virginia Company of London; U.S. Library of Congress; Kingsbury, Susan Myra, 1870-
    Published 1906 ↩︎

  7. Two Plantations - Ulster-Virginia ↩︎

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Jamie Larson