IN 1672, the Royal African Company was organised to take over all of England’s African affairs, and the Dutch were displaced.
In 1713, the Spaniards recognised England’s supremacy in the slave trade by granting the Guinea Company an asiento to supply the Spanish colonies with African slaves, supplanting a 1664 contract with the French African Company and adding to England’s lead in this field.
Under the terms of the contract, the Guinea Company was to supply the colonies with 144 000 slaves within a 30-year period, or 4 800 annually.
Spain was to receive 200 000 crowns for the privilege and a duty of 330 crowns for each slave, while the English and Spanish monarchs each were to receive a quarter share of the profits.
Even with such terms, the trade was highly profitable.
By 1755, there were 237 licenced slave traders in Bristol, 147 in London and 89 in Liverpool.
The shops of Manchester, Exeter and Chester were churning out trading goods.
Toward the end of the 18th Century, Sir John Clapham remarked that: “Manchester lived on shirts for blackmen.”
The shipbuilders also profited from the trade, as did sailors and candle makers.
In the US, the shortage of field labour during the early 18th Century spurred the slave trade, especially in males, but demand for females increased as well.
However, after the middle of the century, Virginia planters had less need for imported slaves as the result of higher life expectancy and birth-rates for slaves.
The situation was different on the rice plantations in the low country in the Carolinas, where the life expectancy of slaves working in the rice fields was low.
On the eve of the American Revolution, 35 percent of the South Carolina slaves had been born in Africa, while only nine percent of the Virginia slaves were ‘imported’.
America seemed a vast wilderness to those early settlers. Most of the settlers became farmers, in some areas working in a community, in others on their own farms. This was an important consideration.
In Europe, they could hardly hope to become independent farmers working their own land.
In America, land was not only abundant but virtually free for the taking.
Simply by agreeing to come to New England, peasants were given land of their own.
This was one of the most striking aspects of life in English North America.
The other was the shortage of labour.
In the late 18th Century, Hector St John de Crevecoeur arrived to see for himself the new nation that had just been formed, and he noted in one of his first ‘Letters from an American Farmer’:
“The European does not find, as in Europe, a crowded society where every place is overstocked; he does not feel that difficulty of beginning.
There is room for everybody in America.
Has he any particular talent, or industry?
He exerts it in order to procure a livelihood, and it succeeds.
Is he a labourer, sober and industrious?
He need not go many miles before he will be hired, well-fed, and paid four or five times more than he can get in Europe.”
This inferred that English North America presented unparalleled opportunities for those Europeans with sufficient daring to take the Atlantic voyage and work hard for themselves.
Never before was access to capital, in the form of land, so available to common people, who quite suddenly realised that, in America, it would be possible for them not only to live better than they had in Europe but to actually become wealthy.
A historian surveying the European scene in the period prior to and immediately after the American Revolution wrote: “The daily tasks for virtually all eighteenth-century Europeans make today’s concerns about alienation, unemployment, relative deprivation seem like a happy dream.
In Scotland, men sold themselves into slavery because of poverty, and worked in the salt and coal mines.
In France travellers described the ragged peasant who yoked his plough with a donkey in one trace and his wife in the other.
In Switzerland, women filled buckets with urine and manure, yoked them across their shoulders, and carried them uphill to fertilise the fields.
Highland women did the same in Scotland.
In 1816, in Switzerland, meat, even bread, ‘considered luxuries by the simple people, who had them only on holidays. …thousands of young children made their living by sweeping the mud and horse droppings away from London streets in return for half-pennies from occasional passersby. And the rest of Europe?
A widely travelled farm expert described the ‘absolute slavery of the peasants in some parts of Germany, in Denmark and in Poland and in Russia’.”
In America, where the free northern farmers had meat every day, starvation was virtually unknown.
It was not a lawless country, but the severity of laws in the colonies was far less than in any part of Europe in this period.
Little wonder that American farmers appeared so content with their lot, and at the same time so independent.
As for hired labourers, there were relatively few of them, for why become a craftsman when it was possible to be a landholding farmer?
The farmers worked at crafts and professions along with growing crops and raising animals.
They became shoemakers, brewers and carpenters, while wives and daughters would spin yarn and weave cloth. Specialisation was relatively rare.
Some of the specialists were itinerant craftsmen, who went from farmhouse to farmhouse offering their services in such areas as woodworking, bricklaying and co-operage.
Others were sedentary, such as candle makers, glassmakers, and those who managed to scrape together sufficient funds to open feed mills, sawmills and flour mills.
But the latter were seasonal enterprises, and their owners and managers usually farmed as well.
Others, in areas of high population, opened shops; much in the tradition of medieval Europe.
They even had apprentices, with contracts not dissimilar to those written centuries earlier.
A contract written during the late colonial period in which the apprentice was bound to serve his master read: “His secrets keep, his lawful commands gladly obey; he shall do no damage to his master, nor see done by others without letting or giving notice to his master; he shall not waste his master’s goods, nor lend them unlawfully to any; he shall not commit fornication nor contract matrimony within the said term.
At cards, dice or any other unlawful game he shall not play, whereby his master may have damage; with his own goods or the goods of those during the said term without licence from his master he shall neither buy nor sell.
He shall not absent himself day or night from his master’s service without his leave, nor haunt alehouses or playhouses, but in all things as a faithful apprentice he shall behave himself toward his master, and all during the said term.”
Dr Michelina Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant and a published author in her field. For views and comments, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.