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Success Of Tobacco And Slavery In The 1600s History Essay

Info: 3081 words (12 pages) Essay
Published: 1st Jan 2015 in History

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Back in the 1600’s, there was a town called Jamestown in what is now the State of Virginia. It had many hardships. At first, no women came over, only the men and their sons. As time progressed, the people who knew how to build homes and shelter fared much better than the ones whom did not. At one point, winter had come and most of the population of Jamestown was not prepared for the cold and they had inadequate food supplies. There were many shocking stories arising out the genuine shortage of food and the resulting starvation, with reports of people killing others to eat them. It was not until the local growing of tobacco did the town turnaround from its downward spiral, but this discovery also marked the beginning of slavery.

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According to Captain John Smith, “none of the native crops were planted at first, not even tobacco.” [1] The reason for this was that the settlers’ attention was on anything they could grow for food. The two highest priorities for the settlers were food, as well shelters to live in to protect themselves from the elements. Shelters proved to be extremely important and essential for survival, especially during the cold months. As time moved on, the settlers did interact with the Native Indians and found them using tobacco, but “under the name of uppowoc or apooke.” [2] Most likely, the settlers bought or traded for some tobacco during that time. It was not until 1612 did tobacco “cultivation began among the English settlers, even in small patches.” [3] However, two years before, John Rolfe “found that tobacco could be obtained only by buying it from the Indians, or by cultivating it.” [4] 

From this mindset, it could be guessed that Rolfe tried to grow a small patch for himself and cut his reliance from the Indians. Rolfe was also trying to find a way to make some money, and find a local product that could be sold overseas in England that would be profitable. Nevertheless, adding one and one together, John Rolfe became one of the first colonists to grow tobacco.

Rolfe had become accustomed to the “fragrant aroma and taste of the imported Spanish tobacco,” [5] and so had the people in England. Spanish tobacco became the standard or the bar to which other tobacco was compared. A native tobacco plant of North America was the nicotiana rustica. It was found to be substandard when compared to the tobacco grown in the Spanish Colonies. In 1611, Rolfe “decided to experiment with seed of the mild Spanish variety.” [6] This batch, as they called it, was Rolfe’s first experimental crop. When it arrived in England, it was stated that its quality was great, but the Spanish grown tobacco was still better. Rolfe came out and said, “”no doubt but after a little more triall and expense in the curing thereof, it will compare with the best in the West Indies.” [7]  Rolfe was trying very hard to get the tobacco grown in the west to be a desired product in England and Europe.

By 1617, Rolfe’s experiment turned out to be a success, as his business was thriving. He had shipped “20,000 pounds of tobacco was exported from Virginia.” [8] Tobacco in England was nothing new, the people had e already grown accustomed to it and it was something that only the rich or people who had some extra money could afford.

Tobacco grew extremely well in Virginia, as the climate was perfect for cultivation. Virginian “Tobacco also had a greater advantage Over All Other Staples in That It Could Be Produced in Larger Quantities Per Acre.” [9] Since in virginia there was plenty of land, they were able to export a gargantuan amount. The Virginia-grown tobacco had brought down the price of tobacco generally to a much more affordable price, that even more people in England started purchasing tobacco. Spanish tobacco was very expensive in England which almost made it extinct, but the rich still purchased it for special occasions. Since the Virginia-grown tobacco could be produced in such large quantities, there was plenty of supply for the demand.

In 1616, Jamestown had been impacted by a fever and the “following description indicates the impact of the “fever”: there were “but five or six houses, the church downe, the palizado’s broken, the bridge in pieces, the well of fresh water spoiled; the storehouse used for the church…, [and] the colony dispersed all about, planting tobacco.” [10] The town was falling apart, they had only a few buildings left, the water supply was spoiled and the town in shambles. The settlers had nothing left, hardly a population, but when the colony dispersed to plant tobacco, it became the only activity to engage in. The settlers started “growing in the streets and in the market place.” [11] Whatever space they had to grow tobacco, they used it.

By 1622, “plantations extended at intervals from Point Comfort as far as 140 miles up the James River.” [12] The colony was feverishly spreading out and planting they even stopped caring about hunting, as they “gave the Indians firearms and employed them to do their hunting” [13] This shows how focused the colonists were on tobacco. However, later in 1622, all the space they had for planting and cultivation was greatly reduced due to the “Indian Massacre of 1622.” [14] This event was when the Indians suddenly attacked the colonists and killed many of them. But still, “the planters were able to produce 60,000 pounds of tobacco,” [15] which had tripled from the amount produced back in 1617. So even with the massacre, the colonists were still able to produce a large amount of tobacco.

Sometime after the massacre, the settlers started extending their territory to cultivate tobacco. The settlers took over the fields previously cleared by the Indians, which were among the best in the colony. This made it easy for planters, as they did not have to clear the ground beforehand. They did not have to spend time clearing the trees and waiting for the stumps to rot out, so this greatly accelerated the planting process.

With the expansion of the settlers into more land, a “head-right” system was developed “which gave fifty acres of land to any person who brought a settler to the colony.” [16] This meant that people who were already in the colony were strongly encouraged to bring over more people from England to be settlers in the area. The people brought over were known as indentured servants. In 1619, ” A Dutch slave trader exchanged his cargo of Africans for food in 1619. The Africans became indentured servants” [17] as well, whose status and work were very similar to the indentured servants whom were brought over from England. People in England were offered a paid voyage to the colony, but they had to work on the land for a certain period until they had paid their dues. This was the start of slavery, as time progressed. The colony started importing more Blacks. In 1624, “The Dutch, who had entered the slave trade in 1621 with the formation of the Dutch West Indies Co., imported Blacks to serve on Hudson Valley farms.” [18] 

At first, there was no slavery at all, “The first general planting in the colony began at West and Shirley Hundreds where twenty-five men, commanded by a Captain Madison, were employed solely in planting and curing tobacco.” [19] The first planting in the colony was done for pay, as they were employed. The “head-right” system was in place so that people would come over from England. It mostly lured poor or landless people. Shortly after the indentured servants came from England, they complained that their work was endless and very hard. Many of them did not feel comfortable and loathed about the lower average death rate. They were also not treated properly by the landowners who had brought them over.

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Since none of the settlers wanted to do any hard work, the slave trade thrived to be working in full force, as one could buy a slave or trade food for one, for a relatively cheap price. Slave work was so badly needed for tobacco cultivation that “African Slavery was legalized in Virginia and Maryland, becoming the foundation of the Southern agrarian economy.” [20] It was now legal and normal for settlers to buy a slave, which made slavery and the demand of slaves even higher. “African American slaves grew slowly at first, by the 1680’s they had become essential to the economy of Virginia.” [21] The economy relied heavily upon slave labor for its financial success.

Planting tobacco was not a hard task, but it was a very time-consuming task and with the many and many acres of land that the landowners had owned, they needed a workforce to take care of all the land. “For to sow it, you must make a hole in the earth with your finger and that as deep as your finger is long, then you must cast into the same hole ten or twelve seeds.” [22] You also had to keep it watered if it had been a dry season. You also had to manage and keep working with the tobacco as it “was hoed for the first time about eight to ten days after planting.” [23] This is exactly what slaves did.

The slave industry was big, as “between 13,000 and 20,000 slaves were brought into Virginia and Maryland between 1619 and 1697” [24] The slaves were African people, which had been picked up by British merchants with large vessels, who had either brought slaves from “Africa or were reshipped from the West Indies.” [25] The slave industry has become “the” trading commodity. West Indian and Portuguese companies also shipped slaves. The Portuguese were primarily sending slaves to the Spanish Colonies. Almost all of the companies or merchants were receiving the majority of their slaves from the “People from the Bight of Biafra (present day eastern Nigeria or adjacent Cameroon).” [26] 

When ships came to Jamestown or Chesapeake, slaves were put on display and slave buyers came and bought them. Slave buyers were forced to buy them, as it was cheaper to boost their African labor force rather than hiring people who already were in the colony. African people of many countries were mixed with other African people from different parts of the African continent due to the slave merchants going to different parts of Africa to bring back Black Africans as slaves. This caused isolation between the slaves, as they could not understand one another. It was dubbed the “Babel of Languages.” [27] 

There were also many indentured servants from the head right system who were mixed in with the African slaves. They lived, worked, socialized and ran away together. In 1663, settlers passed a law saying, “that all imported blacks are to be given the statues of slaves.” [28] If a white person marries a black slave, they are to be slaves during the time they live together. A law in 1681 made it so that children born from a white servant women and blacks are regarded as free.

By the 1700s, there were many reports of slave revolts. In 1712, New York slaves revolted and killed nine white people. The consequences of this were that twenty one slaves were executed. Then, twenty three slaves rose up in revolt about mistreatment and killed nine whites before they were defeated. The captured slaves were all hanged or burnt. Since the Blacks were starting to rise up and revolting and talking about treatment, the State of Virginia assembly declared that “no Negro, mulatto, or Indian shall presume to take upon him, act in or exercise any office, ecclesiastic, civil or military.” [29] Blacks were also not allowed to serve as a witness in court and they were condemned to a lifelong servitude.

In 1772, George Washington was a member of the House of Burgesses and he drafted a petition on the importation of slaves into the colonies from the coast of Africa. He labeled it a “trade of great inhumanity”. In 1773, some Massachusetts slaves petitioned for freedom, and by 1778, a law was passed in Virginia “that no slave should be imported into that commonwealth by sea or by land.” [30] Around this time, Blacks started to receive certain rights. There were some reports of Blacks suing for their freedom and winning. Slaves later on were commanded to do other work other than farming since the civilizations had advanced. In 1785, a letter written to George Washington and Thomas Johnsons stated that slaves would be used to build canals. Slaves were still being imported at this time. A British bill designed to restrict the number of slaves went into effect. It restricted the number of slaves based on the ship’s tonnage. By 1815, slave trading was declared a felony by Britain, punishable by exile to a penal colony, also known as a jail. Portugal accepted a large sum of money to restrict slave trade to Brazil and Spain also received money to abandon trade to Caribbean. This was the end of slave trading, as we knew it back in 1619 with the early years of Jamestown.

The settlers who had come to Jamestown were primarily from cities. They were not prepared for the primitive and harsh conditions in the Jamestown area. The population of Jamestown almost was wiped out one winter as food supplies ran out. It was not until the home growing of tobacco did Jamestown begin to thrive. It also led to the beginning of the use of slave labor and the slave trade. One of the first persons to successfully grow tobacco was John Rolfe. While in Jamestown, he perfected growing tobacco and sold it to England. His streamlined process resulted in much lower prices for the people in England, where tobacco became more affordable and more people began buying it. Many people in Jamestown started planting tobacco of their own and converting many acres of vacant land. This created a new problem. The larger the area of the tobacco farms, the more people it required to properly grow it.. Slavery started because of this. Land owners needed more workers to maintain their crops, so ship owners started the slave trade. The Dutch ship that came to Jamestown in 1619 traded food for some African people, which turned into the latter into indentured servants to the landowners. This was the start of the major slave trade, as the Dutch found it to be profitable. Other countries started slave trading as well. Shipping of Black Africans was treated as a commodity. Therefore, in the end tobacco was an extreme success which brought money and people to Jamestown, but it also was the start of slavery, one of the worst practices in the history of mankind.


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