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Jeffrey B. Perry Blog

400 Years Ago, on March 22, 1622

400 years ago, on March 22, 1622 (as described by Theodore W. Allen in "The Invention of the White Race"), the Powhatan Indians under Opechancanough, fearing that the English "would dispossess them of this Country," mounted what was at the time "the strongest effort ever made ... to halt the Anglo-American occupation of Indian lands." On the first day alone, one third of the Anglo population of North America was killed. Within the next year, more would die from privation than died in the initial assault. Of the survivors, two-thirds were not fit for work.
In the aftermath of the attack, and concerned about additional attacks, the Colony authorities forbade game hunting and the planting of corn near dwellings. The settlement perimeter was constricted, inhabitants were uprooted, half the landholders were dead and could offer no places for tenants to stay nor wages for day-laborers. Corn supplies were limited and a monopoly on corn was established. The price of corn went up eight-fold in one year, while the price of tobacco, the colonists' only money, was cut in half. Tenants faced insupportable debt and reportedly could not feed themselves three months out of the year. For the employed wage-worker, a tobacco wage in real terms was two-thirds what it was in England.
The situation was different, however, for the Colony elite, particularly for those who had cornered the market in corn. They were the debt-holders of the impoverished tenants, and they embarked on a scheme whereby workers in general were reduced to unpaid, long-term bond-labor. The laboring classes were dependent on the bourgeoisie for corn, so they were "compelled to submit to the condition dictated by the plantation bourgeoise: the status of ... bond-laborers." By the spring of 1622, servants' contracts began to appear that contained a new unprecedented provision allowing the employer to dispose of the servant to the employers' "heirs and assigns," and by 1623, efforts to reduce tenants to servants were common.
Allen then describes how the "Anglo-American plantation bourgeoisie seized on the devastation brought about by the Powhatan attack of 22 March 1622, to execute a plan for the chattelization of labor in Virginia Colony" and how "from that seeding came the plantation of bondage."

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