Main People's History of the United States
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People's History of the United States

A classic since its original landmark publication in 1980, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is the first scholarly work to tell America’s story from the bottom up—from the point of view of, and in the words of, America’s women, factory workers, African Americans, Native Americans, working poor, and immigrant laborers. From Columbus to the Revolution to slavery and the Civil War—from World War II to the election of George W. Bush and the “War on Terror”—A People’s History of the United States is an important and necessary contribution to a complete and balanced understanding of American history.
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Harper Perennial Modern Classics
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A Theory of Power

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A People’s History of the United States, 1492-Present
By Howard Zinn

1. Columbus , The Indians, and Human Progress
2. Drawing the Color Line
3. Persons of Mean and Vile Condition
4. Tyranny is Tyranny
5. A Kind of Revolution
6. The Intimately Oppressed
7. As Long as Grass Grows or Water Runs
8. We Take Nothing by Conquest, Thank God
9. Slavery without Submission, Emancipation without Freedom
10. The Other Civil-War
11. Robber Barons and Rebels
12. The Empire and the People
13. The Socialist Challenge
14. War is the Health of the State
15. Self-Help in Hard Times
16. A People’s War?
17. “Or Does it Explode?”
18. The Impossible Victory: Vietnam
19. Surprises
20. The Seventies : Under Control?
21. Carter, Reagan, Bush; The Bipartisan Consensus
22. The Unreported Resistance

23. The Clinton Presidency and the Crisis of Democracy
24. The Coming Revolt of the Guards

1. Columbus , The Indians, and Human Progress
Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto
the island's beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat. When
Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to
greet them, brought them food, water, gifts. He later wrote of this in his log:
They ... brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they
exchanged for the glass beads and hawks' bells. They willingly traded everything they
owned... . They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features.... They do not bear
arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut
themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane... . They
would make fine servants.... With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do
whatever we want.
These Arawaks of the Bahama Islands were much like Indians on the mainland, who were
remarkable (European observers were to say again and again) for their hospitality, their
belief in sharin; g. These traits did not stand out in the Europe of the Renaissance, dominated
as it was by the religion of popes, the government of kings, the frenzy for money that marked
Western civilization and its first messenger to the Americas , Christopher Columbus.
Columbus wrote:
As soon as I arrived in the Indies , on the first Island which I found, I took some of the
natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever
there is in these parts.
The information that Columbus wanted most was: Where is the gold? He had persuaded the
king and queen of Spain to finance an expedition to the lands, the wealth, he expected would
be on the other side of the Atlantic -the Indies and Asia , gold and spices. For, like other
informed people of his time, he knew the world was round and he could sail west in order to
get to the Far East .
Spain was recently unified, one of the new modern nation-states, like France , England , and
Portugal . Its population, mostly poor peasants, worked for the nobility, who were 2 percent
of the population and owned 95 percent of the land. Spain had tied itself to the Catholic
Church, expelled all the Jews, driven out the Moors. Like other states of the modern world,
Spain sought gold, which was becoming the new mark of wealth, more useful than land
because it could buy anything.
There was gold in Asia , it was thought, and certainly silks and spices, for Marco Polo and
others had brought back marvelous things from their overland expeditions centuries before.
Now that the Turks had conquered Constantinople and the eastern Mediterranean , and
controlled the land routes to Asia , a sea route was needed. Portuguese sailors were working
their way around the southern tip of Africa . Spain decided to gamble on a long sail across an
unknown ocean.
In return for bringing back gold and spices, they promised Columbus 10 percent of the
profits, governorship over new-found lands, and the fame that would go with a new tide:
Admiral of the Ocean Sea . He was a merchant's clerk from the Italian city of Genoa, parttime weaver (the son of a skilled weaver), and expert sailor. He set out with three sailing

ships, the largest of which was the Santa Maria, perhaps 100 feet long, and thirty-nine crew
Columbus would never have made it to Asia, which was thousands of miles farther away
than he had calculated, imagining a smaller world. He would have been doomed by that
great expanse of sea. But he was lucky. One-fourth of the way there he came upon an
unknown, uncharted land that lay between Europe and Asia-the Americas. It was early
October 1492, and thirty-three days since he and his crew had left the Canary Islands, off the
Atlantic coast of Africa. Now they saw branches and sticks floating in the water. They saw
flocks of birds.
These were signs of land. Then, on October 12, a sailor called Rodrigo saw the early morning
moon shining on white sands, and cried out. It was an island in the Bahamas, the Caribbean
sea. The first man to sight land was supposed to get a yearly pension of 10,000 maravedis for
life, but Rodrigo never got it. Columbus claimed he had seen a light the evening before. He
got the reward.
So, approaching land, they were met by the Arawak Indians, who swam out to greet them.
The Arawaks lived in village communes, had a developed agriculture of corn, yams, cassava.
They could spin and weave, but they had no horses or work animals. They had no iron, but
they wore tiny gold ornaments in their ears.
This was to have enormous consequences: it led Columbus to take some of them aboard ship
as prisoners because he insisted that they guide him to the source of the gold. He then sailed
to what is now Cuba, then to Hispaniola (the island which today consists of Haiti and the
Dominican Republic). There, bits of visible gold in the rivers, and a gold mask presented to
Columbus by a local Indian chief, led to wild visions of gold fields.
On Hispaniola, out of timbers from the Santa Maria, which had run aground, Columbus built
a fort, the first European military base in the Western Hemisphere. He called it Navidad
(Christmas) and left thirty-nine crewmembers there, with instructions to find and store the
gold. He took more Indian prisoners and put them aboard his two remaining ships. At one
part of the island he got into a fight with Indians who refused to trade as many bows and
arrows as he and his men wanted. Two were run through with swords and bled to death.
Then the Nina and the Pinta set sail for the Azores and Spain. When the weather turned
cold, the Indian prisoners began to the.
Columbus's report to the Court in Madrid was extravagant. He insisted he had reached Asia
(it was Cuba) and an island off the coast of China (Hispaniola). His descriptions were part
fact, part fiction:
Hispaniola is a miracle. Mountains and hills, plains and pastures, are both fertile and
beautiful ... the harbors are unbelievably good and there are many wide rivers of which the
majority contain gold. . . . There are many spices, and great mines of gold and other metals....
The Indians, Columbus reported, "are so naive and so free with their possessions that no one
who has not witnessed them would believe it. When you ask for something they have, they
never say no. To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone...." He concluded his report by
asking for a little help from their Majesties, and in return he would bring them from his next
voyage "as much gold as they need ... and as many slaves as they ask." He was full of
religious talk: "Thus the eternal God, our Lord, gives victory to those who follow His way
over apparent impossibilities."

Because of Columbus's exaggerated report and promises, his second expedition was given
seventeen ships and more than twelve hundred men. The aim was clear: slaves and gold.
They went from island to island in the Caribbean, taking Indians as captives. But as word
spread of the Europeans' intent they found more and more empty villages. On Haiti, they
found that the sailors left behind at Fort Navidad had been killed in a battle with the
Indians, after they had roamed the island in gangs looking for gold, taking women and
children as slaves for sex and labor.
Now, from his base on Haiti, Columbus sent expedition after expedition into the interior.
They found no gold fields, but had to fill up the ships returning to Spain with some kind of
dividend. In the year 1495, they went on a great slave raid, rounded up fifteen hundred
Arawak men, women, and children, put them in pens guarded by Spaniards and dogs, then
picked the five hundred best specimens to load onto ships. Of those five hundred, two
hundred died en route. The rest arrived alive in Spain and were put up for sale by the
archdeacon of the town, who reported that, although the slaves were "naked as the day they
were born," they showed "no more embarrassment than animals." Columbus later wrote: "Let
us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold."
But too many of the slaves died in captivity. And so Columbus, desperate to pay back
dividends to those who had invested, had to make good his promise to fill the ships with gold.
In the province of Cicao on Haiti, where he and his men imagined huge gold fields to exist,
they ordered all persons fourteen years or older to collect a certain quantity of gold every
three months. When they brought it, they were given copper tokens to hang around their
necks. Indians found without a copper token had their hands cut off and bled to death.

The Indians had been given an impossible task. The only gold around was bits of dust
garnered from the streams. So they fled, were hunted down with dogs, and were killed.

Trying to put together an army of resistance, the Arawaks faced Spaniards who had armor,
muskets, swords, horses. When the Spaniards took prisoners they hanged them or burned
them to death. Among the Arawaks, mass suicides began, with cassava poison. Infants were
killed to save them from the Spaniards. In two years, through murder, mutilation, or suicide,
half of the 250,000 Indians on Haiti were dead.

When it became clear that there was no gold left, the Indians were taken as slave labor on
huge estates, known later as encomiendas. They were worked at a ferocious pace, and died
by the thousands. By the year 1515, there were perhaps fifty thousand Indians left. By 1550,
there were five hundred. A report of the year 1650 shows none of the original Arawaks or
their descendants left on the island.

The chief source-and, on many matters the only source-of information about what happened
on the islands after Columbus came is Bartolome de las Casas, who, as a young priest,
participated in the conquest of Cuba. For a time he owned a plantation on which Indian
slaves worked, but he gave that up and became a vehement critic of Spanish cruelty. Las

Casas transcribed Columbus's journal and, in his fifties, began a multivolume History of the
Indies. In it, he describes the Indians. They are agile, he says, and can swim long distances,
especially the women. They are not completely peaceful, because they do battle from time to
time with other tribes, but their casualties seem small, and they fight when they are
individually moved to do so because of some grievance, not on the orders of captains or kings.

Women in Indian society were treated so well as to startle the Spaniards. Las Casas
describes sex relations:

Marriage laws are non-existent men and women alike choose their mates and leave them as
they please, without offense, jealousy or anger. They multiply in great abundance; pregnant
women work to the last minute and give birth almost painlessly; up the next day, they bathe
in the river and are as clean and healthy as before giving birth. If they tire of their men, they
give themselves abortions with herbs that force stillbirths, covering their shameful parts
with leaves or cotton cloth; although on the whole, Indian men and women look upon total
nakedness with as much casualness as we look upon a man's head or at his hands.

The Indians, Las Casas says, have no religion, at least no temples. They live in_ large
communal bell-shaped buildings, housing up to 600 people at one time ... made of very strong
wood and roofed with palm leaves.... They prize bird feathers of various colors, beads made of
fishbones, and green and white stones with which they adorn their ears and lips, but they
put no value on gold and other precious things. They lack all manner of commerce, neither
buying nor selling, and rely exclusively on their natural environment for maintenance. They
are extremely generous with their possessions and by the same token covet the possessions of
then; friends and expect the same degree of liberality. ...

In Book Two of his History of the Indies, Las Casas (who at first urged replacing Indians by
black slaves, thinking they were stronger and would survive, but later relented when he saw
the effects on blacks) tells about the treatment of the Indians by the Spaniards. It is a unique
account and deserves to be quoted at length:

Endless testimonies . .. prove the mild and pacific temperament of the natives.... But our
work was to exasperate, ravage, kill, mangle and destroy; small wonder, then, if they tried to
kill one of us now and then.... The admiral, it is true, was blind as those who came after him,
and he was so anxious to please the King that he committed irreparable crimes against the

Las Casas tells how the Spaniards "grew more conceited every day" and after a while refused
to walk any distance. They "rode the backs of Indians if they were in a hurry" or were carried

on hammocks by Indians running in relays. "In this case they also had Indians carry large
leaves to shade them from the sun and others to fan them with goose wings."

Total control led to total cruelty. The Spaniards "thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens
and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades." Las Casas
tells how "two of these so-called Christians met two Indian boys one day, each carrying a
parrot; they took the parrots and for fun beheaded the boys."

The Indians' attempts to defend themselves failed. And when they ran off into the hills they
were found and killed. So, Las Casas reports, "they suffered and died in the mines and other
labors in desperate silence, knowing not a soul in the world to whom they could turn for
help." He describes their work in the mines:

... mountains are stripped from top to bottom and bottom to top a thousand times; they dig,
split rocks, move stones, and carry dirt on then: backs to wash it in the rivers, while those
who wash gold stay in the water all the time with their backs bent so constantly it breaks
them; and when water invades the mines, the most arduous task of all is to dry the mines by
scooping up pansful of water and throwing it up outside....

After each six or eight months' work in the mines, which was the time required of each crew
to dig enough gold for melting, up to a third of the men died.

While the men were sent many miles away to the mines, the wives remained to work the soil,
forced into the excruciating job of digging and making thousands of hills for cassava plants.

Thus husbands and wives were together only once every eight or ten months and when they
met they were so exhausted and depressed on both sides ... they ceased to procreate. As for
the newly born, they died early because their mothers, overworked and famished, had no
milk to nurse them, and for this reason, while I was in Cuba, 7000 children died in three
months. Some mothers even drowned their babies from sheer desperation.... hi this way,
husbands died in the mines, wives died at work, and children died from lack of milk . .. and
in a short time this land which was so great, so powerful and fertile ... was depopulated. ...
My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature, and now I tremble as I write. ...

When he arrived on Hispaniola in 1508, Las Casas says, "there were 60,000 people living on
this island, including the Indians; so that from 1494 to 1508, over three million people had

perished from war, slavery, and the mines. Who in future generations will believe this? I
myself writing it as a knowledgeable eyewitness can hardly believe it...."

Thus began the history, five hundred years ago, of the European invasion of the Indian
settlements in the Americas. That beginning, when you read Las Casas-even if his figures
are exaggerations (were there 3 million Indians to begin with, as he says, or less than a
million, as some historians have calculated, or 8 million as others now believe?)-is conquest,
slavery, death. When we read the history books given to children in the United States, it all
starts with heroic adventure-there is no bloodshed-and Columbus Day is a celebration.

Past the elementary and high schools, there are only occasional hints of something else.
Samuel Eliot Morison, the Harvard historian, was the most distinguished writer on
Columbus, the author of a multivolume biography, and was himself a sailor who retraced
Columbus's route across the Atlantic. In his popular book Christopher Columbus, Mariner,
written in 1954, he tells about the enslavement and the killing: "The cruel policy initiated by
Columbus and pursued by his successors resulted in complete genocide."

That is on one page, buried halfway into the telling of a grand romance. In the book's last
paragraph, Morison sums up his view of Columbus:

He had his faults and his defects, but they were largely the defects of the qualities that made
him great-his indomitable will, his superb faith in God and in his own mission as the Christbearer to lands beyond the seas, his stubborn persistence despite neglect, poverty and
discouragement. But there was no flaw, no dark side to the most outstanding and essential of
all his qualities-his seamanship.

One can lie outright about the past. Or one can omit facts which might lead to unacceptable
conclusions. Morison does neither. He refuses to lie about Columbus. He does not omit the
story of mass murder; indeed he describes it with the harshest word one can use: genocide.

But he does something else-he mentions the truth quickly and goes on to other things more
important to him. Outright lying or quiet omission takes the risk of discovery which, when
made, might arouse the reader to rebel against the writer. To state the facts, however, and
then to bury them in a mass of other information is to say to the reader with a certain
infectious calm: yes, mass murder took place, but it's not that important-it should weigh very
little in our final judgments; it should affect very little what we do in the world.

It is not that the historian can avoid emphasis of some facts and not of others. This is as
natural to him as to the mapmaker, who, in order to produce a usable drawing for practical
purposes, must first flatten and distort the shape of the earth, then choose out of the
bewildering mass of geographic information those things needed for the purpose of this or
that particular map.

My argument cannot be against selection, simplification, emphasis, which are inevitable for
both cartographers and historians. But the map-maker's distortion is a technical necessity
for a common purpose shared by all people who need maps. The historian's distortion is more
than technical, it is ideological; it is released into a world of contending interests, where any
chosen emphasis supports (whether the historian means to or not) some kind of interest,
whether economic or political or racial or national or sexual.

Furthermore, this ideological interest is not openly expressed in the way a mapmaker's
technical interest is obvious ("This is a Mercator projection for long-range navigation-for
short-range, you'd better use a different projection"). No, it is presented as if all readers of
history had a common interest which historians serve to the best of their ability. This is not
intentional deception; the historian has been trained in a society in which education and
knowledge are put forward as technical problems of excellence and not as tools for
contending social classes, races, nations.

To emphasize the heroism of Columbus and his successors as navigators and discoverers, and
to de-emphasize their genocide, is not a technical necessity but an ideological choice. It
serves-unwittingly-to justify what was done.

My point is not that we must, in telling history, accuse, judge, condemn Columbus in
absentia. It is too late for that; it would be a useless scholarly exercise in morality. But the
easy acceptance of atrocities as a deplorable but necessary price to pay for progress
(Hiroshima and Vietnam, to save Western civilization; Kronstadt and Hungary, to save
socialism; nuclear proliferation, to save us all)-that is still with us. One reason these
atrocities are still with us is that we have learned to bury them in a mass of other facts, as
radioactive wastes are buried in containers in the earth. We have learned to give them
exactly the same proportion of attention that teachers and writers often give them in the
most respectable of classrooms and textbooks. This learned sense of moral proportion, coming
from the apparent objectivity of the scholar, is accepted more easily than when it comes from
politicians at press conferences. It is therefore more deadly.

The treatment of heroes (Columbus) and their victims (the Arawaks)-the quiet acceptance of
conquest and murder in the name of progress-is only one aspect of a certain approach to
history, in which the past is told from the point of view of governments, conquerors,
diplomats, leaders. It is as if they, like Columbus, deserve universal acceptance, as if theythe Founding Fathers, Jackson, Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt, Kennedy, the leading members of

Congress, the famous Justices of the Supreme Court-represent the nation as a whole. The
pretense is that there really is such a thing as "the United States," subject to occasional
conflicts and quarrels, but fundamentally a community of people with common interests. It is
as if there really is a "national interest" represented in the Constitution, in territorial
expansion, in the laws passed by Congress, the decisions of the courts, the development of
capitalism, the culture of education and the mass media.

"History is the memory of states," wrote Henry Kissinger in his first book, A World
Restored^ in which he proceeded to tell the history of nineteenth-century Europe from the
viewpoint of the leaders of Austria and England, ignoring the millions who suffered from
those statesmen's policies. From his standpoint, the "peace" that Europe had before the
French Revolution was "restored" by the diplomacy of a few national leaders. But for factory
workers in England, farmers in France, colored people in Asia and Africa, women and
children everywhere except in the upper classes, it was a world of conquest, violence, hunger,
exploitation-a world not restored but disintegrated.

My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States, is different: that we must not accept
the memory of states as our own. Nations are not communities and never have been, The
history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of
interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered,
masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And
in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking
people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.

Thus, in that inevitable taking of sides which comes from selection and emphasis in history, I
prefer to try to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks,
of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the
Cherokees, of the Civil War as seen by the New York Irish, of the Mexican war as seen by the
deserting soldiers of Scott's army, of the rise of industrialism as seen by the young women in
the Lowell textile mills, of the Spanish-American war as seen by the Cubans, the conquest of
the Philippines as seen by black soldiers on Luzon, the Gilded Age as seen by southern
farmers, the First World War as seen by socialists, the Second World War as seen by
pacifists, the New Deal as seen by blacks in Harlem, the postwar American empire as seen
by peons in Latin America. And so on, to the limited extent that any one person, however he
or she strains, can "see" history from the standpoint of others.

My point is not to grieve for the victims and denounce the executioners. Those tears, that
anger, cast into the past, deplete our moral energy for the present. And the lines are not
always clear. In the long run, the oppressor is also a victim. In the short run (and so far,
human history has consisted only of short runs), the victims, themselves desperate and
tainted with the culture that oppresses them, turn on other victims.

Still, understanding the complexities, this book will be skeptical of governments and their
attempts, through politics and culture, to ensnare ordinary people in a giant web of
nationhood pretending to a common interest. I will try not to overlook the cruelties that
victims inflict on one another as they are jammed together in the boxcars of the system. I
don't want to romanticize them. But I do remember (in rough paraphrase) a statement I once
read: "The cry of the poor is not always just, but if you don't listen to it, you will never know
what justice is."

I don't want to invent victories for people's movements. But to think that history-writing
must aim simply to recapitulate the failures that dominate the past is to make historians
collaborators in an endless cycle of defeat. If history is to be creative, to anticipate a possible
future without denying the past, it should, I believe, emphasize new possibilities by
disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed
their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win. I am supposing, or perhaps only
hoping, that our future may be found in the past's fugitive moments of compassion rather
than in its solid centuries of warfare.

That, being as blunt as I can, is my approach to the history of the United States. The reader
may as well know that before going on.

What Columbus did to the Arawaks of the Bahamas, Cortes did to the Aztecs of Mexico,
Pizarro to the Incas of Peru, and the English settlers of Virginia and Massachusetts to the
Powhatans and the Pequots.

The Aztec civilization of Mexico came out of the heritage of Mayan, Zapotec, and Toltec
cultures. It built enormous constructions from stone tools and human labor, developed a
writing system and a priesthood. It also engaged in (let us not overlook this) the ritual killing
of thousands of people as sacrifices to the gods. The cruelty of the Aztecs, however, did not
erase a certain innocence, and when a Spanish armada appeared at Vera Cruz, and a
bearded white man came ashore, with strange beasts (horses), clad in iron, it was thought
that he was the legendary Aztec man-god who had died three hundred years before, with the
promise to return-the mysterious Quetzalcoatl. And so they welcomed him, with munificent

That was Hernando Cortes, come from Spain with an expedition financed by merchants and
landowners and blessed by the deputies of God, with one obsessive goal: to find gold. In the
mind of Montezuma, the king of the Aztecs, there must have been a certain doubt about
whether Cortes was indeed Quetzalcoatl, because he sent a hundred runners to Cortes,
bearing enormous treasures, gold and silver wrought into objects of fantastic beauty, but at
the same time begging him to go back. (The painter Durer a few years later described what
he saw just arrived in Spain from that expedition-a sun of gold, a moon of silver, worth a
fortune.) Cortes then began his march of death from town to town, using deception, turning

Aztec against Aztec, killing with the kind of deliberateness that accompanies a strategy-to
paralyze the will of the population by a sudden frightful deed. And so, in Cholulu, he invited
the headmen of the Cholula nation to the square. And when they came, with thousands of
unarmed retainers, Cortes's small army of Spaniards, posted around the square with
cannon, armed with crossbows, mounted on horses, massacred them, down to the last man.
Then they looted the city and moved on. When their cavalcade of murder was over they were
in Mexico City, Montezuma was dead, and the Aztec civilization, shattered, was in the hands
of the Spaniards.

All this is told in the Spaniards' own accounts.

In Peru, that other Spanish conquistador Pizarro, used the same tactics, and for the same
reasons-the frenzy in the early capitalist states of Europe for gold, for slaves, for products of
the soil, to pay the bondholders and stockholders of the expeditions, to finance the
monarchical bureaucracies rising in Western Europe, to spur the growth of the new money
economy rising out of feudalism, to participate in what Karl Marx would later call "the
primitive accumulation of capital." These were the violent beginnings of an intricate system
of technology, business, politics, and culture that would dominate the world for the next five

In the North American English colonies, the pattern was set early, as Columbus had set it in
the islands of the Bahamas. In 1585, before there was any permanent English settlement in
Virginia, Richard Grenville landed there with seven ships. The Indians he met were
hospitable, but when one of them stole a small silver cup, Grenville sacked and burned the
whole Indian village.

Jamestown itself was set up inside the territory of an Indian confederacy, led by the chief,
Powhatan. Powhatan watched the English settle on his people's land, but did not attack,
maintaining a posture of coolness. When the English were going through their "starving
time" in the winter of 1610, some of them ran off to join the Indians, where they would at
least be fed. When the summer came, the governor of the colony sent a messenger to ask
Powhatan to return the runaways, whereupon Powhatan, according to the English account,
replied with "noe other than prowde and disdaynefull Answers." Some soldiers were
therefore sent out "to take Revenge." They fell upon an Indian settlement, killed fifteen or
sixteen Indians, burned the houses, cut down the corn growing around the village, took the
queen of the tribe and her children into boats, then ended up throwing the children
overboard "and shoteinge owit their Braynes in the water." The queen was later taken off
and stabbed to death.

Twelve years later, the Indians, alarmed as the English settlements kept growing in
numbers, apparently decided to try to wipe them out for good. They went on a rampage and
massacred 347 men, women, and children. From then on it was total war.

Not able to enslave the Indians, and not able to live with them, the English decided to
exterminate them. Edmund Morgan writes, in his history of early Virginia, American
Slavery, American Freedom:

Since the Indians were better woodsmen than the English and virtually impossible to track
down, the method was to feign peaceful intentions, let them settle down and plant their com
wherever they chose, and then, just before harvest, fall upon them, killing as many as
possible and burning the corn... . Within two or three years of the massacre the English had
avenged the deaths of that day many times over.

In that first year of the white man in Virginia, 1607, Powhatan had addressed a plea to John
Smith that turned out prophetic. How authentic it is may be in doubt, but it is so much like
so many Indian statements that it may be taken as, if not the rough letter of that first plea,
the exact spirit of it:

I have seen two generations of my people the.... I know the difference between peace and war
better than any man in my country. I am now grown old, and must the soon; my authority
must descend to my brothers, Opitehapan, Opechancanough and Catatough-then to my two
sisters, and then to my two daughters-I wish them to know as much as I do, and that your
love to them may be like mine to you. Why will you take by force what you may have quietly
by love? Why will you destroy us who supply you with food? What can you get by war? We
can hide our provisions and run into the woods; then you will starve for wronging your
friends. Why are you jealous of us? We are unarmed, and willing to give you what you ask, if
you come in a friendly manner, and not so simple as not to know that it is much better to eat
good meat, sleep comfortably, live quietly with my wives and children, laugh and be merry
with the English, and trade for their copper and hatchets, than to run away from them, and
to lie cold in the woods, feed on acorns, roots and such trash, and be so hunted that 1 can
neither eat nor sleep. In these wars, my men must sit up watching, and if a twig break, diey
all cry out "Here comes Captain Smith!" So I must end my miserable life. Take away your
guns and swords, the cause of all our jealousy, or you may all the in the same manner.

When the Pilgrims came to New England they too were coming not to vacant land but to
territory inhabited by tribes of Indians. The governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John
Winthrop, created the excuse to take Indian land by declaring the area legally a "vacuum."
The Indians, he said, had not "subdued" the land, and therefore had only a "natural" right to
it, but not a "civil right." A "natural right" did not have legal standing.

The Puritans also appealed to the Bible, Psalms 2:8: "Ask of me, and I shall give thee, the
heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession." And
to justify their use of force to take the land, they cited Romans 13:2: "Whosoever therefore

resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to
themselves damnation."

The Puritans lived in uneasy truce with the Pequot Indians, who occupied what is now
southern Connecticut and Rhode Island. But they wanted them out of the way; they wanted
their land. And they seemed to want also to establish their rule firmly over Connecticut
settlers in that area. The murder of a white trader, Indian-kidnaper, and troublemaker
became an excuse to make war on the Pequots in 1636.

A punitive expedition left Boston to attack the NarraganseIt Indians on Block Island, who
were lumped with the Pequots. As Governor Winthrop wrote:

They had commission to pat to death the men of Block Island, but to spare the women and
children, and to bring them away, and to take possession of the island; and from thence to go
to the Pequods to demand the murderers of Captain Stone and other English, and one
thousand fathom of wampum for damages, etc. and some of their children as hostages, which
if they should refuse, they were to obtain it by force.

The English landed and killed some Indians, but the rest hid in the thick forests of the island
and the English went from one deserted village to the next, destroying crops. Then they
sailed back to the mainland and raided Pequot villages along the coast, destroying crops
again. One of the officers of that expedition, in his account, gives some insight into the
Pequots they encountered: "The Indians spying of us came running in multitudes along the
water side, crying, What cheer, Englishmen, what cheer, what do you come for? They not
thinking we intended war, went on cheerfully... -"

So, the war with the Pequots began. Massacres took place on both sides. The English
developed a tactic of warfare used earlier by Cortes and later, in the twentieth century, even
more systematically: deliberate attacks on noncombatants for the purpose of terrorizing the
enemy. This is ethno historian Francis Jennings's interpretation of Captain John Mason's
attack on a Pequot village on the Mystic River near Long Island Sound: "Mason proposed to
avoid attacking Pequot warriors, which would have overtaxed his unseasoned, unreliable
troops. Battle, as such, was not his purpose. Battle is only one of the ways to destroy an
enemy's will to fight. Massacre can accomplish the same end with less risk, and Mason had
determined that massacre would be his objective."

So the English set fire to the wigwams of the village. By their own account: "The Captain
also said, We must Burn Them; and immediately stepping into the Wigwam ... brought out a
Fire Brand, and putting it into the MaIts with which they were covered, set the Wigwams on

Fire." William Bradford, in his History of the Plymouth Plantation written at the time,
describes John Mason's raid on the Pequot village:

Those that scaped the fire were slaine with the sword; some hewed to peeces, others rune
throw with their rapiers, so as they were quickly dispatchte, and very few escaped. It was
conceived they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus
frying in the fyer, and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stincke
and sente there of, but the victory seemed a sweete sacrifice, and they gave the prayers
thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to inclose their enemise in
their hands, and give them so speedy a victory over so proud and insulting an enimie.

As Dr. Cotton Mather, Puritan theologian, put it: "It was supposed that no less than 600
Pequot souls were brought down to hell that day."

The war continued. Indian tribes were used against one another, and never seemed able to
join together in fighting the English. Jennings sums up:

The terror was very real among the Indians, but in rime they came to meditate upon its
foundations. They drew three lessons from the Pequot War: (1) that the Englishmen's most
solemn pledge would be broken whenever obligation conflicted with advantage; (2) that the
English way of war had no limit of scruple or mercy; and (3) that weapons of Indian making
were almost useless against weapons of European manufacture. These lessons the Indians
took to heart.

A footnote in Virgil Vogel's book This Land Was Ours (1972) says: "The official figure on the
number of Pequots now in Connecticut is twenty-one persons."

Forty years after the Pequot War, Puritans and Indians fought again. This time it was the
Wampanoags, occupying the south shore of Massachusetts Bay, who were in the way and
also beginning to trade some of their land to people outside the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Their chief, Massasoit, was dead. His son WamsuIta had been killed by Englishmen, and
WamsuItas brother Metacom (later to be called King Philip by the English) became chief.
The English found their excuse, a murder which they attributed to Metacom, and they began
a war of conquest against the Wampanoags, a war to take their land. They were clearly the
aggressors, but claimed they attacked for preventive purposes. As Roger Williams, more
friendly to the Indians than most, put it: "All men of conscience or prudence ply to windward,
to maintain their wars to be defensive."

Jennings says the elite of the Puritans wanted the war; the ordinary white Englishman did
not want it and often refused to fight. The Indians certainly did not want war, but they
matched atrocity with atrocity. When it was over, in 1676, the English had won, but their
resources were drained; they had lost six hundred men. Three thousand Indians were dead,
including Metacom himself. Yet the Indian raids did not stop.

For a while, the English tried softer tactics. But ultimately, it was back to annihilation. The
Indian population of 10 million that lived north of Mexico when Columbus came would
ultimately be reduced to less than a million. Huge numbers of Indians would the from
diseases introduced by the whites. A Dutch traveler in New Netherland wrote in 1656 that
"the Indians ... affirm, that before the arrival of the Christians, and before the smallpox
broke out amongst them, they were ten times as numerous as they now are, and that their
population had been melted down by this disease, whereof nine-tenths of them have died."
When the English first settled Martha's Vineyard in 1642, the Wampanoags there numbered
perhaps three thousand. There were no wars on that island, but by 1764, only 313 Indians
were left there. Similarly, Block Island Indians numbered perhaps 1,200 to 1,500 in 1662,
and by 1774 were reduced to fifty-one.

Behind the English invasion of North America, behind their massacre of Indians, their
deception, their brutality, was that special powerful drive born in civilizations based on
private property. It was a morally ambiguous drive; the need for space, for land, was a real
human need. But in conditions of scarcity, in a barbarous epoch of history ruled by
competition, this human need was transformed into the murder of whole peoples. Roger
Williams said it was a depraved appetite after the great vanities, dreams and shadows of this
vanishing life, great portions of land, land in this wilderness, as if men were in as great
necessity and danger for want of great portions of land, as poor, hungry, thirsty seamen
have, after a sick and stormy, a long and starving passage. This is one of the gods of New
England, which the living and most high Eternal will destroy and famish.

Was all this bloodshed and deceit-from Columbus to Cortes, Pizarro, the Puritans-a necessity
for the human race to progress from savagery to civilization? Was Morison right in burying
the story of genocide inside a more important story of human progress? Perhaps a persuasive
argument can be made-as it was made by Stalin when he killed peasants for industrial
progress in the Soviet Union, as it was made by Churchill explaining the bombings of
Dresden and Hamburg, and Truman explaining Hiroshima. But how can the judgment be
made if the benefits and losses cannot be balanced because the losses are either unmentioned
or mentioned quickly?

That quick disposal might be acceptable ("Unfortunate, yes, but it had to be done") to the
middle and upper classes of the conquering and "advanced" countries. But is it acceptable to
the poor of Asia, Africa, Latin America, or to the prisoners in Soviet labor camps, or the
blacks in urban ghettos, or the Indians on reservations-to the victims of that progress which
benefits a privileged minority in the world? Was it acceptable (or just inescapable?) to the
miners and railroaders of America, the factory hands, the men and women who died by the

hundreds of thousands from accidents or sickness, where they worked or where they livedcasualties of progress? And even the privileged minority-must it not reconsider, with that
practicality which even privilege cannot abolish, the value of its privileges, when they
become threatened by the anger of the sacrificed, whether in organized rebellion,
unorganized riot, or simply those brutal individual acts of desperation labeled crimes by law
and the state?

If there are necessary sacrifices to be made for human progress, is it not essential to hold to
the principle that those to be sacrificed must make the decision themselves? We can all
decide to give up something of ours, but do we have the right to throw into the pyre the
children of others, or even our own children, for a progress which is not nearly as clear or
present as sickness or health, life or death?

What did people in Spain get out of all that death and brutality visited on the Indians of the
Americas? For a brief period in history, there was the glory of a Spanish Empire in the
Western Hemisphere. As Hans Koning sums it up in his book Columbus: His Enterprise:

For all the gold and silver stolen and shipped to Spain did not make the Spanish people
richer. It gave their kings an edge in the balance of power for a time, a chance to hire more
mercenary soldiers for their wars. They ended up losing those wars anyway, and all that was
left was a deadly inflation, a starving population, the rich richer, the poor poorer, and a
ruined peasant class.

Beyond all that, how certain are we that what was destroyed was inferior? Who were these
people who came out on the beach and swam to bring presents to Columbus and his crew,
who watched Cortes and Pizarro ride through their countryside, who peered out of the forests
at the first white settlers of Virginia and Massachusetts?

Columbus called them Indians, because he miscalculated the size of the earth. In this book
we too call them Indians, with some reluctance, because it happens too often that people are
saddled with names given them by their conquerors.

And yet, there is some reason to call them Indians, because they did come, perhaps 25,000
years ago, from Asia, across the land bridge of the Bering Straits (later to disappear under
water) to Alaska. Then they moved southward, seeking warmth and land, in a trek lasting
thousands of years that took them into North America, then Central and South America. In
Nicaragua, Brazil, and Ecuador their petrified footprints can still be seen, along with the
print of bison, who disappeared about five thousand years ago, so they must have reached
South America at least that far back Widely dispersed over the great land mass of the

Americas, they numbered approximately 75 million people by the rime Columbus came,
perhaps 25 million in North America. Responding to the different environments of soil and
climate, they developed hundreds of different tribal cultures, perhaps two thousand different
languages. They perfected the art of agriculture, and figured out how to grow maize (corn),
which cannot grow by itself and must be planted, cultivated, fertilized, harvested, husked,
shelled. They ingeniously developed a variety of other vegetables and fruits, as well as
peanuts and chocolate and tobacco and rubber.

On their own, the Indians were engaged in the great agricultural revolution that other
peoples in Asia, Europe, Africa were going through about the same time.

While many of the tribes remained nomadic hunters and food gatherers in wandering,
egalitarian communes, others began to live in more settled communities where there was
more food, larger populations, more divisions of labor among men and women, more surplus
to feed chiefs and priests, more leisure time for artistic and social work, for building houses.
About a thousand years before Christ, while comparable constructions were going on in
Egypt and Mesopotamia, the Zuni and Hopi Indians of what is now New Mexico had begun to
build villages consisting of large terraced buildings, nestled in among cliffs and mountains
for protection from enemies, with hundreds of rooms in each village. Before the arrival of the
European explorers, they were using irrigation canals, dams, were doing ceramics, weaving
baskets, making cloth out of cotton.

By the time of Christ and Julius Caesar, there had developed in the Ohio River Valley a
culture of so-called Moundbuilders, Indians who constructed thousands of enormous
sculptures out of earth, sometimes in the shapes of huge humans, birds, or serpents,
sometimes as burial sites, sometimes as fortifications. One of them was miles long, enclosing
100 acres. These Moundbuilders seem to have been part of a complex trading system of
ornaments and weapons from as far off as the Great Lakes, the Far West, and the Gulf of

About A.D. 500, as this Moundbuilder culture of the Ohio Valley was beginning to decline,
another culture was developing westward, in the valley of the Mississippi, centered on what
is now St. Louis. It had an advanced agriculture, included thousands of villages, and also
built huge earthen mounds as burial and ceremonial places near a vast Indian metropolis
that may have had thirty thousand people. The largest mound was 100 feet high, with a
rectangular base larger than that of the Great Pyramid of Egypt. In the city, known as
Cahokia, were toolmakers, hide dressers, potters, jewelry makers, weavers, salt makers,
copper engravers, and magnificent ceramists. One funeral blanket was made of twelve
thousand shell beads.

From the Adirondacks to the Great Lakes, in what is now Pennsylvania and upper New
York, lived the most powerful of the northeastern tribes, the League of the Iroquois, which

included the Mohawks (People of the Flint), Oneidas (People of the Stone), Onondagas
(People of the Mountain), Cayugas (People at the Landing), and Senecas (Great Hill People),
thousands of people bound together by a common Iroquois language.

In the vision of the Mohawk chief Iliawatha, the legendary Dekaniwidah spoke to the
Iroquois: "We bind ourselves together by taking hold of each other's hands so firmly and
forming a circle so strong that if a tree should fall upon it, it could not shake nor break it, so
that our people and grandchildren shall remain in the circle in security, peace and

In the villages of the Iroquois, land was owned in common and worked in common. Hunting
was done together, and the catch was divided among the members of the village. Houses
were considered common property and were shared by several families. The concept of
private ownership of land and homes was foreign to the Iroquois. A French Jesuit priest who
encountered them in the 1650s wrote: "No poorhouses are needed among them, because they
are neither mendicants nor paupers.. . . Their kindness, humanity and courtesy not only
makes them liberal with what they have, but causes them to possess hardly anything except
in common."

Women were important and respected in Iroquois society. Families were matrilineal. That is,
the family line went down through the female members, whose husbands joined the family,
while sons who married then joined their wives' families. Each extended family lived in a
"long house." When a woman wanted a divorce, she set her husband's things outside the

Families were grouped in clans, and a dozen or
senior women in the village named the men who
councils. They also named the forty-nine chiefs
Nation confederacy of the Iroquois. The women
circle of men who spoke and voted, and removed
from the wishes of the women.

more clans might make up a village. The
represented the clans at village and tribal
who were the ruling council for the Five
attended clan meetings, stood behind the
the men from office if they strayed too far

The women tended the crops and took general charge of village affairs while the men were
always hunting or fishing. And since they supplied the moccasins and food for warring
expeditions, they had some control over military matters. As Gary B. Nash notes in his
fascinating study of early America, Red, White, and Black: "Thus power was shared between
the sexes and the European idea of male dominancy and female subordination in all things
was conspicuously absent in Iroquois society."

Children in Iroquois society, while taught the cultural heritage of their people and solidarity
with the tribe, were also taught to be independent, not to submit to overbearing authority.
They were taught equality in status and the sharing of possessions. The Iroquois did not use
harsh punishment on children; they did not insist on early weaning or early toilet training,
hut gradually allowed the child to learn self-care.

All of this was in sharp contrast to European values as brought over by the first colonists, a
society of rich and poor, controlled by priests, by governors, by male heads of families. For
example, the pastor of the Pilgrim colony, John Robinson, thus advised his parishioners how
to deal with their children: "And surely there is in all children ... a stubbornness, and
stoutness of mind arising from natural pride, which must, in the first place, be broken and
beaten down; that so the foundation of their education being laid in humility and
tractableness, other virtues may, in their time, be built thereon." Gary Nash describes
Iroquois culture:

No laws and ordinances, sheriffs and constables, judges and juries, or courts or jails-the
apparatus of authority in European societies-were to be found in the northeast woodlands
prior to European arrival. Yet boundaries of acceptable behavior were firmly set. Though
priding themselves on the autonomous individual, the Iroquois maintained a strict sense of
right and wrong.... He who stole another's food or acted invalourously in war was "shamed"
by his people and ostracized from their company until he had atoned for his actions and
demonstrated to their satisfaction that he had morally purified himself.

Not only the Iroquois but other Indian tribes behaved the same way. In 1635, Maryland
Indians responded to the governor's demand that if any of them lolled an Englishman, the
guilty one should be delivered up for punishment according to English law. The Indians said:

It is the manner amongst us Indians, that if any such accident happen, wee doe redeeme the
life of a man that is so slaine, with a 100 armes length of Beades and since that you are heere
strangers, and come into our Countrey, you should rather conform yourselves to the
Customes of our Countrey, than impose yours upon us....

So, Columbus and his successors were not coming into an empty wilderness, but into a world
which in some places was as densely populated as Europe itself, where the culture was
complex, where human relations were more egalitarian than in Europe, and where the
relations among men, women, children, and nature were more beautifully worked out than
perhaps any place in the world.

They were people without a written language, but with their own laws, their poetry, their
history kept in memory and passed on, in an oral vocabulary more complex than Europe's,
accompanied by song, dance, and ceremonial drama. They paid careful attention to the
development of personality, intensity of will, independence and flexibility, passion and
potency, to their partnership with one another and with nature.

John Collier, an American scholar who lived among Indians in the 1920s and 1930s in the
American Southwest, said of their spirit: "Could we make it our own, there would be an
eternally inexhaustible earth and a forever lasting peace."

Perhaps there is some romantic mythology in that. But the evidence from European travelers
in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, put together recently by an
American specialist on Indian life, William Brandon, is overwhelmingly supportive of much
of that "myth." Even allowing for the imperfection of myths, it is enough to make us question,
for that time and ours, the excuse of progress in the annihilation of races, and the telling of
history from the standpoint of the conquerors and leaders of Western civilization.

2. Drawing the Color Line
A black American writer, J. Saunders Redding, describes the arrival of a ship in North
America in the year 1619:

Sails furled, flag drooping at her rounded stern, she rode the tide in from the sea. She was a
strange ship, indeed, by all accounts, a frightening ship, a ship of mystery. Whether she was
trader, privateer, or man-of-war no one knows. Through her bulwarks black-mouthed cannon
yawned. The flag she flew was Dutch; her crew a motley. Her port of call, an English
settlement, Jamestown, in the colony of Virginia. She came, she traded, and shortly
afterwards was gone. Probably no ship in modern history has carried a more portentous
freight. Her cargo? Twenty slaves.

There is not a country in world history in which racism has been more important, for so long
a time, as the United States. And the problem of "the color line," as W. E. B, Du Bois put it,
is still with us. So it is more than a purely historical question to ask: How does it start?-and
an even more urgent question: How might it end? Or, to put it differently: Is it possible for
whites and blacks to live together without hatred?

If history can help answer these questions, then the beginnings of slavery in North Americaa continent where we can trace the coming of the first whites and the first blacks-might
supply at least a few clues.

Some historians think those first blacks in Virginia were considered as servants, like the
white indentured servants brought from Europe. But the strong probability is that, even if
they were listed as "servants" (a more familiar category to the English), they were viewed as
being different from white servants, were treated differently, and in fact were slaves.

In any case, slavery developed quickly into a regular institution, into the normal labor
relation of blacks to whites in the New World. With it developed that special racial feelingwhether hatred, or contempt, or pity, or patronization-that accompanied the inferior position
of blacks in America for the next 350 years-that combination of inferior status and
derogatory thought we call racism.

Everything in the experience of the first white settlers acted as a pressure for the
enslavement of blacks.

The Virginians of 1619 were desperate for labor, to grow enough food to stay alive. Among
them were survivors from the winter of 1609-1610, the "starving time," when, crazed for
want of food, they roamed the woods for nuts and berries, dug up graves to eat the corpses,
and died in batches until five hundred colonists were reduced to sixty.

In the Journals of the House of Burgesses of Virginia is a document of 1619 which tells of the
first twelve years of the Jamestown colony. The first settlement had a hundred persons, who
had one small ladle of barley per meal. When more people arrived, there was even less food.
Many of the people lived in cavelike holes dug into the ground, and in the winter of 16091610, they were ... driven thru insufferable hunger to eat those things which nature most
abhorred, the flesh and excrements of man as well of our own nation as of an Indian, digged
by some out of his grave after he had lain buried three days and wholly devoured him;
others, envying the better state of body of any whom hunger has not yet so much wasted as
their own, lay wait and threatened to kill and eat them; one among them slew his wife as she
slept in his bosom, cut her in pieces, salted her and fed upon her till he had clean devoured
all parts saving her head.. ..

A petition by thirty colonists to the House of Burgesses, complaining against the twelve-year
governorship of Sir Thomas Smith, said:

In those 12 years of Sir Thomas Smidi, his government, we aver that the colony for the most
part remained in great want and misery under most severe and cruel laws.... The allowance
in those times for a man was only eight ounces of meale and half a pint of peas for a day ...
mouldy, rotten, full of cobwebs and maggots, loathsome to man and not fit for beasts, which
forced many to flee for relief to the savage enemy, who being taken again were put to sundry
deaths as by hanging, shooting and breaking upon the wheel ... of whom one for stealing two
or three pints of oatmeal had a bodkin thrust through his tongue and was tied with a chain
to a tree until he starved....

The Virginians needed labor, to grow corn for subsistence, to grow tobacco for export. They
had just figured out how to grow tobacco, and in 1617 they sent off the first cargo to England.
Finding that, like all pleasurable drugs tainted with moral disapproval, it brought a high
price, the planters, despite their high religious talk, were not going to ask questions about
something so profitable.

They couldn't force Indians to work for them, as Columbus had done. They were
outnumbered, and while, with superior firearms, they could massacre Indians, they would
face massacre in return. They could not capture them and keep them enslaved; the Indians
were tough, resourceful, defiant, and at home in these woods, as the transplanted
Englishmen were not.

White servants had not yet been brought over in sufficient quantity. Besides, they did not
come out of slavery, and did not have to do more than contract their labor for a few years to
get their passage and a start in the New World. As for the free white settlers, many of them
were skilled craftsmen, or even men of leisure back in England, who were so little inclined to
work the land that John Smith, in those early years, had to declare a kind of martial law,
organize them into work gangs, and force them into the fields for survival.

There may have been a kind of frustrated rage at their own ineptitude, at the Indian
superiority at taking care of themselves, that made the Virginians especially ready to become
the masters of slaves. Edmund Morgan imagines their mood as he writes in his book
American Slavery, American Freedom.:

If you were a colonist, you knew that your technology was superior to the Indians'. You knew
that you were civilized, and they were savages... . But your superior technology had proved
insufficient to extract anything. The Indians, keeping to themselves, laughed at your
superior methods and lived from the land more abundantly and with less labor than you
did... . And when your own people started deserting in order to live with them, it was too
much. ... So you killed the Indians, tortured them, burned their villages, burned their
cornfields. It proved your superiority, in spite of your failures. And you gave similar
treatment to any of your own people who succumbed to their savage ways of life. But you still
did not grow much Black slaves were the answer. And it was natural to consider imported
blacks as slaves, even if the institution of slavery would not be regularized and legalized for
several decades. Because, by 1619, a million blacks had already been brought from Africa to
South America and the Caribbean, to the Portuguese and Spanish colonies, to work as
slaves. Fifty years before Columbus, the Portuguese took ten African blacks to Lisbon-this
was the start of a regular trade in slaves. African blacks had been stamped as slave labor for
a hundred years. So it would have been strange if those twenty blacks, forcibly transported
to Jamestown, and sold as objects to settlers anxious for a steadfast source of labor, were
considered as anything but slaves.

Their helplessness made enslavement easier. The Indians were on their own land. The
whites were in their own European culture. The blacks had been torn from their land and
culture, forced into a situation where the heritage of language, dress, custom, family
relations, was bit by bit obliterated except for the remnants that blacks could hold on to by
sheer, extraordinary persistence.

Was their culture inferior-and so subject to easy destruction? Inferior in military capability,
yes-vulnerable to whites with guns and ships. But in no other way-except that cultures that
are different are often taken as inferior, especially when such a judgment is practical and
profitable. Even militarily, while the Westerners could secure forts on the African coast, they
were unable to subdue the interior and had to come to terms with its chiefs.

The African civilization was as advanced in its own way as that of Europe. In certain ways, it
was more admirable; but it also included cruelties, hierarchical privilege, and the readiness
to sacrifice human lives for religion or profit. It was a civilization of 100 million people, using
iron implements and skilled in farming. It had large urban centers and remarkable
achievements in weaving, ceramics, sculpture.

European travelers in the sixteenth century were impressed with the African kingdoms of
Timbuktu and Mali, already stable and organized at a time when European states were just
beginning to develop into the modern nation. In 1563, Ramusio, secretary to the rulers in
Venice, wrote to the Italian merchants: "Let them go and do business with the King of
Timbuktu and Mali and there is no doubt that they will be well-received there with their
ships and their goods and treated well, and granted the favours that they ask.. .."

A Dutch report, around 1602, on the West African kingdom of Benin, said: "The Towne
seemeth to be very great, when you enter it. You go into a great broad street, not paved,
which seemeth to be seven or eight times broader than the Warmoes Street in Amsterdam....
The Houses in this Towne stand in good order, one close and even with the other, as the
Houses in Holland stand."

The inhabitants of the Guinea Coast were described by one traveler around 1680 as "very
civil and good-natured people, easy to be dealt with, condescending to what Europeans
require of them in a civil way, and very ready to return double the presents we make them."

Africa had a kind of feudalism, like Europe based on agriculture, and with hierarchies of
lords and vassals. But African feudalism did not come, as did Europe's, out of the slave
societies of Greece and Rome, which had destroyed ancient tribal life. In Africa, tribal life
was still powerful, and some of its better features-a communal spirit, more kindness in law
and punishment-still existed. And because the lords did not have the weapons that European
lords had, they could not command obedience as easily.

In his book The African Slave Trade, Basil Davidson contrasts law in the Congo in the early
sixteenth century with law in Portugal and England. In those European countries, where the
idea of private property was becoming powerful, theft was punished brutally. In England,
even as late as 1740, a child could be hanged for stealing a rag of cotton. But in the Congo,
communal life persisted, the idea of private property was a strange one, and thefts were
punished with fines or various degrees of servitude. A Congolese leader, told of the
Portuguese legal codes, asked a Portuguese once, teasingly: "What is the penalty in Portugal
for anyone who puts his feet on the ground?"

Slavery existed in the African states, and it was sometimes used by Europeans to justify
their own slave trade. But, as Davidson points out, the "slaves" of Africa were more like the
serfs of Europe-in other words, like most of the population of Europe. It was a harsh
servitude, but they had rights which slaves brought to America did not have, and they were
"altogether different from the human cattle of the slave ships and the American plantations."
In the Ashanti Kingdom of West Africa, one observer noted that "a slave might marry; own
property; himself own a slave; swear an oath; be a competent witness and ultimately become
heir to his master.... An Ashanti slave, nine cases out of ten, possibly became an adopted
member of the family, and in time his descendants so merged and intermarried with the
owner's kinsmen that only a few would know their origin."

One slave trader, John Newton (who later became an antislavery leader), wrote about the
people of what is now Sierra Leone:

The state of slavery, among these wild barbarous people, as we esteem them, is much milder
than in our colonies. For as, on the one hand, they have no land in high cultivation, like our
West India plantations, and therefore no call for that excessive, unintermitted labour, which
exhausts our slaves: so, on the other hand, no man is permitted to draw blood even from a

African slavery is hardly to be praised. But it was far different from plantation or mining
slavery in the Americas, which was lifelong, morally crippling, destructive of family ties,
without hope of any future. African slavery lacked two elements that made American slavery
the most cruel form of slavery in history: the frenzy for limitless profit that comes from
capitalistic agriculture; the reduction of the slave to less than human status by the use of
racial hatred, with that relentless clarity based on color, where white was master, black was

In fact, it was because they came from a settled culture, of tribal customs and family ties, of
communal life and traditional ritual, that African blacks found themselves especially
helpless when removed from this. They were captured in the interior (frequently by blacks
caught up in the slave trade themselves), sold on the coast, then shoved into pens with blacks
of other tribes, often speaking different languages.

The conditions of capture and sale were crushing affirmations to the black African of his
helplessness in the face of superior force. The marches to the coast, sometimes for 1,000
miles, with people shackled around the neck, under whip and gun, were death marches, in
which two of every five blacks died. On the coast, they were kept in cages until they were
picked and sold. One John Barbot, at the end of the seventeenth century, described these
cages on the Gold Coast:

As the slaves come down to Fida from the inland country, they are put into a booth or prison
. .. near the beach, and when the Europeans are to receive them, they are brought out onto a
large plain, where the ship's surgeons examine every part of everyone of them, to the
smallest member, men and women being stark naked.... Such as are allowed good and sound
are set on one side .. . marked on the breast with a red-hot iron, imprinting the mark of the
French, English, or Dutch companies.. . . The branded slaves after this are returned to their
former booths where they await shipment, sometimes 10-15 days. . ..

Then they were packed aboard the slave ships, in spaces not much bigger than coffins,
chained together in the dark, wet slime of the ship's bottom, choking in the stench of their
own excrement. Documents of the time describe the conditions:

The height, sometimes, between decks, was only eighteen inches; so that the unfortunate
human beings could not turn around, or even on their sides, the elevation being less than the
breadth of their shoulders; and here they are usually chained to the decks by the neck and
legs. In such a place the sense of misery and suffocation is so great, that the Negroes ... are
driven to frenzy.

On one occasion, hearing a great noise from belowdecks where the blacks were chained
together, the sailors opened the hatches and found the slaves in different stages of
suffocation, many dead, some having killed others in desperate attempts to breathe. Slaves
often jumped overboard to drown rather than continue their suffering. To one observer a
slave-deck was "so covered with blood and mucus that it resembled a slaughter house."

Under these conditions, perhaps one of every three blacks transported overseas died, but the
huge profits (often double the investment on one trip) made it worthwhile for the slave
trader, and so the blacks were packed into the holds like fish.

First the Dutch, then the English, dominated the slave trade. (By 1795 Liverpool had more
than a hundred ships carrying slaves and accounted for half of all the European slave trade.)
Some Americans in New England entered the business, and in 1637 the first American slave
ship, the Desire, sailed from Marblehead. Its holds were partitioned into racks, 2 feet by 6
feet, with leg irons and bars.

By 1800, 10 to 15 million blacks had been transported as slaves to the Americas,
representing perhaps one-third of those originally seized in Africa. It is roughly estimated
that Africa lost 50 million human beings to death and slavery in those centuries we call the
beginnings of modern Western civilization, at the hands of slave traders and plantation

owners in Western Europe and America, the countries deemed the most advanced in the

In the year 1610, a Catholic priest in the Americas named Father Sandoval wrote back to a
church functionary in Europe to ask if the capture, transport, and enslavement of African
blacks was legal by church doctrine. A letter dated March 12, 1610, from Brother Luis
Brandaon to Father Sandoval gives the answer:

Your Reverence writes me that you would like to know whether the Negroes who are sent to
your parts have been legally captured. To this I reply that I think your Reverence should
have no scruples on this point, because this is a matter which has been questioned by the
Board of Conscience in Lisbon, and all its members are learned and conscientious men. Nor
did the bishops who were in Sao Thome, Cape Verde, and here in Loando-all learned and
virtuous men-find fault with it. We have been here ourselves for forty years and there have
been among us very learned Fathers . .. never did they consider the trade as illicit. Therefore
we and the Fathers of Brazil buy these slaves for our service without any scruple....

With all of this-the desperation of the Jamestown settlers for labor, the impossibility of using
Indians and the difficulty of using whites, the availability of blacks offered in greater and
greater numbers by profit-seeking dealers in human flesh, and with such blacks possible to
control because they had just gone through an ordeal which if it did not kill them must have
left them in a state of psychic and physical helplessness-is it any wonder that such blacks
were ripe for enslavement?

And under these conditions, even if some blacks might have been considered servants, would
blacks be treated the same as white servants?

The evidence, from the court records of colonial Virginia, shows that in 1630 a white man
named Hugh Davis was ordered "to be soundly whipt ... for abusing himself ... by defiling his
body in lying with a Negro." Ten years later, six servants and "a negro of Mr. Reynolds"
started to run away. While the whites received lighter sentences, "Emanuel the Negro to
receive thirty stripes and to be burnt in the cheek with the letter R, and to work in shackle
one year or more as his master shall see cause."

Although slavery was not yet regularized or legalized in those first years, the lists of
servants show blacks listed separately. A law passed in 1639 decreed that "all persons except
Negroes" were to get arms and ammunition-probably to fight off Indians. When in 1640 three
servants tried to run away, the two whites were punished with a lengthening of their service.
But, as the court put it, "the third being a negro named John Punch shall serve his master or

his assigns for the time of his natural life." Also in 1640, we have the case of a Negro woman
servant who begot a child by Robert Sweat, a white man. The court ruled "that the said negro
woman shall be whipt at the whipping post and the said Sweat shall tomorrow in the
forenoon do public penance for his offense at James citychurch..,."

This unequal treatment, this developing combination of contempt and oppression, feeling and
action, which we call "racism"-was this the result of a "natural" antipathy of white against
black? The question is important, not just as a matter of historical accuracy, but because any
emphasis on "natural" racism lightens the responsibility of the social system. If racism can't
be shown to be natural, then it is the result of certain conditions, and we are impelled to
eliminate those conditions.

We have no way of testing the behavior of whites and blacks toward one another under
favorable conditions-with no history of subordination, no money incentive for exploitation
and enslavement, no desperation for survival requiring forced labor. All the conditions for
black and white in seventeenth-century America were the opposite of that, all powerfully
directed toward antagonism and mistreatment. Under such conditions even the slightest
display of humanity between the races might be considered evidence of a basic human drive
toward community.

Sometimes it is noted that, even before 1600, when the slave trade had just begun, before
Africans were stamped by it-literally and symbolically-the color black was distasteful. In
England, before 1600, it meant, according to the Oxford English Dictionary: "Deeply stained
with dirt; soiled, dirty, foul. Having dark or deadly purposes, malignant; pertaining to or
involving death, deadly; baneful, disastrous, sinister. Foul, iniquitous, atrocious, horribly
wicked. Indicating disgrace, censure, liability to punishment, etc." And Elizabethan poetry
often used the color white in connection with beauty.

It may be that, in the absence of any other overriding factor, darkness and blackness,
associated with night and unknown, would take on those meanings. But the presence of
another human being is a powerful fact, and the conditions of that presence are crucial in
determining whether an initial prejudice, against a mere color, divorced from humankind, is
turned into brutality and hatred.

In spite of such preconceptions about blackness, in spite of special subordination of blacks in
the Americas in the seventeenth century, there is evidence that where whites and blacks
found themselves with common problems, common work, common enemy in their master,
they behaved toward one another as equals. As one scholar of slavery, Kenneth Stampp, has
put it, Negro and white servants of the seventeenth century were "remarkably unconcerned
about the visible physical differences."

Black and white worked together, fraternized together. The very fact that laws had to be
passed after a while to forbid such relations indicates the strength of that tendency. In 1661
a law was passed in Virginia that "in case any English servant shall run away in company of
any Negroes" he would have to give special service for extra years to the master of the
runaway Negro. In 1691, Virginia provided for the banishment of any "white man or woman
being free who shall intermarry with a negro, mulatoo, or Indian man or woman bond or

There is an enormous difference between a feeling of racial strangeness, perhaps fear, and
the mass enslavement of millions of black people that took place in the Americas. The
transition from one to the other cannot be explained easily by "natural" tendencies. It is not
hard to understand as the outcome of historical conditions.

Slavery grew as the plantation system grew. The reason is easily traceable to something
other than natural racial repugnance: the number of arriving whites, whether free or
indentured servants (under four to seven years contract), was not enough to meet the need of
the plantations. By 1700, in Virginia, there were 6,000 slaves, one-twelfth of the population.
By 1763, there were 170,000 slaves, about half the population.

Blacks were easier to enslave than whites or Indians. But they were still not easy to enslave.
From the beginning, the imported black men and women resisted their enslavement.
Ultimately their resistance was controlled, and slavery was established for 3 million blacks
in the South. Still, under the most difficult conditions, under pain of mutilation and death,
throughout their two hundred years of enslavement in North America, these Afro-Americans
continued to rebel. Only occasionally was there an organized insurrection. More often they
showed then-refusal to submit by running away. Even more often, they engaged in sabotage,
slowdowns, and subtle forms of resistance which asserted, if only to themselves and their
brothers and sisters, their dignity as human beings.

The refusal began in Africa. One slave trader reported that Negroes were "so wilful and loth
to leave their own country, that they have often leap'd out of the canoes, boat and ship into
the sea, and kept under water till they were drowned."

When the very first black slaves were brought into Hispaniola in 1503, the Spanish governor
of Hispaniola complained to the Spanish court that fugitive Negro slaves were teaching
disobedience to the Indians. In the 1520s and 1530s, there were slave revolts in Hispaniola,
Puerto Rico, Santa Marta, and what is now Panama. Shortly after those rebellions, the
Spanish established a special police for chasing fugitive slaves.

A Virginia statute of 1669 referred to "the obstinacy of many of them," and in 1680 the
Assembly took note of slave meetings "under the pretense offcasts and brawls" which they
considered of "dangerous consequence." In 1687, in the colony's Northern Neck, a plot was
discovered in which slaves planned to kill all the whites in the area and escape during a
mass funeral.

Gerald Mullin, who studied slave resistance in eighteenth-century Virginia in his work
Flight and Rebellion, reports:

The available sources on slavery in 18th-century Virginia-plantation and county records, the
newspaper advertisements for runaways-describe rebellious slaves and few others. The
slaves described were lazy and thieving; diey feigned illnesses, destroyed crops, stores, tools,
and sometimes attacked or killed overseers. They operated blackmarkets in stolen goods.
Runaways were defined as various types, they were truants (who usually returned
voluntarily), "outlaws". . . and slaves who were actually fugitives: men who visited relatives,
went to town to pass as free, or tried to escape slavery completely, either by boarding ships
and leaving the colony, or banding togedier in cooperative efforts to establish villages or hideouts in the frontier. The commitment of another type of rebellious slave was total; these men
became killers, arsonists, and insurrectionists.

Slaves recently from Africa, still holding on to the heritage of their communal society, would
run away in groups and try to establish villages of runaways out in the wilderness, on the
frontier. Slaves born in America, on the other hand, were more likely to run off alone, and,
with the skills they had learned on the plantation, try to pass as free men.

In the colonial papers of England, a 1729 report from the lieutenant governor of Virginia to
the British Board of Trade tells how "a number of Negroes, about fifteen .. . formed a design
to withdraw from their Master and to fix themselves in the fastnesses of the neighboring
Mountains. They had found means to get into their possession some Arms and Ammunition,
and they took along with them some Provisions, their Cloths, bedding and working Tools....
Tho' this attempt has happily been defeated, it ought nevertheless to awaken us into some
effectual measures...."

Slavery was immensely profitable to some masters. James Madison told a British visitor
shortly after the American Revolution that he could make $257 on every Negro in a year, and
spend only $12 or $13 on his keep. Another viewpoint was of slaveowner Landon Carter,
writing about fifty years earlier, complaining that his slaves so neglected their work and
were so uncooperative ("either cannot or will not work") that he began to wonder if keeping
them was worthwhile.

Some historians have painted a picture-based on the infrequency of organized rebellions and
the ability of the South to maintain slavery for two hundred years-of a slave population made
submissive by their condition; with their African heritage destroyed, they were, as Stanley
Elkins said, made into "Sambos," "a society of helpless dependents." Or as another historian,
Ulrich Phillips, said, "by racial quality submissive." But looking at the totality of slave
behavior, at the resistance of everyday life, from quiet noncooperation in work to running
away, the picture becomes different.

In 1710, warning the Virginia Assembly, Governor Alexander Spotswood said:

... freedom wears a cap which can without a tongue, call together all those who long to shake
off the fetters of slavery and as such an Insurrection would surely be attended with most
dreadful consequences so I think we cannot be too early in providing against it, both by
putting our selves in a better posture of defense and by making a law to prevent the
consultations of those Negroes.

Indeed, considering the harshness of punishment for running away, that so many blacks did
run away must be a sign of a powerful rebelliousness. All through the 1700s, the Virginia
slave code read:

Whereas many times slaves run away and He hid and lurking in swamps, woods, and other
obscure places, killing hogs, and committing other injuries to the inhabitants ... if the slave
does not immediately return, anyone whatsoever may kill or destroy such slaves by such
ways and means as he ... shall think fit. ... If the slave is apprehended ... it shall ... be lawful
for the county court, to order such punishment for the said slave, either by dismembering, or
in any other way ... as they in their discretion shall think fit, for the reclaiming any such
incorrigible slave, and terrifying others from the like practices. .., Mullin found newspaper
advertisements between 1736 and 1801 for 1,138 men runaways, and 141 women. One
consistent reason for running away was to find members of one's family-showing that despite
the attempts of the slave system to destroy family ties by not allowing marriages and by
separating families, slaves would face death and mutilation to get together.

In Maryland, where slaves were about one-third of the population in 1750, slavery had been
written into law since the 1660s, and statutes for controlling rebellious slaves were passed.
There were cases where slave women killed their masters, sometimes by poisoning them,
sometimes by burning tobacco houses and homes. Punishments ranged from whipping and
branding to execution, but the trouble continued. In 1742, seven slaves were put to death for
murdering their master.

Fear of slave revolt seems to have been a permanent fact of plantation life. William Byrd, a
wealthy Virginia slaveowner, wrote in 1736:

We have already at least 10,000 men of these descendants of Ham, fit to bear arms, and
these numbers increase every day, as well by birth as by importation. And in case there
should arise a man of desperate fortune, he might with more advantage than Cataline kindle
a servile war ... and tinge our rivers wide as they are with blood.

It was an intricate and powerful system of control that the slaveowners developed to
maintain their labor supply and their way of life, a system both subtle and crude, involving
every device that social orders employ for keeping power and wealth where it is. As Kenneth
Stampp puts it:

A wise master did not take seriously the belief that Negroes were natural-born slaves. He
knew better. He knew that Negroes freshly imported from Africa had to be broken into
bondage; that each succeeding generation had to be carefully trained. This was no easy task,
for the bondsman rarely submitted willingly. Moreover, he rarely submitted completely. In
most cases there was no end to the need for control-at least not until old age reduced the
slave to a condition of helplessness.

The system was psychological and physical at the same time. The slaves were taught
discipline, were impressed again and again with the idea of their own inferiority to "know
their place," to see blackness as a sign of subordination, to be awed by the power of the
master, to merge their interest with the master's, destroying their own individual needs. To
accomplish this there was the discipline of hard labor, the breakup of the slave family, the
lulling effects of religion (which sometimes led to "great mischief," as one slaveholder
reported), the creation of disunity among slaves by separating them into field slaves and
more privileged house slaves, and finally the power of law and the immediate power of the
overseer to invoke whipping, burning, mutilation, and death. Dismemberment was provided
for in the Virginia Code of 1705. Maryland passed a law in 1723 providing for cutting off the
ears of blacks who struck whites, and that for certain serious crimes, slaves should be
hanged and the body quartered and exposed.

Still, rebellions took place-not many, but enough to create constant fear among white
planters. The first large-scale revolt in the North American colonies took place in New York
in 1712. In New York, slaves were 10 percent of the population, the highest proportion in the
northern states, where economic conditions usually did not require large numbers of field
slaves. About twenty-five blacks and two Indians set fire to a building, then killed nine
whites who came on the scene. They were captured by soldiers, put on trial, and twenty-one
were executed. The governor's report to England said: "Some were burnt, others were
hanged, one broke on the wheel, and one hung alive in chains in the town...." One had been
burned over a slow fire for eight to ten hours-all this to serve notice to other slaves.

Alerter to London from South Carolina in 1720 reports:

I am now to acquaint you that very lately we have had a very wicked and barbarous plot of
the designe of the negroes rising with a designe to destroy all the white people in the country
and then to take Charles Town in full body but it pleased God it was discovered and many of
them taken prisoners and some burnt and some hang'd and some banish'd.

Around this time there were a number of fires in Boston and New Haven, suspected to be the
work of Negro slaves. As a result, one Negro was executed in Boston, and the Boston Council
ruled that any slaves who on their own gathered in groups of two or more were to be
punished by whipping.

At Stono, South Carolina, in 1739, about twenty slaves rebelled, killed two warehouse
guards, stole guns and gunpowder, and headed south, killing people in their way, and
burning buildings. They were joined by others, until there were perhaps eighty slaves in all
and, according to one account of the time, "they called out Liberty, marched on with Colours
displayed, and two Drums beating." The militia found and attacked them. In the ensuing
battle perhaps fifty slaves and twenty-five whites were killed before the uprising was

Herbert Aptheker, who did detailed research on slave resistance in North America for his
book American Negro Slave Revolts, found about 250 instances where a minimum often
slaves joined in a revolt or conspiracy.

From time to time, whites were involved in the slave resistance. As early as 1663, indentured
white servants and black slaves in Gloucester County, Virginia, formed a conspiracy to rebel
and gain their freedom. The plot was betrayed, and ended with executions. Mullin reports
that the newspaper notices of runaways in Virginia often warned "ill-disposed" whites about
harboring fugitives. Sometimes slaves and free men ran off together, or cooperated in crimes
together. Sometimes, black male slaves ran off and joined white women. From time to time,
white ship captains and watermen dealt with runaways, perhaps making the slave a part of
the crew.

In New York in 1741, there were ten thousand whites in the city and two thousand black
slaves. It had been a hard winter and the poor-slave and free-had suffered greatly. When
mysterious fires broke out, blacks and whites were accused of conspiring together. Mass
hysteria developed against the accused. After a trial full of lurid accusations by informers,

and forced confessions, two white men and two white women were executed, eighteen slaves
were hanged, and thirteen slaves were burned alive.

Only one fear was greater than the fear of black rebellion in the new American colonies. That
was the fear that discontented whites would join black slaves to overthrow the existing order.
In the early years of slavery, especially, before racism as a way of thinking was firmly
ingrained, while white indentured servants were often treated as badly as black slaves, there
was a possibility of cooperation. As Edmund Morgan sees it:

There are hints that the two despised groups initially saw each other as sharing the same
predicament. It was common, for example, for servants and slaves to run away together,
steal hogs together, get drunk together. It was not uncommon for them to make love
together. In Bacon's Rebellion, one of the last groups to surrender was a mixed band of eighty
negroes and twenty English servants.

As Morgan says, masters, "initially at least, perceived slaves in much the same way they had
always perceived servants ... shiftless, irresponsible, unfaithful, ungrateful, dishonest.. .."
And "if freemen with disappointed hopes should make common cause with slaves of
desperate hope, the results might be worse than anything Bacon had done."

And so, measures were taken. About the same time that slave codes, involving discipline and
punishment, were passed by the Virginia Assembly, Virginia's ruling class, having
proclaimed that all white men were superior to black, went on to offer their social (but white)
inferiors a number of benefits previously denied them. In 1705 a law was passed requiring
masters to provide white servants whose indenture time was up with ten bushels of corn,
thirty shillings, and a gun, while women servants were to get 15 bushels of corn and forty
shillings. Also, the newly freed servants were to get 50 acres of land.

Morgan concludes: "Once the small planter felt less exploited by taxation and began to
prosper a litde, he became less turbulent, less dangerous, more respectable. He could begin to
see his big neighbor not as an extortionist but as a powerful protector of their common

We see now a complex web of historical threads to ensnare blacks for slavery in America: the
desperation of starving settlers, the special helplessness of the displaced African, the
powerful incentive of profit for slave trader and planter, the temptation of superior status for
poor whites, the elaborate controls against escape and rebellion, the legal and social
punishment of black and white collaboration.

The point is that the elements of this web arc historical, not "natural." This does not mean
that they are easily disentangled, dismantled. It means only that there is a possibility for
something else, under historical conditions not yet realized. And one of these conditions
would be the elimination of that class exploitation which has made poor whites desperate for
small gifts of status, and has prevented that unity of black and white necessary for joint
rebellion and reconstruction.

Around 1700, the Virginia House of Burgesses declared:

The Christian Servants in this country for the most part consists of the Worser Sort of the
people of Europe. And since . .. such numbers of Irish and other Nations have been brought
in of which a great many have been soldiers in the late wars that according to our present
Circumstances we can hardly governe them and if they were fitted with Armes and had the
Opertunity of meeting together by Musters we have just reason to fears they may rise upon

It was a kind of class consciousness, a class fear. There were things happening in early
Virginia, and in the other colonies, to warrant it.

3. Persons of Mean and Vile Condition
In 1676, seventy years after Virginia was founded, a hundred years before it supplied
leadership for the American Revolution, that colony faced a rebellion of white frontiersmen,
joined by slaves and servants, a rebellion so threatening that the governor had to flee the
burning capital of Jamestown, and England decided to send a thousand soldiers across the
Atlantic, hoping to maintain order among forty thousand colonists. This was Bacon's
Rebellion. After the uprising was suppressed, its leader, Nathaniel Bacon, dead, and his
associates hanged, Bacon was described in a Royal Commission report:

He was said to be about four or five and thirty years of age, indifferent tall but slender,
black-hair'd and of an ominous, pensive, melancholly Aspect, of a pestilent and prevalent
Logical discourse tending to atheisme... . He seduced the Vulgar and most ignorant people to
believe (two thirds of each county being of that Sort) Soc that their whole hearts and hopes
were set now upon Bacon. Next he charges the Governour as negligent and wicked,
treacherous and incapable, the Lawes and Taxes as unjust and oppressive and cryes up
absolute necessity of redress. Thus Bacon encouraged the Tumult and as the unquiet crowd
follow and adhere to him, he listeth them as they come in upon a large paper, writing their
name circular wise, that their Ringleaders might not be found out. Having connur'd them
into this circle, given them Brandy to wind up the charme, and enjoyned them by an oath to
stick fast together and to him and the oath being administered, he went and infected New
Kent County ripe for Rebellion.

Bacon's Rebellion began with conflict over how to deal with the Indians, who were close by,
on the western frontier, constantly threatening. Whites who had been ignored when huge
land grants around Jamestown were given away had gone west to find land, and there they
encountered Indians. Were those frontier Virginians resentful that the politicos and landed
aristocrats who controlled the colony's government in Jamestown first pushed them
westward into Indian territory, and then seemed indecisive in fighting the Indians? That
might explain the character of their rebellion, not easily classifiable as either antiaristocrat
or anti-Indian, because it was both.

And the governor, William Berkeley, and his Jamestown crowd-were they more conciliatory
to the Indians (they wooed certain of them as spies and allies) now that they had
monopolized the land in the East, could use frontier whites as a buffer, and needed peace?
The desperation of the government in suppressing the rebellion seemed to have a double
motive: developing an Indian policy which would divide Indians in order to control them (in
New England at this very time, Massasoit/s son Metacom was threatening to unite Indian
tribes, and had done frightening damage to Puritan settlements in "King Philip's War"); and
teaching the poor whites of Virginia that rebellion did not pay-by a show of superior force, by
calling for troops from England itself, by mass hanging.

Violence had escalated on the frontier before the rebellion. Some Doeg Indians took a few
hogs to redress a debt, and whites, retrieving the hogs, murdered two Indians. The Doegs

then sent out a war party to kill a white herdsman, after which a white militia company
killed twenty-four Indians. This led to a series of Indian raids, with the Indians,
outnumbered, turning to guerrilla warfare. The House of Burgesses in Jamestown declared
war on the Indians, but proposed to exempt those Indians who cooperated. This seemed to
anger the frontiers people, who wanted total war but also resented the high taxes assessed to
pay for the war.

Times were hard in 1676. "There was genuine distress, genuine poverty.... All contemporary
sources speak of the great mass of people as living in severe economic straits," writes
Wilcomb Washburn, who, using British colonial records, has done an exhaustive study of
Bacon's Rebellion. It was a dry summer, ruining the corn crop, which was needed for food,
and the tobacco crop, needed for export. Governor Berkeley, in his seventies, tired of holding
office, wrote wearily about his situation: "How miserable that man is that Governes a People
where six parts of seaven at least are Poore Endebted Discontented and Armed."

His phrase "six parts of seaven" suggests the existence of an upper class not so impoverished.
In fact, there was such a class already developed in Virginia. Bacon himself came from this
class, had a good bit of land, and was probably more enthusiastic about killing Indians than
about redressing the grievances of the poor. But he became a symbol of mass resentment
against the Virginia establishment, and was elected in the spring of 1676 to the House of
Burgesses. When he insisted on organizing armed detachments to fight the Indians, outside
official control, Berkeley proclaimed him a rebel and had him captured, whereupon two
thousand Virginians marched into Jamestown to support him. Berkeley let Bacon go, in
return for an apology, but Bacon went off, gathered his militia, and began raiding the

Bacon's "Declaration of the People" of July 1676 shows a mixture of populist resentment
against the rich and frontier hatred of the Indians. It indicted the Berkeley administration
for unjust taxes, for putting favorites in high positions, for monopolizing the beaver trade,
and for not protecting the western formers from the Indians. Then Bacon went out to attack
the friendly Pamunkey Indians, killing eight, taking others prisoner, plundering their

There is evidence that the rank and file of both Bacon's rebel army and Berkeley's official
army were not as enthusiastic as their leaders. There were mass desertions on both sides,
according to Washburn. In the fall, Bacon, aged twenty-nine, fell sick and died, because of, as
a contemporary put it, "swarmes of Vermyn that bred in his body." A minister, apparently
not a sympathizer, wrote this epitaph:

Bacon is Dead I am sorry at my heart,
That lice and flux should take the hangmans part.

The rebellion didn't last long after that. A ship armed with thirty guns, cruising the York
River, became the base for securing order, and its captain, Thomas Grantham, used force and
deception to disarm the last rebel forces. Coming upon the chief garrison of the rebellion, he
found four hundred armed Englishmen and Negroes, a mixture of free men, servants, and
slaves. He promised to pardon everyone, to give freedom to slaves and servants, whereupon
they surrendered their arms and dispersed, except for eighty Negroes and twenty English
who insisted on keeping their arms. Grantham promised to take them to a garrison down the
river, but when they got into the boat, he trained his big guns on them, disarmed them, and
eventually delivered the slaves and servants to their masters. The remaining garrisons were
overcome one by one. Twenty-three rebel leaders were hanged.

It was a complex chain of oppression in Virginia. The Indians were plundered by white
frontiersmen, who were taxed and controlled by the Jamestown elite. And the whole colony
was being exploited by England, which bought the colonists' tobacco at prices it dictated and
made 100,000 pounds a year for the King. Berkeley himself, returning to England years
earlier to protest the English Navigation Acts, which gave English merchants a monopoly of
the colonial trade, had said:

... we cannot but resent, that forty thousand people should be impoverish'd to enrich little
more than forty Merchants, who being the only buyers of our Tobacco