The Horrifying Lives of Early Virginians

Nature dissolves all human social constructions and class boundaries.

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On July 25, 1609, aboard the Virginia Company’s slowing sinking ship the Sea Venture, a company of colonial gentlemen-adventurers, indentured servants, and sailors, all struggled for their lives. The crew plugged holes and splits with every available means and everyone —even the genteel and lordly—took turns carrying water for a time. Aboard the Sea Venture, circumstances forced rich and poor alike to join their labors in common cause and solidarity. The aqueous environment—agitated by catastrophe—dissolved class boundaries.

Richard’s Frethorne’s Letters to Mother and Father

Sir Thomas Dale, “Articles, Law, and orders, Divine, Politic and Martial for the Colony in Virginia” (22 June 1611)

 

Anthony Comegna: On July 25th, 1609, aboard the Virginia Company’s slowly sinking ship, the Sea Venture, a company of colonial gentlemen adventurers, indentured servants, and sailors all struggled for their lives. The crew plugged holes in splits with every available means, and everyone, even the genteel and lordly, took turns carrying water for a time. Aboard the Sea Venture, circumstances forced rich and poor alike to join [00:00:30] their labors in common cause and solidarity. The aqueous environment, agitated by catastrophe, dissolved class boundaries. But nature dissolves all human social constructions and class boundaries. The Sea Venture smashed on the Bermuda Shoals, and, as the survivors straggled back to land, old hierarchies reemerged.
This is Liberty Chronicles, a project of Libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony Comegna.
[00:01:00] The ship was beyond repair, but not a single passenger or sailor died. Despite popular legends proclaiming Bermuda an isle of devils, the stranded soon found a paradise teeming with tropical fruits, wild pigs, and plentiful fish, entirely unsuspecting birds, and massive tortoises, which all accounts agree were some of the best tasting meals anyone had ever eaten. The passengers [00:01:30] had been bound for Virginia before the hurricane, and officials, now stranded on Bermuda, desperately wanted to return to their colonizing venture. Every day wasted on Bermuda was a day of profits lost.
Everyone knew that their lives in Virginia would consist of intense sickness, hunger, thirst for clean water, harsh physical conditions, coerced labor, and poor life expectancy. Most passengers aboard the Sea Venture and the colonists of Virginia had [00:02:00] recently been rounded up on the streets of London and forced into indenture. They knew the sort of life available to them in London, so they must have been painfully aware that they could expect no better in a New World than that which was afforded them in the Old.
From the other ships in the Sea Venture’s convoy, 350 colonists joined the Virginia Project. Within two years, Virginia’s population of 535 suffered its way down to a meager 60. [00:02:30] In Bermuda, the population remained more or less unchained. Of the original 150, there was one natural death, two murders, and two executions. There were also two births.
The shipwrecked would-be settlers and sailors immediately realized that their bizarre circumstances offered rare opportunities. Though Virginia Company officials did their best to secure law and order under their royal charter, common settlers organized no [00:03:00] fewer than five conspiracies to overthrow colonial rule or establish separate marooned societies on Bermuda. The conspiracies were unsuccessful, however, and the Virginia Company officials on Bermuda managed to construct two ships capable of finishing the voyage to America. Two of the tiny population remained in Bermuda, resolved to end their days in paradise.
Once arrived in Virginia, the new colonists set about to starving and suffering. [00:03:30] In an effort to resupply the colony from a known location bursting with provisions, Sir Thomas Gates sent Sir George Somers back to the island. Sir George had other plans in mind, however, and, once back in the Bermudan paradise, relieved his hunger by eating as much pork as he could stomach. So much, in fact, the volume killed him. The colony remained without provisions.
Virginia’s early history does not [00:04:00] make for a noble or heroic tale of entrepreneurial libertarians, taming the rugged wilderness. It is the story of violent expropriation, forced migration, forced labor, and terrorism.
First, we cover the traffickers in violence. In the late 16th century, England’s Queen Elizabeth faced difficult circumstances. Her war with Spain required immense resources. If England expected [00:04:30] to gain naval predominance in Europe, it would require overseas colonies with a bustling transoceanic trade. Without money, you could fight no wars and build no empire. But, without an empire, it was difficult for a sheltered island monarch to gain resources.
Elizabeth gathered around her a generation of eager young adventurers and wealthy investors, that they might use their diverse knowledge, specialized talents, and concentrated resources to do the colonizing [00:05:00] for her by special patent and charter. Richard Hakluyt summarized the compatriots’ goals: one, to plant Christian religion; two, to traffic; three, to conquer.
To promote their ventures, the west countrymen appealed both to the early modern taste for gold and fear of the poor. From 1500 to 1650, the English population increased from three to five million. [00:05:30] Economic development remained relatively stagnant. During this period, four fifths of all English people lived on village farms, producing for subsistence. A bigger population demanded more grain from the same land, and consumer prices rose across the board. Landlords attempting to take advantage of rising prices adopted enclosure. They fenced in common fields, closed common forests, and erected barriers around water sources. This was the beginning of the age [00:06:00] of hedges.
Beggars crowded into the cities to labor, beg, or steal their way into the next meal. The population of London tripled from 1550 to 1650. The city became a sprawling, disgusting, fire-prone, open sewer. Wages continually fell, and crime soared. The state began to penalize even the most minor crimes with vicious and cruel punishments. The west country colonial promoters devised a different scheme: channel the poor into a portion of the empire [00:06:30] where they could do some good. They offered lordly investors a chance to clean up the streets at home and make a bonanza in the process.
The New Virginia Company successfully convinced Elizabeth’s successor, King James I, to support another effort in 1606. This time, on the Chesapeake Bay. Charter in hand, the colonists arrived on the 26th of April 1607. They found some 24,000 Native Americans spread across 30 tribes, all united [00:07:00] under the powerful paramount chief Powhatan. Powhatan, for his part, hoped to use the colonists to his own advantage against rivals in the area, and decided against extermination. The Virginians, however, saw the Indians as only as Pagans, satanic minions, and savages beyond redemption. They refused to distinguish between Natives and nature, believing God’s commandment to subdue the earth extended to these people as well as their habitat.
[00:07:30] Colonial Virginia was a particularly horrible place, and many colonists soon did all they could to escape to Native villages. Within nine months, only about a third of the colonists remained. The winter of 1609 killed another two thirds of the colonists, even after reinforcements. By spring 1610, only 60 still lived. One colonist even murdered and ate his wife. Officials responded by burning the man at the stake. The Company shipped 10,000 colonists during the first 15 [00:08:00] years. By 1622, a meager 20% of those still survived. As one contemporary remarked, Virginia was more of a slaughterhouse than a proper plantation colony. Crown and Company ruled Virginia through the vicious laws: divine, martial, and moral.
Speaker 2: Articles, law, and orders, divine, politic, and martial for the colony in Virginia. Exemplified and enlarged by Sir Thomas Dale, knight, martial, and [00:08:30] deputy governor. The 22nd of June 1611.
As no good service can be performed or war well managed where military discipline is not observed, and military discipline cannot be kept where the rules or chief parts thereof be not certainly set down and generally known, I have made them generally known.
Two. That no man speak impiously or maliciously against the holy and blessed trinity, or against the known articles [00:09:00] of the Christian faith, upon pain of death.
Three. That no man blaspheme God’s holy name upon pain of death or use unlawful oaths upon pain of severe punishment for the first offense, and for the second to have a bodkin, i.e., needle, thrust through his tongue. If he continue, he shall be brought to a martial court and there receive censure of death for his offense.
Four. No man shall use any traitorous [00:09:30] words against his majesty’s person or royal authority upon pain of death.
Six. Every man and woman duly twice a day upon the first tolling of the bell shall upon the working days repair unto the church to hear divine service upon pain of losing his or her day’s allowance for the first mission, for the second to whipped, and for the third to be condemned to the galleys for six months. Likewise, no man or woman shall dare to violate or break the sabbath by any gaming, [00:10:00] public or private abroad, or at home, but duly sanctify and observe the same, both himself and his family. As also, every man and woman shall repair in the morning to the divine service and sermons preached upon the Sabbath day, and in the afternoon to divine service and catechizing, upon pain for the first fault to love their provision and allowance for the whole week following, for the second to lose the said allowance and also to be whipped, and for the third to suffer death.
[00:10:30] Eight. He that upon pretended malice shall murder or take away the life of any man shall be punished with death.
Nine. No man shall commit the horrible and detestable sins of sodomy upon pain of death. He or she that can be lawfully convict of adultery shall be punished with death. No man shall ravage or force any woman, maid or Indian or other, upon pain of death. Know ye that he or she [00:11:00] that shall commit fornication and evident proof made thereof for their first fault shall be whipped, for their second they shall be whipped, and for their third shall be whipped three times a week for one month and ask public forgiveness in the assembly of the congregation.
10. No man shall be found guilty of sacrilege, which is a trespass as well committed in violating and abusing any sacred ministry, duty, or office of the church, irreverently or profanely, as by being a church robber, [00:11:30] upon pain of death.
11. He that shall take an oath untruly or bear false witness in any cause or against any man whatsoever shall be punished with death.
12. No manner of person whatsoever shall dare to detract, slander, calumniate, or utter unseemly and unfitting speeches either against his majesty’s honorable council for this colony or any of its extensions upon pain for the first time to be whipped three several [00:12:00] times, and upon his knees to acknowledge his offense and to ask forgiveness upon the Sabbath day in the assembly of the congregation, and for the second time so offending to be condemned to the galley for three years, and for the third time so offending to be punished with death.
14. No man shall give any disgraceful words or commit any act to the disgrace of any person in this colony or any part thereof upon pain of being tied head and feet together upon the guard [00:12:30] every night for the space of one month, besides to be publicly disgraced himself and be made incapable ever after to possess any place or execute any office in this employment.
15. No man of what conditions so ever shall barter, truck, or trade with the Indians, except he be there unto appointed by lawful authority, upon pain of death.
16. No man shall rifle or despoil, by force [00:13:00] or violence, take away anything from any Indian coming to trade or otherwise, upon pain of death.
22. There shall no man or woman, launderer or launderess, dare to wash any unclean linen, drive bucks, or throw out the water or suds of foul clothes in the open street within the Pallizadoes or within 40 feet of the same, nor rench and make clean any kettle, pot, or pan, or such like vessel within 20 feet of the old well or [00:13:30] new pump. Nor shall any one aforesaid, within less than a quarter of one mile from the Pallizadoes, dare to do the necessities of nature, since by these unmanly, slothful, and loathsome immodesties, the whole fort may be choked and poisoned with ill airs, and so corrupt, as in all reason cannot but much infect the same, and this shall they take notice of, and avoid upon pain of whipping and further punishment, as shall be thought mete, by the censure of martial court.
23. [00:14:00] No man shall embezzle, lose, or willingly break or fraudulently make away, either spade, shovel, hatchet, ax, mattock, or other tool or instrument upon pain of whipping.
25. Every man shall have an especial and due care to keep his house sweet and clean, as also so much of the street as lieth before his door, and especially he shall so provide and set his bedstead whereon he lieth, that it may stand three foot at least from the ground, [00:14:30] as he will answer the contrary at a martial court.
29. No man or woman, upon pain of death, shall run away from the polony to Powhathan or any savage Weroance else whatsoever.
30. He that shall conspire anything against the person of the lord govenor and captain general, against the lieutenant general or against the martial, or against any public service commanded by them, for the dignity and advancement of the good of the colony, shall [00:15:00] be punished with death.
32. There is not one man nor woman in this colony now present, or hereafter to arrive, but shall give up an account of his and their faith, and religion, and repair unto the minister, that by his conference with them, he may understand, and gather, whether heretofore they have been sufficiently instructed and catechized in the principles and grounds of religion. If they shall refuse, the governor shall cause the offender for his first time of refusal [00:15:30] to be whipped, for the second time to be whipped twice and to acknowledge his fault upon the sabbath day in the assembly of the congregation, and for the third time to be whipped every day until he hath made the same acknowledgment and asked forgiveness for the same, and shall repair unto the minster to be further instructed as aforesaid. Upon the sabbath when the minister shall catechize and of him demand any question concerning his faith and knowledge, he shall not refuse to make answer upon the same [00:16:00] peril.
35. No captain, master, or mariner, of what condition soever, shall depart or carry out of our river any ship, bark, galley, pinnace et cetera, roaders belonging to the colony, either now therein, or hither arriving, without leave and commission from the general or chief commander of the colony, upon pain of death.
36. No man or woman whatsoever, members of this colony [00:16:30] shall sell or give unto any captain, mariner, master or sailor, et cetera, any commodity of this country, of what quality so ever, to be transported out of the colony for his or their own private uses, upon pain of death.
37. All such bakers as are appointed to bake bread, or what else, either for the store to be given out in general, or for any one in particular, shall not steal nor embezzle, lose or defraud any man [00:17:00] of his due and proper weight and measure, nor use any dishonest and deceitful trick to make the bread weigh heavier, or make it coarser upon purpose to keep back any part or measure of the flour or meal committed unto him, nor ask, take, or detain any one loaf more or less for his hire or pains for so baking.
All fishermen, dressers of sturgeon or such like appointed to fish, or to cure the said sturgeon for the use of the colony, shall give a just and true account of all such fish as they shall tally by day [00:17:30] or night, of what kind soever, the same to bring unto the governor. As also, of all such kegs of sturgeon or caviar as they shall prepare and cure upon peril for the first time offending herein of losing his ear, and for the second time to be condemned a year to the galleys, and for the third time offending to be condemned to the galleys for three years.
Every minister or preacher shall every Sabbath day before catechizing, read all these laws and ordinances, [00:18:00] publicly in the assembly of the congregation, upon pain of his entertainment checked for that week.
Anthony Comegna: Early Jamestown was basically a swamp. The swamps bred millions upon millions of mosquitoes, and the mosquitoes killed hundreds of settlers without mercy. If the bugs didn’t get you, salt poisoning in your water supply may well, or any of the diseases produced when [00:18:30] feces meet drinking water. Then there was the ever stubborn and tricky fact that they didn’t sign up for this. Yes, some of them did sign on the dotted line, casting their lots to become indentured servants. But the vast majority of settlers were forced, in one way or another, to relocate to the colonies. The few who did go voluntarily were certainly not there to work hard. Rather, they expected to play the part of English conquistadors.
When food ran short, the solution was [00:19:00] to steal it from Indigenous peoples. If anything, company officials penalized people for being too lenient when raiding Indian villages. An absolute destruction was the general rule of contact between militant English and defensive Indians.
What’s a poor colonist to do, then? Precious few documents remain to us from common people of the era. Richard Frethorne’s letters to his parents, however, offer us a powerfully sad combination of insight into daily life, its pains, [00:19:30] drudgeries, and insecurities. He was, in essence, a prisoner in a vast labor extraction complex.
Speaker 3: Letters to Father and Mother. From Richard Frethorne, Virginia, March 20, 1623.
Loving and kind Father and Mother:
My most humble duty remembered to you, hoping in god of your good health. I your child am in a most heavy case by reason of the nature of the country is such that it [00:20:00] causeth much sickness, as the scurvy and the bloody flux and diverse other diseases, which maketh the body very poor and weak. And when we are sick there is nothing to comfort us. For since I came out of the ship I never ate anything but peas, and loblollie. That is, water gruel. As for deer or venison, I never saw any since I came into this land. There is indeed some fowl, but we are not allowed to go and get, but must work hard both early and late for a mess of water [00:20:30] gruel and a mouthful of bread and beef. A mouthful of bread for a penny loaf must serve for four men, which is most pitiful.
If you did know as much as I, when people cry out day and night, oh, that they were in England without their limbs and would not care to lose any limb to be in England again. Yay, though they beg from door to door. For we live in fear of the enemy every hour, yet we have had a combat with them on the Sunday before Shrovetide, and we took two alive [00:21:00] and make slaves of them. But it was by policy, for we are in great danger, for our plantation is very weak by reason of the dearth and sickness of our company, for we look every hour when two more should go.
Yet there came some four other men yet to live with us, of which there is but one alive. And our Lieutenant is dead, and his father, and his brother. And there was some five or six of the last year’s 20, of which there is but three left, so that we are fain to get [00:21:30] other men to plant with us. Yet we are but 32 to fight against 3,000 if they should come. And the nighest help that we have is 10 miles of us, and when the rogues overcame this place last, they slew 80 persons. How then shall we do, for we lie even in their teeth? They may easily take us, but that God is merciful and can save with few as well as with many, as he showed to Gilead. And like Gilead’s soldiers, if they lapped water, we drink [00:22:00] water which is weak.
And I have nothing to comfort me, nor is there nothing to be gotten here but sickness and death, except that one had money to lay out in some things for profit. But I have nothing at all. No, not a shirt to my back but two rags, nor no clothes but one poor suit, nor but one pair of shoes, but one pair of stockings, but one cap, but two bands. My cloak is stolen by one of my fellows, and to his dying hour [00:22:30] would not tell me what he did with it. But some of my fellows saw him have butter and beef out of a ship, which my cloak, I doubt, paid for. So that I have not a penny, nor a penny worth, to help me, to either spice or sugar or strong waters, and strengthen them, so water here doth wash and weaken these here only keep life and soul together.
But I am not half a quarter so strong as I was in England, and all is for want of victuals. For I do protest [00:23:00] unto you that I have eaten more in a day at home than I have allowed me here for a week. You have given more than my day’s allowance to a beggar at the door. And if Mr. Jackson had not relieved me, I should be in a poor case. But he like a father and she like a loving mother doth still help me.
For when we go to Jamestown, that is 10 miles of us, there lie all the ships that come to the land, and there they must deliver their goods. And when we went up to town, as it may be, on Monday, [00:23:30] that Goodman Jackson pitied me and made me a cabin to lie in always when I come up. He would give me some poor jacks home with me, which comforted me more than peas or water gruel. Oh, they be very godly folks, and love me very well, and will do anything for me. And he much marveled that you would send me a servant to the company. He saith I had been better knocked on the head. Indeed so I find it now, to my great grief and misery, and saith that if you love me [00:24:00] you will redeem me suddenly, for which I do entreat and beg.
If you cannot get the merchants to redeem me for some little money, then for God’s sake get a gathering or entreat some good folks to lay out some little sum of money in meal and cheese and butter and beef. Any eating meat will yield great profit. Oil and vinegar is very good. But, Father, there is great loss in leaking. But for God’s sake send beef and cheese and butter, or the more of one sort and none [00:24:30] of another. But if you send cheese, it must be very old cheese. At the cheese monger’s you may buy good cheese for twopence farthing or halfpenny, that will be liked very well. But if you send cheese, you must have a care how you pack it in barrels, and you must put cooper’s chips between every cheese, or else the heat of the hold will rot them.
And look whatsoever you send me, be it never so much. Look what I make of it. I will deal truly with you. I will send it over and beg the [00:25:00] profit to redeem me. If I die before it come, I have entreated Goodman Jackson to send you the worth of it, who hath promised he will. If you send, you must direct your letters to Goodman Jackson, at Jamestown, a gunsmith. You must set down his freight, because there be more of his name there.
Good Father, do not forget me, but have mercy and pity my miserable case. [00:25:30] I know if you did but see me, you would weep to see me, for I have but one suit. But it is a strange one. It is very well guarded. Wherefore, for God’s sake, pity me. I pray you to remember my love, my love to all my friends and kindred. I hope all my brothers and sisters are in good health. As for my part, I have set down my resolution that certainly will be. That is, that the answer of this letter will be life or death to me. [00:26:00] Therefore, good Father, send as soon as you can, and if you send me anything let this be the mark.
Anthony Comegna: Throughout the early modern period, political and economic elites used their powerful and privileged positions to force others into permanent servitude and wage drudgery. Elites used the weight of history to create a veritable class of hewers of wood and drawers of water. This biblical phrase [00:26:30] for brute work came to describe full generations of physical laborers. Those who labored cut the forests, drained the marshes, reclaimed the fens, hedged the estates, and destroyed the commons. Elites then used greater grain yields to hire more labor, build more complex capital investments, and feed raw material streams into the new machinery of industrial capitalism.
Wood, water, and the labors which produced them, built modernity [00:27:00] from the English countryside to the Virginia swamps.
The hewers of wood and drawers of water did not accept their fate passively or without criticism. Over the next 200 years or more, the hewers of wood and drawers of water fought concentrations of power in a cycle of terror and rebellion.
[00:27:30] Liberty Chronicles is a project of Libertarianism.org. It is produced by Tess Terrible. To learn more about Liberty Chronicles, visit Libertarianism.org.