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Historical Note, Like Chaff in the Wind

Like Chaff in the Wind, by Anna Belfrage, cover

Historical note, Like Chaff in the Wind

When the first English colony was established in Virginia (and I don’t count the Roanoke debacle) in 1609, the eager participants came with dreams and hopes of easy riches, something akin to what the Spanish had discovered down in South America.

Sadly, Virginia had no mountains of almost pure silver like Potosí, nor was gold abundant in any way. Rather the reverse, actually. And those stories of rivers full of sturgeon, of woodlands crammed with mulberry trees (and the accompanying silk worms) proved as false as the myth of El Dorado, leaving the colonists in the rather unfamiliar situation of having to work – and work hard – to survive.

During the first few decades of its existence, the Colony of Virginia was something of a death machine, with mortality rates so high it was becoming difficult to attract new settlers. Things changed fast when tobacco was introduced to the colony. This addictive golden weed thrived in Virginia’s fertile soil, and with a huge – and growing demand – for tobacco in Europe, the colonists had at last struck gold.

Tobacco is a labour intensive crop. With ever more acreage being put under cultivation, the Colony of Virginia screamed for more people to work the expanding fields, and so the age-old system of indentured servants was transplanted from England to the colony – in a somewhat reworked form.

The indenture system set in place in Virginia meant that the planters carried the cost for transporting over the servants, receiving 50 acres of additional land for each servant they brought across. The servant paid nothing for his passage and was placed under contract for four to seven years to work off the debt of transportation. Once he had concluded his years, his master was obliged to give him a sort of severance pay, and the servant was free to make his own fortune. Forty per cent of the indentures died before the contract ended. Many more had their terms of service lengthened for one misdemeanour or other. A female indenture who became pregnant – no matter if this was due to being raped by her master – would have two years tacked on to her contract.

In my book, I have used indentured servants for the people that were forced into this system, while I use bond servants for those that signed on voluntarily. In actual fact, most indentured servants were volunteers – more or less; some had no other options. However, as early as 1620 King James decided that shipping out criminals to the colonies was a smart way of reducing the criminal elements in his kingdom while furnishing much needed labour to the plantations, and over the coming decades both Oliver Cromwell and the latter Stuarts would continue doing so. Cromwell in particular implemented forced deportations on a massive scale, with thousands upon thousands of Irish being abducted and transported to lifelong servitude in the West Indies – for the sin of being papists.

Indentures were often badly treated – Matthew’s experiences are in no way atypical to what male servants on a tobacco plantation might have experienced. Despite this, quite a few bond servants survived their contracts and went on to make good lives for themselves, sinking deep roots into their new, adopted land.

William Berkeley is the longest serving Governor in Virginia history, a complex character that alternated moments of great insight with others of sheer pig-headedness. In actual fact, when Alex arrived in Virginia in 1662, William was in England for a meeting with his superiors, not returning until 1663. However, I needed him to be in Jamestown when Alex was there, and I hope you’ll excuse this little tweak in William’s travelling plans. Just pretend he postponed his trip for a year … William was a man of many talents: he wrote plays, he had a well-developed head for business, he believed in free trade well before that concept was even invented, and he was innovative when it came to agricultural practises. He was also an able soldier, a most loyal servant to Charles I and his son, and quite adept at governing. He was also extremely intolerant of Puritans and Quakers, he kept a keen eye on his own personal interests, and with increasing age he also developed an increasingly autocratic streak which ultimately led to his downfall.

While William was a strong advocate for a diverse economy, autonomy from London and free trade (which in essence meant he wanted Virginia to trade directly with the Dutch, the French, whoever, instead of being forced to do all business via England) he was also a loud opponent to public education and forbad printing presses in his colony. Why, one wonders … After more than thirty years in Virginia, William was recalled to England in 1677, there to be severely reprimanded for his handling of Bacon’s rebellion. I find it a bit sad that he should die and be buried in England, very far away from the land he considered his home.

It is interesting to note just how many people seem to have crossed the Atlantic a multiple number of times in the seventeenth century – William Berkeley being one of them. The sea journey was hazardous, many ships were lost at sea, and time spent at sea could vary from six weeks to well over four or five months. On top of this, bodily comforts were at a very basic level. If you wanted to wash, you did it in sea water, the diet was restricted to salted foodstuffs, biscuits so hard they had to be softened in ale before you could bite into them, and as to sleeping accommodations, well the smaller you were the better.  As Alex quickly realises, the ships of the seventeenth century were a far cry from modern day ocean liners – and very, very small. BTW, this may be a good time to inform you about my proofreading error… The Regina Anne is not fifty metres long, she is thirty metres from bow to stern – on a good day, that is.