Friday, June 24, 2011

The Loyal Judith, a true tale of pirates and politics

A colleague of mine, Nan Hawthorne, asked a question on Facebook about "What doublecrosser from history makes you the maddest? Include both the villain and the person s/he turned on." ( My answer is personal, and too long to fit in the space provided by Facebook, so I thought I'd share the true story here.

Some of my European ancestors were French, probably Huguenots who fled France at the end of the 17th century. They are first found with a Germanic spelling to their name in Austria at the beginning of the 18th century. (It's a distinctive name.) They and their neighbors decided to immigrate to America and sold everything they own to raise passage money. While enroute, they were captured by Spanish pirates and held for ransom.

A British philanthropist heard of their plight and paid all their ransoms. He transported them to England, where the local populace, sympathetic to their trouble, supported them on the public dole. After a few months, they began to grow irate at the 'freeloaders', as a result of which, they were given a choice. Be sold into servitude in England to recoup the cost of supporting them, or be sold into servitude in America. That's the doublecross that makes me angry: We'll help you until it costs us money, then we're selling you out.

My family and some others chose to accept servitude in to America. They arrived in Savannah, Georgia, January 1, 1746, aboard the Loyal Judith. A copy of the ship's manifest survives in a historical society; a cousin of mine sent me an electronic version of it.

The manifest shows the names of adults in a column on the left, and the names of the children with their ages in a column on the right. The five children in my family ranged in age from 5-14. At the top of the list are the words, "Children to be sold separate."

These children are the 'lost generation' for whom no records exist. We know their parents eventually got their freedom, but they were never able to retrieve their children. They were gone, sucked into the black hole that is involuntary servitude. When my next ancestor shows up in the records, it is impossible to know who his parents were. He is a young married man with an Indian wife and a baby and behind on his taxes.

The family name is unique; there were no other people in Georgia with the same name. He has to be the child of one of the sold children, but when people are property, even 'temporary' property as in the case of indentured servitude, they are not treated as human beings. Records are not kept of them except as objects in an inventory, if even then.

Of the five children bound into servitude, only one of them survived long enough to beget a child, and only one child. Who was his father? Was it one of the boys, able to grow up and get married and pass on his family name? Or was it one of the girls, a servant wronged by her master, bearing a baby out of wedlock?

Indentured servitude was bad for all children; misbehave, and time was added to their indenture in punishment. Break a plate? A month added to your servitude. If you were female and got pregnant, you owed your master an additional year to compensate him loss. HIS loss! Further, if you had no money (if you were a servant, you definitely didn't), then you had no way to support your baby--unless you sold him to your master in exchange for food and clothes for the child. Since it would be at least five years before the child was any use to the master, they demanded long indentures: 21 years, 30 years... Not surprising, children were easily cheated and became de facto slaves, living their entire lives in servitude.

Benjamin Franklin and the other Founding Fathers had a name for it; they called it "The German slave trade." People from the Austro-Hungarian Empire were particularly desirable as indentured servants because they could be easily controlled. If they ran away, who would help them? They didn't speak the language. By contrast, the Scotch-Irish (my other European ancestors), did speak the language, and had the contrary notion that they should resist abuse and run away. Take a Scotch-Irish indenture and there was no guarantee you could keep him; take a German one, and he was yours. (There's a reason why so many Scotch-Irish violated the Proclamation Line and moved into Appalachia.)

Staring at the ship's manifest and those cold black and white words, "Children to be sold separate," I suddenly understood why black people can't just 'get over' the Civil War. My family was bought and sold 265 years ago, and I carry the sense of loss--an entire generation! Five children! Gone. The Civil War is much, much closer, and much, much larger. African Americans didn't just lose a generation, they lost centuries. They didn't just lose a family, they lost millions.

No, we shouldn't just 'get over' it. Having a black president means great progress has been made, but it doesn't mean that the work is done and we can start worrying about white people being the victims of 'reverse racism.' No, they're not. What white people are worrying about is playing on a level field. To them, the loss of privilege (privilege so entrenched they didn't even know they had it) feels like 'bias.' They're right. We are biased against letting a group of people continue to profit by the historic injustice done to another group of people.

White folks, if you can show me where your family was bought and sold, then you can talk to me about racism.

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