[Volume 1, Page 514]
CHAPTER 15|Document 6
William Eddis, Letters from America20 Sept. 177017 Feb. 1772Land 35--41, 63--65
Your information relative to the situation of servants in this country is far from being well founded. I have now been upwards of twelve months resident in Maryland, and am thereby enabled to convey to you a tolerable idea on this subject.
Persons in a state of servitude are under four distinct denominations: negroes, who are the entire property of their respective owners; convicts, who are transported from the mother country for a limited term; indented servants, who are engaged for five years previous to their leaving England; and free-willers, who are supposed, from their situation, to possess superior advantages.
The negroes in this province are, in general, natives of the country, very few in proportion being imported from the coast of Africa. They are better clothed, better fed, and better treated, than their unfortunate brethren, whom a more rigid fate hath subjected to slavery in our West India islands; neither are their employments so laborious, nor the acts of the legislature so partially oppressive against them. The further we proceed to the northward, the less number of people are to be found of this complexion. In the New England government, negroes are almost as scarce as on your side of the Atlantic, and but few are under actual slavery; but as we advance to the south, their multitudes astonishingly increase, and in the Carolinas [Volume 1, Page 515] they considerably exceed the number of white inhabitants.1
Maryland is the only province into which convicts may be freely imported. The Virginians have inflicted very severe penalties on any masters of vessels, or others, who may attempt to introduce persons under this description into their colony. They have been influenced in this measure by an apprehension that, from the admission of such inmates into their families, the prevalence of bad example might tend to universal depravity, in spite of every regulation and restraining law.
Persons convicted of felony and in consequence transported to this continent, if they are able to pay the expense of passage, are free to pursue their fortune agreeably to their inclinations or abilities. Few, however, have means to avail themselves of this advantage. These unhappy beings are, generally, consigned to an agent, who classes them suitably to their real or supposed qualifications; advertises them for sale, and disposes of them, for seven years, to planters, to mechanics, and to such as choose to retain them for domestic service. Those who survive the term of servitude seldom establish their residence in this country: the stamp of infamy is too strong upon them to be easily erased; they either return to Europe and renew their former practices; or, if they have fortunately imbibed habits of honesty and industry, they remove to a distant situation, where they may hope to remain unknown, and be enabled to pursue with credit every possible method of becoming useful members of society.
In your frequent excursions about the great metropolis, you cannot but observe numerous advertisements offering the most seducing encouragement to adventurers under every possible description; to those who are disgusted with the frowns of fortune in their native land; and to those of an enterprising disposition, who are tempted to court her smiles in a distant region. These persons are referred to agents, or crimps, who represent the advantages to be obtained in America in colors so alluring that it is almost impossible to resist their artifices. Unwary persons are accordingly induced to enter into articles, by which they engage to become servants, agreeable to their respective qualifications, for the term of five years; every necessary accommodation being found them during the voyage; and every method taken that they may be treated with tenderness and humanity during the period of servitude; at the expiration of which they are taught to expect that opportunities will assuredly offer to secure to the honest and industrious a competent provision for the remainder of their days.
The generality of the inhabitants in this province are very little acquainted with those fallacious pretenses, by which numbers are continually induced to embark for this continent. On the contrary, they too generally conceive an opinion that the difference is merely nominal between the indented servant and the convicted felon; nor will they readily believe that people who had the least experience in life, and whose characters were unexceptionable, would abandon their friends and families and their ancient connections, for a servile situation in a remote appendage to the British empire. From this persuasion they rather consider the convict as the more profitable servant, his term being for seven, the latter only for five years; and, I am sorry to observe, that there are but few instances wherein they experience different treatment. Negroes being a property for life, the death of slaves, in the prime of youth or strength, is a material loss to the proprietor; they are, therefore, almost in every instance, under more comfortable circumstances than the miserable European, over whom the rigid planter exercises an inflexible severity. They are strained to the utmost to perform their allotted labor; and, from a prepossession in many cases too justly founded, they are supposed to be receiving only the just reward which is due to repeated offenses. There are doubtless many exceptions to this observation, yet, generally speaking, they groan beneath a worse than Egyptian bondage. By attempting to lighten the intolerable burthen, they often render it more insupportable. For real or imaginary causes, these frequently attempt to escape, but very few are successful; the country being intersected with rivers, and the utmost vigilance observed in detecting persons under suspicious circumstances who, when apprehended, are committed to close confinement, advertised, and delivered to their respective masters; the party who detects the vagrant being entitled to a reward. Other incidental charges arise. The unhappy culprit is doomed to a severe chastisement; and a prolongation of servitude is decreed in full proportion to expenses incurred and supposed inconveniences resulting from a desertion of duty.
The situation of the free-willer is, in almost every instance, more to be lamented than either that of the convict or the indented servant, the deception which is practiced on those of this description being attended with circumstances of greater duplicity and cruelty. Persons under this denomination are received under express conditions that on their arrival in America they are to be allowed a stipulated number of days to dispose of themselves to the greatest advantage. They are told that their services will be eagerly solicited in proportion to their abilities; that their reward will be adequate to the hazard they encounter by courting fortune in a distant region; and that the parties with whom they engage will readily advance the sum agreed on for their passage; which, being averaged at [Volume 1, Page 516] about nine pounds sterling, they will speedily be enabled to repay, and to enjoy, in a state of liberty, a comparative situation of ease and affluence.
With these pleasing ideas they support with cheerfulness the hardships to which they are subjected during the voyage; and, with the most anxious sensations of delight, approach the land which they consider as the scene of future prosperity. But scarce have they contemplated the diversified objects which naturally attract attention; scarce have they yielded to the pleasing reflection that every danger, every difficulty, is happily surmounted, before their fond hopes are cruelly blasted, and they find themselves involved in all the complicated miseries of a tedious, laborious, and unprofitable servitude.
Persons resident in America, being accustomed to procure servants for a very trifling consideration, under absolute terms for a limited period, are not often disposed to hire adventurers, who expect to be gratified in full proportion to their acknowledged qualifications; but, as they support authority with a rigid hand, they little regard the former situation of their unhappy dependants.
This disposition, which is almost universally prevalent, is well known to the parties who on your side of the Atlantic engage in this iniquitous and cruel commerce. It is therefore an article of agreement with these deluded victims that if they are not successful in obtaining situations on their own terms within a certain number of days after their arrival in the country, they are then to be sold, in order to defray the charges of passage, at the discretion of the master of the vessel or the agent to whom he is consigned in the province.
You are also to observe that servants imported, even under this favorable description, are rarely permitted to set their feet on shore until they have absolutely formed their respective engagements. As soon as the ship is stationed in her berth, planters, mechanics, and others, repair on board; the adventurers of both sexes are exposed to view, and very few are happy enough to make their own stipulations, some very extraordinary qualifications being absolutely requisite to obtain this distinction; and even when this is obtained, the advantages are by no means equivalent to their sanguine expectations. The residue, stung with disappointment and vexation, meet with horror the moment which dooms them, under an appearance of equity, to a limited term of slavery. Character is of little importance; their abilities not being found of a superior nature, they are sold as soon as their term of election is expired, apparel and provision being their only compensation; till, on the expiration of five tedious laborious years, they are restored to a dearly purchased freedom.
From this detail, I am persuaded you will not longer imagine that the servants in this country are in a better situation than those in Britain. You have heard of convicts who rather chose to undergo the severest penalties of the law than endure the hardships which are annexed to their situation during a state of servitude on this side the Atlantic. Indolence, accompanied with a train of vicious habits, has doubtless great influence on the determination of such unhappy wretches; but it is surely to be lamented that men whose characters are unblemished, whose views are founded on honest and industrious principles, should fall a sacrifice to avarice and delusion, and indiscriminately be blended with the most profligate and abandoned of mankind.
It seems astonishing that a circumstance so well known, particularly in this province, should not have been generally circulated through every part of the British empire. Were the particulars of this iniquitous traffic universally divulged, those who have established offices in London and in the principal seaports for the regular conduct of this business would be pointed out to obloquy, and their punishment would serve as a beacon to deter the ignorant and unwary from becoming victims to the insidious practices of avarice and deceit.
I am ready to admit there is every appearance of candor on the part of the agents and their accomplices. Previous to the embarkation of any person under the respective agreements, the parties regularly comply with the requisitions of a law wisely calculated to prevent clandestine transportation; they appear before a magistrate and give their voluntary assent to the obligations they have mutually entered into. But are not such adventurers induced to this measure in consequence of ignorance and misrepresentation? Assuredly they are. They are industriously taught to expect advantages infinitely superior to their most sanguine views in Britain. Every lucrative incentive is delineated in the most flattering colors; and they fondly expect to acquire that independence in the revolution of a few years which the longest life could not promise with the exertion of their best abilities in the bosom of their native country.
. . . . .
The annual revenue of the proprietary arising from the sale of lands and the yearly quit rent, after deducting all the various charges of government, averages at twelve thousand five hundred pounds per annum. All offices excepting those in the service of the customs are in his gift, or in the gift of his representative for the time being. This patronage includes a very extensive range of lucrative and respectable stations, and consequently throws great weight and influence into the scale of government.
This influence is considered by many as inimical to the essential interests of the people; a spirit of party is consequently excited, and every idea of encroachment is resisted by the popular faction with all the warmth of patriotic enthusiasm.
I have before observed that elections in this province are triennial. The delegates returned are generally persons of the greatest consequence in their different counties; and many of them are perfectly acquainted with the political and commercial interest of their constituents. I have frequently heard subjects debated with great powers of eloquence and force of reason; and the utmost regularity and propriety distinguish the whole of their proceedings.
. . . . .
A litigious spirit is very apparent in this country. The assizes are held twice in the year in the city of Annapolis, and the number of causes then brought forward is really incredible. Though few of the gentlemen who practice in the courts have been regularly called to the bar, there are [Volume 1, Page 517] several who are confessedly eminent in their profession; and those who are possessed of superior abilities have full employment for the exertion of their talents, and are paid in due proportion by their respective clients.
The natives of these provinces, even those who move in the humbler circles of life, discover a shrewdness and penetration not generally observable in the mother country. On many occasions they are inquisitive even beyond the bounds of propriety; they discriminate characters with the greatest accuracy, and there are few who do not seem perfectly conversant with the general and particular interests of the community. An idea of equality also seems generally to prevail, and the inferior order of people pay but little external respect to those who occupy superior stations.
Eddis, William. Letters from America. Edited by Aubrey C. Land. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1969.
© 1987 by The University of Chicago