Race, Class and Theft in the New World, with John Cumbler
Monday afternoons from 3:00-5:00 in person at the Wellfleet Library. One exception for the first session, which will be Tuesday afternoon, April 19, instead.
April 19, 25, May 2, 9, 16
This course will explore the relationship between power, land, labor and wealth. Between 1620 and 1900 America went from a land of horticulturist Native Americans working and molding the land to produce sustainable subsistence food and shelter to the wealthiest nation in the world. That did not happen purely because of American exceptionalism- hard working settlers who brought wealth out of the wilderness- it also happened because those hard-working settlers had an unequal power relationship with others whose land and labor was effectively stolen -in a way that even John Locke would have understood as theft if he had been more perceptive of the real conditions on the ground in the New World.
Understanding of property in land was in transition in 17th century Europe. Increased population in western Europe was putting pressure on limited arable land leading to ever more marginal land to be put into production and ultimately for David Riccardo to develop his land-rent economic theory. Ownership of the land itself existed in a fuzzy state as feudalism gave way to commercial capitalism -partly land was viewed collectively with ownership coming from god or the king, partly land ownership was located in the individual or family. John Locke articulated the idea that property came from the free individual through the transformation of wilderness into arable, productive land by labor thus giving ownership through the creation of value. Ownership of land thus was transformed from coming from the collective-i.e., the commune or later the king from god to a right of the individual. And more importantly the ownership was alienable i.e., one could sell it.
It is in that context Europeans -we are going to focus on the English- come to what they called the New World. Land that was in such short supply in Europe was here in the hands of others or being used by others. The key to the economic success of Europeans in the New World was to take the land being held by native peoples and transform it through the lens of John Locke into European property with market value. Wealth in the New World as in the Old in the 17th century was primarily rooted in land. But only if the land could be sold or used to produce a marketable commodity. In the New World that commodity was primarily either sugar or tobacco. But the land in the New World was also heavily forested. To make forested land productive required labor and increasingly that labor was stolen labor, first from indentured servants then from slaves.
Margaret Ellen Newell, “BRETHRAN BY NATURE; NEW-ENGLAND INDIANS, COLONISTS, AND THE ORIGINS OF AMERICAN SLAVERY”
Claudio Saunt, “UNWORTHY REPUBLIC”
Alan Taylor, “THE DIVIDED GROUND”
Alan Taylor, “THE INTERNAL ENEMY: SLAVERY AND WAR IN VIRGINIA
Eric Foner and Alan Taylor, “AMERICAN COLONIES”
Richard White, “MIDDLE GROUND”
Ira Berlin, “MANY THOUSANDS GONE”