BikeMonkey Guest-Post
Most of you have been following, I presume, all of the anti-woman legislation being pursued by Republicans at the State level. It reached a bit of a fever pitch recently with the State Senate filibuster of an anti-abortion bill by Senator Wendy Davis. More recently the North Carolina legislature has been trying to enact draconian anti-abortion legislation as well. They did so, cravenly, by first shoehorning the policy into a bill launched (entirely un-ironically, apparently) to combat Sharia law and then putting it into a motorcycle safety bill! Resourceful these folks certainly are.

In this political conversation the occasional wag has been seen to refer to Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale. For those who are unfamiliar, the Wikipedia:

…a movement calling itself the “Sons of Jacob” launches a revolution and suspends the United States Constitution under the pretext of restoring order.

They were quickly able to take away all of the women’s rights, largely attributed to the financial records being stored electronically and labelled by gender. The new theocratic military dictatorship-styled “The Republic of Gilead”, moved quickly to consolidate its power and reorganize society along a new militarized, hierarchical, compulsorily cult-Christian regime of selectively skewed Old Testament-inspired social and religious ultra-conservatism among its newly created social classes. In this society, almost all women are forbidden to read.

The story is presented from the point of view of a woman called Offred (literally Of-Fred, however not a patronymic as some critics claim). The character is one of a class of individuals kept as concubines (“handmaids”) for reproductive purposes by the ruling class in an era of declining births. The book is told in the first person by Offred, who describes her life during her third assignment as a handmaid, in this case to Fred (referred to as “The Commander”). Interspersed in flashbacks are portions of her life from before and during the beginning of the revolution, when she finds she has lost all autonomy to her husband, through her failed attempt to escape with her husband and daughter to Canada, to her indoctrination into life as a handmaid. Through her eyes, the structure of Gilead’s society is described, including the several different categories of women and their circumscribed lives in the new theocracy.

Ahh, you hyperbolic feminists and liberals. Such a bunch of sensationalists! Surely the GOP wouldn’t try to cause any such thing. Totally different!

This country, the USA, reaching far back to it’s genesis as a European Colony, was not originally a slave country. In fact, it was formed under English common law which explicitly prohibited slavery at the time. It was formed by peoples who were at war with a country which did, at the time, have a legal slave tradition….that would be Spain.

The English common law did provide for indentured servitude. The indentured service arose from the 1562 Statute of Apprentices and subsequent English Poor Laws which allowed poor people to be indentured to work for a richer person for a period of time, 7 years and/or up to the age of 24 was in the original Statute. All considered perfectly reasonable so for discussion purposes, sure, let’s start with that assumption.

When Jamestown, Virginia was established (early 1600s) as a profit venture, it originally struggled. Mightily. Somewhere around 1616 the Virginia Company realized they should leverage indentured servitude and started shipping over poor individuals as cut-rate labor. It worked in various ways with first the plantation owners in Virginia pre-paying “passage” and then apparently devolved into captains loading up in England with passengers on spec, and then auctioning them off to the plantation owners upon arrival in Virginia. Auctioning of their indentured service interval. Let us be clear. These folks (some around these parts like to start spouting about the Scots and the Irish at this point in the story, we can roll with that) were eventually free colonists. Eventually. And maybe they were freed into a life of struggle and poverty too. Who cares? They were free.

The first recorded boatload of 20+ black people arrived at Jamestown in 1619 under the same deal. Sure, they’d been pirated off the Spanish who held them as slaves but originally they were treated under English common law. They were indentured for the “passage” costs between when the English pirates stole them from the Spanish and delivered them to Virginia. And as per this Wikipedia article:

After working out their contracts for passage money to Virginia, each was granted 50 acres (20 ha) of land (headrights) after completing the indenture. This enabled them to raise their own tobacco or other crops.

So far, so good, right? Just as the fake-equality defenders of the poverty stricken, Scots-Irish descendent Appalachian white folks of modern day would have it, the original black people arriving in the English colonies of America were treated as well or poorly as the in/voluntary poor indentured white folks.

The trouble is, shit happened.

What happened thereafter, from the early 1620s through about 1655, was that a gradual series of critical practices, laws and legal decisions were made that favored the interests of greedy individuals who were entirely callous to the rights of other people. This was against a backdrop in which rich English folks back home were making bank from high seas piracy of the Spanish slave trade. They did so for clear monetary gain, apparent personal convenience and, one must conclude, a considerable amount of ‘othering’ for people not like themselves. At first the clues that permanent lifetime indentured servitude existed in Virginia are scant. The William Wood essay reviews a 1643 case in which the valuation of white (700 pounds of tobacco) and black (3,000 pounds of tobacco) children as part of a decedent’s estate made it clear their indenture was of different durations. Also a 1649 case in which the two white runaway indentured servants had their indenture extended by several years whereas the black one, John Punch, was rendered to lifetime servitude. John Punch is thus often considered the first legally enslaved person of the American English colonies. Fascinatingly, a genetic and genealogical analysis suggests that John Punch is an ancestor of Barack Obama through his mother.

Slippery slopes, people, slippery slopes. What was the harm of a draconian punishment of just one criminal? (He’d run away from his indenture, after all, tch, tch, tch.)

Next up was the fascinating case, in 1654-1655, of one John Casor, indentured to Anthony Johnson, this latter was curiously enough one of the first 20+ black arrivals indentured in 1619. Mr. Johnson had worked free of his indenture, set up as a farmer and became prosperous enough to require indentured servants of his own. John Casor was one such and demanded his release after working 7 or 8 years for Johnson. Johnson refused, claiming he was actually indentured for life (remember those kids?) and Casor somehow ended up working for his neighbor. Johnson sued said neighbor for “detaining his Negro servant”. The court of Northampton County upheld Mr. Johnson’s claim to Mr. Casor which formalized the permanent enslavement of Casor as well as the right of a free black person to own a slave. From this perspective of property rights rather than punishment for a crime, some might claim that Casor was in fact the first formally, legally sanctioned slave of the Americas, rather than Mr. Punch.

Like it matters that much. I’m sure certain folks around here will be happy that the first slave was Obama’s relative through his white mother and others will be tickled to think the first slave was owned by a black farmer.

Oh, and we’re not done with the slippery slope. Not by a long shot. (Just like each abortion restriction isn’t the end of the modern GOP’s goals and attacks, people.)

In 1662 Virginia adopted partus sequitur ventrem which meant that children of black women slaves would be similarly enslaved. This ran counter to English common law which held that the status of a child was tied to the status of the father. Gee, I wonder what that was about….oh yes:

The change also gave cover to the power relationships by which white planters, their sons, overseers and other white men took sexual advantage of enslaved women. Their illegitimate mixed-race children were “confined” to slave quarters unless fathers took specific legal actions on their behalf. The new law in 1662 meant that white fathers were no longer required to legally acknowledge, support, or emancipate their illegitimate children by slave women. Men could sell their issue or put them to work.

Of course it was not just about keeping more black people as slaves, but also about maintaining the ability of rich white dudes to rape women who they quite literally owned. And you know, to force them to bear children for whom the father would take no responsibility whatsoever. (Sound familiar?) The span from 1662 to 1863 was two hundred friggin’ years of free rapin’ rights on the part of wealthy white Southron men in these here lands.

Initially the children of a free white mother and a black man would be free but they soon fixed that loophole. As of 1691 these kids were also indentured (for a mere 30 years!) and the mother had to pay a fine of 15 pounds sterling. If she couldn’t pay, she went into indenture for five years! Then, after having furiously imported lots of black slaves to work the plantations over a few decades, Virginia colony “deported” all free blacks in 1699. Thereafter, if you were black in Virginia, you were enslaved. And the oppression was complete.

A full conversion from the English common law, which banned enslavement, to full lifetime, permanent, cross-generational enslavement.

But naah. Couldn’t ever happen right? No way the current assaults from the GOP on women’s bodies, autonomy and rights could ever slide into the nightmare of The Handmaid’s Tale.

I would recommend reading the Wikipedia entries on:
Anthony Johnson
John Casor
Nat Turner

and in particular the 1970 William J. Wood essay The Illegal Beginning of American Negro Slavery (HeinOnline, GoogleBooks).