Slavery, Servitude, and British Representations of Colonial North America

By Mason, Matthew | Southern Quarterly, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Slavery, Servitude, and British Representations of Colonial North America


Mason, Matthew, Southern Quarterly


In the late-seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, British literature's divided conception of America tilted decidedly towards the negative. At all levels of the literary food chain, from popular fiction to obscure poetry and memoir, British authors depicted the colonies as a place to which only scoundrels or the desperate would willingly go. These characterizations fed on the accompanying perception that few people did go willingly. Indeed, for metropolitan observers, a basic reason the colonies were so loathsome and fearsome was the exploitative labor systems that prevailed there, from indentured servitude and convict labor to chattel slavery. This literature was more anti-colonial than antislavery. But it was a vital medium whereby colonial America's systems of bondage fed metropolitan Britons' disdain for the inhabitants of their colonies in the century preceding the American Revolution.

This had not always been the dominant metropolitan view of the colonies. Early writers portrayed them in glowing terms, hoping to induce England's growing population of "sturdy beggars" to emigrate to the New World. This view comported with Europeans' long-running view of the New World as an earthly paradise in which mankind might start anew. And inasmuch as new colonial ventures arose at intervals well into the eighteenth century, promotional literature continued to come before the English reading public. And as late as the 1770s, multitudes of Britons were pulled as much as pushed to the American colonies and dreams of opportunity there.1

But by the late-seventeenth century America's disparagers outnumbered and outweighed her boosters. After the 1660s, a declining birthrate, plague, and new labor needs ended worries about any surplus population. Many leading Britons were loath to see England's population - which they now saw as a vital national resource - drained to the colonies, and they took a dimmer view of emigration. As Britain's aristocratic elite felt challenged by men of more mercantile wealth in the eighteenth century, they placed on colonial parvenus much of their defensive snobbery. Both the rising urban commercial classes at home and the wealthy planters of the colonies staked their claims to gentility, but the colonists came in for the harshest rebuffs from Britain's oligarchs. They were "a race of convicts," Samuel Johnson railed, "and ought to be thankful for anything we allow them short of hanging." Certainly such men should not expect admittance to polite society!2 Those who demeaned the New World tapped into their own long-running European tradition, what historian Howard Mumford Jones called the "anti-image" to the Edenic "image." In this view the New World was a frightening place, where the terrors and extremes of nature found their consequent companion in the greed and cruelty of native and newcomer alike.3 When even Virginia's Governor William Berkeley wrote in 1663 that "none but those of the meanest quality and corruptest lives" arrived in his colony from England, one can hardly expect many Englishmen to have painted a rosy picture.4

Travel and adventure accounts both factual and fictional were enormously popular in the late-seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in Britain, and as various scribblers plied this trade they drew on the burgeoning "anti-image" of the colonies for stories set there. From giants like Aphra Behn and Daniel Defoe to literary Lilliputians, they pursued common themes and even plots when they wrote about America. A voyage to America came only after a misspent or misfortunate youth in England. Characters often redeemed themselves there, but only a reverse emigration would complete the redemption. That so many authors followed this line probably owed less to some conspiracy or dictation from above than to the fact that the pejorative was in the ascendancy, becoming formulaic in this sort of literature. Few writers actually visited the New World, and those who did thus shaped the imaginations of others who relied on travel accounts and especially fiction for their impressions of the colonies. …

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