“The discovery of America and that of a passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope, are the two greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind. Their consequences have already been very great: but, in the short period of between two and three centuries which has elapsed since these discoveries were made, it is impossible the whole extent of their consequences have been seen”, wrote Adam Smith in his celebrated work The Wealth of Nations (1776). Although the exploration and settlement into this New World might be a new step into a new world and an important event of human history in many aspects as he described, the centuries of transition process wasn’t a smooth and easy compared to other transitions that mankind had previously experienced throughout history, including from Africa to Middle East and to Central Asia over many millennia. The New World become the site of many forms of unfree labor, including indentured servitude, forced labor, and plantation slavery, most of them unprecedented. The conquest and settlement of the Western Hemisphere opened new chapters in the long histories of both freedom and slavery. Three primary documents given representatively describe different forms of settlement process through which settlers of the early era immigrated to the New World from the different viewpoints depending on the authors.
The Passage of Indentured Servants (1750) by Gottlieb Mittelberger depicts vividly the gruesome realty of the bonded servants from Dutch cities. In addition to the fact that nearly two-thirds of English settlers came as indentured servants, who voluntarily surrendered their freedom for s specified time (usually five to seven years) in exchange for passage to America, many from other European cities, such as Rotterdam or Amsterdam, were packed in the large sea-vessels like herrings headed to America risking their lives desperately wanting to escape miserable economic conditions. Indentured servitude, however, was not a guaranteed route to economic autonomy despite its extremely painful and tedious voyage. Given the high death rate, many servants did not live to the end of their terms. Many servants found the reality of life in the New World less appealing than they had anticipated. The hardships of the passage from Old England to Philadelphia included long voyage (2-4 weeks from Holland to England and 8 to 12 weeks from England to Philadelphia), hunger (bad food and water), lice, and a gale rage for a few days). These hardships of the sea were exacerbated upon reaching land as the sick and wretched must remain on board for 2-3 weeks and frequently died unless recovered and purchased in time. Purchase arrangements of newly arrived were made as follows; daily purchase negotiations were carried out based on various conditions: depending on the debt amount, bindings were set in writings for 3 to 6 years following the amounts due, age and strength. For the young (age from 10 to 15), service term is until 21 years old.
The second document titled “The Middle Passage” written by Olaudah Equiano in 1788, an ex-slave from Nigeria describes another dark page of settlement era. For slaves, the voyage across the Atlantic, known as the Middle Passage because it was the second, or middle, leg in the triangular trading routes linking Europe, Africa, and America was a harrowing experience. While every word and every line in the document is painfully realistic, “the shrieks of the women and the groans of the dying” colorfully describes the moment of agony on the ship. Many other hardships during the aside, the author’s passage from West Indies to the mainland North America later represents an important route of the time. Only a small portion (less than 5 percent) of slaves were destined for mainland North America. The vast majority landed in Brazil or the West Indies, where the high death rate on the sugar plantations led to a constant demand for new slave imports. In the eighteenth century, however, their numbers increased steadily and by 1770, around one-fifth of the estimated 2.3 million living in the English colonies of North America were Africans and their descendants. Description of the captor can be found when the author asked them if he were not to be eaten by those white men with horrible looks, red faces. and loose hair. His view on the prospect of work is that he thought since they were to be carried to these white people’s country to work for them, then if it were no worse than working, his situation was not so desperate: but still feared he should be put to death. Author’s conclusions about the civilization of the captors is that they looked and acted in so savaged manner, had no country lived in the hollow place (the ship). Every circumstance he met with served only to render his state more painful and heighten his apprehensions and his opinion of the cruelty of the whites.
The third document written by Crèvecoeur provides much more bright and cheerful view on the New World. Obviously, he didn’t belong to, thus had no first-hand understanding or experience of, either indentured servants or African slaves, so his vision on the new establishment was limited to a certain class of immigrants. Nonetheless, the general perception of the time, and as a continuing motto later on: Ubi panis ibi patria and also, his vision of the new “American” has continued to be of great significance. Thoughts and feelings experienced by Englishmen visiting America that the author imagined was that they share of national pride; this is the work of my countrymen, they brought along with them their national genius, to which they principally owe what liberty they enjoy, and what substance they possess, the industry of his native country displayed in a new manner, and traces in their works the embryos of all the arts, sciences, and ingenuity which flourish in Europe. Lifestyle and social relations of America described in the document can be summarized as: the rich and poor are not so far removed from each other. No dreading power who have everything. Everyone is equitable, working for himself. Pleasing uniformity of decent competence appears throughout the habitations. America is a land of opportunity for the poor because formerly in Europe, the poor were not numbered in any civil lists of their country, here in America, they rank as citizens. The laws protect them as they arrive, stamping on them the symbol of adoption; they receive ample rewards for their labors; these accumulated rewards procure them lands; those lands confer on them the title of freeman, and to that title every benefit is affixed which men can possibly require. The reasons that are suggested for an American loving America much more than the country of his forefathers are: the reward of his industry follows with equal steps the progress of his labor; his labor is founded on the basis of nature, self-interest. Wives and children, who before in vain demanded of him a morsel of bread, now, fat and frolicsome, gladly help their father to clear those fields. Religion demands little of him, only a small voluntary salary.
Behind the dark shadow of bright and cheerful accounts of Crèvecoeur’s letter, there were many more unfortunate lives of another Mittelberger and Equiano. During the era of exploration and settlement to the New World, the concept of men was still very much limited to a small circle of people although it was significantly more inclusive compared to conventional European perception. Reading the documents based on direct experiences of an indentured servant and a slave reveals the era’s image from many different angles. No single account can explain all the different aspects of this turbulent time. Even a single object look completely different depending on viewers’ position and perspective. This is the transition that took over three hundred years and a dozen generations. There may be hundreds and thousands of personal stories describing completely different pictures. Perhaps, that’s history.