On the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans being brought to America, we remember the backs from which American capitalism was born.
For many, the history of the United States of America begins with the rebellion of the 13 colonies and their quest for freedom from England’s tyranny. The birth of our nation is about the lofty principles that the colonists fought and died for: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. But it’s rare that we ask: Why were the colonies founded in the first place? Hint: It wasn’t for the sake of freedom or even religious liberty.
It was for corporate profits. If this year’s commemoration of the arrival of the first Africans to the colonies in 1619 reminds us of anything, it should be of how low capitalism can go when left unchecked. Corporate values set the table for the unique institution of slavery in the United States, and still affects how we see labor today.
In the 1600s, England was too broke to compete with Spain and France in exploring the New World. Instead of relying on empty government coffers, King James I decided to let private enterprise foot the bill. He chartered two private corporations in 1606, more than 150 years before the American Revolution: the Virginia Company of London and the Virginia Company of Plymouth.
The companies had investors or “adventurers” who put up money or labor to settle land in America. (Back then, “Virginia” was a general term for all the land the English claimed, which went from “sea to sea” and included Michigan.) It didn’t take long for the free enterprising companies to take advantage of their monopoly. They siphoned off huge salaries for the officers. They exploited the poor. They recruited those seeking religious freedom or those interested in forcing Christianity upon the Native peoples.
At one point, people were expected to pay their own passage to America and pay an additional fee to use the land once they arrived. The companies instituted a lucrative lottery for land in America. It cheated so many poor people, the king shut it down. Native American hostility, harsh winters, disease, sunken supply ships and corruption killed profits.
In 1624, the Crown dissolved the corporations and assumed direct control of the colonies. But by then, corporations had planted more than tobacco into the Virginia soil. They had also planted what has been dubbed “low road capitalism” – a form of capitalism that thrives upon the unbridled exploitation of labor. Even when entire colonies were decimated by war, starvation and disease, corporate interests pressed on. The possibility of profit was worth the human life.
In 1619, the White Liondocked in Virginia with about 20 Angolans it had pirated from a Spanish ship. Although there was no clear policy about slavery in the Virginia colonies at the time, the Africans were quickly sold into bondage. The answer to the white investors’ need for bountiful, expendable human labor had been answered. We know slavery’s lasting impact on almost every aspect of American life, but we rarely explore the way it shaped labor relations.
“Slavery pulled down all workers’ wages,” observed Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond in his piece for the New York Times Magazine’s The 1619 Project. “Labor power had little chance when the bosses could choose between buying people, renting them, contracting indentured servants, taking on apprentices or hiring children and prisoners.”
As we commemorate that fateful day in 1619, it’s important to remember that the English arrived on these shores as corporate investors who built white fortunes on the backs of slave labor. Their view of labor as an expendable resource undergirds today’s anti-union economy that traps workers in dangerous working conditions, poverty wages and widespread job insecurity.
The enslaved Africans who were exploited by American capitalism also rose to fight against it. Former slaves were at the forefront of the abolitionist movement. Black Union Army soldiers refused to be paid $3 less a month than white soldiers, arguing that they had “dyed the ground with blood, in defense of the Union and Democracy.” In 1864, they won retroactive equal pay. A. Phillip Randolph organized black porters who were locked out of union protections.
Booker T. Washington challenged labor unions in 1913 to “unite with those who want to give every man, regardless of color, race or creed, what Colonel Roosevelt calls the ‘square deal’ in the matters of labor.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered when he turned his focus to labor and the poor people’s campaign.
In the United States, capitalism took the lowest road, but African Americans have continued to fight to take it higher. Blacks have been at the forefront of the labor movement from its inception and remain committed to the real American values: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness for all.
DESIREE COOPER IS THE AUTHOR OF KNOW THE MOTHER.