On this day in 1607, the first permanent English settlement in “the new world” was started in Jamestown. It was started in a bad location. The local native kingdom, the Tsenacommacah, didn’t want it because they considered it inappropriate for agriculture. I love reading about this stuff, because it always brings me back to Ayn Rand’s ignorant and racist claims that the Europeans had the right to take native tribal lands because they didn’t have a concept of private property and they weren’t using the land the way Ayn Rand thought they should. But the truth is that the native tribes were quite diverse, most definitely had the idea of property rights, and were generally quite willing to interact economically with the Europeans. The only thing that caused problems was that the Europeans had more advanced technology. So regardless of what Ayn Rand and her apologists claim, it was just a matter that might makes right.
Anyway, the colony was only in existence for twelve years before it got its first African slaves. They were put to work in the tobacco fields. It was too early for cotton. It was not until 1640, that slavery of Africans was codified with the trial of John Punch. He had been, supposedly, an indentured servant. He ran away with two European indentured servants. When they were caught, the Europeans just had their sentences extended. Punch became the first official slave. (But he certainly wasn’t the first de facto slave.)
I think these have something to do with the fact that we make such a big deal about the Plymouth Colony and the great big feast. But look around at our country, fellow Americans! Is the story of this country us getting along with the rest of the world? Or is it about us eating up every resource we come upon? The Plymouth story is another aspect of America: the aspect that ignores our bad behavior and makes up pretty stories about how wonderful and “exceptional” we are.
But lest you think that I am just another self-hating American: this is not true. I don’t think that America is worse than other empires. Given the times that we’ve lived, I would even put us slightly above average. What I won’t do is ignore our troubling history just because it is ours. The greatest thing about America is that I’m allowed to write this kind of article. (Of course there is a huge fraction of the people in this country who don’t think I ought to be allowed.) And the fact that I can write about this stuff means that we can improve. I love this country in an aspirational way. We are great only to the extent that we try to be great. And if we stop aspiring, we die. Those who think America simply is great, want America to die.
Happy continued birthday America…