The Pilgrims and the 1625 London Plague

London Plague

Over at We’re History, early American historian Peter Wood writes about the London plague from the perspective of Plymouth Rock.  Here is a taste of his piece:

But in 1625, New England’s “hideous and desolate” isolation suddenly began to seem a God-given blessing in disguise. Captain Miles Standish had been sent back to England, aboard a ship laden with furs and fish, to negotiate with overbearing creditors for their “favour and help.” He went at “a very bad time,” Bradford related, for their home country was “full of trouble.” To his dismay, Standish found “the plague very hote in London, so no business could be done.”

Hot indeed. England’s plague had arrived, apparently from Holland, early in 1625, but it went undetected through most of March. George Wither, a poet who survived the epidemic, recalled how the stealthy sickness first approached London through the city’s “well-fill’d Suburbs” and spread there undetected for weeks…

By the end of 1625, the contagion had claimed nearly 70,000 lives across England. More than half the deaths had been in London. There, the disease had killed well over 35,000, in a city of fewer than 330,000 people. Many more may have been undiagnosed victims. One Londoner wrote that “to this present Plague of Pestilence, all former Plagues were but pettie ones.” Another lamented that no prior chronicle had “ever mentioned the like” for “our famous citie.”

As for Standish, he found the English adventurers who supported the Plymouth Colony were fearful in the midst of an economic collapse and a public health disaster. When the New Englander sought a loan, they could only offer him money at a whopping 50% interest rate.  As Bradford later summarized: “though their wills were good, yet theyr power was litle. And ther dyed such multitude weekly of the plague, as all trade was dead, and litle money stirring.”

In early April 1626, the Plymouth colonists welcomed Standish home safely, but his mission had been unsuccessful, and “the news he brought was sad in many regards.” Numerous English allies had been struck down financially and physically, “much disabled from doing any further help, and some dead of the plague.” Faced with such news and given “the state of things,” Bradford observed of his colonists, “it is a marvell it did not wholy discourage them and sinck them.”

Read the entire piece here.

An Interview with Peter Wood

WoodI still occasionally assign Peter Wood‘s Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion.  It remains one of the most accessible books on the slave culture that developed in the rice fields of colonial South Carolina.

Over at History News Network, Tiffany April Griffin interviews Wood.  He currently serves as professor emeritus of history at Duke.

Here is a taste of the interview:

Why did you choose history as your career?

Both my parents were scientists, but I faint at the sight of blood, so medicine was out. They nurtured a love of fact over fiction, so even though I wrote lots of poems, I was not going to be a novelist. Also, I was a lefthander who could never hit curve balls very well, so I gave up my dreams of being the next Stan Musial for the St. Louis Cardinals. I guess that was fact triumphing over fiction!

I fell in love with history early, because it allowed me to roam widely. Most careers address some slice of life, while history allows you to go anywhere. Not just any place or time, but bringing any tools you wish and can manage. If you are fascinated by economics or astronomy, feminism or religion, literature or cooking, you can probably bring that interest to bear. Our own strengths and weaknesses, personal interests and blind spots tend to shape our work as much as any “availability of sources.”

Read the rest here.

Peter Wood on the Transition from Religion-Based to Race-Based Slavery

Slate is running an excerpt from Wood’s 2003 book Strange New Land: Africans in Colonial America as part of its course on American slavery.

Some people had experienced the first cold winds of enslavement well before 1650; others would escape the chilling blast well after 1700. The timing and nature of the change varied considerably from colony to colony, and even from family to family. Gradually, the terrible transformation took on a momentum of its own, numbing and burdening everything in its path, like a disastrous winter storm. Unlike the changing seasons, however, the encroachment of racial slavery in the colonies of North America was certainly not a natural process. It was highly unnatural—the work of powerful competitive governments and many thousands of human beings spread out across the Atlantic world. Nor was it inevitable that people’s legal status would come to depend upon their racial background and that the condition of slavery would be passed down from parent to child. Numerous factors combined to bring about this disastrous shift—human forces swirled together during the decades after 1650, to create an enormously destructive storm.

By 1650, hereditary enslavement based upon color, not upon religion, was a bitter reality in the older Catholic colonies of the New World. In the Caribbean and Latin America, for well over a century, Spanish and Portuguese colonizers had enslaved “infidels”: first Indians and then Africans. At first, they relied for justification upon the Mediterranean tradition that persons of a different religion, or persons captured in war, could be enslaved for life. But hidden in this idea of slavery was the notion that persons who converted to Christianity should receive their freedom. Wealthy planters in the tropics, afraid that their cheap labor would be taken away from them because of this loophole, changed the reasoning behind their exploitation. Even persons who could prove that they were not captured in war and that they accepted the Catholic faith still could not change their appearance, any more than a leopard can change its spots. So by making color the key factor behind enslavement, dark-skinned people brought from Africa to work in silver mines and on sugar plantations could be exploited for life. Indeed, the servitude could be made hereditary, so enslaved people’s children automatically inherited the same unfree status.