Our Embarrassing Colonial History

So there’s this “Make America Great Again” meme, and it’s all about keeping out immigrants, and the irony of the descendants of European immigrants wanting to stop immigration is largely lost in the crossfire, but there’s another problem with the “Make America Great Again” meme, which is this: when was America great?

We do have a lovely little story about American history, appropriate maybe for kids six and under, in which the American colonists wanted religious freedom and so we hopped onto the Mayflower and set up a free country.

But the reality is that a large percentage of our immigrants, white and nonwhite alike, were transported here forcibly.

According to Anthony Vaver, author of Bound With an Iron Chain: The Untold Story of How the British Transported 50,000 Convicts to Colonial America:

From the time of the first settlers to the American Revolution, close to three quarters of all immigrants to the thirteen American colonies arrived on American shores without their freedom, coming over as slaves, convicts, or indentured servants. Even during the seventeenth century only 33 percent of immigrants to America were free. The vast majority of immigrants who arrived without their freedom were African slaves, accounting for a full 47 percent of all immigrants during the eighteenth century. About 150,000 immigrants, or 27 percent of the total, arrived as convicts or indentured servants during the same time.

British convicts formed a significant proportion of immigrants to early America. One quarter of all British immigrants arriving in the American colonies in the eighteenth century were transported convicts, most of them ending up in the labor-hungry colonies of Maryland and Virginia.

So the actual history is this: Before 1775, a fair number of our ancestors came as convicts dumped from British prisons and as vagrant children scooped off the streets, where they were pressed into four or five or seven or eight years of slavery, with more years tacked on for women if they got pregnant. Life expectancy was low for both groups. Then, when the revolution of 1775 hit, Britain was no longer allowed to send convicts or political prisoners to the US, and the plantation owners who needed cheap, disposable labor were out of luck. Except of course they weren’t out of luck, because by then laws were being passed to make slavery lifelong and heritable, for black people only. As for Britain, it kept on sending convicts–but to Australia instead.

Here’s an excerpt from an article written in 1896 about convict labor, “British Convicts Shipped to American Colonies,” J.D. Butler, American Historical Review
Vol. 2 No. 1 (Oct. 1896), pp 12‑33.

In 1769 Dr. Johnson, speaking of Americans, said to a friend, “Sir, they are a race of convicts and ought to be content with anything we may allow them short of hanging.” In the latest edition of Boswell, who chronicled this saying, it is explained by the following footnote: “Convicts were sent to nine of the American settlements. According to one estimate, about 2000 had been sent for many years annually. Dr. Lang, after comparing various estimates, concludes that the number sent might be about 50,000 altogether.”1

This history was suppressed, denied, or ignored, immediately after the Revolutionary War. In 1786, Thomas Jefferson (a slaveowner) expressed his opinion that “The Malefactors sent to America were not sufficient in number to merit enumeration. . .  I do not think the whole number sent would amount to 2000 & being principally men eaten up with disease, they married seldom & propagated little.” (From The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Volume IX, p 254.)

Back to J.D. Butler, writing in 1896:

Bancroft, in 1887, conversing with the present writer, freely admitted that, when speaking of felons among our settlers, he had been very economical in dispensing the truths he had discovered. Having a handful, he had opened only his little finger. He wrote too early to expect that American eyes could bear the light of full disclosures.

(George Bancroft was a prolific and influentual historian who also, by the way, helped start the Mexican War.)

More than a hundred years after the forcible transportation of convicts to the U.S. was “too early” to tell this history? Is it still too early?

It’s never too early to stop lying to ourselves.

America was never “great.”

Americans are not better than the immigrants who want to come in. By choice, this time!

We’re all just people. It’s high time we start treating ourselves as such.

Further reading

The website “Early American Crime” has a section on convict transportation.

The Gettysburg College website “Atlantic Migration” also has a section on forced migration, including convicts from Portugal, France, and England.




2 responses to “Our Embarrassing Colonial History

  1. Hey, good post. In fact, Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History” captures this sentiment quintessentially – American history as it is known is largely mythical. Its history is not of beautiful discovery, development, democracy, freedom etc…but of conquest, genocide, enslavement, patriarchy, white elitism. Columbus Day is a disgrace.

    • Thank you! Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History” is great. There’s also a “Young People’s History of the United States,” which we have on the shelves for our kids. Still, even though I know our history is a myth, I keep being surprised by it.

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