Here’s what that brilliant, scrofulous 18th-century English curmudgeon, Samuel Johnson, wrote about Americans. “Sir, they are a race of convicts, and ought to be thankful for anything we allow them short of hanging.” Now why would Dr. Johnson say such a thing?
He had good reason, as I discovered when writing Mary’s Land.
Convicts being loaded aboard ship
Many people search for nobility and landed gentry among their ancestors, but English convicts formed the largest group of immigrants to America. In 1655 a formal system was introduced in England that enabled death sentences to be reduced to transportation to the colonies. Back then many crimes received a death sentence that today would be considered misdemeanors, but serious felons were also included. From 1655 to 1776, nearly 400 convict ships carried approximately 50,000 men, women, and children to the American colonies to be sold as indentured labor. http://histclo.com/act/work/slave/us/enden/cri-tran.html.
Most of these ships had as their destination the Chesapeake Bay and ports of Virginia and Maryland. Tobacco is a labor-intensive crop. With illnesses killing many newcomers in the first year, there was a chronic shortage of workers to pick and process it. The waves of involuntary laborers became known as “His Majesty’s Seven-Year Passengers.” The last convict ship arrived in Baltimore in 1776.
Giles Brent and I
The Brents were not convicts. Catholics of aristocratic lineage, Margaret Brent and her sister and two brothers took ship for Lord Baltimore’s new colony in 1638. To be precise, Maryland was a palatinate, land granted to Cecil Calvert, aka Lord Baltimore, by King Charles. It was Calvert’s obligation to recruit settlers.
The photo above here is of Margaret Brent’s ne’er-do-well brother Giles. It was taken when their ship, The Dove, docked in Annapolis. The long voyage across the Atlantic wasn’t a day at the beach for any of the passengers, but Margaret and her siblings had the best possible accommodations in quarters above-decks.
A plaque in St. Mary’s City, Maryland
Margaret Brent, like the other aristocratic settlers, was granted 3,000 acres on arrival. Over time she acquired 6,000 more. As a land owner, she demanded a vote in the House of Burgesses. She did not receive it, but she proved to be a force in those early years of the colony. The governor, Leonard Calvert, even named her his executor. When I started researching those struggles for survival in the wilderness of Maryland I intended Mistress Brent to be the main character.
Instead, the book was hijacked by a figment of my imagination, one of those transported felons.
To show what life was like for the servants crammed into steerage during the months-long voyage, I invented a street urchin and pickpocket. I dubbed her Anicah, a name I found in the rolls of indentured servants on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. She was to be a secondary character, but the little bungnipper stole the story as surely as she lifted snuff boxes and bags of chink from inside the skirts and trousers of her marks.
In Mary’s Land, Anicah finds employment in St. Mary City’s only pub which I named Smyth’s, after its fictional proprietors. Later, when I visited the re-creation of St. Mary’s City, I discovered that the local tavern, seen in this photo, was called Smith’s. One of those odd coincidences when fiction becomes non-fiction, or vice-versa.
An example of another coincidence.
In Mary’s Land, Anicah, the thief-turned-bar-maid, marries an actual indentured servant named Martin Kirke. Only after the book was almost finished did I find the record, posted above, in the Judicial and Testamentary Business of the Provincial Court: 1637-1650. Judging by this testimony, Martin Kirke married a woman who possessed Anicah’s exact personality. I feel sorry for the guy.
Researching and writing Mary’s Land brought a surprising realization. Certainly many of the convicts transported here caused trouble in the colonies. The early newspapers and broadsides are full of wanted-ads for runaways, thieves, murderers and their ilk. But for all that, those cast-offs of the old world created a country and a democracy like no other, proving that truth can be stranger than fiction.