As opportunities presented by the New World, and new occasions to take advantage of “old world” trading routs settled into some sort of European normalcy, how best to do so became hotly debated. Indeed, the riches of the New World and Asia via new routes of trade became politicized issues within and amongst European powers. Peter Van Dam, the chief legal counsel for the Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (the V.O.C., or Netherland’s United East India Company), pointed out at the end of the seventeenth century, trading over open oceans from Europe to Asia necessarily involved competition from other European powers. Spanish and Portuguese merchant ships also sailed the open oceans, and soon, too, would the French and the English. All of this according to Van Dam, created concerns held by Dutch merchants as their ships were often the targets of attacks, their sailors seized and tossed in dank prisons depending on the whim of a perceived Spanish tyrant, Philip II. International politics directed the actions of early traders to seize lands overseas and fortify those holdings. Van Dam also pointed out the power of the V.O.C. as it was the company (not the Dutch Republic) that set up the occasional “formal government in the Indies” to hold on to and expand trade for the Netherlands. (Van Dam, 3) In reading Van Dam’s account of the rise of the V.O.C., one cannot help but peer into internal Dutch politics. Van Dam wrote of several occasions where the “High Mightinesses” of the republic interfered with V.O.C. operations. (Van Dam, 2)

It is this very political context that one should view the myriad of products arriving in Europe from distant places. Even the potato, as commonplace as it is to us today, arrived upon any number of political firestorms. So, while the English physician William Salmon claimed that the potato was seen to “nourish the whole body, restore in consumptions, and provoke lust,” perhaps it was the lust of power rather than any sexual drive that this rooted commodity extolled. (Salmon, 1)

Around the time of Salmon’s publication, politicians in London were busy ensuring that foodstuffs or other commodities from their colonies benefited the “Kingdom of England.” (BOT, 1) The Creation of the Board of Trade in 1696 was meant to keep a watchful eye on colonial productions. “Inform yourselves of the condition of OUR plantations” declared the members of the Board of Trade to their agents, that the “Administration,” “Government,” “Justice,” and “Commerce” thereof should be ruled from London, exclusive of colonial needs and wants. (BOT, 1)

The actions of the Board of Trade were, of course, overtly political, done with the benefits of a mercantile economy in mind: England first, colonies second. When we merge politics and economics, we come to the phrase “political economy” a phrase highly used by Marxist historians to demonstrate the predominance of economics in human motivation and as a primary driver of History.[1] We see such an example in 1724, when Hugh Jones scribbled his notes in the Carolinas that the “Negroes are very numerous, some gentlemen having hundreds of them of all sorts, to whom they bring great profit.” (Jones, 1)

Perhaps this is the place to discuss the convoluted history of what’s lost in the political battles of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: namely the need by Europeans for labor. Certainly, from the perspective of the Burgesses of Virginia, politics between their colony and English-based merchants had deteriorated to the point where there did exist, as they put it, a “distressed State of the Tobacco Trade.” (Case of the Tobacco Planters, 1) For the plantation growers in Virginia, the trading system for tobacco was filled with “Evils”, “Frauds”, and “Corruption.” (Case of the Tobacco Planters, 2) But what gets missed when we focus upon the political and economic discontents between colonial and European polities, were the labor forces needed to produce what colonies offered in the first place.

And we are not talking exclusively of African slaves. European convicts and the poor were often transported to colonial holdings. General James Oglethorpe, for example, created the colony of Georgia with the hope of utilizing England’s “useless Poor” as the labor force to clear its swamps. (Oglethorpe, 1) For Oglethorpe and those that supported his scheme, not only would England’s poor folk make Georgia productive with numerous commodities set for British consumption, but that the development of Georgia would be a boon to London where “numbers of manufacturers will be here employed, for supplying them with clothes, working tools, and other necessaries” (Oglethorpe, 3)

S Carolina rice skilled slaves

Rice, the main mono-crop of South Carolina, worked by slave labor predominantly drawn from the Caribbean since they were seen by plantation owners as “seasoned” and skilled.

Still, the number of African slaves began to outpace earmarked European laborers in the early eighteenth century. “Importations of 2600 and 2800 Negroes every Year,” reported the South Carolina Gazette, “is not only a Loss to many, but in the end may prove the Ruin of the Province” (SC Gazette, 1) What was at stake in the pages of the 1738 Gazette was the debt incurred in purchasing a labor force by the thousands. And this, if we bring it full circle, is overtly political.

Even as South Carolina “Negroes Arose in Rebellion,” as told by William Bull, Lieutenant Governor of the colony in 1739, (Bull, 1) there were those who could see no other alternative but to continue the importation of African slaves. Britain’s poor who were settled in Georgia quickly petitioned Oglethorpe and other directors in London that “the Cultivation of Land with white Servants only, cannot raise Provisions”, that was needed in Georgia to make it productive were the African slaves. (Petition, 1) Of course, the directors responded that “such an irrational Attempt, to give up a Constitution, framed with the greatest Caution for the Preservation of Liberty and Property.” (Petition, 3)

In the end, no defense of liberty and property were upheld. Labor trumped everything. Without an extensive labor force to make lands agriculturally productive for European consumption and manufacturing, the entire political economy would soon collapse into something other.


[1] Eugene Genovese’s Political Economy of the South is a prime example of how economics influenced the decisions to set up a slave system in colonial America.