Stalking 1: Economic Growth through Exploitation

My goal throughout Journey 1 was to explore “growth” in the Chesapeake from the past to the present. Growth has nearly countless applications in the region, so I decided to narrow the scope of my focus down to agricultural and industrial. In Jamestown and Colonial Williamsburg, I concentrated on the cash crop agriculture that took off in the seventeenth century with the introduction of tobacco. More specifically, I wanted to investigate agricultural growth in relation to the exploitation of human labor and, secondarily, the environment. In my second blog post I discussed how the practices associated with large-scale agriculture and cash crop production lead to a demand for labor. Before slavery was established in the colonies, indentured servitude was the primary means through which landowners exploited human labor. Technically voluntary, indentured servants were promised a piece of land in exchange for seven years of labor. During these seven years, however, indentured servants functioned very similarly to slaves. They had no rights of their own, they were overworked and abused, and mortality rates were high due to disease. The decision to bring slavery to the colonies seemed largely informed by careful cost-benefit analysis. When life expectancy increased, it made sense for landowners to invest in slaves as opposed to indentured servants, and therefore the demand for slave labor grew. Looking at American history, the culture and economy of agriculture in the colonies was built through the exploitation of human labor.

A reliance on slavery developed quickly, and in the 1750, only 3% of blacks in the colonies were free. After the Revolutionary War, it seemed slavery might be on its way out—until the cotton gin was invented and the demand for slave labor in the south returned with a vengeance. In the north, however, industrialization beginning in the early 19th century essentially eliminated the need for slaves. By 1850, nearly 50% of blacks in the country were free, with the majority of them living in the north (Seidel). The Chesapeake region, specifically Maryland, was uniquely in the middle. The state maintained a culture largely defined by agriculture, and reliance on slave labor remained common in the southern part of the state. The city of Baltimore was an exception, however, and had a large population of free blacks. These individuals found work primarily in factories and on the docks. For my first photo journal, I looked at the positive and negative impacts of industrial growth in Baltimore. More specifically, I researched growth of the oyster industry. Canneries relied heavily on the exploitation of labor, especially black and immigrant labor. Free blacks in industrial jobs often had to work for tokens that could only be spent at the company store, as opposed to earning their own money to spend freely. Though these individuals were not considered property, in many ways the level of exploitation the workers experienced continued to mirror that of slaves.

Throughout the agricultural and industrial revolutions and into the present, our nation has practiced “growth at any cost.” Economic development is prioritized over all else, including the environment and human welfare. But even if we recognize this mentality as societally detrimental, what can we do to change it? Wendell Berry believes that one part of the solution lies in establishing how much is enough. In his explanation of how we can solve for pattern to find “good” solutions, he writes, “Industrial solutions have always rested on the assumption that enough is all you can get. But that destroys agriculture, as it destroys nature and culture” (Berry 5). This theory can easily be applied to non-agricultural situations, including the oyster industry. Prior to the development of technologies that enabled mass production, oysters were harvested with hand tongs at a sustainable rate. With the invention and popularization of dredging, oyster beds were suddenly being decimated at an alarming rate. Instead of imposing limits on harvesting in acknowledgment that more is not always better, the industry continued to find new ways to expand. The advancements bring us back to the exploitation of labor. The new surplus of oysters created jobs, but it did not necessarily create jobs worth having. Factories were designed to maximize efficiency, and the individual workers were considered expendable. To the owners of the canneries, there would always be another European immigrant or African American desperate for work, however harsh the conditions. Berry would argue that the detriments to the environment and especially to human health were not worth the economic benefits of mass production, and I would be inclined to agree.

Works Cited

Berry, Wendell. “Solving for Pattern.” The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural & Agricultural. Edited by Norman Wirzba. Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 2002. 1-7.

Seidel, John. “The North/New England vs. The Chesapeake.” Lecture. 21 Sept. 2015.

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