Showing posts with label William Berkeley. Show all posts
Showing posts with label William Berkeley. Show all posts

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Gloucester Virginia Conspiracy

English: "Flagmen of Lowestoft: Vice-Admi...
English: "Flagmen of Lowestoft: Vice-Admiral Sir William Berkeley, 1639-66," oil on canvas, by the English artist Sir Peter Lely. 1270 mm x 1015 mm. Courtesy of the National Maritime Museum, London. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In a previous post we showed an article written by a USA Today columnist.  We questioned his understanding of the history he reported.  We promised to find the original story and we have.  Here it is below.

The Gloucester County Conspiracy, also known as the Servants' Plot or Birkenhead's Rebellion, was a plan by indentured servants to rise up against authorities in Gloucester County in 1663. Nine men—John Gunter, William Bell, Richard Darbishire, John Hayte, Thomas Jones, William Ball, William Poultney, William Bendell, and Thomas Collins—met in the woods and planned an operation whereby they would collect arms and ammunition and, with perhaps as many as thirty recruits, later march on the governor's mansion at Green Spring. There they would demand that Sir William Berkeley release them from their indentures. A servant named Birkenhead betrayed them, however, and a number were arrested and four hanged. Afterrewarding Birkenhead with his freedom and 5,000 pounds of tobacco, the General Assembly declared that the day of their planned insurrection be celebrated annually.


By the 1660s, the Virginia colony had transformed into an enormous tobacco-producing operation dependent largely on the labor of English and Irish indentured servants and, to a lesser extent, enslaved Africans and Virginia Indians. Approximately four out of five servants were men, and they suffered a high mortality rate due to disease and ill treatment. In fact, their masters' treatment of them was so poor as to provoke an aside in a 1657 act otherwise concerned with runaways by which servants were granted the right to take to the courts complaints of "harsh and bad usage, or else for want of diett or convenient necessaries."

In 1661, forty servants in York County, angered by the lack of meat in their diets, conspired to rebel rather than take their case to court. Led by a servant named Isaac Friend, they planned to use force of arms to secure their freedom, but they were betrayed and arrested. The York County Court delivered stern warnings to Friend and to his master, who was encouraged to keep closer watch on his servants. That same year the General Assembly passed two acts, one requiring better treatment of servants on their way to Virginia and the other requiring better treatment once they arrived.

Only two years later, when another conspiracy was uncovered to the north, in Gloucester County, did colonial officials became truly alarmed.
The Conspiracy

On September 1, 1663, nine indentured servants met secretly at a small house belonging to Peter Knight in the woods near Cooks Quarter in Gloucester County. After appointing William Bell and John Gunter their leaders, the men agreed to meet again at midnight the following Sunday, September 6, at a place called Poplar Spring. Each would bring what weapons he could scavenge and steal in the hope that they could eventually arm a company of thirty men. From Poplar Spring the group would then march to the home of Lieutenant Colonel Francis Willis, a member of the governor's Council, to seize arms and a much-needed drum, the group having recruited a drummer from the militia company commanded by Major John Smith, another councillor.

The servants may also have planned to raid the nearby home of the widow Katharine Cook—indeed, William Budell later testified that they had intended to "march from house to house"—but all agreed that their ultimate destination was the Green Spring mansion of Governor Sir William Berkeley. Thomas Collins told authorities that, with weapons brandished, they would make clear to Berkeley their "desire to bee released of one year of their tyme w'ch they had to serve," and, should the governor refuse, "that then they would goe forth of ye Land if they Could to an Island." Budell even implied that they might be prepared to kill Berkeley should it come to that. In any event, their plans set, the nine pledged "an oath of secresie," according to Budell, the violation of which would result in death.

The men's attempts at secrecy failed, however. A servant named Birkenhead revealed their plans to the governor, who arranged for the conspirators to be ambushed at their meeting place, a result that Berkeley later attributed to "Gods hands," which had delivered "so transcendent a favour as the preserving all we have from so utter ruin." The General Court tried the captured servants for treason, accusing them of attempting "utterly to deprive, depose, cast downe and disinherite" the governor and, further, to wage war against Virginia in an attempt to "wholy submit and distroy" the colony. According to Robert Beverley Jr., four were hanged.

The History and Present
State of Virginia

Most of what is known about the Gloucester County Conspiracy comes from a handful of primary documents and a single secondary source, The History of Virginia, written by Robert Beverley Jr. in 1705. These sources agree on some of the important dates associated with the conspiracy, but not on others. For instance, all agree that the conspirators first met secretly on Tuesday, September 1, 1663, with the intention of carrying out their insurrection the following Sunday, September 6. All sources similarly agree that the conspirators were arrested as they congregated again, but before they could carry out their plans. But these sources imply that day was September 13, not September 6. What's more confusing is that the depositions of the arrested conspirators are dated, variously, September 8, 9, and 13. One possible explanation for this discrepancy is that the plotting servants were, in fact, arrested on September 6, with their depositions taken a few days later. If that is correct, then colonial records that suggest September 13 as the date of arrest do so in error.

Gone were the days when the colonial government might merely shake its finger at a reputed rebel like Isaac Friend. Upon thwarting the Gloucester County Conspiracy, the House of Burgesses rewarded Birkenhead "his freedom and five thousand pounds of tobacco," making sure to compensate his master for the loss of his labor. The House also declared "that the thirteenth of September, the day this villanous plot should have been putt into execution, be annually kept holy."

The historian T. H. Breen has suggested that Virginia's response to the conspiracy "appears excessive unless one considers it in the context of the strained relationship between the major tobacco planters and colonial laborers." Robert Beverley's history provides another clue to the motives behind the response. He writes that the servants included "several mutinous and rebellious Oliverian soldiers," or supporters of Oliver Cromwell during the English Civil Wars. The loyal subjects of Charles II, whosefather had been beheaded by Cromwell's men, may have been wary of such an element in their midst, and the historian Anthony S. Parent gives credence to these concerns by pointing out that the servants appeared to have military training: "The plot's martial structure betrayed its New Model Army provenance: companies were formed, captains elected, drummers recruited, marching orders given, and arms and ammunition strategically collected." Although the servants' politics and training are not mentioned in any of the surviving government documents, Charles II was sufficiently alarmed, according to Beverley, to command that a fort be built at Jamestown to protect the governor. Still, Beverley reports that "the country, thinking the danger over, only raised a battery of some small pieces of cannon."

The rebels also may have included convict laborers, or criminals swept from English jails to work in Virginia. On April 20, 1670, Berkeley issued an order prohibiting the worst felons from being imported to Virginia, citing "the horror yet remaining amongst us of the barbourous designe of such villaines inSeptember 1663."

The Gloucester County Conspiracy occurred during the uneasy transition in Virginia from a reliance on indentured labor to an even greater reliance on enslaved labor. Whether the Gloucester rebels included enslaved Africans or Virginia Indians is unclear, but when authorities in Westmoreland County uncovereda planned uprising in 1687, the culprits by then were only slaves. The General Assembly responded swiftly and firmly.

In 1898 Mary Johnston wrote the romantic novel Prisoners of Hope, set in Gloucester County in 1663. The book's servant conspiracy is led by "Oliverian soldiers" and includes convicts, slaves, and Indians. The leader, a man aptly called Landless, is both an Oliverian and a convict. Echoing how historians often interpreted Bacon's Rebellion (1676–1677) as an early cry for liberty, Johnston portrays him as a proto–Founding Father.

Time Line
March 1658 - The General Assembly passes laws revising the required time of service for servants without indentures; granting servants the right to take complaints to court; and adding time to indentures, in the case of pregnancy and secret marriages, to both male and female servants.
January 24, 1661 - The testimonies of several indentured servants and one overseer are entered into the record of the York County Court. They reveal a plot in which the servants, angry about the lack of meat in their diet, planned to rebel.
September 1, 1663 - Nine indentured servants meet secretly in Gloucester County to plan an uprising. They arrange to meet the following Sunday, September 6, and march to the governor's mansion to demand their freedom.
September 6, 1663 - A group of armed indentured servants meets in Gloucester County with plans to march on the governor's mansion. The men are ambushed and arrested. Some records indicate that the arrests actually take place a week later, on September 13.
September 8–9, 1663 - A group of indentured servants, arrested in Gloucester County on charges of treason, provides testimony to the General Court about their conspiracy.
September 13, 1663 - This day is declared an annual holiday by the General Assembly, which describes it as when a "villanous plot" by armed indentured servants in Gloucester County "should have been putt into execution."
September 16, 1663 - William Berkeley and the House of Burgesses agree to reward the servant Birkenhead his freedom and five thousand pounds of tobacco for revealing a plan to rebel by servants in Gloucester County.
April 20, 1670 - Virginia governor Sir William Berkeley and the governor's Council issue an order prohibiting the importation of certain English convicts as servants. They cite the Gloucester County Conspiracy of 1663 as one reason for the action.
October 24, 1687 - Nicholas Spencer informs fellow members of the governor's Council, as well as Governor Francis Howard, baron Howard of Effingham, of a suspected slave conspiracy in Westmoreland County. Effingham creates an oyer and terminer court, with Spencer, Richard Lee II, and Isaac Allerton to serve as judges. The trial's results are unknown.
1898 - Prisoners of Hope, a romantic novel by Mary Johnston, is published. Its dramatization of a conspiracy of servants is based on the Gloucester County Conspiracy of 1663. The hero, a man aptly called Landless, is portrayed as a proto–Founding Father.

We have the book, Prisoner's of Hope in our library of ebooks and will be posting it later today.
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Don't Forget 1663 Gloucester, Virginia Slave Revolt

Benjamin Todd Jealous

Like March on Washington, Gloucester County Conspiracy carries lessons for today.

Three hundred years before a multiracial coalition stormed Washington's National Mall to demand equal rights and economic justice, the working men of Gloucester County, Va., made a stand of their own based on class, not race. We often ask whether Martin Luther King Jr. would recognize the world in 2013, but it is equally valid to ask whether he would have recognized the world of 1663, when black and white children of slaves and servants did play together in the tobacco fields.

One of the forgotten landmarks of civil rights history occurred 350 years ago Sunday: Sept. 1, 1663. This day marks the first recorded instance of African slaves and European indentured servants standing together for justice against the ruling elite.

The Gloucester County Conspiracy took place at a time when Virginia tobacco growers relied on both slaves and indentured servants to farm tobacco. Management treated their workers with cruel abandon, regardless of color.

Unwilling to accept their fate, a group of black and white workers met in secret to plan a revolt. After securing weapons and a drum, they would "march from house to house" until they reached the mansion of Royal Governor Sir William Berkeley. They would demand their freedom, and resort to force if necessary.

Though the plot failed, the landowners recognized the power that the Gloucester rebels possessed when banded together. Over the next several decades, they sought to breed racial contempt between the white and black members of the underclass. On the plantation level, they gave whites nominal control in the field. On the colony level, they allowed whites to join the militia and carry firearms. As historian Edmund Morgan writes, the landowners used racism as a device for control.

On this 350th anniversary, the Gloucester rebellion can teach us as much about our character as the March on Washington.

The rebels in Gloucester recognized what King memorialized in his famous remarks: we are, by our nature, capable of great things when we judge one another solely on the content of our character, not by the color of our skin.

The original state of race relations in America is one of shared struggle, not mutually assured destruction. It is ultimately the introduction of an outside variable -- money, power, or the desire for control -- that tends to alter that natural state.

It turns out that 2013 is a perfect year for this lesson. The fight for voting rights is making its own 50th anniversary curtain call, in the form of the Supreme Court's decision in Shelby County v. Holder and countless voter suppression laws that affect African-Americans but also Americans of all colors, ages and incomes. The failed War on Drugs continues to destroy families in black inner city America, and, increasingly, white rural America.

Finally, 45 years after King was killed in the midst of his Poor People's Campaign, low-wage workers of all hues are organizing across geographic and demographic lines to demand a higher minimum wage.

Politics is a lot like physics. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, and objects in motion eventually return to their original state. As we tackle these challenges, let us consider that the original state of race relations in America may be one of unity -- and that the possibility of moving beyond our nation's legacy of racism is obtainable.

In his 1869 speech "Our Composite Nationality," Frederick Douglass wrote about the unique phenomenon and mission of America. On this anniversary, let us remember his words:

"Our geographical position, our relation to the outside world, our fundamental principles of Government ... our vast resources, requiring all manner of labor to develop them, and our already existing composite population, all conspire to one grand end, and that is to make us the most perfect national illustration of the unity and dignity of the human family, that the world has ever seen."  USA Today link back to original story.

Not exactly sure what this guy is talking about, but we are researching the information.  Here is some interesting notes to look at in the mean time.  


The practice of indentured servitude in England grew out of older feudal systems and apprenticeship practices that had their roots in the Middle Ages. The Virginia Company of London contracted with the first Virginia settlers for their labor, and, when the Company started trading land for service and tobacco became the first profitable cash crop, Virginia's style of indentured servitude coalesced. By the 1620s, a standard system had been put into place whereby servants negotiated the terms of their indentures with a merchant, ship's captain, or other agent before sailing to Virginia. Their indentures were then sold to planters when the servants arrived in the colony.

The beginning of lifelong servitude or slavery in Virginia is very hard to trace. There is evidence that Africans may have already been in the colony before the first documented appearance of them in John Rolfe's 1619 letter, which mentions, "20. and odd Negroes" arriving in Jamestown. Whether or not a person of African descent was held in slavery was a matter of circumstances unclear to modern historians. The person's status as a Christian or a non-Christian, and whether or not the person had previously been enslaved definitely affected how he or she was treated in the colony. The most important thing to note is that some African Virginians were not held as slaves at the beginning of the colony's history. Although many of the laws restricting African Virginians were passed in the 1660s, slavery did not become codified in Virginia law until 1705.

Phillip Gowen was the son of Mihill Gowen, a free African Virginian, who had once worked for Amye Beazlye, the woman who had freed Phillip in her will. This petition to Governor William Berkeley and the Council of State was probably written for Gowen by a person familiar with the petitioning process; the document makes use of standard structure and language of petitions from that era. Gowen sought relief from his new master, whom he declared was attempting to prolong his servitude. After reviewing the petition, the governor and council ordered that Gowen be freed. This document gives an example of the precarious situation of African Americans in the early colony before slavery was completely institutionalized.

End Copy:

We will keep digging.
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