Gemma Cruz Araneta
Yet another year is about to end and here I am with unanswered messages of good cheer, thoughtful gifts unacknowledged. I am glued to this book (a Christmas gift from a dear friend) by Nancy Isenberg, titled White Trash, The 400-year Untold History of Class in America (2016). I strongly recommend this scholarly work to those who want to understand why there are such deep fissures in the institutions of the United States of America that threaten its democracy. I have not finished the book, but I feel I have to share the following with you.
British colonialists had certain imperatives: Poverty in England had to be reduced by transporting the idle and unproductive to colonial outposts in the new world (America). The “waste people,” “lubbers,” “rubbish,” “clay-eaters,” and “crackers,” vagrants and beggars who were eyesores in London had to be sent away. England had to thin out its prisons as well. .In the 15th and 16th centuries when the broadscale exploitation of the new world was envisioned, this project had to be sold to investors so the new world colonies could serve the purposes of the old world.
At that time, America could not be promoted as a land of opportunities but as a “giant rubbish heap” with possibilities. For the 16th century adventurer, America was a “sinkhole” for “ill-bred commoners,” “a foul weedy wilderness.” It was considered a risky overseas venture. However, it could be transformed into something productive by the labor of expendable, “waste” people sent from England in boatloads.
In the 17th and 18th centuries the colonization of British America was not founded on ideas of equality and “proto-democracy;” it was built on privileges largely based on landownership and the subordination of indentured labor and slaves. The great American saga as taught in schools excludes the fact that after 1630, only less than half of those who came to Massachusetts did so for religious freedom.
America’s vaunted “exceptionalism” emerged from a myth: Pilgrims, who were persecuted in the old world, crossed the Atlantic to find religious liberty in America. Riding crude wagons, thousands of hopeful pioneer families headed west to start a new life, so “personal freedom” became a treasured American value. The act of migration was an equalizer that molded a classless society. To this day, Americans do not want to talk about class, claiming that “it is not who we are.”
The word “pilgrim” was popularized only in 1794, even if “Thanksgiving” was supposed to have begun in 1621 when the Puritan pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians shared a meal. Squanto was their interpreter. He knew English because he had been kidnapped and sold to an English ship captain.
My knowledge of American history is sparse; I thought the Mayflower pilgrims were the first to arrive. I did not know that Virginia was established as a state in pre-Pilgrim days and that Roanoke, an earlier colony, was founded in 1587. According to legend, it disappeared without a trace. The founding of Jamestown was more dramatic than the arrival of the Mayflower due to the rescue of John Smith by Pocahontas, an Indian princess who was only 11 years old. She is considered the “mother” of Virginia, if not America.
Many scholars have questioned the veracity of the Pocahontas story because Smith’s account was published only after she died. Besides, he was a military adventurer who was known to exaggerate his exploits. Thanks to Disney, the origins of America became a love story, more appealing than the dour pilgrims ostensibly fleeing from religious persecution.
Those who survived the hazardous voyage to America had to serve English interests and die in the process. They were the first comers before the pilgrim story took hold. Apparently dozens of those who came in the Mayflower died a year after landing due to scurvy and hemorrhages. The Arabella, owned by slave trader John Winthrop, transported more pilgrims and other types of migrants to America.
As expected, the vagrants and waste people from England did not want to work to improve the land, so cruel discipline had to be imposed by the likes of Pocahontas’ beloved John Smith who enclosed them in military-style labor camps. After all, English interests had to be protected at all costs because of stiff competition from Spain, France and the Netherlands. Only a small fraction of the immigrants survived the first 20 years of settlement.
By the turn of the 20th century, many patriotic organizations were founded like the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, the Foundation of Patriots of America, and Order of the First Families of Virginia. These have perpetuated the myths of social mobility, faith in liberty in that exceptional “City on the Hill,” the United States of America.