Slavery

The despatch of prisoners to be sold into slavery was not common until after James VI/I took the throne of England. Only then were there foreign lands, colonies, to which transgressors could be banished. In Europe slave labour rather than the standard serfdom, was much more common particularly in Germany and Russia where the unfortunates were frequently worked to death in the coal and salt mines. The situation changed after James VI acceded to the crown of England in 1603 and in later years transportation  to the colonies was almost routine for even the simple offence of stealing a loaf of bread, or a piece of cloth.

Scotland, however, operated slavery  among its own people with workers in the collieries and the salt works being appendages that went with the industry.  The labourers who dug coal and made the salt , chiefly in East Lothian, went to whosoever bought the business or succeeded to the property. They could be  sold, bartered or pawned being chattels for disposal at the will of the owner. Where the owner had more than one mine the workers could be moved at will  or loaned or hired out to another owner. There was no regard for the family unit who might be rooted up because of this. The workers in the iron stone mines and the lead mines were not so severely constrained. The lot of the miners family was reflected in the employment of children as young as four in the collieries where they  acted as trap door operators, moving on to haulers of coal, sorting the lumps from slack coal dust, and perhaps (if they lived long enough) becoming a (relatively) better paid cutter or `hewer` of coal.

A feature of these `slaves`, according to reports by French soldiersin the employ of Scotland, was their insolence and independence despite the adversities of their life. Serfdom, as in England, never really gained a foothold in Scotland where the relationships were more family or clan orientated. From 1606 throughout the struggles for religious independence, slavery continued to exist. The Glorious Revolution of 1688/9 made no change and it was not until  an Act of Liberation in 1799 that change was effected.

To the modern mind it is detestable that even the high minded clerics of the day took no positive action against slavery. But it should balanced against the air of inhumanity and selfishness  that were characteristics of the period. In 1567 for example, plague ( probably typhoid fever brought on by the unsanitary  conditions and bad water) carried off 2,500 souls in Edinburgh. The sufferers were banished from the city and given no medical assistance. A writer at the time said " Every one became so detestable to the other , and especially the poor in the sight of the rich , as if they were beasts degenerate from mankind". Such was the clamour that the death penalty was ordered against  all who visited the sick before the prescribed hour or who concealed the presence of the plague.

The relentless barbarism and pitilessness in society at this time  was reflected in the wholesale executions inflicted for often petty and trivial offences.  There was no such thing as honourable warfare and feuds both at local and national level were fought on the lines of total extermination of the opponent. Thus to survive as a prisoner and sold into slavery was almost an attractive alternative. By the late 1670-1700 persecuted Covenanters accepted banishment and paid for their passage to the colonies by entering into indentures to work for 4-5 years (as a virtual slave) and to be released with a small sum of money or an acre or so of land to call their own. For many however, the end was in  true slavery when agents connived with ship`s captains to sell their passengers for a better price (about 10 for a male slave).

More about indentured servants and slaves can be found at this site: http://www.irelandoldnews.com/History/runaways.htm

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