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A 17th Century Teaching Job
The Brief Indenture of Thomas Hellier: Appendix 16
In 1675 Thomas Hellier, and Englishman, was contracted by a representative of the Colony of Virginia, to sail to America and take up a teaching job in the thriving colony. The Indians had recently been defeated in a number of small ‘wars’ and the Royal Governor and the House of Burgesses in Virginia were apparently ready to set up a proper teaching establishment.
Upon reaching Jamestown Thomas was seized, assigned a 31 year term of indenture, and sold as a slave, to work as a field hand on a tobacco plantation for a term far longer than the twenty year old man could expect to live under such conditions.
Thomas was not alone. Many English slaves were owned by plantation masters. Many of these slaves had been used to fight Indians, under the inducement of promises that they would be granted land in the form of ‘head acreage.' They had been cheated of this land, and lived homeless and in poverty, or on a plantation as a slave.
In 1676 as Thomas slaved away in the tobacco fields and sheds, and on land clearance projects, he heard the news that thirty year old Indian fighter Nathaniel Bacon was leading an insurrection against the Royal Governor, William Berkely, his ‘circle’, and the House of Burgesses. By October 26 Bacon’s rebels had burned Jamestown, expelled the Royal Governor, and plundered the plantations. Unfortunately, just as most slaves in Virginia were under arms, marching to aid Bacon, their leader died, reportedly of dysentery. The scattered bands fought on into the winter. But by January the rebels had all been captured or killed. The insurrections of 1634, and 1647 had been put down by royal troops, so too had Bacon’s rebellion been crushed. Thomas must have felt that there was no hope for a Virginia slave.
Now that it was safe to operate the plantations once again, what with the Indians having been killed and driven off by the slaves, and the slaves having been killed and captured by royal troops in their turn, Thomas was back out in the fields slaving away for his master, and his exceptionally vicious wife. In 1678 Thomas had finally had enough of the slave’s life. Male slaves were used to clear the land. The shores of America were almost entirely covered with heavy old growth forest. The occupation of killing trees by ringing them, in order to permit crops to be grown beneath them, and then hewing them down in stages when circumstances permitted, occupied generations of men like Thomas with hard, dangerous labor, and heavy land-clearing axes.
On an unspecified day, at an unspecified time, in the year 1678, Thomas Hellier, would be school teacher, slew his slavemaster, his slavemaster’s savage wife, and his slavemaster’s children, for their crimes against him. One might pity the children. Keep in mind though, that those children were being raised to be psychopathic slavemasters.
I have not been able to determine the fate of Thomas Hellier. I would like to think that he, like thousands before and after him—like the marooned dupes of Roanoke—ran off to live among the natives, who often adopted escaped slaves to make up for losses in battle and from disease, and just as often enslaved them. My sense, however, is that he was caught, tortured, and executed. If I ever find out, I will complete this account. If I do not, I will just have to settle for an ambiguous ending to a life that refused to serve beyond the last drop of hope. In my mind, Thomas Hellier is an American hero.
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the fighting edge
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