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‘Fatherless and Penniless’
Of Plantations by Sir Francis Bacon, 1625
© 2022 James LaFond
Born 1541, the brilliant Bacon attended Trinity College at age 12 and had a diplomatic staff appointment to France at age 16. After his father’s death in the 1570s, he was penniless and took up law. His first publication was in1592 and he would be jailed for debt in 1598, granted a plantation charter for Newfoundland in 1601and reported on the Virginia Plantation in 1609.
Bacon rose to Solicitor General, to Attorney General and finally to Chancellor and fell from political grace in the final dozen years of life, passing in 1626. But, in 1625, he wrote a concise and high minded guide to planting people in far lands. He also wrote The New Atlantis, a kind of utopian fantasy that would resonate in modern revolutionary thought and which explicitly stated his opinion that ancient old world civilizations had sent mariners to the New World often.
In the following annotation of Of Plantations, this reader will simply note in brackets, to what degree Bacon’s advice was followed by the planters who would follow. Note that Thomas White’s Planter’s Plea from 1631 will be reserved for the overture to This New Israel and that John Locke’s influential work will be addressed in Ye Scum of the Country.
Of Plantations
PLANTATIONS are amongst ancient, primitive, and heroical works. When the world was young it begat more children; but now it is old it begets fewer: for I may justly account new plantations to be the children of former kingdoms. I like a plantation in a pure soil; that is, where people are not displanted to the end to plant in others. For else it is rather an extirpation than a plantation. Planting of countries is like planting of woods; for you must make account to loose almost twenty years’ profit, and expect your recompense in the end.
[Here there is no notion of colonization, but of planting, a notion deeply held by Bacon’s contemporaries and anachronistically obscured by American academic politics beginning in the late 1700s and early 1800s. English planters did take Bacon’s advice and seek sparsely populated locations.]
For the principal thing that hath been the destruction of most plantations, hath been the base and hasty drawing of profit in the first years. It is true, speedy profit is not to be neglected, as far as may stand with the good of the plantation, but no further.
[Jamestown had been a disaster until the crown intervened, and was then nearly wiped out in 1622. Likewise, two English ventures had failed in New England and Canada.]
It is a shameful and unblessed thing to take the scum of people, and wicked condemned men, to be the people with whom you plant; and not only so, but it spoileth the plantation; for they will ever live like rogues, and not fall to work, but be lazy, and do mischief, and spend victuals, and be quickly weary, and then certify over to their country to the discredit of the plantation.
[Few planters took Bacon’s advice on this score, for only the most desperate men would typically agree to a bachelor life of hard labor in exile. The final clause describes the fact that most of the forced laborers that did survive to gain their freedom, did not stay in The Plantations, but returned to England with tales of how terrible life was in America.]
The people wherewith you plant ought to be gardeners, ploughmen, laborers, smiths, carpenters, joiners, fishermen, fowlers, with some few apothecaries, surgeons, cooks, and bakers.
[The Maryland planters would heed this advice as closely as possible. In general servants were unskilled youths.]
In a country of plantation, first look about what kind of victual the country yields of itself to hand; as chestnuts, walnuts, pineapples, olives, dates, plums, cherries, wild honey, and the like; and make use of them. Then consider what victual or esculent things there are, which grow speedily, and within the year; as parsnips, carrots, turnips, onions, radish, artichokes of Jierusalem, maize, and the like. For wheat, barley, and oats, they ask too much labor; but with pease and beans you may begin, both because they ask less labor, and because they serve for meat as well as for bread. And of rice likewise cometh a great increase, and it is a kind of meat.
[Fragility of the grain economy was well understood in late medieval and early modern Europe, which in part accounted for the great acceptance of maize as a replacement crop in America. Lord Baltimore’s instructions to his Maryland adventurers in 1634 adhered closely to this agrarian advice.]
Above all, there ought to be brought store of biscuit, oat-meal, flour, meal, and the like, in the beginning, till bread may be had. For beasts, or birds, take chiefly such as are least subject to diseases, and multiply fastest; as swine, goats, cocks, hens, turkeys, geese, housedoves, and the like. The victual in plantations ought to be expended almost as in a besieged town; that is, with certain allowance.
[This advice for military style feeding of the forced labor force was taken strictly to heart in the planting of Maryland in 1634.]
And let the main part of the ground employed to gardens or corn, be to a common stock; and to be laid in, and stored up, and then delivered out in proportion; besides some spots of ground that any particular person will manure for his own private.
[The governor of Maryland would follow this advice strictly in 1634-5.]
Consider likewise what commodities the soil where the plantation is doth naturally yield, that they may some way help to defray the charge of the plantation (so it be not, as was said, to the untimely prejudice of the main business), as it hath fared with tobacco in Virginia.
[Men in Virginia had starved to death cultivating the tobacco cash crop. Additionally, the diffused living conditions in widely spread plantations endemic to tobacco cultivation, nearly resulted in Virginia being wiped out by the Powhaton Uprising of 1622.]
Wood commonly aboundeth but too much; and therefore timber is fit to be one. If there be iron ore, and streams whereupon to set the mills, iron is a brave commodity where wood aboundeth. Making of bay-salt, if the climate be proper for it, would be put in experience. Growing silk likewise, if any be, is a likely commodity.
[There would be a plan for silk-farming in Virginia that was not fully implemented. However, the advice to settle on streams in order to use water wheel power, was commonly followed and was more successful further inland and to the north where the streams fell faster down to the coastal plain.]
Pitch and tar, where store of firs and pines are, will not fail. So drugs and sweet woods, where they are, cannot but yield great profit. Soap-ashes likewise, and other things that may be thought of. But mine not too much under ground; for the hope of mines is very uncertain, and useth to make the planters lazy in other things.
[Bacon was heeded in this advice, in part because the short term thinking of the planters was not compatible with mining, nor was the short supply of armed free men required to force slaves to mine. For the first English planters to attempt large scale mining operations as the Spanish had, would have been both unproductive and disastrous.]
For government, let it be in the hands of one, assisted with some counsel; and let them have commission to exercise martial laws, with some limitations. And above all, let men make that profit of being in the wilderness, as they have God always, and his service, before their eyes. Let not the government of the plantation depend upon too many counsellors and undertakers in the country that planteth, but upon a temperate number; and let those be rather noblemen and gentlemen, than merchants; for they look ever to the present gain.
[This wishful thinking and wise advice, would, of course, not be taken by the merchants who would dominate planting and generate large squabbling councils and numerous civil wars. The modern reader should keep in mind that many of these merchants were in fact ruthless pirates, Indian traders and human traffickers.]
Let there be freedom from custom, till the plantation be of strength; and not only freedom from custom, but freedom to carry their commodities where they may make their best of them, except there be some special cause of caution.
[Custom, is taxation. The special cause of caution would be trading tobacco with rival powers like the Dutch.]
Cram not in people, by sending too fast company after company; but rather harken how they waste, and send supplies proportionably; but so as the number may live well in the plantation, and not by surcharge be in penury.
[In the very year that Bacon wrote this a Crown census discovered that 95% of Virginia servants, who were so sought after that Virginia planters stole them from each other, died in their labors before their term of slavery was up.]
It hath been a great endangering to the health of some plantations, that they have built along the sea and rivers, in marish and unwholesome grounds.
[Roanoke failed on this account and Jamestown survived only by new shipments of slaves.]
Therefore, though you begin there, to avoid carriage and other like discommodities, yet built still rather upwards from the streams than along.
[The only mode of transport for bulk goods was by ship. So this advice was only heeded in so far as to get as far inland as possible along the rivers to avoid marshland and to find harbors with high adjacent hills for habitations.]
It concerneth likewise the health of the plantation that they have good store of salt with them, that they may use it in their victuals, when it shall be necessary.
If you plant where savages are, do not only entertain them with trifles and gingles, but use them justly and graciously, with sufficient guard nevertheless; and do not win their favor by helping them to invade their enemies,
[This had been the French blunder that caused the Mohawks to ever side with the British.]
but for their defence it is not amiss;
[The Maryland planters did follow this advice as a keystone of their native policy and had less hurt from Indian war than most plantations.]
and send oft of them over to the country that plants, that they may see a better condition than their own, and commend it when they return.
[The French did this in 1538 and the Virginia Company in about 1613-17. This resulted in the Indians who returned reporting on how horrible life was in European cities and causing the tribal leadership to make war on the planters in the near future to forestall the horrific crowding, suffering and disease they encountered in Europe. Planters would rarely take this pie in the sky advice. Ironically, the America of 2022 is largely governed by the dynamic of governments seeking to concentrate people in large cities and American home buyers typically moving every 8 years in a bid to escape the very urban congestion that Bacon thought was so grand and that the Savages who were exposed to it thought so obscene.]
When the plantation grows to strength, then it is time to plant with women as well as with men; that the plantation may spread into generations, and not be ever pieced from without. It is the sinfullest thing in the world to forsake or destitute a plantation once in forwardness; for besides the dishonor, it is the guiltiness of blood of many commiserable persons.
[As Bacon wrote, as many young women as possible were being abducted for sale as wives and hoe wives, their plight destined to bear the American fruit that Bacon would in many ways inspire, but would fail to see before his death.]
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