Friday, October 11, 2013

Jamestown - An Experiment in Socialism

It’s October already! Then November! Harvest, Thanksgiving and Pilgrims. Reminds me of school days and lessons about our nation’s history.

Brave Englishmen sailed to the New World for a multitude of reasons – religious freedom, promise of gold, and expansion of the Empire. Some even came as indentured slaves, hoping to work for freedom.

Before the Pilgrims, King James I had granted a charter to the Virginia Company for land in the New World. Three ships set sail in 1607 – the Susan Constant, the God Speed, and the Discovery. They established the settlement of Jamestown in April. This community was not structured like the villages in England. All supplies and food were held in common and doled out as needed, but in spite of this, half of them had died by September.

When Captain John Smith recognized that some were not working, he determined that if a man did not work, he should not eat. That helped, but did not provide the enough motivation. Real encouragement came in June of 1609 when six hundred people arrived with supplies. However, due to a gun powder explosion, Captain Smith was injured and had to return to England in September of that year.

By winter, the food was gone, and houses were run down. Rampant rumors of cannibalism surfaced. At the end of this winter, 1609-1610, known as the Starving Time, only sixty settlers had survived. As a last resort, under the direction of Sir Thomas Gates, they boarded a ship for England.

As they rounded the bend in the river, however, they met a longboat with supplies and people. Much to the dismay of the settlers, Sir Thomas Gates turned around and returned to the devastation of Jamestown. But the problems still existed. No one possessed his own farm land. A settler could be moved out of his house at the whim of those in power. With no sense of community, the people had very little incentive to work.

Captain Smith’s rule had not provided the motivation they needed. Other negative incentives brought the same results. Whippings were to no avail. In addition to the idleness of some people, those who were thrifty with what they grew became indignant when the common property (food) was given to those who did not contribute.

Faced with another catastrophic situation in the first American commune, Sir Thomas Gates allotted a parcel of land for each family and allowed them to keep their own corn. Personal incentives succeeded where force had failed. This applied private enterprise paved the way for tobacco farming which eventually made Jamestown a prosperous colony.   

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