In the late 1500’s Queen Elizabeth was faced with a delima. England was in the midst of an economic depression causing thousands of downtrodden folks to flood the streets of London begging for food scraps and shelter. This brought about public floggings or, sometimes imprisonment in workhouses, but it soon became apparent that England was best served to rid themselves of this surplus population.
At the same time the new world of America was desperate for laborers. It seemed a simple solution to exile those unfortunates, so England emptied the jails and cleared the streets, offering those free passage to the new world where they could seek a fresh start after a period of indenture. Thousands took advantage of the opportunity, but the reality of their consent was quickly realized soon after they boarded ships and began their passage across the Atlantic Ocean.
Captain and crew, with a full cargo of bond servants left the Port of London in midsized sailing vessels and navigated down the Thames River, finally breaking into full sail into the Great North Sea. By the time they headed south into the English Channel, most all headrights fully understood that their opportunity was a tragic mistake. Soon after realizing their guarantee of food, clothing and bedding were false promises many begin to protest, demanding a return to their homeland. A selected few were quickly made examples of with beatings and isolation, only providing the minimum of rations for them to survive.
For a single passage the number of headrights ranged from fifty to sixty souls. They took occupancy in the ‘tween decks’, a common area, where everyone was left to find sleep on the floor. They were provided a daily ration of bread and water with meat every third day. Waste pots were placed in the aft or stern and offered no privacy for hygiene or personal necessities. During rough days at sea the pots spilled over into the common area leaving an odor so foul it was barely tolerable.
Following the trade winds discovered by Christopher Columbus the passage traversed past France, Portugal, and Africa before they made the first stop for food and supplies in Santa Cruz De Tenerife in the Canary Islands. The merchants on this remote outpost were well seasoned in trade, bartering with rum and food stocks which would prepare for the long and most desolate span of the trip to the New World.
With favorable winds, they would reach Dominica, the first island in the Caribbean chain, having been at sea for six to eight weeks. Maneuvering through the island chain was tricky as they passed Gaudeloupe, Nevis, Virgin Islands and Mona until they stopped in Monito for their last restocking before making a sprint for the North American coast. Most spotted land off the North Carolina Outer Banks where they skirted the coastline until markers were spotted identifying Jamestown Bay. The passage could take as long as four months and left the submissive crew of headrights in a lifeless state.
During the horrifying ordeal their bread could get moldy and their water stale, but any good captain would make every effort to keep headrights alive. Mutiny was not unheard of but those were usually thrown to the cargo hold away from the general population. If a headright died his corpse was wrapped in canvas so it could be displayed at the destination, allowing the captain to receive his movement fee. If that headright was under contract a plantation owner would still receive his fifty acre allotment he was guaranteed for each person he brought to the American colony.
Life as an indentured servant was indeed a brutal ordeal for those who choose to sacrifice a few years of their life for opportunity, but the passage to the New World was, by far, the most difficult span in the long road to freedom.