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Lusty Beggars, Dissolute Women, Sorners, Gypsies, and Vagabonds for Virginia

by Bruce P. Lenman

In a drear Scottish prison, convicts await transport to the colonies and a hard, brutal existence as indentured servants.

In a drear Scottish prison, convicts await transport to the colonies and a hard, brutal existence as indentured servants. The prisons held "idle vagabonds and beggars," poverty being itself sufficient grounds for imprisonment and transport. Interpreters Christina Westenberger, Zack Westenberger, Rod Faulkner, Stephen Moore, Rachel Moore, and Bill Rose. Photo by Dave Doody

Colonial Virginia was always intended to be a piece of England translated to the Chesapeake Bay. King James I expected his three kingdoms—Scotland and Ireland being the other two—to develop their own American colonies. By 1640, however, the surviving overseas plantations were all English, and neither Scots nor Irish were especially welcome. Nevertheless, many a Scot still made his way to Virginia, though not always under circumstances that commended the journey.

Scotland's dealings with the Old Dominion began in 1628. They generally were thought to have gone moribund until about 1668, after Charles II had assumed the three thrones. Indeed, the idea has been that Scots reached Virginia with regularity only after the Act of Union of 1707 created the United Kingdom of Great Britain. That overlooks a migration of Scots that began in the 1650s.

Countrymen called some of these émigrés "sorners," a Scots word that implies an importunate panhandler trying to get through life without working. Others were drifters, abducted servants, unwary youths, criminals, and such, men and women not so much adventurers seeking their dreams as being carried "furth"—that is to say, "out"—of Scotland, sometimes by deception, sometimes by order, sometimes for Scotland's good.

The Cromwellian era brought the first large-scale compulsory Scots migration to America, starting with the thousands of soldiers Cromwell captured when he destroyed Scottish armies at the battles of Preston, Dunbar, and Worcester. Rank and file often were transported—expelled into servitude—mainly to the English sugar islands in the West Indies. There they were profitably sold into bondage for a period of years. We know little about them beyond their names and that some ended up in Virginia.

By the end of the 1650s Scotland was part of a unitary state—the Commonwealth of England, Ireland, and Scotland—and the magistrates of Edinburgh exploited the freedom of trade this implied to export those they regarded as undesirable. In February 1659 they acceded to a request from Edinburgh merchants going to Barbados for a cargo of shiftless people and vagabonds, not to mention condemned prisoners from the jails. The burgh council was happy to hand over "such idle and debosht persons."

Before condemning the councilors, know that the alternative was to put such persons in jail and maintain them. That cost the town money for the mason and ironwork necessary for the safe custody of "strong, idle vagabonds and beggars." Moreover, even in the tolbooth of Edinburgh, its "best" jail, conditions were appalling. In a history of Edinburgh published in 1779, Hugo Arnot, lawyer, patriot, and fine flower of the Scottish Enlightenment, recorded the filth and putrid stench of the tolbooth where he found an unsegregated population of men, women, and children confined under dreadful conditions. Conditions would have been no better in 1659.

Always exploited, often brutalized, indentured servants were slaves without shackles. Liz Wiley, here, finds a moment of rest.

Always exploited, often brutalized, indentured servants were slaves without shackles. Liz Wiley, here, finds a moment of rest. Photo by Dave Doody

When the union of the Commonwealth dissolved, and the monarchy was restored in 1660, Virginia was again legally what it had always been culturally—English. England's Acts of Navigation restricted the activities of foreigners in the colonial trade, and Scots were foreigners by the terms of the acts. Nevertheless, they were subjects of the same monarch as the English, and the Acts of Navigation did not seal off English overseas plantations from all foreign trade. You could always take the product of your own country to Virginia in one of your own country's ships, and in labor-hungry Virginia, a servant—someone to work in the tobacco fields, tend the livestock, chop the firewood—was a commodity.

By April 1666 the city fathers of Edinburgh were back trying to export beggars, vagabonds, and others "not fitt to stay in the kingdome," and this time to Virginia. The unfit were to be shipped off by Captain James Gibson of the Phoenix of Leith, Edinburgh's port and vassal community.

Because in Scotland it was illegal not to have a master and belong to a community, you could just round up vagabonds who had sneaked into Edinburgh and ship them across the Atlantic. That kept them from creeping in again through one of the city ports or streets.

Clearly there were not enough vagabonds in 1666, for the council can next be found allowing Gibson to beat a drum for volunteer emigrants for Virginia through Edinburgh and its adjacent communities like the burgh of the Canongate and the Barony of Broughton. Gibson offered clothing and food to those willing to undertake "such a profitable voyage."

The Edinburgh city council has been thought to have shown lack of enthusiasm for the project because it insisted that before Gibson carried people aboard, he present them to the magistrates of Leith. But all the councilors were trying to do was shield their own. Like most early-modern local rulers, they were ruthless toward outsiders like vagabonds, but anxious to protect permanent residents. Gibson was interested in profit, and such was the demand for bondsmen and bondswomen in Virginia that there was a danger he might kidnap some of the young people of Edinburgh to sell as indentured servants. Inspection by magistrates made sure that those dancing to Gibson's drums, or those James Hamilton was authorized December 19, 1666, to beat through Edinburgh "for such as will go to Virginia," were genuine volunteers.

Nobody worried about vagabonds. Edinburgh magistrates, to whom one Captain Tennant's request for a cargo of "vagabonds to Virginia" was referred in November 1666, were probably only concerned that Edinburgh cut the most advantageous deal.

With 1666, the flow of Scots transportees to Virginia became more visible. A sharp persecution of Covenanting groups unwilling to accept the claim of the restored English monarchy to supremacy in the kirk—the church—as well as in the state, and the defeat of the first Covenanting rebellion at Rullion Green in the Pentlands outside Edinburgh left the regime with political prisoners on its hands.

Faulkner as a Scots slave.

Faulkner as a "Scots slave." If they survived the miseries of indenture, some servants found better lives afterward in the colonies. Photo by Dave Doody

They could be sent to the royal colony of Tangier. Members of the garrison thought they might as well be in prison as sweating in a fortified city under perpetual siege from the Moroccans. A soldier who complained about never being paid was shot. Margaret Summerton, convicted of sedition and trying to raise rebellion in Tangier in 1663, was flogged in front of the assembled garrison before being thrown into the cells. She probably emerged to join other offenders who, after their whipping, were set to work without pay and in shackles on the defenses. They were officially enslaved.

We tend to think of slaves as black, but Caucasians were enslaved in Tangier. Indeed, they were enslaved in Scotland. Male and female Scots coal miners and salt workers were slaves until 1799. The status was hereditary.

People facing forced labor on Tangier, like John Denholm, who appealed to the Privy Council from Edinburgh tolbooth in 1669, were likely to discover they had never been truly Covenanters after all and free to take any oath the king could devise.

Anything was better than the hellhole of Tangier. By comparison, Virginia looked good.

The Scots Privy Council, the nobles who ran the kingdom in the name of Charles II, had by the 1670s worked out a drill. Politically awkward prisoners, like dissenting Presbyterian ministers who married people illegally, were dispatched to Virginia by the next available ship, as might be rebels refusing the loyalty oath. Their lordships, however, normally responded to requests from syndicates with a ship.

Skippers for the New World needed a profitable outward cargo. Until about 1740, Scotland had little in the way of manufactures to ship. Concurrently, good harvests in England were drying up the supply of indentured servants for the Chesapeake. When the Charles of Leith was about to leave for Virginia, in 1669, its syndicate was granted a saleable outward cargo of any loose beggars and gypsies any Scottish magistrates could round up, plus the sweepings of the Edinburgh, Canongate, and Leith tolbooths. Theoretically, the consent of the sweepings was required.

Syndicates and their skippers were bound to pay a heavy fine for any prisoner who escaped before being landed in Virginia. By August 1677 John Leckie and his partners, who had a ship ready for Virginia, could say that it was "usual for the Councill to grant libertie for apprehending vagabound and lowse persones and transporting them hither that the kingdom may be freed of their burthen."

Another round of Covenanting rebellion began in 1679, culminating in the defeat of the Covenanters by the Duke of Monmouth at Bothwell Brig, so more political prisoners came on-stream. Then the ousting in 1688 of James II presented the new regime of William and Mary with widespread political turmoil.

A famine from 1696 to 1700 killed up to 15 percent of the population. Economic desperation, especially as famine bit deep, explained a lot of the theft and housebreaking that so worried the Scottish government.

In this eighteenth-century print, Scottish field hands scrabble for firewood and scrape with a hoe in front of a stone cottage.

In this eighteenth-century print, Scottish field hands scrabble for firewood and scrape with a hoe in front of a stone cottage. Photo by Bruce P. Lenman

James Chapman, sentenced to death in 1699 for stealing food for his family, appealed for banishment to America. He was whipped and put at Perth on the next appropriate ship. There were few volunteer indentured emigrants, however, and some refused to stay transported. Deportees Thomas Anderson and John Weir, were rearrested in Scotland in 1700.

Humble people could only afford a passage to Virginia by becoming indentured, and even Scots did not really want to go, but being already in custody and sentenced radically simplified your options. In 1700, for example, the Lord Justice Clek, a senior criminal judge, gave a boy of about fifteen, James Hall, who was under sentence of death in Glasgow tolbooth for "thieving and pickery," the alternative of transportation to Virginia. Hall accepted.

People knew how indentured servants were treated. An English bondswoman in Maryland reported in 1756 that she was half-naked, poorly fed, "toiling almost Day and Night—with only this comfort that you Bitch you do not halfe enough, and then tied up and whipp'd to that Degree that you'd not serve an Animal."

White indentured field hands became scarce after 1700, and as slaves replaced them, racist attitudes strengthened. Southern colonies legislated against flogging white people naked, which meant they had been so flogged. Man or woman, you needed a strong stomach to volunteer as an unskilled indentured laborer in Virginia.

William Baillie, "ane Egyptian," did not volunteer.

"Egyptian" was the Scots term for Gypsy. Contemporaries knew that there were nomadic clans in Scotland, but few real Romany-speaking Gypsies. It was a capital offense to be a nomad. A great Scots ballad, "MacPherson's Rant," immortalizes the execution of an Egyptian, John MacPherson, in Bamff, who defiantly played his fiddle under the gallows in 1700.

In 1699 Baillie was lucky to be banished to the American plantations by the Privy Council with an allowance for his upkeep to any skipper who would take him under bond for safe delivery, certificated by a port officer. Transportation was a profitable business, as Francis Scott knew in 1689, when he wrote to Alexander Campbell, an Edinburgh merchant, saying that if Campbell could secure two or three hundred transportees, there would be no problem securing shipping space for them to Virginia.

Virginia, with its perpetual labor shortage, offered high prices for indentured servants.

Glasgow was into the Chesapeake tobacco trade well before 1707. After 1689, in a war situation, it was uncanny how privateer attacks or bad weather tended to drive tobacco ships legally bound to unload at an English port into the Clyde instead.

Free Scots profited from tobacco; others sweated in the fields.

Free Scots profited from tobacco; others sweated in the fields. From left, interpreters Terry Thon, Wayne Randolph, and David Nielsen. Photo by Dave Doody

Direct trade in tobacco between Virginia and Scotland was legal under Scots law, if not English, and the Scots effectively blocked English naval vessels arresting ships "loaded with tobacco from Virginia."

Through Clyde outports like Greenock and New Port Glasgow, Glasgow merchants sent prisoners as outward cargo. In August 1681, one of them, Walter Gibson, told the authorities he had a ship lying at Port Glasgow ready to take "all sorners, lusty beggars or gypsies" to Virginia.

Edinburgh ships, some of them wolves in sheep's clothing with names like The Ewe and Lamb, topped up their passenger list for Virginia with mugged and kidnapped people.

Glasgow, with a shorter run to the Chesapeake, offered better rates. The pattern soon established is shown in the offer made by James Montgomerie Jr., merchant in Glasgow, to the Edinburgh town council in 1694, to collect "dissolute women" from their House of Correction and move them to Glasgow under military guard at the modest rate of six pence per day before feeding, clothing, and transporting them at thirty shillings a head, subject to the usual £50 penalty for any escapee.

Most Scots prisoners went to Virginia. Immigrant Scots women helped early eighteenth-century Virginia acquire a self-replacing population. Before 1700, the sex ratio and lifestyle ruled that out. And if Virginia suited these Scots, they did well by Virginia. Despite the homesickness, hardship, and misery, some Scots found that their land of exile had turned into a new home. In 1730, looking back over the first three generations of Scots migration to Virginia, Roderick Gordon, a ship's surgeon and from 1729 resident of King and Queen County, Virginia, wrote:

Pity it is that thousands of my country people should be starving att home, when they may live here in peace and plenty, as a great many who have been transported for a punishment have found pleasure, profit, and ease and would rather undergo any hardship than be forced back on their own country.



Historian Bruce Lenman, recently retired from the faculty of the University of St. Andrews in Fyfe, Scotland, contributed a story on Scots tobacco factors to the autumn 2003 journal.



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