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Modern Voices
Betty Wood on the implications of tobacco on labor needs in Virginia
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Q: The implications of tobacco on the labor needs of Virginia were very profound. Talk to me about that.
Betty Wood

A: Tobacco was to have an enormous influence on the subsequent settlement and development of Virginia. And in the 1620's and 1630's, the dual impact of tobacco was, firstly, on land -- the vast amounts of land that were needed to grow tobacco, and the extent to which this brought the English settlers who, at a time when tobacco prices were sky high, were rapacious to secure the land they needed to grow tobacco. This brought them into direct conflict with the Native Americans who happened to occupy that land.

The second important demand created by tobacco in the 1620's was a demand was for labor. Remember, this [was a] terrible environment for Europeans -- [with] very few women in the colony [it] simply wasn't reproducing itself to satisfy its own labor needs. So where do you get the labor you need to make money from tobacco and hopefully return home to England a rich person? One alternative was, of course, the Native Americans. Why didn't the English in the 1620's turn to Native Americans for the work force they needed? And I think the main reason for that had to do with what the English regarded as the deficiencies of the Native Americans as potential workers. Native Americans could easily abscond, return to their own peoples. And fairly early on the English ruled out the possibility of Native Americans as a work force in their tobacco fields.

It was to England itself that Virginia planters turned for labor in the 1620s and 1630s. And that labor was available partly because of downturns in the English economy itself. People, and especially young people in search of work [and] opportunity, could be persuaded to board boats for Virginia, which they did, mainly as indentured servants. And that meant that they agreed to serve their master for a certain number of years, and at the end of that time they would be given their freedom and possibly a plot of land, possibly agricultural tools, possibly some some money. But through the 1620s and 1630s Virginia planters looked to England for their labor; they did not look to West Africa.
Betty Wood
Professor of History
Oxford University

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