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400 Years And Counting

By       Message Edward Rhymes     Permalink
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When my book, When Racism Is Law & Prejudice Is Policy, was published in January of this year I never made the connection of my book and the 400th year anniversary of the Jamestown settlement. This commemoration has even drawn Queen Elizabeth to our shores. I was looking to share some passages from my book, and this look at 400 years of American history provides the perfect opportunity. I have not only written about this time in America’s history, but I have taught about it as well. I would be interested and hearing your thoughts, so feel free to comment. I commit this writing to your thoughtful and diligent consideration.


There were several key factors in the evolution and formation of prejudicial laws and policies in British colonial America. There are three, which I believe to be, of particular importance to this study. They are: (1) The English Pattern of Conquest, (2) English Concept of Land Ownership, and (3) Religious Endorsement.

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The English Pattern of Conquest 

In contrast to the Spaniards who frequently intermarried with the native populations of Mexico, Central America and South America, the English followed a pattern of driving away the peoples they defeated. This pattern shows itself in England’s conquest of Ireland.

The English practiced a systematic discrimination against the Irish people with the Statutes of Kilkenny in the 1300’s, the Penal Laws of the late 17th century and Oliver Cromwell’s large scale land confiscation policy in the mid 1600’s.

The Statutes of Kilkenny’s purpose was to prevent further assimilation of the English colonizers with the Irish natives, by legal and religious penalties. The settlers were forbidden to use the Irish language. They were also forbidden to use Irish names, marry into Irish families, use the Irish mode of dress, adopt any Irish laws and play the Irish game of hurling. But the English crown, embroiled in a costly military campaign in Scotland and the Hundred Years War (1338-1453) against France, had little time for Irish affairs and the statutes remained inoperative.The Penal Laws were a set of legal codes put into place by Ireland's English rulers following the Treaty of Limerick in the late 17th century. Also called the “Popery Laws,” the Penal Laws were based on the fears of an English Protestant ruling class: they were meant to both protect the Protestant religion and eliminate the native Roman Catholic Irish as a threat. Although the Penal Laws were largely unenforced during the 18th century, they remained on the books and were still legally binding until Catholic Emancipation in 1829.The first of Penal Laws went into effect a scant three years after the signing of the Treaty, in which the Irish were guaranteed “that the Irish in Ireland should, in their lives, liberties and property be equally protected” and “protected in the free and unfettered exercise of their religion.”

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This first law was called the Act for the Better Securing of the Government against Papists. Under this law, no Papist (Catholic) could have any “gun, pistol, or sword, or any other weapon of offense or defense, under penalty of fine, imprisonment, pillory (locking ones head and hands in a wooden rack for public ridicule), or public whipping.” It further stated that any magistrate could show up at the house of any Irish person no matter what time of the day or night and search for weapons legally.

This was followed, circa 1697, with the Act for banishing all Papists exercising any ecclesiastical jurisdiction, and regulars of the Popish clergy, out of this Kingdom, also called "The Bishop's Banishment Act." The law required all Catholic clergy to leave Ireland by May 1st, 1698 under the penalty of transportation (indentured servitude) for life. It further stated that if any returned, they would be hanged, drawn, and quartered.

But this was just the start of the restrictions. Further laws were passed over time that severely limited the ability of a Catholic to do anything. These included laws that:

  • Forbade Catholics from exercising their religion
  • Forbade Catholics from receiving a Catholic education
  • Forbade Catholics from entering a profession
  • Forbade Catholics from holding Public Office
  • Forbade Catholics from engaging in trade or commerce
  • Forbade Catholics from living in a corporate town or within five miles of one
  • Forbade Catholics from owning a horse worth more than 5 pounds
  • Forbade Catholics from buying or leasing land
  • Forbade Catholics from voting
  • Forbade Catholics from receiving a gift or inheritance of land from a Protestant
  • Forbade Catholics from renting any land that was worth more than thirty   shillings
  • Forbade Catholics from gaining any profit from his land over a third of the land's value
  • Forbade Catholics from being the guardian of a child
  • Fined Catholics for not attending Protestant services
  • Forbade Catholics from sending their children abroad for an education
By these laws the Catholics were deprived of all civil life, reduced to the condition of ignorance and dissociated with the soil. Catholic schoolmasters and priests became hunted men and women. The laws were simply designed to repress the native Irish who were for the most part Catholic.Conditions and the treatment of the Irish degraded to the point where a Protestant could beat or kill any Catholic without fear of recrimination. By these means, the Protestant residents of Ireland successfully controlled the other 80% of the Irish population, the Catholics.

Puritan leader Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell had ordered all Irish landowners to leave their holdings and relocate west of the Shannon River. The area of Connaught to which the former landholders were assigned was barren and totally unsuitable for the amount of farming that was needed to sustain a population as lame as that which was forced there.

All confiscated land was given to those who supported Cromwell's Irish campaign, from financial backers to volunteer soldiers. Those Irish who owned no land prior to the conflict, and were still alive, were allowed to remain as a servant force for the new English settlers. Those who opposed Cromwell's conquest of Ireland were killed or deported, but the saddest part of it all was the fate of the Irish children. Many, orphaned as a result of the fighting, were sent to England's colonies in the Indies and America as slaves.

The English brought this pattern of colonization with them to North America. Viewing the Native Americans as being “like the wild Irish,” the English settlers had no desire to intermarry with the Native Americans they defeated. Their conquest over the native peoples was total and absolute.

English Concept of Land Ownership

Although its control had waned by the time the first settlers from England had arrived in North America, the remnants of the old medieval feudal system were very much a part of English life. This reality greatly impacted the attitudes of the early English settlers towards the Native Americans (and later African Americans). Land ownership and control was the foundation upon which the whole system rested. And this ownership and control extended to those who inhabited that land.

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Beginning with the Jamestown settlement of 1607 and intensifying with the great Puritan migration of the 1630’s, Englishmen coming to the New World thought less about Indian trade, the Northwest Passage, and fabled gold mines and more about land. As the dreams of El Dorado evaporated, English attention centered on the less glamorous goal of permanent settlement. Now land became all-important, for without land how could there be permanent settlement? The Indian, who had been important when trade and exploration were the keys to overseas involvement, became an inconvenient obstacle. One Englishman went to the heart of the difficulty in 1609: “By what right or warrant can we enter into the land of these Savages, take away their right-full inheritance from them, and plant ourselves in their places, being unwronged or unprovoked by them?” It was a cogent question to ask, for Englishmen, like other Europeans, had organized their society around the concept of private ownership of land. They regarded it, in fact, as an important characteristic of their superior culture.

Colonists were not blind to the fact that they were invading the land of another people, who by prior possession could lay sole claim to the whole of mainland America. The resolution of this moral and legal problem was accomplished by an appeal to logic and to higher powers. The English claimed that they came to share, not appropriate, the trackless wilderness. The Indians would benefit because they would be elevated far above their present condition through contact with a richer culture, a more advanced civilization, and most importantly, the Christian religion.

Samuel Purchas, a clerical promoter of English expansion, gave classic expression to this idea: “God in wisedome ... enriched the Savage Countries that those riches might be attractive for Christian suters, which there may sowe spirituals and reape temporals.” Spirituals, to be sown, of course, meant Christianity; temporals to be reaped meant land. Purchas went on to argue that to leave undeveloped a sparsely settled land populated only by a few natives was to oppose the wishes of God who would not have showed Englishmen the way to the New World if he had not intended them to possess it. Moreover, if the English did not occupy North America, Spain would; and the Indians would then fall “victim” to Catholicism.

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Dr Edward Rhymes, author of When Racism Is Law & Prejudice Is Policy, is an internationally recognized authority in the areas of critical race theory and Black Studies. Please view his Rhymes Consulting Services website at (more...)

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