Tuesday, January 2, 2007

The Beast called Scunck, or an unromantic view of Colonial times

Late one night last week, I got drawn into an internet discussion with a conservative who stated that he wanted America to go back to its "traditional values". "Like the Founding Fathers," he said. Normally, this line of reasoning would just annoy me. On that particular night, it moved me to pick up a book I've been meaning to read for a long time: The Infortunate: the Voyage and Adventures of William Moraley, an Indentured Servant, edited and with an introduction by Susan Klepp and Billy G. Smith.

There are few surviving memoirs of Colonial life, and fewer still written by an average person. And William Moraley, who wrote this tale after his adventures in the colonies had ended, is most decidedly average. More than that, he's an eternal victim, as the title of his book alone reveals.

When Moraley came of age, he was more interested in drinking and carousing than learning his father's trade of watchmaking. He claims to have patched things up with his father, but was disinherited nonetheless, receiving only his father's tools and a small sum of money. His mother was sympathetic and gave him some extra money. Not satisfied with this, he tried unsuccessfully to sue her for more, then finally lit out for the colonies as an indentured servant.

The most intriguing part of the book comes here, as he describes a society still emerging but with a well-established economy, built environment, and legal system. His record includes mundane details of colonial life: he found the meat better and cheaper here than in England, but notes that the raisins and currants were terribly expensive. He describes his built and natural surroundings in great detail, including the "beast called scunck" which "if you approach them, will piss on their Tails and switch them in your Face and this Stink will continue above a week."

He weighs in on slavery, pitying the African slaves for the unfairness of the laws they live under and their burdensome workload. He sees some parallels between their situation and his own, but ultimately concludes that the "obdurate, stubborn disposition" of African slaves makes it necessary to treat them this way, and also acknowleges the need for their labor. His section on the Lenape Indians is riddled with misconception and romanticism; Smith and Klepp burst in, in footnotes, eight times in less than three pages to correct or clarify his statements.

Unsurprisingly, Moraley's problems with authority resurfaced in the new world, and he tried (unsuccessfully again) to win early, immediate release. He compromised with his master and served out only a portion of his indenture. After his indenture was over, he knocked around a bit. He got engaged to a woman with the idea of getting her money, but she broke the engagement when friends of his stole a ring she gave him and sold it. He ultimately fled the colonies and his debtors and returned to England. His first order of business was getting extremely drunk, then he returned home to his mother after knocking around a bit more. After his mother died, he made several mistakes with her estate, and his debts ate all of his inheritance.

Moraley's tale ends with a plea to think better of him than his story implies. And in this, the value of his tale shines through. It's not just a guide to creating more accurately furnished house museum interiors, or a book that will give you the ability to point out the inaccuracies in The Patriot. It will explode the myth, once and for all, that people were better or nobler back then. America was built by people like William Moraley every bit as much as by people like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson or George Washington. So take heart. People are not getting more selfish and whiny. Rather, there were always whiny, selfish people in the world, it's just that their stories were rarely recorded.

1 comment:

Matt said...

I just came over here after seeing your comment on Boston 1775.

You might not like my blog (I am a conservative), but I'm enjoying this one. I really like books and reading.

I would add something to your last paragraph, namely that Benjamin Franklin came closer to being a Deist than any of the other Founders, Jefferson regularly detested much of the New Testament, and Washington did not publicly pray or make other allusions to a personal Christian faith. Certainly those who try to portray America as being founded as "Christian nation" are incorrect.