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Foreman and country peon by Prilidiano Pueyrredon (1823 - 1870) Prilidiano Pueyrredon-Capataz y peon de campo.jpg
Foreman and country peon by Prilidiano Pueyrredón (1823 - 1870)

Peon (English /ˈpɒn/ , from the Spanish peón [peˈon] ) usually refers to a person subject to peonage: any form of wage labor in which a laborer (peon) has little control over employment conditions. Peon and peonage can refer to both the colonial period and post-colonial period of Latin America as well as the period after the end of slavery in the United States, when "Black Codes" were passed to retain African American freedmen as labor through other means.



In English, peon (doublet of pawn ) and peonage have meanings related to their Spanish etymology (foot soldier [1] ), as well as a variety of other usages. [2]

In addition to the aforementioned definition of forced laborer, a peon may also be defined as a person with little authority, often assigned unskilled tasks; an underling or any person subjected to capricious or unreasonable oversight. In this sense, peon can be used in either a derogatory or self-effacing context.

However, the term has a historical basis and usage related to much more severe conditions of forced labor.

There are other usages in contemporary cultures:


Foreman and rebel peon by Martin Leon Boneo, 1901. Capataz y peon rebelde.jpg
Foreman and rebel peon by Martín León Boneo, 1901.

The Spanish conquest of Mexico and Caribbean islands included peonage; the conquistadors forced natives to work for Spanish planters and mine operators. Peonage was prevalent in Latin America, especially in the countries of Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador and Peru. It remains an important part of social life, as among the Urarina of the Peruvian Amazon. [3]

Peonage in the United States

Punishment of peons employed by American railroad tycoon Henry Meiggs in Chile or Peru, 1862 Castigo a peones.jpg
Punishment of peons employed by American railroad tycoon Henry Meiggs in Chile or Peru, 1862

After the American Civil War of 1861–1865, peonage developed in the Southern United States. Poor white farmers and formerly enslaved African Americans known as freedmen, who could not afford their own land, would farm another person's land, exchanging labor for a share of the crops. This was called sharecropping and initially the benefits were mutual. The land owner would pay for the seeds and tools in exchange for a percentage of the money earned from the crop and a portion of the crop. As time passed, many landowners began to abuse this system. The landowner would force the tenant farmer or sharecropper to buy seeds and tools from the land owner's store, which often had inflated prices. As sharecroppers were often illiterate, they had to depend on the books and accounting by the landowner and his staff. Other tactics included debiting expenses against the sharecropper's profits after the crop was harvested and "miscalculating" the net profit from the harvest, thereby keeping the sharecropper in perpetual debt to the landowner. Since the tenant farmers could not offset the costs, they were forced into involuntary labor due to the debts they owed the landowner. Additionally, unpredictable or disruptive climatic conditions, such as droughts or storms, caused disruptions to seasonal plantings or harvests, which in turn, caused the tenant farmers to accrue debts with the landowners.

After the U.S. Civil War, the South passed "Black Codes", laws to control freed black slaves. Vagrancy laws were included in these Black Codes. Homeless or unemployed African Americans who were between jobs, most of whom were former slaves, were arrested and fined as vagrants. Usually lacking the resources to pay the fine, the "vagrant" was sent to county labor or hired out under the convict lease program to a private employer. The authorities also tried to restrict the movement of freedmen between rural areas and cities, to between towns.

Under such laws, local officials arbitrarily arrested tens of thousands of people and charged them with fines and court costs of their cases. Black freedmen were those most aggressively targeted. Poor whites were also arrested, but usually in much smaller numbers. White merchants, farmers, and business owners were allowed to pay these debts, and the prisoner had to work off the debt. Prisoners were leased as laborers to owners and operators of coal mines, lumber camps, brickyards, railroads, quarries, and farm plantations, with the lease revenues for their labor going to the states. The lessors were responsible for room and board of the laborers, and frequently abused them with little oversight by the state. Government officials leased imprisoned blacks and whites to small town entrepreneurs, provincial farmers, and dozens of corporations looking for cheap labor. Their labor was repeatedly bought and sold for decades, well into the 20th century, long after the official abolition of American slavery. [4]

Southern states and private businesses profited by this form of unpaid labor. It is estimated that at the beginning of the 20th century, up to 40% of blacks in the South were trapped in peonage. Overseers and owners often used severe physical deprivation, beatings, whippings, and other abuse as "discipline" against the workers. [5]

Cartoon of Indictment of US Planters and negro peonage "AND WHILE YOU'RE IN THERE, FIND OUT SOMETHING ABOUT A FELLOW NAMED ABE LINCOLN" - NARA - 535605.tif
Cartoon of Indictment of US Planters and negro peonage

After the Civil War, the Thirteenth Amendment prohibited involuntary servitude such as peonage for all but convicted criminals. Congress also passed various laws to protect the constitutional rights of Southern blacks, making those who violated such rights by conspiracy, by trespass, or in disguise, guilty of an offense punishable by ten years in prison and civil disability. Unlawful use of state law to subvert rights under the Federal Constitution was made punishable by fine or a year's imprisonment. But until the involuntary servitude was abolished by president Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966 (exact date unknown), sharecroppers in Southern states were forced to continue working to pay off old debts or to pay taxes. Southern states allowed this in order to preserve sharecropping.

The following reported court cases involved peonage:

Because of the Spanish tradition, peonage remained legal and widespread in the New Mexico Territory even after the Civil War. In response, Congress passed the Peonage Act of 1867 on March 2, 1867, which said: "Sec 1990. The holding of any person to service or labor under the system known as peonage is abolished and forever prohibited in the territory of New Mexico, or in any other territory or state of the United States; and all acts, laws, … made to establish, maintain, or enforce, directly or indirectly, the voluntary or involuntary service or labor of any persons as peons, in liquidation of any debt or obligation, or otherwise, are declared null and void." [24] The current version of this statute is codified at Chapter 21-I of 42 U.S.C.   § 1994 and makes no specific mention of New Mexico.

See also

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Peonage, also known as debt slavery or bonded labour, is the pledge of a person's services as security for the repayment for a debt or other obligation, where the terms of the repayment are not clearly or reasonably stated, and the person who is holding the debt thus has some control over the laborer. Freedom is assumed on debt repayment. The services required to repay the debt may be undefined, and the services' duration may be undefined, thus allowing the person supposedly owed the debt to demand services indefinitely. Debt bondage can be passed on from generation to generation.

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Involuntary servitude

Involuntary servitude or involuntary slavery is a legal and constitutional term for a person laboring against that person's will to benefit another, under some form of coercion other than the worker's financial needs, to which it may constitute slavery. While laboring to benefit another occurs also in the condition of slavery, involuntary servitude does not necessarily connote the complete lack of freedom experienced in chattel slavery; involuntary servitude may also refer to other forms of unfree labor. Involuntary servitude is not dependent upon compensation or its amount.

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Sharecropping is a legal arrangement with regard to agricultural land in which a landowner allows a tenant to use the land in return for a share of the crops produced on that land.

Forty acres and a mule is part of Special Field Orders No. 15, a wartime order proclaimed by Union General William Tecumseh Sherman on January 16, 1865, during the American Civil War, to allot land to some freed families, in plots of land no larger than 40 acres (16 ha). Sherman later ordered the army to lend mules for the agrarian reform effort. The field orders followed a series of conversations between Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and Radical Republican abolitionists Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens following disruptions to the institution of slavery provoked by the American Civil War. Many freed people believed, after being told by various political figures, that they had a right to own the land they had been forced to work as slaves and were eager to control their own property. Freed people widely expected to legally claim 40 acres of land and a mule after the end of the war. Some freedmen took advantage of the order and took initiatives to acquire land plots along a strip of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida coasts. However, Abraham Lincoln's successor as president, Andrew Johnson, explicitly reversed and annulled proclamations such as Special Field Orders No. 15 and the Freedmen's Bureau bills.

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Further reading