Peon

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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.

Contents

Usage

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:

History

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

Related Research Articles

Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution 1865 Reconstruction amendment abolishing slavery

The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime. The amendment was passed by Congress on January 31, 1865, and ratified by the required 27 of the then 36 states on December 6, 1865, and proclaimed on December 18. It was the first of the three Reconstruction Amendments adopted following the American Civil War.

Debt bondage Persons pledge of their labor or services as security for the repayment for a debt or other obligation

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.

Indentured servitude Consensual free labor

Indentured servitude is a form of labor in which a person agrees to work without salary for a specific number of years through a contract for eventual compensation or debt repayment. Historically, it has been used to pay for apprenticeships, typically when an apprentice agreed to work for free for a master tradesman to learn a trade. Later it was also used as a way for a person, to pay the cost of transportation to colonies in the Americas.

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.

Sharecropping use of land by a tenant in return for a share of the crops produced

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.

B. B. Comer Democratic U.S. Senator from Alabama; Governor of Alabama

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The history of the Southern United States reaches back hundreds of years and includes the Mississippian people, well known for their mound building. European history in the region began in the very earliest days of the exploration and colonization of North America. Spain, France, and England eventually explored and claimed parts of what is now the Southern United States, and the cultural influences of each can still be seen in the region today. In the centuries since, the history of the Southern United States has recorded a large number of important events, including the American Revolution, the American Civil War, the ending of slavery, and the American Civil Rights Movement.

Black Codes (United States) Discriminatory state and local laws passed after the Civil War

The Black Codes, sometimes called Black Laws, were laws governing the conduct of African Americans. In 1832, James Kent wrote that "in most of the United States, there is a distinction in respect to political privileges, between free white persons and free colored persons of African blood; and in no part of the country do the latter, in point of fact, participate equally with the whites, in the exercise of civil and political rights." Although Black Codes existed before the Civil War and many Northern states had them, it was the Southern U.S. states that codified such laws in everyday practice. The best known of them were passed in 1865 and 1866 by Southern states, after the American Civil War, in order to restrict African Americans' freedom, and to compel them to work for low wages.

The crop-lien system was a credit system that became widely used by cotton farmers in the United States in the South from the 1860s to the 1930s. Sharecroppers and tenant farmers, who did not own the land they worked, obtained supplies and food on credit from local merchants. The merchants held a lien on the cotton crop, and the merchants and landowners were the first ones paid from its sale. What was left over went to the farmer. The system ended in the 1940s as prosperity returned and many poor farmers moved permanently to cities and towns, where jobs were plentiful because of World War II.

Bailey v. Alabama, 219 U.S. 219 (1911), was a United States Supreme Court case that overturned the peonage laws of Alabama.

Convict leasing

Convict leasing was a system of forced penal labor which was historically practiced in the Southern United States and overwhelmingly involved African-American men. Recently, a form of the practice has been instituted in western states. In the earlier forms of the practice, convict leasing provided prisoner labor to private parties, such as plantation owners and corporations. The lessee was responsible for feeding, clothing, and housing the prisoners.

Douglas A. Blackmon

Douglas A. Blackmon is an American writer and journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for his book, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II.

The term Jim Crow economy applies to a specific set of economic conditions during the period when the Jim Crow laws were in effect; however, it should also be taken as an attempt to disentangle the economic ramifications from the politico-legal ramifications of "separate but equal" de jure segregation, to consider how the economic impacts might have persisted beyond the politico-legal ramifications.

The Peonage Abolition Act of 1867 was an Act passed by the U.S. Congress on March 2, 1867, that abolished peonage in the New Mexico Territory and elsewhere in the United States.

The Sunnyside Plantation was a cotton plantation near Lake Village in Chicot County, Arkansas, in the Arkansas Delta region. Built as a cotton plantation in the Antebellum South, it was farmed using the forced labor of African American slaves. After the American Civil War of 1861-1865, freedmen farmed it. From the 1890s to the 1910s, it used convict laborers and employed immigrants from Northern Italy, many of whom were subject to peonage. They were later replaced by black sharecroppers. The plantation was closed down and it was broken up in the 1940s. Nowadays, only a historical marker reminds Lake Village residents and visitors of its history.

J. W. Comer

John Wallace Comer was a businessman, slave owner, mine operator and planter in Alabama during the Reconstruction Era and the early 1900s. The brother of Alabama Governor B. B. Comer, John Wallace Comer operated the Comer family plantation in Barbour County, Alabama. J. W. Comer served from 1863 until 1865 in the 57th Alabama Infantry Regiment during the American Civil War. J. W. Comer also operated the Eureka Iron Works throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s.

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History of unfree labor in the United States

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Knabb Turpentine

Knabb Turpentine was the name used for the pine resin harvesting and turpentine distilling businesses operated in northeast Florida by the Knabb brothers: Thomas Jefferson, William, and Earl, of Macclenny. Turpentine production boomed in North Florida between the late 1800s and 1920s; in the early 1900s, the Knabb family began to build one of the largest turpentine operations in the United States, and by the mid-20th century owned over 200,000 acres of pine forest in Baker County, over half its area. The eldest brother, T.J. Knabb (1880–1937), was the founder and president of the original Knabb Turpentine company. He made a fortune with the forced labor of jail inmates he leased from Baker, Alachua and Bradford counties, holding the convicts in peonage. Knabb was elected to the Florida Legislature in 1921 and served as a state senator of District 29 during the 1921, 1923, 1929 and 1931 legislative sessions. He was a co-founder of the Citizen's Bank of Macclenny and its vice-president until his death.

References

  1. https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/pe%C3%B3n#Etymology_3
  2. 1 2 Howe, William Wirt (April 1904). "The Peonage Cases". Columbia Law Review. 4 (4): 656–58. doi:10.2307/1109963. JSTOR   1109963.
  3. Bartholomew, Dean (2009). Urarina Society, Cosmology, and History in Peruvian Amazonia. Gainesville: University Press of Florida. ISBN   978-0-8130-3378-5.
  4. Blackmon, Douglas (2008). Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black People in America from the Civil War to World War II . Doubleday. p.  152. ISBN   978-0-385-50625-0.
  5. Blackmon (2008), Slavery by Another Name
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Further reading