Here’s the basic text of the message I delivered to the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Franklin, NC, August 17, 2014. (The lyrics marked with a * are sung, not spoken.)
*15 men on a dead man’s chest
Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Rum*
On July 11 I woke up at 4:30 a.m. with a great title for today’s talk. “Yo Ho Ho and a bottle of rum!” Together with the subtitle: Black death, white sugar and the quest for a living wage.”
Three weeks later I sat down to actually write this thing and abruptly realized that I was going to have to connect a whole lot of dots over about seven centuries. To begin with, I should probably have said “brown sugar” even though the imagery of black death and white sugar seemed pretty strong. So I did the only thing a reasonable person can do when faced with that sort of problem. I went outside and pulled weeds.
Later I tried again. The first, obvious, question to ask is what were 15 men doing on a dead man’s chest? Was he still breathing when they sat down? Thinking back to my childhood I recalled that my immediate assumption when I first heard that song was that it must have been a treasure chest. But Wikipedia set me straight. There’s an island in the West Indies called Dead Chest Island. It’s a rocky little bump with no trees or water which looks a little like a floating body. Legend has it that Blackbeard once left several unruly pirates on the island as punishment. Each man was supposedly given only a single bottle of rum. As the story goes, when the ship returned at the end of a month, a few of the pirates were still alive. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the song for his novel, Treasure Island and turned Dead Chest into Dead Man’s Chest.
Good story, but it seems that Blackbeard was actually quite a gentleman and ran his boat with the support and consent of his crew who he apparently paid pretty well. He paid what we could call a “living wage,” or at least a fair crew-share of the proceeds. He avoided violence while cultivating a violent image because he believed fear was better than murder in achieving his goal, which was looting merchant ships from the Indies to coastal Carolina.
Piracy was one reason that a lot of those merchant ships were carrying molasses. Not many pirates wanted barrels of molasses which is a sticky mess after you shoot up the boat with a cannon. And there wasn’t much of a black market, or maybe you’d call it a brown market, for molasses.
I could see I was getting ahead of myself, so I went back to weeding and pretty soon I realized I should have started with Christopher Columbus.
In the late 15th Century European ships had improved to the point that exploration and trade were becoming popular with Queens and Kings. The marvelous goodies that had come from the Far East via the Silk Road had dried up when the Turks captured Constantinople in 1453.
So the Portuguese were exploring the African coast looking for a western route to China, and Columbus convinced the King and Queen of Spain that he could beat the Portuguese by sailing east. He promised to make them very, very rich, which is something Queens and Kings like even better than spices and silk.
Columbus promised gold, but in the course of his voyages he didn’t find much. So he switched to slaves, which were also becoming popular in Europe, with a regular trade developing along the Gold Coast of Africa.
Slavery had always enjoyed some popularity in Europe, but there was a new reason for the demand.
In the 14th and 15th century the Black Death swept Europe. One third to two thirds of the people died over the course of about 100 years. Historians still debate the numbers. The principal disease itself, bubonic plague, was only the beginning of the problem. Many farmers quit planting crops believing that the end times had come, so starvation ensued.
The germ-theory of disease was way off in the future, and whole towns-ful of Jews were murdered because they were thought to be poisoning wells.
Witchcraft was blamed, so witches were burned and cats were exterminated because they were obviously involved in witchcraft. My four cats and I have long thought that was one of the highest ironies of that era, since rat fleas were the carriers of the disease and cats were and are one of the most effective rodent control systems on earth.
The results of the Black Death were extremely beneficial for most survivors. There were a lot of empty houses. Demand for goods collapsed so prices fell. And labor was in short supply, so wages rose. Landlords desperate for workers were outbidding each other. Serfs who didn’t like their treatment simply left, knowing they could find other work. The first strikes occurred and in some places serfs revolted and took over whole towns and regions.
You can see why there was a burgeoning demand for slaves.
So when gold failed to materialize, despite the reasonable rule laid down by Columbus that natives would deliver set amounts of gold each year or have their arms cut off, jolly old Christopher started shipping slaves back to Spain.
Big problem. Over half of each boatload died en route, and the survivors didn’t last long. Other than the Vikings, way up north, there hadn’t been any contact between European and Asian germs and Western Hemisphere natives for tens of thousands of years. Bubonic plague, smallpox, measles, and other diseases for which Europeans and Africans had developed some immunity were lethal.
Columbus and crew also apparently took home syphilis, which was new to Europe. Not sure the Kings and Queens were wild about that.
Between cutting off arms, disease and horribly abusive slavery, Columbus and his followers quickly depopulated every island they visited.
This continued everywhere Europeans landed, and disease ran ahead of advancing troops and settlers, ravaging two continents. Cortez conquered the Aztecs before they took sick, but most Incas were dead before Pizarro arrived in Peru, and most North American tribes were felled before they ever saw a white face.
What to do? Well, one of the other things that Queens and Kings had taken a fancy to, and that the Turks had cut off, was sugar. Sugar cane had been domesticated in Asia a couple thousand years ago, and then the process for deriving sugar crystals was invented in India a thousand years later. Later still sugar cane was planted in Mesopotamia, but now the Turks controlled the candy and the candy store.
Portugal began growing sugar in Brazil, and then Spain and England recognized that conditions were perfect in the newly conquered islands. Soon the islands had been converted to huge monocrops of sugar cane, with smaller plantations of limes, which were also in short supply since the old lime groves were in Persia. Unfortunately the potential local workers were dropping like flies, so pretty quickly the same ships that delivered sugar to Europe were delivering African slaves to the islands.
Then someone invented the daiquiri. Actually, what happened is this. Fermented sugar cane had been consumed for thousands of years, but in the 17th century slaves in Brazil and the West Indies discovered that distilling the brew made it much tastier and of course, much stronger. Soon enough there was a thriving rum trade. Kings and Queens and nobles and tradesmen and everybody else who could afford it thought it was a great addition to the bar. Pirates and sailors liked it too.
It seems that sailors really couldn’t be trusted with barrels of rum and some of it inevitably disappeared en route. Worse still, pirates both enjoyed it and knew where to sell it.
There was another problem as well. Distillation requires a lot of fuel for boiling and fuel was getting scarce in the islands. But lo and behold, New England was covered in hardwood forests just aching to be clearcut for farmland and sheep pastures, and the wood was going to waste.
Soon molasses, which sailors didn’t drink and pirates didn’t steal, was being shipped in quantity to Boston, where it was converted into rum. In short order there was more rum than the locals could drink, although anyone who’s been to a Red Sox game might doubt that, and shiploads of rum were sent to Europe and Africa.
The sailors still drank some, but piracy is a lot less likely on a cross-Atlantic trip than sailing up the coast from the Indies to Boston. Poor Blackbeard was out of luck. Now the New England traders could exchange rum for slaves in Africa, whom they took to the Caribbean where they traded the slaves for molasses, and everyone was happy. Except the slaves, of course.
Although modern Americans mostly remember the Tea Act which resulted in the Boston Tea Party, and the Stamp Act which precipitated the American Revolution, we often forget that the first tax protests were against the Molasses Act, a tax on molasses from non-British colonies. This was a price support measure intended to force New Englanders to buy British molasses for their rum production. As with all such efforts, smuggling was the result. The American colonials mostly ignored the law.
In regard to the American Revolution, I’d also note that the Continental Congress borrowed huge sums of money from France in 1781 to keep the war effort going. Soldiers hadn’t been paid for months and were threatening mutiny, so one of the first military supply purchases was 300 barrels of rum.
Along the way, sugar also became more and more available, and was tremendously popular among the tea drinking English and their American colonists.
*So drill, ye tarriers, drill
And drill, ye tarriers, drill
Oh it’s work all day for the sugar in your tay
Down beyond the railway
So drill, ye tarriers, drill.*
In fact, over the years, it became abundantly clear to rulers around the globe that assuring their populations of a steady supply of sugar and other sweeteners, along with alcohol, was a very good way to dampen discontent and revolutions and other unpleasantness. When was the last time you were in a government office where the clerical desks didn’t sport candy dishes? And have you taken a good look at the amount of real estate in Ingles devoted to candy, cookies, soft drinks, beer and wine? Not to mention the corn sweetener in pretty much every prepared food item on the shelves. Sometimes we seem to act just like the hummingbirds at my hummingbird feeder, aggressively chasing each other away in order to protect our sugar supply.
Next came cotton. The invention of the cotton gin made large scale production possible, but picking cotton remained a manual task until the 1950s. So the well established slave trade began to supply workers to the American south. After the Civil War, sharecropping took the place of slavery, and due to a lack of opportunity elsewhere, the system continued to depress wages in the South until mechanization of farms and industrial growth in the North began to erode the sharecropping system.
During the Civil War somewhere between 650,000 and 850,000 men died, most from disease. I haven’t been able to trace the specific effect on wages of this enormous loss. However, the South lost more workers than the North, and plantation owners were soon complaining about a labor shortage. Adding to that was a sudden shift away from field labor by many black women, no longer slaves, who saw more benefit to their families in tending to children, raising and processing food for the home and so forth. Meanwhile, many northern widows entered the work force, which helped offset losses of labor there.
What is clear is that unions began to gain strength in the late 1800s, hundreds or thousands of labor strikes occurred each year, the National Guard and federal troops were often called in to break strikes, and many organizers were gunned down or executed. Populism and socialism found tens of thousands of advocates. In 1900 there were 2 million union members in America, less than three percent of the labor force. By 1920 that had risen to more than 12 percent.
Fifty years after the Civil War another plague swept the world. The flu pandemic, which was sometimes called the Spanish flu, though Spain had nothing to do with it. In the U.S. an estimated 675,000 died. Globally it killed more people in one season than the Black Death had killed in a century. Unlike the strains of flu we are familiar with today, it was most deadly for young adults, age 20-30, and so it had a tremendous effect on the labor force.
According to an in-depth study of the effect of the flu on economies, the resulting labor shortage drove up wages. Workers were less mobile in the 1920s than today, so wage rates were more local. In states hardest hit by the pandemic, the average income of survivors increased much more than in states where the disease was less prevalent.
During the 1920s powerful business interests fought off unions with open shop rules, like the ones still in place in North Carolina, but after the Depression unions successfully pressed for federal legislation and greatly improved wages and benefits for most American workers.
The pandemic was coupled with the devastation of World War I, in which somewhere between 9 and 15 million people died. Because the physical destruction never reached the United States, we benefited enormously in the aftermath, with industry taking up the slack in Europe. This was repeated again following WWII. Wages rose with the help of a strengthening union movement operating in a rising economy.
The greatest downward pressure on wages today is arguably mechanization. As one wag has it, the factory of tomorrow will be run by one man and one dog. The man is there to feed the dog and the dog is there to keep the man from touching any of the machines. Automation is coupled with global population growth and the ease with which employers can change location.
While factory jobs offered a way out of the south in earlier generations, leading most noticeably to the so called Great Migration of African Americans to the industrial north, today’s factory jobs require far fewer people. The new automobile factories across the South use robotics, and southern anti-labor laws keep wages low. Just like the poor whites who fought for the Confederacy, hoping to preserve the slave system that was helping to keep them poor, today’s southern voters keep voting for politicians who support labor laws that depress their wages. They seem to have forgotten where their sugar comes from.
Today’s living wage campaigns face enormous hurdles thrown up by both mechanization and politicians reliant on corporate donations. As Elizabeth Warren pointed out last February, “If the minimum wage had kept pace with productivity over the last several years, the minimum wage today would be $22 an hour. Productivity went up, but wages didn’t.”
In the same conversation, economist Robert Reich said, “I think that Sen. Warren’s $22 is certainly defensible, but it’s at least $15 an hour.”
According to Just Economics, based in Asheville: “A “living wage” is the minimum amount that a worker must earn to afford his or her basic necessities, without public or private assistance. In short, a living wage is the real, just, minimum wage.”
“The living wage for a single individual living in Western North Carolina for 2014 is $11.85/hour without employer provided health insurance, or $10.35/hour with health insurance provided by the employer.
While large companies are mostly very resistant to raising base pay, small businesses tend to be more in touch with their employees. Just Economics has certified well over 200 businesses in WNC as Living Wage Employers.
The cities of Asheville, Montreat and Weaverville have all adopted living wage rates for full time employees as well. In Asheville we even voted to make a living wage requirement part of all City contracts, but the General Assembly killed that idea last year, banning any pay restrictions in municipal contracts.
One of the early names for rum was Kill-Devil, memorialized in this state in the name of Kill Devil Hills, where the Wright Brothers first flew in 1903. The area got its name because shipwrecks were once common in the area and enterprising locals often salvaged barrels of rum which they then buried in the sand dunes for later recovery.
Interestingly, when Orville returned to Kill Devil Hills in 1911 to set a new world glider record, he glided into the wind for more than 10 minutes but made almost no forward progress. Looking at the plight of working people through the centuries, that could be said of the struggle toward a living wage. Sometimes the demand for increased wages and more benefits gets airborne, but the aircraft is as likely to move backwards and forwards.
Today in the United States the wealth gap, that is the disparity between the rich and the poor, is arguably the highest it has ever been. One percent of the people control 25 percent of the wealth, and globally the richest one percent own 45 percent of everything. In former colonial territories around the globe as fast as countries shook off colonial rule, powerful elites took over and diverted wealth to Swiss bank accounts.
In China and Russia communists once promised to level society, but when the old dictatorship model collapsed, the politically powerful engineered exactly the same result.
Meanwhile increasingly automated factories and farms need fewer and fewer workers, and industry moves around the globe to employ whichever work force will labor for the lowest price.
In conclusion, and playing the devil’s advocate, a not illogical conclusion one might reach is that the best hope for a general pay increase for the workers of the world is another devastating pandemic.
H1N1 anyone? (In sort of a call-and-response a few voices in the congregation added “Ebola?”)
*Yo Ho Ho and a bottle of rum.*