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The story of the Bristol Register has been colored from the outset by the social problem it professed to remedy. According to the September 1654 city ordinance that established this book of enrollments, it originated in response to the

many complaints…oftentimes made to the Maior and Aldermen of the inveigling purloining carrying and Stealing away boyes Maides and other persons and transporting them beyond Seas…without any knowledge or notice of the parents or others that have the care and oversight of them.[3]

Not surprisingly, these dramatic words have attracted the attention of nearly every modern writer who has discussed the ordinance or the Register.[4] But no one has asked what prompted these charges of man-stealing or whether they present a satisfactory explanation for the Register’s existence. An answer to the first question will show on reflection that they do not.

In September 1654, Bristol’s government had only one relevant case before it. It involved Farwell Meredith, an orphaned, runaway apprentice, who had importuned passage aboard the Dolphin of Bristol, bound for Barbados, and upon arrival had been sold as a servant to a planter there. According to a deposition given by several of the Dolphin’s crew, Meredith first came to the ship on 14 October 1653, when he was rescued from the tidal flats at Kingroad onto which he had ventured in his efforts to board the vessel. The following morning Marlin Hiscox, the ship’s carpenter, asked the young man whether he would go ashore, but, according to the crewmen, Meredith responded that “he would leape overboard rather than goe on shore and yt he would goe to ye Barbadoes where he said he had a brother.” With this the runaway entered himself into the “Merchants booke” by the name of John Chetwind of Gloucester, and only later at sea did he reveal his true name to be Meredith. When the Dolphin reached Barbados, Hiscox and John Blenman, the ship’s supercargo, put young Meredith in service in a plantation “according to the Custome of the Iland,” in return for which John George, the planter, promised Hiscox and Blenman a quantity of sugar. But Meredith refused to serve, saying “he would not worke for he did not come thither to worke for he was a gentlemans sonn & if he had thought he should have been sold he would never have come along with…Hiscox.” His refusal resulted in severe beatings from the planter. Meredith arrived in Barbados just before Christmas 1653. At about the same time, efforts began in Bristol to recover the young man. By July 1654, his guardian had initiated proceedings in the Bristol Mayor’s Court on actions of trespass and assault. The matter was still before the court on 11 September, when the last of a series of depositions was taken.[5]

Instead of a case of kidnapping in the strict sense of the word, what we have here is an allegation of “spiriting”—that form of treachery through which, according to contemporaries, countless men and women in the mid-seventeenth century were “enticed” or “seduced” into bonds of servitude in the plantations.[6] In this story, the runaway Farwell Meredith apparently learned only at the end of his journey of the custom of paying in service for passage to the colonies. But his case differs little in practice from the more common cases in which “spirits” gulled their victims into voluntarily sailing to Virginia or the West Indies with false tales of rich prospects upon completion of their service. In all these instances the hapless person found himself bound in a contract for labor which he had entered without his informed consent. There can be little doubt that “spiriting,” and perhaps also kidnapping, were sometimes practiced in mid-seventeenth-century Bristol. As early as 1644, for instance, an accusation arose against Michael Diggens, a Bristol mariner, for being “an old Roge” who “Cozened…many men and brought them out of the Country.” In the mid-1650s and early 1660s the Bristol archives record examples of nearly half a dozen man-stealers, kidnappers, and spirits.[7] But granting the prevalence of this evil and the widespread desire to crush it, the question remains: in September 1654 did the Bristol Common Council intend only to remedy this wrong, or did it have broader aims?

The ordinance established a simple arrangement for regulating the traffic in servants from Bristol. To prevent “mischeifes,” it required

all Boyes Maides and other persons which for the future shall be transported beyond the Seas as servants…before their going aship board to have their Covenants or Indentures of service and apprenticeship inrolled in the Tolzey booke as other Indentures of apprenticeship are and haue used to be and that noe Master or other officer whatsoever of any ship or vessell shall (before such inrolment be made) receive into his or their ship or vessell or therein permit to be transported beyond the Seas such Boyes Maides or other persons.[8]

However, this seemingly straightforward procedure conceals a rather puzzling fact.[9] By treating servants’ covenants as in the same class as indentures of apprenticeship, it placed them in a category of contract into which minors could freely enter without their parents’ consent.[10] Apprenticeship indentures were normally bipartite agreements, with reciprocal obligations made exclusively in the names of the master and the servant.[11] In the mid-seventeenth century, English law on this subject was clear and unchallengeable. Coke, in his Commentary upon Littleton, for example, laid it down as “common learning” that “an infant may bind himself…for his good teaching or instruction, whereby he may profit himself.”[12] Even though the courts held that ordinarily a master could not sue an underage apprentice for damages upon such a covenant, the indenture remained binding.[13] As the judges say in the case of Gylbert v. Fletcher (1630), if the servant “misbehave himself, the master may correct him in his service, or complain to a justice of the peace to have him punished.” In this fashion local police powers rather than private litigation insured the apprentice’s adherence to his covenants.[14]

Requiring indentures from all servants bound to the plantations might prevent future complaints of the type made by Meredith and his guardian, but it could neither halt the activity of “spirits” who chose to operate within the rules nor prevent the escape of runaways who chose to abuse them. At best, it placed only a minor obstacle in their paths. Provided the “spirit” had induced his underage victim into signing an indenture, no real hindrance stood in the way of transporting him beyond the seas to the complete ignorance of his family or master. Moreover, any runaway willing to conceal his past could easily avoid detection, as the Dolphin’s crew claimed Meredith had done. In 1654, therefore, the Bristol Common Council acted more to set the trade in indentured servants on a secure legal footing than to attack the evil of “spiriting” proper.[15]

The registration procedures themselves lend some credence to this view. Although servants usually appeared at the Tolzey to acknowledge their indentures as they were being drawn and enrolled,[16] nothing in the Bristol legislation required them to do so, and it was possible—as with apprenticeship—for the master to present indentures already in being for the clerks merely to enroll.[17] During some periods servants seem already to have been aboard ship when their indentures were presented, a fact which must have made seeking acknowledgment of the contracts no more than perfunctory.[18] Moreover, nothing in the Bristol ordinance demanded consent from parents or masters before indentures for underage servants could be entered, and the Bristol Register mentions such consent only once in all its ten thousand entries.[19] A master could even legitimately avoid bringing a servant before the clerks to acknowledge his indenture, “for feare of [his] running away.”[20] If the problem of runaways was the primary concern of the Bristol magistrates, these arrangements appear woefully inadequate to their task. The welfare of the servants hardly seems to have been what was at issue.

We also miss the point, however, if we look at the Bristol ordinance primarily as a means of securing the servant trade in the interests of the traders. The ordinance’s most salient feature, its lengthy enforcement clause, suggests that the Common Council’s main purpose was not to protect either servant or master, but to require the use of indentures by traders not otherwise disposed to employ them. The enforcement clause imposed a £20 fine on all ships’ masters who received servants for transportation before the enrollment of their indentures. Violators were to be punished either by distress and sale of their goods or by action of debt sued before the Mayor’s Court by the city chamberlain.[21] Those who informed against violators stood to gain one-quarter of the fine. Finally, the councillors provided that the water bailiff should from time to time

make strict and diligent search in all ships…after all Boyes Maides and other persons that are to be transported as Servants beyond the Seas and if vppon examinacon he find any such Boy maide or other person which haue not their…Indentures of service and apprenticeship so inrolled in the Tolzey booke as aforesaid then the Water bailiff shall immediately give an Accompt thereof to the Maior or some of the Aldermen who are desired…to take such speedy course therein as by Law they are enabled to doe.[22]

Presumably the water bailiff also stood to collect £5 for each fine that was recovered. No more thoroughgoing administrative arrangement for the enforcement of a local ordinance existed in mid-seventeenth-century Bristol.[23] The councillors clearly wanted each servant, of whatever age or description, to have an indenture, yet they expected some of the servants’ masters and some of the ships’ captains to resist the requirement. In order to see the significance of this simple administrative point we must turn our attention from legislative interpretation to political history.

The men who passed the servant ordinance of 1654 represented the same mercantile elite that had long dominated Bristol. They came from a narrow range of the city’s most lucrative occupations (Table 24). Of the twenty-one merchants who attended the council session on 29 September, some had themselves participated in the colonial trades during the 1650s (Table 25). However, most of them engaged much more heavily in traffic with Bristol’s main continental markets in France, the Iberian peninsula, and the Mediterranean. Only a handful of the councillors appear, directly or through their agents, among the dealers in servants. The council’s American traders—slightly over half the membership—primarily enjoyed the fruits of the import trade in sugar and tobacco, not the difficulties of the export trade in human labor. Of the twenty-four councillors who belonged to Bristol’s Society of Merchant Venturers, twenty had become members before the marked liberalization of admissions standards in 1646.

24. Occupations of the Common Councillors
Present and Voting on 29 September 1654
  No. Merchant Venturer Members
as of 29 September 1654[a]
Source: Bristol Record Office, Common Council Proceedings, vol. 5, p. 72, compared to Bristol Record Office, MS 04220 (1), and Society of Merchant Venturers, Wharfage Book, vol. 1. The occupations of council members are based on prosopographical research using wills, court records, apprenticeship and burgess books, and similar sources. Membership in the Society of the Merchant Venturers was established from Patrick V. McGrath, ed., Records Relating to the Society of Merchant Venturers of the City of Bristol in the Seventeenth Century (Bristol Record Society 17, 1952), pp. 27–32, 261. I am grateful to Dr. Jonathan Barry for his assistance in assembling the data from the Wharfage Book.
Merchant 21 20
Mercer-Linendraper 8 3
Woolendraper 2 1
Grocer 2  
Ironmonger 1  
Vintner 1  
Soapmaker 1  
Brewer 4  
    Total 40 24
25. Colonial Traders Among the Common
Councillors of 29 September 1654
Traders[a] Merchant
Source: Bristol Record Office, MS 04220 (1), and Society of Merchant Venturers, Wharfage Book, vol. 1, compared to Bristol Record Office, Common Council Proceedings, vol. 5, p. 72.
Certain 17 3 20
Possible 2 2 4
    Total 19 5 24

In order for us to understand what disturbed these men about the traffickers in servants, we need to return to the case of Farwell Meredith. The men responsible for “spiriting” Meredith to Barbados represent a nearly ubiquitous but largely unregulated element in Bristol’s mercantile community in the mid-seventeenth century. They were “interlopers” according to the Merchant Venturers’ definition. John Blenman, the Dolphin’s so-called merchant, was in fact a shipwright’s apprentice. His master, Richard Basse alias Philpott, probably owned all or part of the vessel and with it engaged in overseas commerce as an adjunct to his trade of shipbuilding. To the tradition-minded overseas merchant, such an individual threatened the stability of the market both at home and abroad and usurped the rightful place of the true merchant, whose skills alone assured a steady trade at reasonable prices. Marlin Hiscox, the Dolphin’s carpenter, symbolized an even greater challenge to the traditional commercial order. Unlike Basse, he did not enjoy the freedom of Bristol. Never having sworn the burgess oath, he possessed no ordinary trading rights within the city. The sugar that John George owed him for Meredith’s labor might as well have belonged to a foreigner or stranger who legally could bring goods to port only under economic restrictions.[24]

John Blenman, Richard Basse, and Marlin Hiscox were typical of the men who engaged in Bristol’s American trades in the 1650s. In contrast to the city’s traffic with the European continent, still largely in the hands of the Merchant Venturers, this trans-Atlantic commerce was not conducted primarily by traditional wholesale merchants. A broad spectrum of crafts was represented among the hundreds of individuals who indentured servants to themselves between 1654 and 1660. Judged by the entries in the Register, as David Souden has noted, “the whole Bristol trading community appear to have been involved in the trade of sending servants to the colonies.”[25] However, this is only part of the picture. As a practical matter, a profit could only be returned from the West Indies and the Chesapeake markets in the form of commodities.[26] In general, the shippers of servants seem to have initiated transactions as speculative ventures and were paid in colonial products only when they sold their cargoes in the colonies.[27] Fortunately, we can study the import side of Bristol’s trade with these markets by using the records of the wharfage duty kept by the Society of Merchant Venturers.[28] Viewed together with the Register of Servants, the wharfage records yield an astonishing picture of Bristol’s colonial trading community. Even the importers were far from being a body of traditionally trained merchants. In the two-year period after May 1654, when the Wharfage Books begin, four hundred and twenty-three individuals imported colonial sugar and tobacco. Thirty were women; some of these were themselves planters, but most were the wives or widows of mariners and shopkeepers who engaged in the trans-Atlantic traffic. Of the three hundred and ninety-three men, we know the occupations of three hundred and five. The vast majority were Bristolians, but on the whole they were not merchants. Somewhat surprisingly, only about 26 percent of the list can be identified with this occupation, at least as it is narrowly defined (Table 26). For the rest, soapboilers, grocers, and mercers were especially prominent among major retailers and manufacturers, and tailors, shoemakers, and metal craftsmen among those in the lesser trades. In the shipping industry, mariners, coopers, and shipwrights account for the majority of those engaged in the traffic.[29]

26. Bristol Traders with the American Colonies, 1654-1656
  Importers[a] Shippers of
Both Total
  No. % No. % No. % No. %
Source: Bristol Record Office, MS 04220 (1); Society of Merchant Venturers, Wharfage Book, vol. 1; the names were cross-checked with other sources, including wills, Merchant Venturer records, apprenticeship and burgess books, and the Bristol deposition books.
  Leading entrepreneurs
    Merchants 80 26.23[c] 34 15.11[d] 18 21.69 96 21.48
  Other leading entrepreneurs[e] 80 26.23 20 8.89 11 13.25 89 19.91
      Total 160 52.46 54 24.00 29 34.94 185 41.39
  Lesser crafts and trades[f] 30 9.84 11 4.89 5 6.02 36 8.05
  Gentlemen, professionals, etc.[g] 4 1.31 5 2.22     9 2.01
  Shipping industry[h] 100 37.79 121 53.78 41 56.63 180 40.27
  Planters 11 3.61 34 15.11 8 9.64 37 8.28
      Total known 305   225   83   447  
      Total unknown 88   5   1   92  
        Total 393   230   84   539  
Women 30   8   2   36  
      Total men and women 423   238   86   575  
Importers, 15 May 1656–24 March 1656/7 38       6   44  
      Adjusted total[i] 461   238   92   619  

The representation of Merchant Venturers among the colonial importers is also revealing. In all, only seventy-six importers of Virginian and West Indian commodities in this two-year period were associated with the Society at some point during their lifetimes, and only twenty-four had entered the organization before 1646. Twenty-nine became members only after 1656, eight of them after 1670 (Table 27). According to the Wharfage Book, many of the older members of the Society who engaged in trans-Atlantic commerce still bought sugar at Lisbon, while others who did not engage in colonial trade at all also frequented Lisbon for sugar.

27. Merchant Venturers Trading with the American Colonies, 1654-1656
Merchant Venturers Importers Shippers of
Both Total
Source: Comparison of Bristol Record Office, MS 04220 (1); Society of Merchant Venturers, Wharfage Book, vol. 1; Patrick V. McGrath, ed., Records Relating to the Society of Merchant Venturers of the City of Bristol in the Seventeenth Century (Bristol Record Society 17, 1952), pp. 27–32, 261.
Admitted before 1646 24 6 2 28
Admitted 1646–1656 23 5 5 23
Admitted after 1656 29 12 6 35
    Total[a] 76 23 13 86

If we analyze the exporters of servants during the first two years of the Register, we get a picture of trade dominated yet more heavily by those who were not Merchant Venturers. Men identified as merchants represent only about 15 percent of the servant traders, and the role of the Merchant Venturers was smaller still, amounting to only 10 percent of the total (see Tables 26 and 27). Although some of Bristol’s better-established overseas merchants, like Joseph Jackson, John Knight, and William Merrick, imported substantial quantities of colonial products in these years, such men did not dominate the colonial trades in the way they did the European ones. Instead, members of the shipping industry appear to have taken the largest share of the business (see Table 26).

These characteristics of the colonial trading community become even clearer when we consider trans-Atlantic commerce as a two-way traffic, with each shipment of servants resulting in a return cargo of sugar or tobacco. Between 30 September 1654 and 29 September 1656, two hundred and thirty-eight persons appear as masters in the Register of Servants, but only slightly more than a third of these traders imported any colonial products through Bristol from mid-May 1654 to late March 1657. During this overlapping thirty-four-month period, a total of six hundred and nineteen individuals traded with the American colonies, vastly exceeding the numbers who regularly traded in any way with Bristol’s traditional markets in Europe and the Mediterranean. But only ninety-two men and women, or about 15 percent, were two-way traders who exported servants as well as importing colonial sugar, tobacco, and other goods.

Since many of the importers must have sent manufactured goods and other items to the colonies rather than servants, the absence of their names from the Register of Servants should be no surprise. But how did the servant traders who, according to Table 26, appear to have done no importing manage their affairs? A number of possible explanations suggest themselves. Returns from the colonies may have gone to another English port, such as Plymouth or London, though no evidence of such a pattern has come to light. Perhaps some Bristolians sought to avoid English customs by bringing their imports directly to market in Europe, in violation of the Navigation Acts. If such illicit transshipments occurred we should find some evidence of them when the traders returned to Bristol with European goods paying wharfage duty. We find just the contrary. The vast majority of colonial traders rarely, if ever, imported continental commodities to the city.[30]

The true explanation of the imbalance between exporters of servants and importers of sugar and tobacco lies in the social organization, not in the economics of the colonial trade. Most of the “masters” who appear in the Register and not in the Wharfage Book must have been agents for principals who actually financed the trade, enjoyed its profits, and appear only in the Wharfage Book. Many of the figures designated in the Register as masters, such as Gabriel Blike, William Rodney, Henry Daniel, John Vaughan, and Robert Culme, in fact were apprentices acting as factors or supercargoes for their own masters, on whose account trading took place.[31] Blike, for example, shipped eight servants, mostly to Barbados, between 1654 and 1656 while he was apprenticed to Walter Tocknell, but imported no colonial goods during that time. Tocknell, by contrast, shipped no servants but imported large quantities of sugar and tobacco.[32] Seafaring men such as mariners, shipwrights, coopers, and surgeons, sailing aboard vessels bound for American waters, could offer the same service to those in Bristol who traded to the colonies less frequently or who could not spare an apprentice for the long journey.

This seafaring population represented a potential threat to the principles and practices of the traditional merchant. Ships’ crews had a long-standing right to conduct trade on their own account in the vessels on which they sailed, and, as we have just seen, many mariners took advantage of this custom to import colonial products in their own name. But the mariners’ privilege sometimes concealed illicit trade by non-freemen who merely used the good offices of sworn burgesses to escape restrictions imposed on the commerce of “foreigners.” As we know, from the Middle Ages onward this “colouring” of strangers’ goods had been roundly condemned as a violation of the spirit of the urban community. Every freeman took a solemn oath against the practice. Mariners, however, had strong incentives to violate this oath, if they had ever sworn it. Not only did they often lack the capital with which to conduct trade on their own, but they spent far too much time at sea to dispose properly of the goods they imported. By allowing other individuals to trade through them, they could profit from a privilege that they might otherwise never use. Sometimes the strangers for whom they colored goods were colonial planters. However, trade by resident non-freemen was a far greater challenge to the principles by which the mercantile community operated.[33] Young merchants, serving aboard ship as factors, supercargoes, or pursers, fell into a somewhat similar category. Although by custom they also could trade on their own account, even during their apprenticeship,[34] they often lacked the capital and the commercial outlets at home to take full advantage of the privilege. Hence they too might be tempted to color strangers’ goods, not only against local ordinances but against the interests of their employers as well.[35]

Bristol’s Merchant Venturers were acutely aware of the problems that the trading privileges of mariners and young merchant factors posed for the control of overseas trade. Their 1639 ordinances complained that mariners

have of late very often taken, vpon theire credit and other waies, divers goods and marchandice of great value, And carried the same…vnto the partes beyond the Seas, and in Returne thereof have brought home…divers other wares and marchandice…the most part thereof, without the leave, privitie, or knowledg of the Ouners of the said Shippes, or Marchants whoe tooke the saide Shippes to Fraight…Whereby his maiesty is much deceyved and the marchants disheartened in theire trade.[36]

For this reason, the Society forbade any ship’s captain or crew member from putting goods aboard his vessel without the specific approval of two of the chief laders and two of the chief owners. A fine of double freight was imposed for every violation. Moreover, the ship’s purser, under pain of losing his wages, was to inform his principals of the quantity and type of goods brought aboard by crew members. For their part, the factors and apprentices of Merchant Venturers were forbidden to act for “any Stranger or Forreiner not free of [the] Societie.” They were neither to lade any export goods on behalf of the ineligible traders nor to buy any goods abroad for them. The penalties imposed were heavy, amounting to over 15 percent of the value of goods for a first offense and over 30 percent for a second offense.[37] Nevertheless, judging by the number of non–Merchant Venturers in the Wharfage Books and Register of Servants, it is clear that these efforts had failed.

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A Shoemakers’ Holiday
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