About Ellen Hawley

Fiction writer and blogger, living in Cornwall.

Food: A quick history of the British curry

Nothing–as Brits are fond of saying with a straight face–is as British as a curry. 

The first time someone said that to me, I had to recover from the mental jolt of curry/India running its voltage through Britain/not India, but after that I could see the truth of it. Go into any small town in Britain (she wrote, as if she’d been to all of them) and you’ll find an Indian restaurant. 

Britain has 12,000 curry houses according to the BBC, which knows all–and probably more–so we’ll take their word for it. By way of comparison, Britain also has 47,000 pubs. That’s not entirely relevant, but with a little work I could make it sound as if it was.

Oh, hell, forget the numbers. Let’s indulge in a little food history.

Irrelevant photo: cistus

 

How did the curry get to Britain?

The first mention of curry in Britain dates back to the end of the sixteenth century: to 1598, if you want to be precise. To anchor that a bit, Queen Liz wasn’t dead yet but her mechanism was winding down and King James hadn’t yet trotted down from Scotland to sit–awkwardly, I’d think–on two thrones simultaneously, because Britain wasn’t Britain yet. England was England and Scotland was Scotland. Even once James owned them both, they had separate thrones and were separate countries.

[Acknowledgement: When I first posted this, I killed Elizabeth off a few years early. Thanks to April Munday, who caught my carelessness.]  

I throw that in partly to fill in the picture and partly because I haven’t been able to find anything more about that first mention of curry, so I’m distracting you from the blank space.

You’ll never notice. 

 

History and food collide 

Why was curry being mentioned in England? Well, the English East India Company (which when England and Scotland became Britain became the British East India Company) started out by trading with India from there moved on to taking it over piece by piece and governing it. 

I really do need to write a post about that. In the meantime, though, by way of a promissory note, we have curry. And the knowledge that England had extensive contact with India.

From the British point of view (which makes considerably more comfortable reading than the Indian one, since it doesn’t focus on the unpleasant stuff), that meant thousands of British men and women had lived and, more to the point, eaten in India. Some of them lived in grand style there, with Indian cooks and servants. Others weren’t as high up the colonialist ladder and would have met Indian food in less grand settings, but it was still Indian food, in all its stunning variety.

Inevitably, some of those Brits did their damnedest to recreate Britain on the dining room tables they sat at in India, but others noticed that Indian food had a range of tastes that pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold hadn’t prepared them for. Their taste buds woke up and understood that they’d been installed on the human tongue for a purpose, which was to taste things. And they wanted to keep doing that. 

It’s an odd thing how the contempt you need if you’re going to take over someone else’s country can coexist with admiration for parts of their culture, or at least for their cooking. But sometimes it does.

And no, the British didn’t really live entirely on pease porridge before they met Indian food. That’s from a nursery rhyme. But by comparison with the range of tastes Indian food offered them [biased writing warning here] they might as well have. So, many of the conquerors were primed to want Indian food after they returned home. British food had somehow become bland and boring.

And a few people did their best to recreate Indian food for them. As early as 1733, people could buy curry in London’s Norris Street Coffee House. 

How Indian was it?

My best guess is, not very, and I’m basing that on the first recipe for curry published in England, in 1747, when it appeared in The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy, by Hannah Glasse. In the first edition, the only spices were black pepper and coriander seeds. Let’s try not to be snooty about it. Spices were expensive. And Hannah had never been to India, so this was like someone painting a picture of an elephant when they’ve never seen one. (A later edition added turmeric and ginger.) 

It’s probably fair to say that even at this early stage curry had become a British dish, because I’m reasonably sure India would’ve disowned the stuff. Admittedly I’m not Indian and I don’t know Indian cooking in any depth. Comments, especially from people who are and do, are always welcome, as always.

Authentic or not, though, by the 1780s, a few London restaurants were selling curry and rice.

In 1810, Sake Dean Mahomed, who’d served in the East India Company’s army, opened a curry house, the Hindoostanee Coffee House, which tried to recreate India in London, complete with bamboo chairs, paintings of India, and a separate room for people who wanted to smoke hookahs. I get the impression that the food was more authentically Indian than it was in the more general restaurants that served curry. 

The Epicures Almanak described as a place “for the nobility and Gentry,” complete with an inexplicable capital G. 

But Mahomed had to compete with the already established curry houses and he went broke in 1812. https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/The-British-Curry/

Curry became popular enough that between 1820 and 1840, imports of turmeric (a central spice in curry) increased threefold. By the 1840s, it was popular enough that any damn fool could’ve told you that curry stimulates the stomach and invigorates blood circulation, which would lead to a more vigorous mind.  

Curry was also a good way to use up leftover meat, so whatever you thought of the health claims, it had a good, practical argument in its favor.

Then an 1857 mutiny against British rule soured the British attitude toward all things Indian. Englishmen (no mention of women–or the Scots, the Welsh, the Irish) in India weren’t allowed to wear Indian clothes. “Going native” was an insult–and eating curry was frowned upon. The upper classes abandoned it, although if you weren’t in fashion to start with you’d probably go on eating what you liked. 

That shifted, though, at least in Britain, when Queen Victoria became fascinated by India. What the hell, playing monarch over the place had elevated her from queen to empress, so why not be impressed with it? She lent Indian food some class among anyone who took that sort of thing seriously, thereby reviving the curry’s fortunes. 

In the early twentieth century, some 70,000 people from South Asia moved to Britain. A few high-end-of-the-market Indian restaurants opened in London. How are those two statements linked? I don’t know, but after World War II some of those migrants opened cafes and canteens serving their own communities. And another group of them–Bangladeshis, for the most part–opened restaurants aimed at the British market, selling food at prices working people could afford. Curry went enthusiastically downmarket. Among other things, the restaurants became places to stop and grab a meal when you staggered homeward from the pub. 

In recent years, curry’s been trying to go back upmarket, with expensive wine lists and menus that draw on India’s range of regional cooking.

Some 80% of Britain’s Indian restaurants aren’t owned or run by people from India. The owners are from Bangladesh and their food is from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. 

 

So how Indian is the curry?

You know what happens when a word from one language gets adopted into another, right? The pronunciation changes. Sometimes the meaning changes. After a while, it’s hard for the original language to recognize its offspring.

It happens to food too. People who have to sell it to a new public adapt it to suit their tastes. And to match the ingredients at hand. That happened to Indian food when it got to Britain.

According to a HuffPost writer whose name I couldn’t find on the article, curry isn’t Indian at all.  “ ‘Curry’ is not even a word in India. . . . There are a few specific dishes in India whose names sound like ‘curry.’ One is ‘Kadhi,’ and another is ‘Kari.’ Both of them are sauce-like with a gravy.” 

From one or both of those words, the British generalized and anglicized and used the word curry to mean anything vaguely Indian with a spiced gravy. It’s sort of like calling all noodle dishes spaghetti, our nameless author says. 

And just to prove that no one’s listening, HuffPost follows her article with a link to curry recipes.

Some days you can’t win.

What about curry powder? It takes, the writer says, a bunch of spices used in Indian food and dumps them all together, but no Indian cook would use them all. They’d use some and leave out others, depending on the dish. 

That means that using curry powder to get the flavor of Indian food is sort of like pouring all the words in the dictionary into your document and calling it a novel. The trick that real writers have learned is to select some of the words and leave others out.

I just let you in on the secret of good writing. Are you blown away?

But authenticity be damned, Britain had grabbed hold of the curry and it isn’t letting go.

Will the pandemic ever end?

The pandemic, it turns out, is not a war. It won’t end in either complete victory or in a negotiated treaty. That leaves us with no clear line between pandemic and not-pandemic. 

The consensus among public health experts and epidemiologists is that Covid will, at best, turn into a background danger, something that pops up in localized and seasonal outbreaks that we have to live with and work around. 

But that’s the best outcome, not the guaranteed one. Everything depends on how many people get vaccinated and what variants develop. And because no variant can be contained in one country or region, one country’s problem is every other country’s problem.

According to Alessandro Vespignani, professor of physics, computer science, and health sciences, “Vaccination of the low- and middle-income countries is the most altruistic thought and at the same time, the most selfish. Because we have to protect those populations so that we can protect us.” 

Irrelevant photo: The Bude Canal

So that’s a definite maybe on the pandemic ending, not a resounding yes. Pack away the trumpets, the confetti, the Mission Accomplished banners. That banner stuff looked a little silly anyway, back when Bush Jr. tried it. And keep your eye on what’s happening in the worst prepared countries, because what happens there will be knocking on your door and mine in no time at all.

 

More on long Covid

First, the disclaimer: There’s no one definition of long Covid, so if this all seems a little murky, that’s because it is. Long Covid’s symptoms range from the annoying to the life-changingly disastrous, and at this point they all get lumped in together. Some of them go away after a while and others get milder. Some do neither–they set up housekeeping. 

If that sounds ominous, allow me to make the picture worse:

Almost a fifth of the people who caught Covid infections but had no symptoms show symptoms “consistent with long Covid” a month after they got infected. In other words, people who had no symptoms may be going on to develop long Covid. 

And 27.5% of non-hospitalized people with symptomatic Covid did the same thing, as did 50% of the people who were hospitalized. 

That comes from an analysis of medical insurance claims by 1.96 million people in the U.S. The weaknesses of the study are that it didn’t have a control group and that it only studied people who had certain kinds of insurance. In the U.S., what kind of insurance you have says a lot about your class, which in turn says a lot about how Covid hits you.

Did I say “class”? Sorry. Everyone in the U.S. is middle class. It’s just that a very few members of the middle class are obscenely rich, some are doing fine, some are just hanging on, and some are long-term broke.

I’ve been away so long. I sometimes forget. 

But back to the study. Its strength is that it’s huge. 

But you can’t look at it and say, “This group of people definitely had long Covid.” On the other hand, with no solid definition of long Covid, it’s hard to look at any group of people and say that. At the very least, it’s enough to make us stop and think about what we’re dealing with in the long term. The pandemic is likely to leave us with a long-term public health problem, something individuals, families, health systems, and governments will all have to deal with.

The report also “drives home the point that long Covid can affect nearly every organ system,” according to Dr. Ziyad Al-Aly, chief of the research and development service at the Veterans Administration St. Louis Health Care System. “Some of these manifestations are chronic conditions that will last a lifetime and will forever scar some individuals and families.”

Just to keep from scaring ourselves witless, let’s remember that some of the manifestations (that translates to symptoms) aren’t likely to leave scars forever. No one seems completely sure of how wide and how deep the problem of long Covid will go. It scares the hell out of me, but there’s no point in getting so scared we can’t function anymore.

If, in fact, we ever did function (she said cheerily).

 

So when do we go back to normal?

England–or its government, anyway–has put off lifting the last of its lockdown rules. That makes the prime minister very sad. He wanted to let us know that we all live in paradise, have enough money to live well, and are at our ideal body weight. 

Yea, every last lumpy one of us.

The postponement came because multiple experts have been warning of a possible third wave. Last I heard, England’s R number–the rate at which the virus is spreading–was estimated to be 1.4. Anything above 1 means the number of infections is growing. The numbers aren’t high yet, but the direction’s not good. 

If we do have a third wave, it’s expected to be caused by the more transmissible and possibly more dangerous Delta version of Covid. The hope is that keeping those last restrictions for a while means there’ll be time to vaccinate more people, preferably with two doses of a vaccine, not just one. 

 

Vaccine updatelets

In the region at the center of Britain’s outbreak, vaccination numbers have dropped in the last month. I’d love to give you more detail, but the article’s behind a paywall on a site I don’t want to subscribe to, so it’s headlines only on this. 

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People working in care homes in England will have to get vaccinated in the next 16 weeks if they’re going to keep working with patients–or in some cases, keep working at all. The only exceptions will be people with a medical reason not to get the vaccine. No one knows how this will play out, but assorted organizations of medical professionals are opposing it.

The requirement may be extended to National Health Service staff.

“Compulsion is a blunt instrument that carries its own risks,” the British Medical Association said. An (unnamed) NHS boss said it was setting up a confrontation with staff “at a time when you’re denying them a decent pay rise but also saying how much you love them.”

Both fields already have staff recruitment problems. That have been made worse by Brexit. And low pay. And at least in the NHS, pandemic working conditions. 

In early June, 89% of NHS staff was at least half vaccinated and 82% fully vaccinated. In adult care homes, that was 83% and 68%. 

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A new vaccine, this one made by Novavax, has come through stage 3 trials showing 90.4% effectiveness against mild and moderate Covid and 100% effectiveness against severe cases. It was tested against the Alpha, Beta, and Gamma variants. The Delta variant overslept and missed the test.

Delta will receive a failing grade but will be eligible to take the test the next time it’s scheduled. A spokesperson for the variant said, “Delta has other priorities at the moment and will be in touch when its schedule allows. It has no further comment at the present time and will not take questions.”

The Novavax is a two-dose vaccine. 

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A small study dropped hints that a third Covid vaccine does might give transplant patients a better immune response. People with transplanted organs have to take drugs that suppress their immune systems in order to keep their transplants from being attacked by the aforesaid immune systems. Two doses don’t seem to be enough to rev up their Covid immunity.

A larger study is planned. In the meantime, the people who understand these things are feeling hopeful.

 

How well are China’s vaccines working?

China is exporting two vaccines, and although they’re less effective than the gold standard vaccines like Pfizer and AstraZeneca, they do work. Sinopharm is 78% effective and Sinovac is somewhere between 50% and 78%. I’m not sure why the range is so large there. Sorry. And while I’m apologizing, apologies for not having a link on this. It’s from an email newsletter the New York Times sends out. It usually has links. Maybe I’m being particularly dense today.

There’ve been questions about the vaccines, especially after vaccinated people in the Seychelles became infected, but they do seem to be useful. In the Seychelles, when vaccinated people got Covid they had mild cases and recovered at home. It’s not what we’d all hope for, but it’s a lot better than being hospitalized. Or dying. China says it can make 5 billion doses a year. The U.S. has promised to donate 500 million doses of other vaccines (I don’t think they’ve specified which) to poorer countries. Britain has promised 100 million. 

The world’s population–since this is relevant to the discussion–is 7.6 billion. Or it was in 2019. I haven’t counted it since. I did try last month but I lost track somewhere around 5 billion and didn’t have the heart to start over. The vaccine rollout in poorer countries is beyond dismal. The vaccines are going to rich countries and poor ones just can’t get them.

So weigh 600 million against 5 billion, then weigh both of those against the number of countries that can’t get hold of any useful amount of vaccine and it makes the two Sino- vaccines appealing. 

Irrelevant photo: a rose

Not much is known yet about how well they protect against the variants. There seems to be some reduction against the Beta and Gamma variants, but that’s still not solidly established. 

China, having gotten off to a slow start in vaccinating its population, is now working at high speed. 

I had links for all that and have succeeded in losing them. Apologies.

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Early reports are that mixing vaccines–I think they were playing mix-and-match with the Pfizer and AstraZeneca, although the Moderna might have slipped in as well–may make them more effective, and Canada and a few European countries have started doing that. 

 

How times have changed

To boost the number of people getting vaccinated, Washington State is allowing marijuana retailers to offer a free joint to anyone who can show proof that they’ve had either their first shot or second shot. Or both at once. What the hell. If the stuff they’re offering is strong enough, who can count that high?

It also allows other businesses to offer a beer, a cocktail, or a glass of wine. Arizona and New Jersey have done similar things. Other states are running lotteries.

What are they up against in their effort to promote the vaccine? People who think getting vaccinated will cause keys to stick to their faces and forks to–

I stopped listening right about there, so I’m not sure where the forks stick. I’ve heard of food that sticks to your ribs, but we seem to have entered new territory here.  

Whether or not you’ve been vaccinated, plastic forks will not attack you. Covid restrictions allowing, you can go back to the food courts.

Antiviral drug update

If an antiviral drug that’s in late-stage testing works–and that’s not guaranteed–it could stop a Covid infection in its early stages. It could be available by the end of 2021–again, if it works.

With all those coulds in there, that sentence has a lot of wiggle room. Still, as everything we read lately says repeatedly, it could (there’s that word again) be a game changer. 

Cards? Jenga? A football team crashing through the front door and out the back?

The drug is one of several attempts to tackle Covid by treating the infection rather than vaccinating people, so let’s not bother to name this particular one and instead hope one of them comes through. Even the people weren’t cranking themselves up to be afraid of flying forks might accept this.

Or possibly not. It’s gotten so crazy out there that I’ve given up trying to predict where we’re headed.

Indentured labor in the British Empire

Abolishing slavery left Britain with a problem: How was it going to produce sugar without lowering profits? 

Because of the second part of that sentence, I don’t think paying a livable wage entered into the conversation. 

This was an issue for both planters and theBritish government itself, because sugar was a huge part of the economy. And the monied class that owned the plantations was a huge part of the government. You know the old saying, money talks? Well, it doesn’t have a physical voice, but it does this odd way of amplifying the voices of people with a lot of it.

Last week, if you’ll stretch your minds back to that distant time, now passing almost into myth we looked at the apprenticeship system that, for a while, replaced–and closely reproduced–slavery in the Caribbean colonies. This week, lucky us, we come to indentured labor, which replaced it more widely and for longer. 

Irrelevant photo: geranium

 

Indenture

Britain abolished slavery in 1833 and the first indentured laborers arrived in British Guiana in 1836. They were from India, and Indian indentured laborers were also sent to Fiji, Natal, Burma, Ceylon, Malaya, British Guiana, Jamaica, and Trinidad–to nineteen countries in all. Eventually indentured workers replaced enslaved Africans on plantations throughout the British Empire. 

Was I bullshitting you about the government being involved? Sorry, but no. According to the National Archives, the secretary of state for the colonies, Frederick Stanley, known as Lord Stanley by his nearest and dearest, ordered the scheme.

Scheme, in American English, has an unpleasant whiff of sneakiness, but as far as I can tell it doesn’t in British English. British governments introduce schemes all the time and are happy to brag about them, and this was very much a government project. British colonies–which is to say, plantation owners–had appealed to the government for help and it ordered and approved the plan. The whiff you’re picking up isn’t one of sneakiness but–forgive me if I use an old-fashioned word here–exploitation.

Initially, Guiana’s indentured workers were treated pretty much the way slaves had been–as they were elsewhere, but I happened onto a small stash of detail about Guiana. Their contracts were for five years, and during that time they couldn’t leave the plantations where they worked. They were paid 1 shilling a day. I can’t tell you what a shilling’s buying power was, but the National Archives calls it a pitiful sum. 

Those who didn’t work were left to starve.

If they were found to have breached their contract in any way, they faced automatic penalties: two months in prison and a £5 fine. 

How many shillings in a pound? Twenty. So the fine was more than three months’ pay. 

A special magistrate in British Guiana wrote that the laborers were “with few exceptions . . . treated with great and unjust severity, by overwork and by personal chastisement.” And historian Hugh Tinker wrote that, “the decaying remains of immigrants were frequently discovered in cane fields.” 

Importing contract labour from India was suspended in 1840. They tried importing Europeans but couldn’t find enough willing people, and the plantation owners pleaded with the government for a new supply of labor. Freddy Stanley tried recruiting Chinese workers from Malacca and African workers from Sierra Leone, but again they couldn’t round up enough people and turned back to India, this time under an new act setting out minimum standards for housing, food, clothing, and pay. 

How well those standards were enforced is–in the absence of a source I didn’t manage to find–anyone’s guess. The plantations were a long way from governmental supervision, and that’s assuming that the government officials had the will to enforce standards. 

A hefty proportion of indentured labor involved Indian workers and the sugar industry, but the Transvaal gold mines brought 64,000 indentured workers from China, and in Australia the indentured workers were Aboriginal and from the South Sea islands.

 

A nasty little bit of economic and political information

In 1846, Britain got rid of a tariff that had kept the domestic price of sugar up and prevented non-British colonies from selling sugar cheaper than the stuff produced in British colonies. That lowered the cost inside Britain, making it a popular move, but it also meant that British colonies were competing against sugar produced by slave labor, which put pressure on the indenture system to be more like slavery. Not, I suspect, that plantation owners needed much of a push, but it’s worth mentioning all the same.

Doesn’t studying history make you feel good about your fellow humans?

 

Recruitment in India

Until 1858, India was run by the British East India Company, making it a huge country governed by a corporation from a much smaller country. 

Give yourself a minute to take that in.

Between 1834 and the end of World War I, India was Britain’s recruiting ground for indentured laborers. To put that in human terms, my father would have fought in World War I if his parents had agreed to sign for him–which fortunately for me (and him) they didn’t. It’s not much more than a hundred years ago. 

This is not ancient history. It’s not all that far outside of living memory.

Why was India such a fertile recruiting ground? The simple answer is desperation, poverty, famine. Land that had been in Indian hands had, with the country under British control, miraculously, found itself in the hands of British owners. Famine was no longer uncommon. 

Most recruits were from the lower castes, but not all. 

By way of an example, take the people who worked on the indigo plantations. In the off season, they’d migrate to towns and cities looking for work, and recruiters would pick them up, lie to them about where they were going, the length of the trip, and the work they’d be doing, and get them to sign a contract. Or since most of them couldn’t read, put their thumb prints on one, with no idea what it really said. Then they’d be held in depots until a ship was ready. 

They were called coolies, and if the word didn’t start out as an insult it became one quickly enough. 

Conditions at sea were bad enough that in 1856-57, 17% of the Indian workers travelling to the Caribbean died on the way. In 1870, 12% died on the way to Jamaica and to Mauritius. 

To understand the mindset of the people who established, ran, and profited from the system, consider what the recruitment firm Gillanders Arbuthnot & Co wrote to a planter who was considering using it. Its recruits, it said, had “few wants beyond eating, sleeping and drinking.” It said the Adivasi, the indigenous people of India, were “‘more akin to the monkey than the man.”

In the fifty years between 1860 and 1910, 150,000 indentured Indian laborers went to Natal–now part of South Africa–to work on the sugar plantations. So many indentured laborers went to Mauritius that the Indian community now accounts for two-thirds of the population.

They were promised pay, sometimes land at the end of their contract, and in some cases passage home. What their contracts promised would have varied over time, but one source says that the promises often weren’t met. 

 

Australia

Australia’s history is different but it borrowed the indenture system. Starting in 1863, it brought in some 62,000 South Sea Islanders to work on sugar plantations. Some went by choice and others were kidnapped, coerced, or lied to. Their conditions weren’t particularly different from slaves’. They were kept apart from the rest of the population and their languages were banned. Between malnutrition and exposure to European diseases, some 15,000 died within a year. 

The practice continued for forty years. Then in 1901 most of them were deported–and their deportation was funded by their own pay, which the Queensland government had appropriated.

 

The Kenya-Uganda Railway

Indian indentured laborers built the Kenya-Uganda Railway, and 7% died before their contract was up. Many tried to escape but were recaptured and imprisoned, and some had their contracts doubled to ten years.

Many contracts specified that workers would be returned home, and the majority did return, but some stayed, especially women who–according to one article–had left home after a disagreement with their parents and might not be welcomed back into the family.

 

The end of indentured labor

Throughout its history, the indenture system was under attack by the same people–or the same sorts of people–who’d campaigned against slavery and defended by the same sorts of people who’d defended slavery (including the write the novelist Anthony Trollope, for whatever that shippet of information’s worth). And it was under attack from indentured workers themselves, who went on strike, who fled, who–sorry, what’s the verb for staging an uprising? Uprose? They resisted in whatever ways they could. Unfortunately, although I can find references to all that, they’re light on the specifics.

It also came under attack by Indians from higher castes and classes, who found that in the colonies they were swept into the same category as indentured workers. 

Toward the system’s end, opinion in India was turning against it, and one reason it was ended was to improve Britain’s image there.

Of course–she added cynically–another factor was the sugar industry’s increased reliance on sugar beets instead of cane.

Britain formally abolished indentured labor in 1917, although it carried on for some years after that. The last ship carrying indentured laborers left for Mauritius in 1924.

By then, over a million Indians had been sucked into the system.

Fighting Covid: the useless gestures and the useful ones

An article in a Canadian medical journal notes that the country’s Covid prevention advice hasn’t caught up with the current knowledge about how the disease spreads. It’s airborne, so the advice, the article says, should focus on ventilation, filtration, and better masks. 

Having recently been at a meeting where before going home we dutifully sprayed and wiped the furniture, even though it’s pointless–

Yeah. How many other people are ending meetings that way? It’s like sanitizing our hands when we walk into a shop. It’s not a useful way to keep Covid from spreading, but it’s basic politeness these days–one of those many meaningless gestures that you do to keep from scaring people.

Irrelevant photo: I wish I could tell you what this is. It’s one of a whole set of large white wildflowers that I’ve never been able to tell apart. They don’t look all that much alike, but somehow I just can’t sort out large white flowers.

A fair number of people seem to think of masks the same way, putting on masks only when other people come in, even though if they have any virus to share the breathing they did when they were alone in the room would go a long way toward sharing it.

At the meeting, we did at least open the windows, keep a decent distance, and wear masks, although not all the masks covered all the relevant body parts. You have to hope people do better with the placement of their underwear. 

As far as I know, Britain’s advice hasn’t caught up with what’s now known any better than Canada’s has.

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Someone I know likes to tell me, with great confidence, that face masks funnel air–along with whatever germs the wearer’s sporting–off to the sides and from there to whoever’s behind the wearer. 

Okay, when I say “likes,” what I mean is “seems to like,” basing that on how often she talks about it. Maybe it’s just that my caution annoys her. I have that effect on some people.

So allow me to smugly report on a new study that measured the leakage from the sides of everyday masks. These weren’t the surgical masks that are made to have a tight fit but the ones civilians buy and, with luck, wear. They reduced the escape of particles–and that would include the Covid virus if it’s present–by an average of 93% They reduce escape from the bottom by 91%, from the sides by 85%, and from the top by 47%.

The moral of this story is that if you’re worried about masks funneling the virus toward you, do not lie on top of a mask-wearer’s head. 

You’re welcome.

The protection’s best when both people are wearing masks.

Covid and kids

During the first half of 2020, no one had reliable information about Covid’s effect on kids. Early reports on the hospitalization rate among kids spanned a jaw-dropping range from 5.7% to 63%. Estimates of its impact ranged from “it’s no worse than the flu” to fears that kids’ immature immune systems would be overwhelmed.

What can I tell you? It was new on the scene and they were working with limited information. 

So now there’s a study of 242,000 kids and adolescents from five countries who’ve been diagnosed with Covid. It compares them with 2 million who’ve been diagnosed with the flu.

What do we now know?

Epidemiologist Talita Duarte-Salles said, “It was a relief to see that fatality was rare, but clearly both complications and symptoms showed the COVID-19 was no flu in children and adolescents.” To translate that (forgive me: I just have to), kids aren’t likely to die of it, but the symptoms and complications can be serious.

We’re switching sources here, so bear with me. I had a very useful article on this that I accidentally deleted and now can’t find, so I’ll slip backwards to a somewhat less useful one that came out in April. It has estimates for the number of kids who had Covid symptoms five weeks after they were diagnosed. 

The percentages clearly aren’t of all kids, and I’m reasonably sure it’s not of all kids diagnosed with Covid. Let’s put our chips on the number of kids who got symptomatic Covid. Five weeks after they were diagnosed, 12.9% of kids between 2 and 11 still had symptoms, as did 14.5% of kids between 12 and 15 and 17.!% of teenagers and young adults. That’s a bizarre set of age categories, since the last one includes one of the earlier ones plus a few other random folks. 

Don’t worry about it. Any statisticians who accidentally read Notes have long since fled.

Another study followed 129 children who’d had Covid and found that 52.7% had at least one symptom four months later.

Some of the individual stories are frightening. They’re typical–they’re rare–but they do happen and it’s important to know that. One nine-year-old developed long Covid that included severe fatigue, sensitive skin, painful rashes, headaches, and indigestion. She lost her senses of taste and smell. Another–also a nine-year-old–had slurred speech, tremors, and brain fog. He became so weak that he had to use first a walker and then a wheelchair.

Again, none of that is typical, but as the epidemiologist said, this is not the flu.

How long does Covid immunity last?

This is still up for grabs, but the Covid vaccines–or some of them anyway–may not need yearly booster shots. Or may only need them every few years. 

To understand this, you have to know that the body’s immune system is a hierarchy.

Well, no, it isn’t really, but it’s a workable way to think of it. At the bottom are the antibodies, which swarm in and kill things, and they get most of the press because they fly flags and have marching bands and we notice that. But they don’t have long memories, so we have to worry: If the same enemy–in this case, Covid–comes back, will they recognize it?

Above the antibodies, though, are other bits of the immune system–plasma cells, memory B cells, memory T cells–and they have longer memories and they’re the bits of the system that crank up the antibodies, show them pictures, say, “That’s what the enemy looks like,” and send them out to kill and die.

It’s not a nice world out there. Or in here, on the inside of our bodies. 

Irrelevant photo: a poppy

Immunologists also have long memories, and they’ve been busy working out how long Covid immunity lasts, both after an infection and after vaccination. The answer depends on understanding the actions and interactions of all those different ranks. 

They’d also, I’m sure, hate my explanation of how this works.

The unpredictable element in all this is the rise of Covid variants. So far, they haven’t outrun our immune systems or the vaccines, but some variants do slow them down. 

The primary sign that a variant’s gotten faster than the vaccines will be if a whole lot of vaccinated people suddenly come down with Covid. 

I know, that’s not the way we’d like to get the news–a telegram would be better–but like I said, it’s not a nice world out there.

Assorted trials are underway, testing booster shots and testing the effect of mixing vaccines. It will be up to individual countries to decide if boosters are needed, but work’s underway in case they do.

*

In the meantime, studies from northern Italy, which was the first part of Europe to be hit hard by Covid, say that immunity lasts at least a year and may last longer, only there hasn’t been time yet to find out. Reinfection is rare. But the experts are still urging people who had the disease to get vaccinated. It will boost their protection and make them more likely to resist variants. 

As for the vaccines, they’re protective for at least a year and possibly for a lifetime. 

Michel Nussenzweig, an immunologist at Rockefeller University, said, “People who were infected and get vaccinated really have a terrific response, a terrific set of antibodies, because they continue to evolve their antibodies,” Nussenzweig told The Times. “I expect that they will last for a long time.”

 

So that’s the good news out of the way. Let’s have some bad news for dessert.

The Delta variant (no I don’t know why we capitalize Delta; I do it because the papers do) is now the dominant U.K. variant. As many as 75% of the new U.K. cases may be Deltas. That’s the variant formerly known at the Indian variant, or B.1.617.2, but India changed its name to Delta and the variant’s followed along behind.

No, you really shouldn’t believe everything I say.

Annoying as the name changes are, it’s a good thing, given the human propensity for stupidity in the form of blaming other countries and peoples whatever goes wrong, that they’ve stopped naming variants after countries. Unfortunately, it’ll take some of us a while to catch up. 

So. Delta variant. Dominant strain in U.K. It seems to carry a higher risk of hospitalization (2.61 times higher) than the Alpha variant, formerly known as the Kent or British (or U.K, or English) variant. 

Sorting out the U.K.’s name is a constant problem, so I look forward to the time when the country changes its name to Alpha. It’ll be much simpler to write about. And since Alpha’s the first letter of the Greek alphabet, it should keep the nationalists happy.

Yay, Covid! We got there first!

Where were we?

The number of hospitalized Covid patients in Britain is small right now, as are the number of cases, but the number of cases is growing slowly. The worry is that this is the start of a trend.

Working against that is vaccination: 73% of the Delta cases are in people who haven’t been vaccinated. Two doses are a good protection, although not as good as against the Alpha variant. One does, though, is 17% less effective against the Delta variant. 

In the meantime, schools and colleges (if you’re American, British colleges stand somewhere between American high schools and American colleges) in England are responsible for a good deal of the spread

Why them? Partly because they collect a whole bunch of people who aren’t priorities for the vaccination programs–or even eligible for vaccines–and jam them together. Preferably in badly ventilated rooms where they nod off gently while trying to absorb important information. And also because the government lifted its mask mandate for secondary schools. That did affect primary school students because they were always considered too young to locate their noses and mouths. Adults are, demonstrably, still having trouble with that. 

Why did it lift the mandate? I’m still struggling with that one. The best I can do by way of an explanation is to suggest that they thought it would make people happy. Also possibly because they’re idiots. 

No, I don’t know. But they did, ignoring the complaints of teachers and school staff–or at least of the unions that represent them. 

That leaves repeated testing as the only way to control school outbreaks, and the number of tests (at least in secondary schools) seems to be decreasing. The government’s approved one of the vaccines for teenagers, but as far as I know that’s as far as things have gone.  

Again the number of cases isn’t huge. The fear, though, is that this is the beginning of a wave, not a few little splashes of water against the sand. It’s too early to tell.

 

So what’s the government doing? 

Well, it’s taken Portugal off its list of green countries and added it to the list of amber ones, meaning people coming into Britain from Portugal will now have to self-isolate when they get home. 

Self-Isolation? That’s quarantine on the honor system. Green and amber? They’re traffic lights. You know: Stop, go, look at the yellow light and get confused. 

All this matters because (a) the government made a lot of noise at one point about opening up foreign travel this summer and (b) some of the trashier newspapers made even more noise about it. We all want to be happy, happy, happy, so let’s declare the pandemic over.

In addition to moving Portugal off the green list, the government also moved seven countries from the amber list to the red one, so people coming from them will have to go into serious–and expensive–quarantine. 

But the story the country’s focused on isn’t the seven moves from amber to red but Portugal’s lone move from green to amber. The official explanation for it is that returning travelers risk bringing more variants home. 

So what variants is this preventing? The Delta variant–remember the Delta variant? The one that’s become dominant in Britain? Well, it’s picked up a mutation, one that’s happened before. It was seen in the South African variant (which came along too early to get itself a Greek letter). And that new mutation’s been seen in 12 cases in Portugal. 

It’s also been seen in 36 cases in Britain, so it might make more sense to quarantine travelers from Britain when they arrive in Britain but where’s the fun in that?

The last I heard, the mutation hadn’t been flagged as dangerous, although I wouldn’t say that’s definitive. Public Health England hasn’t tagged it a variant of concern, only a spike mutation of interest.

Actually, I’m in favor of being cautious about everything connected to Covid. The idea of promoting tourism right now is somewhere between stupid and criminally irresponsible. It’s the murky thinking that gets to me. First they crank people up about travel, then they try to keep out a mutation that’s already here. 

 

And what do we call the new mutation?

The new mutation is now being called–at least in Britain–the Nepal variant because the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, called it that in a press conference. Thanks, Grant. The don’t-blame-this-on-other-countries campaign appreciates your support. 

There is some marginal logic to linking it to Nepal, although it’s marginal enough that after I’d spent half an hour trying to explain it I looked at the hole I’d dug and gave up. It was pretty deep by then and I was worried about getting back out if I kept on. I’ve written to Nepal, suggesting that it change its name to Epsilon.

There’s no clear line between a mutation and a variant, so we don’t have to worry much about that.

 

Yeah, but what about the green list?

The countries left on the green list (last I checked) are Australia; Brunei; Falkland Islands; Faroe Islands; Gibraltar; Iceland; Israel; New Zealand; St Helena, Ascension, and Tristan da Cunha; Singapore; and South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands.

But any number of those countries aren’t accepting random British tourists, including Australia, New Zealand, Iceland, and the Falkland Islands. And Israel and Singapore sound less than thrilled about them, although I’m not sure that’s an outright ban. I should’ve done better research but I had to close the computer and feed the cat. As far as I can figure out, though, an awful lot of those green list countries are closed to British tourists.

It doesn’t sound like the list means much, does it? British tourists are welcome to come home from countries they can’t get into. Yes, friend, we’re on the other side of the looking glass here, and if you’ll pass around the slices of cake Alice will be happy to cut it as soon as you’re done. 

Think of the money those non-tourists will save by not going anywhere.

What happened after Britain abolished slavery?

We’re living through a time when one part of Britain is talking about slavery’s role in making the country a world power and another part is accusing the first part of rewriting history and also of being politically correct and no fun at all. But we’re going to skip over the argument and look at the history itself. 

Britain abolished slavery before its former thirteen colonies and takes some official pride in that, and in the role of its abolitionists, but history’s always being rewritten, otherwise we could have one book on every topic and call it enough. So let’s look at one of the less acknowledged things the British Empire did after it abolished slavery. (That was in 1834, since you asked). Because the story of slavery doesn’t end with abolition. 

Screamingly irrelevant photo: Thrift. I have no idea why it’s called that.

 

The apprenticeship system

When slavery ended, Britain’s Caribbean colonies shifted to an apprenticeship system, which basically said to the slaves, Look, you’re now free, but you’re also so ignorant you need years-long apprenticeships to teach you the ways of freedom. During that time, of course, you’ll work for your former masters and get paid nothing. You don’t know how to handle money anyway. And your former masters will still be your masters, but this is different from slavery because–

Oh, let’s not worry about the details. You wouldn’t understand the subtleties.

Most of the sources I’ve read repeat the system’s rhetoric about getting the slaves used to freedom. It’s the justification was used at the time. One source, though–an academic paper–talks about it as a way for the slaves to buy their freedom from their masters by working forty-five unpaid hours a week for their former masters. That was the behind-the-scenes rhetoric. 

That would’ve been in addition to the money Britain paid slave owners as compensation for having let their property walk free. 

After their forty-five hour weeks, the former slaves could work for themselves or for someone who’d pay them. 

Field slaves would be apprenticed for six years and house slaves for four. 

Why the difference? Not because one group needed more training than the other but because the work of the field slave was more important to the economy. Sugar plantations were central both to the economies of both the colonies and Britain itself. Many a respectable British fortune came from the sugar plantations run by slave labor.

Former slave children under six were freed immediately. 

That’s good, right? 

Well, no, because if you give children under six enough time they become children over six, and as soon as that happened the kids entered into apprenticeships that would last not four years and not six years but until they were twenty-one. 

Many former slaves refused to work as apprentices, at which point the justice system, in the form of local magistrates, stepped in. And who were the local magistrates? People of stature in the community, of course, which is to say planters. Which is to say former slave owners–the people who’d lose money if the former slaves refused to shift quietly into the new system and work for free as apprentices. 

Magistrates could and did impose flogging–a punishment widely used under slavery–or a new punishment, the treadmill, which involved strapping a person to a bar so that their feet had to keep a drum rotating. If they didn’t keep it rolling, it would hit them, hard. A governmental commission sent from Britain to investigate conditions called it an instrument of torture.

Antigua and Bermuda skipped over the apprenticeship system–not for noble motives but because slave owners realized they could make more money by freeing their slaves immediately, paying them a very small daily wage, and leaving them to  feed and house themselves as best they could on the inadequate amount they were paid. Since sugar plantations dominated the economy, other jobs were somewhere between hard and impossible to come by and people were trapped. So slavery ended and–

Have you ever read about wage slavery and rolled your eyes at the overblown rhetoric? Antigua and Bermuda could make a person regret that eye roll. 

 

The end of the apprenticeship system

The apprenticeship system was abandoned early, in 1838, and the former slaves were granted their full freedom. That was due in part to the resistance that former slaves put up, which ranged from “disquiet” and “unrest” to full-scale rioting. Not a lot is written about that–at least not that I found–but at one point St. Kitts declared martial law. Much more is written about abolitionists who shifted over to campaign against the apprenticeship system, and they tend to get the credit for the system’s early end. To historians in Britain, they were more visible than the rebels, and more familiar, and they left a kind of documentation that the rebels couldn’t. 

In Jamaica, where land was going uncultivated, many freed slaves abandoned the plantations and took over what was considered waste land. In other parts of the Caribbean, though, there was no waste land to be had and no alternative to working on the plantations at whatever wage was offered. 

Yes, I do regret that eye roll.

When Covid proximity sensors go wrong

Wanting to be responsible journalists–and responsible bureaucrats who are responsible for responsible journalists–the BBC bought proximity sensors in January. Thousands of them. They were to protect the newsroom staff during the pandemic. Because not everyone could work from home. Some of them had to show up, so they’d wear these gizmos and if anyone got too close to anyone, they’d scream.

Not the people, the sensors. 

It was a great plan, and it worked: The sensors screamed. Especially when people were recording. You know: “This afternoon in Birmingham–” 

“Nyeee-ah, nyeee-ah, nyee-ah.”

Take two.

“This aftern–”

“Nyeee-ah, nyeee-ah.”

Before long, most people had stopped using them. Not everyone, though, because one started smoking and threatened to set itself on fire. Why? No other sensors were being around to scream at and it lost its sense of purpose and became suicidal. 

Irrelevant photo: strawberry blossoms

A BBC spokesperson said staff were still using them.

Staff members stopped giggling long enough to say they weren’t. 

“We are surprised that a problem with a single electronic device is a news story,” the spokesperson said

Her or his proximity sensor said, “Nyeee-ah, nyeee-ah.”

Here at Notes, we aren’t surprised that a single sensor that entered a smoldering, screaming state of despair is a good story. We’ve all been there during this past year and a fraction. At least once. It spoke for us all.

 

Britain wonders if it’s out of the woods yet

June 1 was the first day since last summer that no Covid deaths were reported in Britain for twenty-four hours. But before we celebrate being out of the woods, let’s check in with the scientists peskily pointing to trees and saying, “Woods, people. If we have enough trees, that means we’re in the woods.”

What’s the problem? We do have an effective (although distinctly incomplete) vaccination campaign. We also have a new Covid variant that seems to spread faster than the dominant variant that used to scare the pants off us because it spread more rapidly than the one before it but that we now look back at nostalgically and think of as our old friend. 

Never mind if you didn’t entirely follow that. We can say the new variant’s scary and leave it at that. The day before we had no deaths, the country reported 3,000 new Covid cases for six days running. We hadn’t been at those levels since early April. 

So which way is the country going to tip? Herd immunity? Third wave?

Several experts that the Relevant Authorities don’t particularly want to hear from are sending out warnings. A third wave, they say, is likely. 

Nyeee-ah. Nyeee-ah. 

Martin McKee, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said he thinks the third wave had already started. 

“The current measures are not stopping cases rising rapidly in many parts of the country,” he said. “Unless there is a miracle, opening up further in June is a huge risk.”

Why June? The 21st is the still somewhat tentative target date for the next stage of opening up. 

Ravi Gupta, who’s on the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group–called Nervtag, said, “If things go as I think they are going to go, we will likely end up with a third wave. It will be a big wave of infections and there will be deaths and severe illness.”

All waves, he reminded us, start small. 

My best guess is that the government will open the country up regardless of the warnings, regardless of what’s happening as the date comes closer. Because the business community’s pushing for it. Because there’s money to be made. Because they want to deliver good news. Because they seem to be wired for it. 

I would love to be wrong about this.

 

Renaming the Covid variants

The World Health Organization is renaming the Covid variants to avoid calling them by names no one outside the field can remember (B.1.617.2, anyone?) or after the places they were first identified, which has led people to blame them on the places. So the former Kent (or UK, or British) variant is now Alpha. The former South African variant is Beta. The former Brazilian variant is Gamma. And the former Indian variant is Delta.

It follows from this that the world will have to beat this beast before the Greek alphabet runs out of letters. It has twenty-four. Get with it, people.

Mask mandates and individual liberties

The number of in-flight clashes between passengers and airline crews in the U.S. increased lately. 

Clashes over what? Masks. Safety instructions. The crews infringing on passengers’ individual liberties and inalienable right to assault flight attendants.

The FAA–that’s the Federal Aviation Administration–logged 1,300 reports between February and some unspecified time, presumably in early May. Before that, it took ten years to collect that many incident reports. So either there’s something in the snack packets they’re handing out or some portion of the population’s gone feral.

What happens to airline passengers who tear their masks off, throw their mashed potatoes, and hurl miniature liquor bottles at flight attendants? They’re fined, and the fines can be hefty. Four people are facing fines of $70,000 each. (They have thirty days to appeal, which is why the wording there is a bit weasley.)  An Alaska state senator was banned from Alaska Airlines flights for “violating [the airline’s] mask policies,” which I think translates to refusing to wear a mask. Or possibly eating it in mid-flight. Because sometimes a person just has to stand up for her liberties. 

In spite of the recent changes in mask mandates, masks are still required on planes and in airports in the U.S. 

Irrelevant photo: Yet another rhododendron. They stay in bloom for a long time. It’s not my fault that I’ve been posting a lot of them.

What else has increased?

The number of British children swallowing magnets has grown  fivefold in the past five years. That probably means five times as many kids swallowed magnets in the past year as swallowed them five years ago, but you can’t trust me around numbers, which is why I’m tiptoeing through the words.

In about half the cases, the kids need surgery because the magnets didn’t find their own way out.

How do we explain the increase? Are magnets more attractive than they were five years back? Are they coming out in new flavors or is someone advertising them to kids on the cartoon shows? Are the kids swallowing one magnet and before they know what’s happened it’s convinced others to jump in and join it? You know what magnets are like.

The most likely answer is None of the Above. Kids are also swallowing coins and button batteries. This is why the relevant experts spend so much time fussing at parents about kids’ nutrition. Get them to eat their broccoli and it’ll distract them from those lovely magnets. If nothing else, they won’t have the time to look through the cabinets and kitchen drawers.

Toys that use magnets are legally required to display a warning, but the thing about kids young enough to swallow them is that for the most part they can’t read. The oldest kid to have swallowed a magnet was sixteen. He or she has an excuse, though: Laws be damned, lots of manufacturers don’t display the warning.

So would a warning stop a sixteen-year-old who wanted to swallow a magnet? All my instincts say no. I was sixteen once. Tell me not to swallow a magnet and I just might’ve swallowed it to prove my point. Whatever my point would have been. It could easily not have been clear to me either.

It’s when kids swallow multiple magnets that the situation, in all seriousness, gets dangerous. So kids, if you’re going to swallow a magnet, please, it’s one to a customer. 

Have you ever wondered why my career in public health messaging didn’t go anywhere?

 

 

And what’s decreased?

A German car parts maker called Mahle is working on an electric car engine that doesn’t use rare earth metals. In other words, this may be a sustainable engine that’s actually sustainable. 

It also doesn’t use magnets. Hands up: Who knew that the current crop of electric cars does use magnets? 

Okay, you’re smarter than me. I didn’t have a clue. If my keys start flying out of my pocket and gluing themselves to cars as I walk past, I’ll know why. 

In addition to being more sustainable, the new design is more efficient and longer lasting. It uses (I’m going to quote here, because I haven’t the faintest fucking idea what they’re talking about) “powered coils in its rotor, transferring power to the spinning rotors using induction, which means they never have to touch and that the motor has no surfaces that will wear out.”

The won’t wear out part I understand completely. Also the not touching part, and the keys not flying out of my pocket part. Also the part about the rare earth metals. Because the thing about rare earth metals is that–well, see, they’re rare. 

Do you ever have one of those days when you feel like you have to explain everything?

The cars should be less expensive than the current breed and the batteries should last longer. They’re expected to go into production in two and half years. And if you feel an itch to explain that business with the rotors, you don’t need to. The truth is I almost understand it, which is enough for me to get buy. It’s just that I don’t trust myself to turn it into anything more reader friendly.

 

And what’s happened that has nothing to do with the arbitrary theme I’ve imposed?

Somebody broke into Arundel Castle, in West Sussex, recently and stole about £1 million worth of goodies before the cops got there.( They tripped a burglar alarm on the way in but were fast enough for that not to matter.) I’m not sure you need to know this, but in case you do, the castle’s in West Sussex and is–for reasons I’m not going to try to understand, never mind explain–the ancestral seat of the Dukes of Norfolk. Which is a whole ‘nother place from Sussex. Maybe it’s traditional among the English aristocracy to sit their ancestral seats in places other than the sites cited in their titles. How would I know? 

What you do need to know is that if anyone tries to sell you a golden set of rosary beads, they might not be as good a buy as they seem. They belonged to Mary Queen of Scots–she was clutching them when she was executed–and will be pretty recognizable. 

 

Indentured servitude and slavery in Britain & its colonies

Now that discussions about structural racism are more widespread than they used to be, every so often I see someone mentioning that whites were brought to the New World as indentured servants. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear a whisper underneath the argument. It says, “We had a hard time too but we’ve gotten over it. So what’s your problem?”

Sometimes you don’t have to listen all that carefully. The whisper gets a little shouty.

So let’s look at the condition of indentured servants in the American colonies. I know I’m supposed to be doing British history here, but I’m limiting myself to the British colonies, so I don’t even have to cheat. 

Irrelevant photo: a rose

 

Indentured servants in Virginia

We’re talking about the seventeenth century, when indentured servants got to be that way by agreeing to a deal: passage to the New World in exchange for a fixed number of years working for a master–usually between four and seven years. During that time they got housed and fed and clothed and so-forthed. And they got worked–hard, with no choice about what they did or whether they did it. They didn’t get to leave. They didn’t get to choose who they worked for: Their contracts could be bought and sold, and they were. At the end of their contracts, though, they got a freedom package (also called freedom dues–take your choice). 

We’ll come back to that in a minute.

In the Virginia Colony, some half to two-thirds of the settlers arrived as indentured servants. By some estimates, half the European immigrants to the thirteen colonies came under indentures. That needs a time period tucked into it, but I don’t have one. Sorry. That’s what you get for reading a non-historian. 

People agreed to indentures for a variety of reasons. The first was that the passage to the New World was only slightly less affordable than a seat on the space shuttle. (I know; they’re not up for sale, but you get the picture.) 

The second was that at the end of the Thirty Years War England’s economy was depressed and both skilled and unskilled workers were desperate enough to take the gamble. Seven years’ work in exchange for meals and a new start someplace else? Sign me up.

The Thirty Years War? It ended in 1648 and lasted a nice, even thirty years. They’d have ended it sooner but were afraid of being sued for false advertising.

The third reason draws us into the understanding that the choice to enter indentured servitude wasn’t always made freely. A person might have a debt to pay off or be a prisoner who accepted indentured servitude as an alternative to a prison sentence.

The system was perfect for a country–that’s Britain–that was anxious to get rid of undesirables: beggars, debtors, convicts, “disorderly persons,” the defeated soldiers of this war or that. 

And the colonies were hungry enough for indentured servants that people were sometimes kidnapped and sold as indentured servants. Occasional undesirables from other countries were scooped up and indentured as well.

In Virginia, at least, the law gave some protection to indentured servants–or at least to some of them–but if you’d been one you might not have felt particularly protected. Indentured servants faced harsher punishments for breaking the law than non-indentured people did, and their contracts could be extended for serious infractions, which included running away or getting pregnant. 

That last infraction probably only applied to women, and it was perfectly reasonable. You know what women are like about getting pregnant. They’ll do it just to spite people.

On the other hand, if indentured servants survived first the passage and then the number of years they were contracted for, they got that freedom package, which would also have been specified in their contracts. It might have been 25 acres of land, a year’s worth of corn, tools, a cow, new clothes. Not all of those at once, I think–that’s a list of possibilities–but whatever they got might have put them in a better position than the newly arrived immigrant who’d spent everything on his or her passage.

Emphasis on might. That’s one historian’s take on it. Another one I’ve read disagrees. That’s the problem with the past. You can’t go back and check.

 

Categories of indentured servants

Indentured servants who’d entered into their contracts voluntarily were treated better than the ones who hadn’t. They could own property, testify in court, trade. The law offered some protection from abuse, although I don’t know how effective it was, but even so their contracts could be bought and sold without them having a word to say about it. 

The involuntary indentured servant faced a whole different system, although the details would vary from colony to colony. They might be forbidden to leave home without a pass. By way of punishment for running away, their indentures might be extended or their freedom dues reduced. They might be branded. In Maryland, they could be executed. 

At times, suspicious-looking characters who couldn’t prove they were free were arrested as runaways.

Mark Snyder, in his paper on the education of indentured servants in colonial America, counts the experience of indentured servitude as dismal and the success stories of those who served out their indentures as few and far between.

 

Apprenticeship

How was indentured servitude different from apprenticeship? The most obvious difference is that apprentices were children and indentured servants, adults. The apprentice was bound to a master craftsperson and couldn’t leave but was owed an education in the craft. The indentured servant was there to work and presumably knew enough of a craft, whether skilled or unskilled, to be made use of. The two systems overlap, though. Both apprentices and indentured servants were bound by a contract. Both had, at least theoretically, agreed to the deal–or in the case of an apprentice, a parent or some other adult had agreed for them. 

But apprenticeship had set the pattern that indentured servitude followed.

 

Slavery

The first African slaves were brought to Virginia in 1619 (the colony was founded in 1606), and initially the law didn’t have a category for them and they were sold as indentured servants. But they hadn’t entered into a contract–they’d been kidnapped from Africa and then stolen from Portuguese ships by privateers. 

Some of that first group of slaves did eventually become free, but not all. Even the number of people in the group is vague–twenty to thirty. Some fell out of recorded history, but in 1640 one became visible when was sentenced to a lifetime of slavery for rebelliousness. What form that rebelliousness took I don’t know. He was called John Punch, his original name having been hung, drawn, and quartered. Even then slaves were separated from their histories, their languages, and their names.

While they were still (legally speaking) indentured servants, any children they had were born free, but after Virginia’s first slave laws were passed in 1661 a court ruled that children born to enslaved mothers were the property of the slave owner. 

Massachusetts passed its first slave laws earlier than Virginia, in 1641. Massachusetts later became a center of anti-slavery sentiment and organization, but initially it was allowed slavery, as all thirteen colonies did. It didn’t abolish slavery until 1783.

With these new laws, landowners now had a source of labor that didn’t walk free in four to seven years, that didn’t have to be given land and tools and whatevers, and that didn’t have the small legal protections of indentured servants. And whose children were pure profit.

Basically, slavery was more profitable and indentured servitude was on its way out. And since slaves were a visibly distinct group, this quickly became a race-based caste system, which wove itself so deeply into the culture that–at least to many people who weren’t on the wrong end of it–it seemed like the natural order of things.

 

Finding the line between slavery and indentured servitude

Now let’s take a quick look at England in 1659, when Oliver Cromwell was the Lord Protector. [Oops. For a correction that dates and deaths and Cromwells, see below, in the comments.] The king–the one who came before Cromwell–was dead. The king-in-waiting was alive but sulking because he wanted a throne and couldn’t have it yet. And a group of royalist former soldiers had petitioned parliament: 

Four years earlier, they’d been sent to Barbados–an English colony, even if it’s not one we’ve been following–as indentured servants after having taken part in a failed royalist uprising. They complained that in spite of the assurances they were given their condition was, essentially, slavery. They were sold for more than half a ton of sugar each and were put to work in the sugar mills and furnaces.

Parliament debated their petition. One MP argued that indentured servants were “civilly used” and had horses to ride. Most of the work, he said, was done by Black slaves and so (he didn’t need to say) that was okay. 

Another–one of parliament’s leading republicans–argued that the petitioners had been treated barbarously. A third objected to the buying and selling of men, but only when it applied to white ones. That race-based caste system had already taken root. And a fourth reminded the house that the men had all agreed to be sent to the colonies. 

After a day’s debate, nothing was resolved and, in a triumph of parliamentary process, the issue was forgotten. 

When slavery was finally abolished in most of the British empire, in 1834, the freed slaves were not compensated as indentured servants had been. But the slaveowners were, for the property they’d lost.

Britain borrowed £20 million–about 5% of the country’s gross domestic product–for that compensation. According to the Treasury, the country only finished paying off the loan in 2015. 

By 1834, as you will have already figured out, the thirteen colonies had become the United States and gone their–or its–own way. The U.S. didn’t free its slaves until 1863, although in practice freedom was slow in coming and didn’t reach Texas until 1865. As for compensation, some land was distributed to former slaves under an army field order, and the army lent the new landowners some mules, but the program was reversed under President Johnson, who followed Lincoln, and the land was returned to the former slave owners.. 

That was the end of any compensation to former slaves in the U.S. and it’s why Spike Lee calls his movie production company Forty Acres and a Mule. 

The story of indentured servitude continues when British colonies looked around for a source of cheap labor to replace slaves, but we won’t follow it there, at least in this post.