“Honey, let’s go to Mars.”

I’m writing about immigrants at the moment. They cross the Atlantic, in a “full rigged ship.” Their experiences are not like some I’ve read about, for example the ship that was lost at sea for half a year, adrift, with broken masts and people starving. The surviving passengers were eating the dead. Out of 400 passengers, only 14 arrived in Philadelphia, having been rescued by a passing ship with better luck.

It’s amazing to think that in that enormous ocean one ship would find another, but I guess they knew the winds and the route. Longitude had not yet been “discovered” and sailors did not know how to benefit from the giant clock that is the earth’s rotation.

The voyages were nightmares, even for those who had money to pay for first class cabins, and yet people back then got on ships like it was nothing and went places that were months and months away. I cannot think of any destination that would beckon me so relentlessly that I would get on a giant wooden box, driven by hempen sheets in the random wind, carried across a  vast and trackless salt-water waste.

Though the fact is many of those immigrants didn’t choose it, either, and I don’t mean just the African slaves. When we think about slavery we recoil in horror at what we white people did to them. OK, it was bad, very bad. We don’t think that they were captured and sold by other Africans to Dutch or English traders or that slavery was the norm throughout history until people decided to stop it. Everybody did it. To fill ships, the English kidnapped and captured poor people from the streets of Liverpool, Manchester, London and, of course, the Irish who were an unending problem to the British. These people — put on ships against their will, not even prisoners — were expected to “work off their passage” once they arrived in the New World. The minimum sentence for the crime of being poor and homeless on a British urban street was 7 years labor on a frontier farm. Chances of surviving the voyage AND the “indentured servitude” were not very good.

For a while there was a practice of selectively breeding enslaved Irish women to enslaved African men with the thought of “improving the stock” to get higher prices on the slave auction block.

I see in all this a science fiction novel about settlement on Mars. Who would the captives be?


17 thoughts on ““Honey, let’s go to Mars.”

  1. Slavery has never been very far from anyone’s shores and which of us has not been, to some minor degree, “a slave to work.” In “The Far Arena” by Richard Ben Sapir, one of the startling things the main character (who was a Roman dug up from the ice) says is about the people who serve him. He is referring to the to nurses and other workers in the hospital. His new friends explain these aren’t slaves, that they work for wages and are free to leave, or be dismissed by their employers. He thinks this is a fantastic idea.

    “You mean they do everything you tell them to do, but when they get old and can no longer work, you don’t have to take care of them? What a great idea! Slaves without responsibility.”

    “They aren’t slaves,” insist his modern friends.

    “They are treated like slaves, they act like slaves,” he responds. “They are slaves.”

  2. I should probably mention that my first husband’s grandfather was an indentured servant. He got very fond of them and eventually took their name, a happy ending to what might not have been such a happy story.

    • Several of the people in my family were indentured servants — the famous one, Colonel Ninian Beall, was a prisoner of war who was sent first to Barbados and then to Maryland. I am sure not all the stories were bad and I think the part that horrifies me is that people were kidnapped off the streets in Britain and thrown onto ships. I think in a lot of cases it was a lucky thing. It’s just a bit of history we don’t like to remember…

      • I was a root cause of the war of 1812. They came here and did it too. The impressing (you weren’t supposed to say “kidnapping” of seaman and others was an issue that totally infuriated the early U.S.

  3. Emmigrating was really not fun in the pioneer days. There was a time when emmigrating to Australia cost only £5 from England. The Australians did not have a large work force and needed trained men. It was in the fifties and many english took the opportunity to go. I still write to my friend who is the same age as me and emmigrated with her family on this scheme when she was only 10 years old.
    What I wanted to say was I am a great Gilbert and Sullivan Fan. I know most of their operas and have seen a few on the stage. They were the satirists of the Victorian times. HMS Pinafore I know quite well.

  4. The photo of a painting you used here was epic! I can’t imagine the horrors many went through especially when forced. Enjoyed the read and comments!

  5. We’re still hypocrites though, aren’t we. We may not send you to Botany Bay for stealing a loaf of bread in London anymore, but human dignity and the sanctity of human life are phrases we throw around while we have our tummy tucks and face lifts and people in other places die of starvation, and homeless kids on the streets of Bangladesh are trafficked as sex toys.
    I always thought it would be good to pop politicians into the Sydney Opera House and sail it out through Sydney Heads. I’m equally taken by the idea of sending to Mars the obscenely wealthy who only spend money on themselves when a fraction of their fortunes would probably provide water to Africa in perpetuity.

    • Like that dismal excuse for humanity that just signed a $100 Billion dollar arms deal with the Saudis and is submitting a budget that will cut food stamps and medicaid meaning the very poor and the very sick in this country can just fucking starve and die. So kill people with weapons and call it “bringing jobs to America” and use the excuse of more jobs to take away social services to people who could not work anyway.

      Now that would be a story to write, sending the obscenely wealthy to Mars…

      • Have you ever seen the doco TV series ‘The Island with Bear Grylls’? It involves marooning a group of ‘ordinary’ people on an uninhabited Pacific island for 5-6 weeks with basic tools and a day’s supply of water (cameras operated by participants who are trained camera people). Fascinating study in human nature, individually and collectively. (Imo. You might hate it!)

      • No, not like ‘Survivor’ which has all sorts of reality rubbish and made-up challenges and a prize at the end for which they will cut each other’s throats. Hideous. Never watch it. The Island is doco-style observation of people genuinely reduced to basics.

        • Ah, like students who are afraid they’re going to fail a class because they have 4 Fs on quizzes that are each worth 1 point out of 800 total in the class? That kind of thing?

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