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White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
Author:Nancy Isenberg

In the minds of literate English men and women, as colonization began in the 1500s, North America was an uncertain world inhabited by monstrous creatures, a blank territory skirted by mountains of gold. Because it was a strange land that few would ever see firsthand, spectacular tales had more appeal than practical observation. England’s two chief promoters of American exploration would never set foot on the continent. Richard Hakluyt the elder (1530–91) was a lawyer at Middle Temple, a vibrant center of intellectual life and court politics in the London metropolis. His much younger cousin with the identical name (1552–1616) trained at Christ Church, Oxford, and never hazarded a voyage beyond the shores of France.1

The elder Hakluyt was a bookish attorney who happened to be well connected to those who dreamt of profit from overseas ventures. His circle included merchants, royal officials, and such men on the make as Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, and Martin Frobisher, all of whom sought fame and glory from exploration. These men of action were endowed with larger-than-life egos; they were a new breed of adventurer, known for heroism but also for ill-tempered public behavior.2

Richard Hakluyt the younger was an Oxford fellow and clergyman who devoted his life to compiling the travel narratives of explorers. In 1589, he published his most ambitious work, Principall Navigations, an exhaustive catalogue of all the accounts he could track down of English travelers to the East, the North, and of course America. In the age of Shakespeare, everyone who was anyone read Hakluyt. The unstoppable John Smith quoted liberally from his writings, proving himself more than a brute soldier of fortune.3

Even before publishing Principall Navigations, the younger Hakluyt had sought royal favor. He prepared a treatise for Queen Elizabeth I and her top advisers, laying out his working theory of British colonization. “Discourse of Western Planting” (1584) was pure propaganda, designed to persuade the queen of the benefits of American settlements. Sir Walter Raleigh had commissioned the work, hoping for the state financing he never received when he launched an expedition that led to the short-lived Roanoke colony, off the Carolina coast.4

In Hakluyt’s English colonial vision, distant America was a wilderness of an almost inconceivable dimension. For the French intellectual Michel de Montaigne, in 1580, it was the habitat of a simple and uncorrupted people whom he whimsically called “cannibals,” slyly challenging the popular image of brutes gorging on human flesh. Like Hakluyt, he had never seen Native peoples, of course. Hakluyt at least was more practical (and more Anglican) than Montaigne in his outlook on the aboriginals. He believed them neither dangerous nor innocent, but empty vessels waiting to be filled with Christian—and, no less, commercial—truths. He imagined the Indians as useful allies in fulfilling English aspirations, possible trading partners, and subordinate, to be sure, but above all a natural resource to be exploited for the greater good.5

Attaching “empty” as a metaphor to a mysterious land served the legal purposes of the English state. Without recognized owners, the territory was available and waiting to be taken. Even for the bookish cleric Hakluyt, the trope of conquest he used presented America as a lovely woman waiting to be wooed and wed by the English. They would become her rightful owners and deserving custodians. It was all a fiction, of course, because the land was not really inane ac uacuum—void and vacant. As the English conceived it, however, any land had to be taken out of its natural state and put to commercial use—only then would it be truly owned.6

Obviously, the Indian occupants were deemed unable to possess a true title. Combing ancient laws for convincing analogies, English colonizers classified the Natives as savages, and sometimes as barbarians. The Indians did not build what the English would acknowledge as permanent homes and towns; they did not enclose the workable ground inside hedges and fences. Under their tenancy, the land appeared unbounded and untamed—what John Smith, in his accounts of Virginia, and later New England, described as “very ranke” and weedy. The Indians lived off the earth as passive nomads. Profit-seeking planters and industrious husbandmen, on the other hand, were needed to cultivate the ground for its riches, and in doing so impose a firm hand.7

This powerful conception of land use would play a key role in future categorizations of race and class on the experimental continent. Before they even established new and busy societies, colonizers denoted some people as entrepreneurial stewards of the exploitable land; they declared others (the vast majority) as mere occupiers, a people with no measurable investment in productivity or in commerce.

Whether barren or empty, uncultivated or rank, the land acquired a quintessentially English meaning. The English were obsessed with waste, which was why America was first and foremost a “wasteland” in their eyes. Wasteland meant undeveloped land, land that was outside the circulation of commercial exchange and apart from the understood rules of agricultural production. To lie in waste, in biblical language, meant to exist desolate and unattended; in agrarian terms, it was to be left fallow and unimproved.

Wasteland was idle land. Arable tracts of desirable property could only be associated with furrowed fields, rows of crops and fruit trees, golden waves of grain, and pasture for cattle and sheep. John Smith embraced the same ideological premise with a precise (if crude) allusion: the Englishman’s right to the land was ensured by his commitment to carpeting the soil with manure. An English elixir of animal waste would magically transform the Virginia wilderness, making untilled wasteland into valuable English territory. Waste was there to be treated, and then exploited. Waste was wealth as yet unrealized.8

In his “Discourse of Western Planting,” Hakluyt confidently described the entire continent as that “waste firm of America.” Not terra firma, but waste firm. He saw natural resources as raw materials that could be converted into valuable commodities. Like other Englishmen of his day, he equated wastelands with commons, forests, and fens—those lands that sixteenth-century agrarian improvers eyed for prospective profits. Wasteland served the interest of private owners in the commercial marketplace, when the commons was enclosed and sheep and cattle grazed there; forests could be cut down for timber and cleared for settlements; fens or marshes could be drained and reconstituted as rich, arable farmland.9

It was not just land that could be waste. People could be waste too. And this brings us to our most important point of embarkation: Hakluyt’s America required what he classified as “waste people,” the corps of laborers needed to cut down the trees, beat the hemp (for making rope), gather honey, salt and dry fish, dress raw animal hides, dig the earth for minerals, raise olives and silk, and sort and pack bird feathers.10