Yorkshire Slavery and Labor Conditions

Author: Richard Oastler. Oastler was born in 1789[i] to an English family and advocated for the abolishment of slavery and improved labor conditions, especially for children.

Context: His letter “Yorkshire Slavery” was written in 1830 during the time of significantly increased industry (at this point, right in the thick of the Industrial Revolution), and need for more labor in factories and mills.

Language: I would describe the language of the piece as assertive and defiant. Oastler brought forward several gruesome examples of the difficulties of labor at the time, while using a very negative tone to display these hardships.

Audience: Oastler intends to reach the hearts and minds of the English people, who he believes don’t fully understand the severity of the situation at hand.

Intent: As mentioned above, Oastler was disgusted with the current conditions of the labor, especially the hardships young children were dealing with in the workforce. His intent was to bring forth these cruelties in a way that would inspire his fellow English people to act on improving these respective conditions.

Message: With descriptions such as “whose forehead has been cut open by the thong; whose cheeks and lips have been laid open, whose back has been almost covered with black stripes”[ii] and references to “the bodily sufferings that these poor creatures are subject to”[iii], Oastler’s message here is clear: what is happening here is not right and needs to stopped, now.

But…why?: Oastler has seen these horrific conditions first hand, and has gathered several stories from parents of these respective children. He empathizes with these parents and believes these conditions are “the foundation of the disaffection and unpleasantness of the present age”.[iv]


[i] http://www.victorianweb.org/history/yorkslav.html

[ii] ibid

[iii] ibid

[iv] ibid

Russian Serfdom and American Slavery

As an American Studies major, I found Peter Kolchin’s The Origin and Consolidation of Unfree Labor to be absolutely fascinating. Kolchin’s purpose in the introduction we read is to delineate the similarities and differences between the causes and realities of Russian serfdom and American slavery. Kolchin begins by detailing the origins of Russian serfdom. Serfs originally had freedom to move around the country; however, in the sixteenth and seventeenth century this right was restricted and eventually abolished because serf migration caused too much disruption and therefore decreased the amount of agricultural labor being performed. In America at the end of the seventeenth/beginning of the eighteenth century, Africans brought through the slave trade replaced English indentured servants as the main source of labor. Because slaves worked for life and reproduced, they were more economically beneficial than indentured servants, who only worked for several years, whose children were not automatically enslaved, and who therefore always had to be replaced.

Kolchin then provides a discussion of why slavery occurred, arguing that, at least in Russia and America, a surplus of land and a small amount of laborers led land owners to force people into working for them. Kolchin finally cites the two main differences between American slavery and Russian serfdom: first, American slaves were “aliens,” of a different nationality, race, and religion to their masters, while Russian serfs were almost always the same nationality and had similar customs; and second, American slaves did all of their work for their masters, paying them nothing and receiving some sustenance in return, whereas Russian serfs paid their Lords rent, worked part-time for their them and part-time cultivating their own land.

I thought that Kolchin’s point on Russian serfs not being racially different from their Lords to be very interesting. He explains that, while many Americans imagined a United States without blacks, Russia depended upon its outsiders, defining them not as outsiders, but as “the people.” Still, as serfdom continued over centuries, the class lines hardened between noble and serf, so that “nobleman and peasant seemed as different from each other as white and black, European and African” (Kolchin 45). This implies that the distinction between the serf and the noble came to be considered as innate, and not merely a consequence of who owned the land. To me, this section brings up the question of race. “Race” was socially constructed to justify the maltreatment of certain individuals who looked different–based on skin color, eye shape, etc.–from others. I wonder if Russian serfs were ever thought to be a different “race” from the nobles (similar to how Africans were a different “race” from Europeans) as a justification for the enslavement. Or, was race simply not as much of an “issue” in Russia as it was in America?


Interchangeable Parts

“These workers, forced to sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, and all the fluctuations of the market.”

I chose this passage because it relates directly to the readings and class topics that have been discussed over the past week. It expresses very similar ideas to those of Oastler and Heine, and the tones are very similar to Marx’s estranged labor.

Marx notes the differences between classes and the shifts between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. The lower tiers of the middle class, the tradespeople, morphed into the proletariat as technology made their trades obsolete. Marx argues that capitalism is inherently unstable and unsustainable because it wears down the proletariat and continues to exhaust its resources with no sign of slowing down. The members of the working class, regardless of age and sex, are treated as interchangeable parts in the capitalist system; they are a “commodity like every other article of commerce.” They are susceptible to all the uncertainties of the market and the demand for labor. Technology was improving rapidly and replacing human workers with gears and steam; not only was the worker treated as a disposable commodity in the market, he was also not guaranteed any security in his job whatsoever.The worker was paid barely enough wages to maintain his life. He did not earn enough money to acquire any personal property; he had to live under the roof of a landlord who exploited him further. This is Marx’s main argument for the abolition of private property rights. The vast majority of the population was already absolutely unable to acquire any private property, so this is in reality not a right at all, but a privilege reserved for the upper classes.