The 300 Year Fire

Great Fire of London, 1666

Great Fire of London, 1666


In late summer 1666, London was tinder-dry, and coming off the back of a two-year drought.  A small fire in a bakery, along with an indecisive and incompetent public official, led to the incineration of 87 churches, a cathedral, and 13,200 houses.  7 out of 8 Londoners were left homeless.

Fast-forward 300 years to summer 1966.  Violent race riots raged in 43 USA cities, including Chicago, Cleveland, Ohio, Atlanta, Georgia, and San Francisco, resulting in 11 deaths and more than 400 injured.

Surely there can be no connection?

Consider this.  In 1666, in the American colonies of Virginia and Maryland, there were barely more than 500 people of African descent.  Many of these were free landowners, others were serving out indentures similar to people of European origin.  A few were of course outright slaves.

With a glut of tobacco on the market, the colonial economy was experiencing a downturn.

Land, jobs, and money were becoming scarce for the poor of Virginia and Maryland.  Many people were beginning to seek better opportunities elsewhere, in Pennsylvania and the Carolinas.  Many poor “whites” and free people of color had begun moving inland to the colonial frontier, beyond the reach of tax collectors, masters, establishment churches, and colonial bureaucracy.

The aftermath of the Great Fire of London had created a building boom there, and with it came a huge demand for skilled labor – making indentured servitude in the colonies no longer such an attractive option for the poor of England.

Back in Virginia, with indentured labor (both black and white) in short supply, the rich and powerful hit upon an expedient solution.  They simply began to enact legislation during the 1660s and 1670s specifically designed to denigrate and limit the rights of “black” people, in order to create a new “lower class” legal caste – which it was hoped would become a source of free, enforced labor, replacing indentured servitude.

These laws included:

Banning inter-ethnic marriages and sexual relations
Depriving “blacks” of property rights
Prohibiting “blacks” from bearing arms or travelling without written permission
Declaring that it was no longer a crime to kill an unruly slave in the course of punishment
Prohibiting masters from freeing slaves unless the freedmen were deported from the colony
Banishing any white man or woman who married a “black”, “mulatto”, or American Indian

And thus began the slow descent into vicious bigotry and racism, another kind of fire which would rage for another 300 years, and longer.

This is the essence of historical contingency.

How humans react to events then (and now) have consequences far beyond the bounds of their own short lives.

History does not automatically move in a progressive arc toward human betterment.  We can, and often do, move backwards.

The kneejerk erosion of “lesser” rights today makes it easier for the next generation to remove even more important rights and freedoms.

Color-based slavery and “racial” bigotry were not inevitable in America.

How different things might have been, but for a careless accident in a London bakery 350 years ago…

#greatfireoflondon #slavery #history

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