The Deadly Medicine: The Use of Alcohol in the Exploitation of Indian Labor by Whaling Companies on Eastern Long Island, 1650–1750

Saturday, January 4, 2020: 10:30 AM
Concourse H (New York Hilton)
John A. Strong, Long Island University
European settlers regularly used alcohol to compromise Indians during negotiations for the purchase of lands and commodities such as beaver pelts and deerskins. After those commodities were depleted, however, alcohol continued to play a crucial role in the exploitation of the one commodity that remained: their labor.

This paper focuses on the use of alcohol to manipulate and exploit that one last possession. During the last half of the seventeenth century, shore whaling, “ye whale design,” was the major source of wealth for the English in towns on eastern Long Island. The whaling company owners depended on Indian crews to man their whale boats. The surviving documents reveal a pattern of debt peonage sustained largely by the use of alcohol. At the close of each whaling season (November to March), the value of the oil and baleen would be calculated for each whaler. Then the value of goods taken in advance on credit by the whaler would be deducted. The records show that rum and hard cider were a major commodity and that the prices were significantly inflated.

The exploitive nature of this system is best illustrated by the experience of Pumpsha, an Unkechaug whaler, who hunted whales for ten years. When he finished his whaling career in 1718, instead of having profits, he owed eleven pounds, seven shillings and six pence. The Indian whalemen were the sharecroppers of the sea.

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