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Peonage (//, from Spanish peón [peˈon]) is a type of involuntary servitude of laborers (peons) having little control over their employment conditions. Peonage existed historically during the colonial period, especially in Latin America and areas of Spanish rule, as well as in the Southern United States after the American Civil War. Whites used the "Black Codes" and other systems to gain the forced labor of African Americans after slavery was abolished.
The English words peon and peonage were derived from the Spanish word, and have a variety of meanings related to the Spanish usage, as well as some other meanings. In addition to the meaning of forced laborer, a peon may also be a person with little authority, often assigned unskilled tasks; an underling. In this sense, peon can be used in either a derogatory or self-effacing context.
However, the term has a historical basis and usage related to much more severe conditions of forced labor.
There are other usages in contemporary cultures:
The origin of this form of involuntary servitude goes back to the Spanish conquest of Mexico when conquistadors forced natives to work for Spanish planters and mine operators. Peonage was prevalent in Spanish America especially in the countries of Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador, and Peru. It remains an important part of social life, as among the Urarina of the Peruvian Amazon.
After the American Civil War, peonage developed in the Southern United States. Poor white farmers and freedmen who could not afford their own land would farm another person's land, exchanging labor for a share of the crops. This was called sharecropping and initially the benefits were mutual. The land owner would pay for the seeds and tools in exchange for a percentage of the money earned from the crop and a portion of the crop. As time passed, many landowners began to abuse this system. The landowner would force the tenant farmer to buy seeds and tools from the land owner’s store, which often had inflated prices. As sharecroppers were often illiterate, they had to depend on the books and accounting by the landowner and his staff. Other tactics included debiting expenses against the sharecropper's profits after the crop was harvested and "miscalculating" the net profit from the harvest, thereby keeping the sharecropper in perpetual debt to the landowner. Since the tenant farmers could not offset the costs, they were forced into involuntary labor due to the debts they owed the land owner.
Southern states passed "Black Codes" to control the movement of freedmen and to try to gain their labor for planters. They often declared as vagrant someone who was unemployed, even if between jobs. They tried to restrict the movement of freedmen between rural areas and cities, to between towns. Under such laws, local officials arbitrarily arrested tens of thousands of freedmen and charged them with fines and the court costs of their cases. White merchants, farmers, and business owners could pay their debts and the prisoner had to work off the debt. Prisoners were "sold" or leased as forced laborers to owners and operators of coal mines, lumber camps, brickyards, railroads, quarries, and farm plantations, with the revenues for their labor going to the states. Thousands of blacks and whites were seized by southern landowners and compelled into years of involuntary servitude. Government officials leased falsely imprisoned blacks and whites to small town entrepreneurs, provincial farmers, and dozens of corporations looking for cheap labor. Black and white men, women, and children were forced to labor without compensation. Their labor was repeatedly bought and sold for decades after the official abolition of American slavery.
Whites were seldom prosecuted for holding black workers against their will in peonage. Southern states and private businesses boomed with this free labor. It is estimated that up to 40% of blacks in the South were imprisoned in peonage in the beginning of the 20th century. Overseers and owners often used severe deprivation, beatings, whippings, and other abuse as "discipline" against the workers.
After the Civil War, the Thirteenth Amendment prohibited involuntary servitude such as peonage for all but convicted criminals. Congress also passed various laws to protect the constitutional rights of Southern blacks, making those who violated such rights by conspiracy, by trespass, or in disguise, guilty of an offense punishable by ten years in prison and civil disability. Unlawful use of state law to subvert rights under the Federal Constitution was made punishable by fine or a year's imprisonment. Until the 1960s, sharecroppers in Southern states were forced to continue working to pay off old debts or to pay taxes. Southern states allowed this in order to preserve sharecropping.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to U.S. Department of Justice Circular No. 3591 Re: Involuntary Servitude, Slavery, and Peonage.|
In 1921, Georgia farmer John S. Williams and his black overseer Clyde Manning were convicted in the deaths of 11 blacks working as peons in Williams' farm. Williams was the only white farmer convicted for killing black peons between 1877 and 1966.
Because of the Spanish tradition, peonage was still widespread in New Mexico after the US Civil War. Because New Mexico laws supported peonage, the US Congress passed an anti-peonage law on March 2, 1867 as follows: "Sec 1990. The holding of any person to service or labor under the system known as peonage is abolished and forever prohibited in the territory of New Mexico, or in any other territory or state of the United States; and all acts, laws, … made to establish, maintain, or enforce, directly or indirectly, the voluntary or involuntary service or labour of any persons as peons, in liquidation of any debt or obligation, or otherwise, are declared null and void." The current version of this statute is codified at Chapter 21-I of 42 U.S.C. § 1994 and makes no specific mention of New Mexico.
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