By Ken Follett
Published by Random House 1995
Ken Follett’s 1995 novel A Place Called Freedom gives us a glimmer of what life was like during the 1700s. This novel traces the life of Follett’s character Malachi McAsh from his time working as a coal miner in a small town in Wales, to his job unloading ships of coal in London, to his life as a slave in Virginia. We also see the contrast between the life of McAsh and the lives of people who had wealth and power during those years.
We would expect that the technology of those years was quite different from what we see today. However, when we see the social relations of those years, we can also see striking differences that most people are unaware of. Then again, when we look at the differences between the social relations of those years and today, we also see many similarities.
When the character of McAsh was born into the world, he became a slave to a Welsh lord. At the age of seven McAsh started working in a coalmine hauling seventy-five pound bags of coal up the stairs that led out of the mine. Adult women carried 150-pound bags of coal for fifteen hours per day.
Most of the coal miners were illiterate, but McAsh’s mother could read. His mother sent a letter to a radical lawyer who informed her that miners had the right to escape slavery for one day on their twenty-first birthday.
This was stunning news to the miners. One miner had attempted to escape, but was apprehended. He was then forced to wear an iron collar to remind everyone of the penalties for disobedience.
McAsh desperately wanted to escape his fate as a slave. He decided to speak at a church service where he would read the letter of the lawyer. McAsh understood that doing this could be viewed as a crime punishable by death. We should keep in mind that the lord who had the power to sentence McAsh to death attended this church service.
After McAsh made his speech in the church many of the miners appreciated what he had to say. However, the royal families were enraged. McAsh was confronted by the character Lizzie Hallin who argued that McAsh should be grateful for the opportunity of making a living by working in the mine. McAsh responded that if she had ever worked in a coal pit, she wouldn’t think this this was something to be grateful for.
Lizzie was an independent minded woman, and thought of McAsh’s statement as a challenge. She persuaded a son of the lord to escort her into the mine and this is how readers learn of some of the realities of mine workers in the 1700’s.
Ultimately the lord found McAsh’s statement as well as his example to be intolerable. He ordered McAsh to be tied to a horse and forced to run backwards all day long as an extreme method of torture. Then the lord decided that letting McAsh escape might be his best alternative and McAsh winds up in London.
Here McAsh discovers that it is very difficult to find gainful employment, but eventually he gets a job unloading ships loaded with coal. Then McAsh learns that his wages are only a small percentage of the wages he was promised. He also learns that this kind of treatment was routine.
Eventually McAsh organizes a strike of the coal heavers. Then the people who had power in those days organized to frame up McAsh. A mob attacked and began to try and brutalize the coal haulers. An official called this attack a riot and ordered everyone to disperse. However, the mob continued to attack the striking workers who had no choice but to defend themselves.
The armed forces had been mobilized because they were well aware of the frame-up. These armed forces intervened murdering several coal haulers and they arrested McAsh. The charge was violation of the riot act.
At his so-called trial McAsh’s lawyer was not allowed to speak on his behalf. This was a normal feature of these so-called trials. However, McAsh gave an effective defense and called several witnesses who testified that the coal haulers had no choice but to defend themselves against a mob. He also established that this incident was clearly a frame-up.
However, in the so-called justice system of the 1700s none of this mattered. Since someone from a royal family testified against McAsh, this was all that was needed to find him guilty and sentence him to death by hanging.
McAsh’s life was spared only because a deal was made and his arresting officer pleaded to have his life spared. His sentence was transportation. This meant being loaded onto a slave-ship to be transported to Virginia. In Virginia McAsh was sentenced to be a slave for seven years.
In some of the histories I’ve read that many of the original settlers to the British thirteen colonies were criminals. Looking at the reality of the so-called justice system of Britain in the 1700’s we get a different picture entirely. The so-called criminals were oftentimes workers who became desperate in their desire to merely survive. The real criminals were the ruling powers who profited from a system of unimaginable horrors.
In Virginia we see what life was like for McAsh as a slave on a tobacco plantation. We learn that the Black and Caucasian slaves lived in separate buildings. However, escaping from slavery was a common practice. Follett reported that slaves routinely gave those who escaped shelter and food, while never betraying them to an owner.
Eventually McAsh escaped from slavery with Lizzie Hallin who once chastised him for being critical of a lord. There is an attempt to apprehend or murder McAsh and Lizzie, in their attempt to travel to the west beyond the Allegheny Mountains in what Follett referred to as, A Place Called Freedom.
While I found this book compelling and worth a read, my biggest problem with it is the title. The British colonies and the United States were never “a place called freedom.” I’m talking about hundreds of years of genocide against Native Americans as well as hundreds of years of chattel slavery. While Follett’s characters escape many of their hardships, the United States continued to have this horrendous history.
How have things changed?
Clearly the standard of living has improved for many workers since the 1700’s. We usually live longer. There are many technological innovations that make our lives easier. Our working conditions are usually better than those of the slaves of the 1700’s. We are supposed to have the right to be charged with a crime before we are arrested. We are supposed to have a right to a jury trial. We are supposed to have the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.
However, we might also ask the question: What are the facts?
Today, the cell phones we use might be built by Chinese workers who are paid ten dollars for a work day that might be fourteen hours. Some of the clothes we wear might be produced by workers in Bangladesh who might receive one dollar in wages per day. The beans used to make the coffee we drink might be picked by workers who are paid two dollars per day. In fact, about half of the world’s population lives on two dollars per day or less.
Workers who toil under these conditions have similar motivations to escape as Follett’s character McAsh had in this novel. Yet both democratic and republican party presidents have made it their top priority to deport millions of immigrant workers from this country.
We might also think about the fact that the Department of Agriculture estimates that one out of every six people in this country doesn’t have enough food to eat. President Obama cut the food stamps program by $8.7 billion.
Clearly citizens in this country have a right to a trial when we are accused of a crime. However over 90% of those who live in jail never had a trial. These people accepted a plea agreement where they were coerced to plead guilty rather than run the risk of an extremely long prison sentence. This practice is known as plea-bargaining.
So, while we can argue that profound changes have been made over the years, in many ways there are distinct similarities to our past. The main reason why there have been improvements, flow from the fact there working people engaged in tenacious struggles. However, only on the island of Cuba have working people taken power and managed to defend this conquest for over half a century.
When we look at this history, there is one inescapable conclusion. As long as there is an affluent class dedicated to exploiting workers, the human race will never be liberated. The determination of working people to advance our cause gives us hope that we have the capacity to free ourselves from the rule of the affluent who have controlled the governments throughout the world for hundreds of years.