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Peon (English //, from the Spanish peón [peˈon]) usually refers to a person subject to peonage: any form of unfree labour or wage labor in which a laborer (peon) has little control over employment conditions. Peon and peonage can refer to the colonial period in Latin America and other countries colonized by Spain as well as the period after U.S. Civil War when "Black Codes" were passed to maintain chattel slavery through other means. The word peon also has a variety of related, less formal uses.
In English, peon and peonage have meanings related to their Spanish etymology, as well as a variety of other usages. In addition to the meaning of forced labourer, a peon may also be a person with little authority, often assigned unskilled tasks; an underling or any person subjected to capricious or unreasonable oversight. 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 labour.
- American English: in a historical and legal sense, peon generally referred to someone working in an unfree labor system (known as peonage). The word often implied debt bondage or indentured servitude.
There are other usages in contemporary cultures:
- English language varieties spoken in South Asian countries: a peon is an office boy, an attendant, or an orderly, a person kept around for odd jobs (and, historically, a policeman or foot soldier). (In an unrelated South Asian sense, "peon" may also be an alternative spelling for the poon tree (genus Calophyllum) or its wood, especially when used in boat-building.)
- Shanghai: among native Chinese working in firms where English is spoken, the word has been phonetically reinterpreted as "pee-on" (referencing the purported figurative origin of the term), and refers to a worker with little authority, who suffers indignities from superiors.
- Financial trading slang: a peon is a market participant who trades in small quantities or a small account.
The Spanish conquest of Mexico and Caribbean islands included peonage; the conquistadors forced natives to work for Spanish planters and mine operators. Peonage was prevalent in Latin 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 of 1861–1865, peonage developed in the Southern United States. Poor white farmers and formerly enslaved African Americans known as 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 or sharecropper 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 landowner. Additionally, unpredictable or disruptive climatic conditions such as droughts or storms, caused disruptions to seasonal plantings or harvests, which in turn, caused the tenant farmers to accrue debts with the landowners.
After the U.S. Civil War, the South passed "Black Codes", laws to control freed black slaves. Vagrancy laws were included in these Black Codes. Homeless or unemployed African Americans who were between jobs, most of whom were former slaves, were arrested and fined as vagrants. Usually lacking the resources to pay the fine, the "vagrant" was sent to county labor or hired out under the convict lease program to a private employer. The authorities also 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 people and charged them with fines and court costs of their cases. Black freedmen were most the aggressively targeted although poor whites were also arrested, albeit usually in much smaller numbers. White merchants, farmers, and business owners were allowed to pay these debts, and the prisoner had to work off the debt. Prisoners were leased as laborers to owners and operators of coal mines, lumber camps, brickyards, railroads, quarries, and farm plantations, with the lease revenues for their labor going to the states. The lessors were responsible for room and board of the laborers, and frequently abused them with little oversight by the state. Government officials leased imprisoned blacks and whites to small town entrepreneurs, provincial farmers, and dozens of corporations looking for cheap labor. Their labor was repeatedly bought and sold for decades, well into the 20th century, long after the official abolition of American slavery.
Southern states and private businesses profited by this unpaid labour. It is estimated that at the beginning of the 20th century, up to 40% of blacks in the South were trapped in peonage. Overseers and owners often used severe physical 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. But until the involuntary servitude was abolished by president Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966 (exact date unknown), 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.
In October 1910 Florida sugar cane plantation planter Edgar Watson was shot and killed by his own neighbours. According to legend, he would use Native and Black Americans workers as peons and then would "pay" his workers by killing them. His story was fictionalized by writer Peter Matthiessen in his Lost River Trilogy. He later consolidated it into Shadow Country.
The following reported Court cases involved peonage:
- 1903, South Dakota, a 17-year-old girl was reported to have been sold into peonage at the age of two by her own father
- 1904 Alabama, ten persons indicted for holding black and white persons in peonage
- 1906, John W. Pace of Alabama, the "father" of peonage; pardoned by his friend President Theodore Roosevelt.
- 1906, Five officials of Jackson Lumber Company sentenced in Pensacola, Florida to seven years in prison.
- 1916, Edward McCree of Georgia Legislature; owner of 37,000 acres of land; indicted on 13 charges. Pleaded guilty to first charge and paid a $1,000.00 fine.
- 1916, two men found guilty in Lexington County, South Carolina of trying to force a white man into peonage; each fined $500 and sentenced to a year and day in jail
- 1921, Hawaiian Sugar Plantation owners try to legalize peonage of Chinese workers.
- 1921, Georgia farmer John S. Williams and his black overseer Clyde Manning were convicted in the deaths of 11 blacks working as peons at Williams' farm. Williams was the only white farmer convicted of killing black peons between April 1, 1877 and August 6, 1966.
- 1922- Convicted in 1921 for hopping a freight train in Florida without a ticket, Martin Tabert of North Dakota becomes part of Florida State Convict leasing. He died Feb 1, 1922 after being whipped for being unable to work due to illness. Reports of his death lead to the prohibition in 1923 of convict leasing in Florida.
- 1925 Pensacola, Florida-White farmer and four others found guilty of using negro workers in peonage
- 1925 Columbia, South Carolina - An African-American youth who had been missing since 1923 escaped from peonage at a work camp.
Because of the Spanish tradition, peonage was still widespread in New Mexico Territory after the American Civil War. New Mexico laws supported peonage. The US Congress passed the Peonage Act of 1867 on March 2, 1867, which said: "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.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to U.S. Department of Justice Circular No. 3591 Re: Involuntary Servitude, Slavery, and Peonage.|
- Day labor
- Debt bondage
- Hodges v. United States, 203 U.S. 1 (1906)
- Bailey v. Alabama, 219 U.S. 219 (1911)
- Boy Slaves (1939 film)
- Slavery in the Spanish New World colonies
- Mary Grace Quackenbos, federal attorney who investigated peonage in the United States in the early 1900s
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