In her book Captives , Linda Colley writes of a lower-class British woman named Sarah Shade who was orphaned in her teens and decided to pursue a life of adventure in India. At least, Sarah thought it might be adventuresome, and she didn't have many other options. She accompanied her...
stepfather (disguised as his wife), and her life went downhill from there. Her stepfather sold her to the sailors on the ship until one of the officers “rescued” her and assaulted her as well.
Sarah's life in India was more than difficult. She was imprisoned and mauled by a tiger; she witnessed massacres, lost two husbands, lived in squalid camps, and worked her fingers to the bone over several decades. It was partly on the backs of people like Sarah Shade that wealthy British citizens built their fortunes through trade in India.
Now let’s think about George Washington. His life couldn’t have been more different from that of Sarah Shade. By the end of his life, Washington was a very wealthy man, and he made most of his money through smart land deals—as well as by relying on slave labor. Washington was born into a relatively upper-class family. His father owned a plantation (as well as slaves whom Washington inherited), and Washington had a chance to get an education. He worked as a surveyor in his early years and quickly realized that wealth could be made through buying and selling land. With the money he made, he was able to purchase his first tracts of land, as well as enslaved people to work them.
During the Seven Years’ War, Washington became a military commander, and he had a vested interest in making sure this land remained under British rule. As a land speculator himself, he saw the opportunity for expansion and settlement that could earn him money in the long run. Further, Washington eventually received land as a reward for his service during this war.
Washington became quite wealthy by the end of his life, and much of this was in his land holdings. By his death in 1799, his estate was worth about $780,000, which in today's money works out to about $587 million.
Now let's reflect for a moment on the connections between powerful people like George Washington and “common people” like Sarah Shade. Washington relied on the exploitation of enslaved people in his acquisition of wealth, though he privately developed qualms about the institution of slavery in his later life. The men who fought under him also contributed to his accumulation of wealth and land, though Washington did not deliberately use them for that purpose, and there is evidence that his men admired and respected him. The white settlers who moved into the territories purchased land because they wanted to create new lives for themselves. They were not forced or cheated, though Indigenous Americans were forced, cheated, and killed in order to make room for the settlers. George Washington may have worked hard to earn his money and been clever enough to do so, but he also owned over a hundred slaves who were forced to work for his benefit. Sarah Shade, on the other hand, was born without the privilege enjoyed by Washington, and she was exploited in many ways while leading a life of incredible hardship in India. While Washington relied upon slave labor to accumulate wealth, the British Empire relied on the exploitation of people like Sarah Shade to expand its own wealth and power.