Happy 400 years of Solidarity, America!


Aurelia Pucinski, a justice of the Illinois Appellate Court, remembers a little know incident of the early American history, whose anniversary we are celebrating today:

Original records of the Jamestown colony and Captain John Smith confirm that on July 21, 1619, the colony of Jamestown “enfranchised” the Polish tradesmen who were critical to the struggling colony’s export economy. The Poles stopped their work because they were not given the same rights as their British neighbors. The colony’s House of Burgesses recognized the economic threat and did the only sensible thing: It gave the Poles the right to vote.

Poles arrived in the earliest days of the colony. We know from original documents that two of the settlers of the colony in 1608 were identified as “Robert, a Polonian” and “Mathew the Polander.” We cannot be sure if they survived the 1610 “starving time,” but we do know that the settlement company continued to recruit Poles for their skill working with wood and wood byproducts that were critical to maritime nations.

By that time, Poland was an independent sovereign nation, whose King Zygmunt III was recognized by the British crown. England had a navy that needed ships. And the Jamestown colony was hoping to build its future on the production of tar, pitch, turpentine, soap ash, hemp, flax and potash. These were valuable export commodities for the colony and its owners, the Virginia Company of London. Pitch and tar were used to caulk and waterproof ships, and soap ash and potash were essential to making glass and soap.

We know that the company was glad to have the Poles’ expertise and labor in the colony. Captain Smith himself praised the work ethic of the Polish tradesmen. But they did not enjoy the same rights granted to their fellow colonists, specifically the right to vote. So, they pressed their case with what is now acknowledged as the first civil rights strike in North America.

On July 21, 1619, the Records of the Virginia Company of London, Court Book Vol. 1, 251-52 include the entry (in its original spelling):

“Upon some dispute of the Polonians resident in Virginia, it was now agreed (nothwithstanding any former order to the contrary) that they shall be enfranchised and made as free as any inhabitant there whatsoever: And because their skill in making pitch and tar and sope-ashes shall not dye with them, it is agreed that some young men, shall be put unto them to learne their skill & knowledge therein for the benefit of the Country hererafter.”

And so “the Polonians” have written themselves into the earliest chapter of the American story. Interestingly, the strike had no economic causes as the overwhelming majority of industrial actions does, but was in pursuit of political ends, a sort of a very first example of the “no taxation without representation” spirit that was to make the country independent a hundred and sixty years later. I was reminded of the “Solidarity” trade union of 1980, because while many of its original complaints had to do with the economic plight of workers in the workers’ paradise of Gierek’s Poland, at the same time they included postulates seeking various freedoms, including of speech and association, which were ostensible guaranteed in the “constitution” but continually denied in practice to citizens of Poland and other then socialist countries. The Jamestown story is thus both very Polish and very American; two nations different in just about every respect while still sharing the same broad European heritage, but ever similar – brotherly/sisterly or kin, one could say – in their quest for freedom and better life.

Interestingly, Robert, Matthew and other skilled Polish tradesmen who crossed the Atlantic from the far end of Europe, were coming from perhaps the most successful and arguably the freest multi-ethnic society of the early modern Europe, enjoying unheard of religious toleration by its Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish and even Muslim people, not to mention the broadest contemporary franchise. The pitch-makers and glass-blowers would have recognised some of the familiar seeds starting to germinate in Virginia and they would have liked what the original colony and others have grown to over the subsequent centuries.

(The main picture: a 1975 Polish stamp celebrating Polish migrants establishing the first glass manufacturing plant on the American soil. I remember it in my stamp collection as a child.)