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In Their Own Words

March 06, 1736

Report on Colonists Jailed for Debt

John Brownfield came to Savannah in February 1736 to represent the interests of an English firm wanting to sell goods and merchandise in Georgia. However, he found that high prices and buying on credit had some colonists deeply in debt. Even worse, some Georgia colonists were being jailed because of their debts. Brownfield wrote the Trustees, who must have been shocked since opposition to jailing debtors was one of the reasons for the origin of the Georgia movement in England:

“I had leave to go up to Savannah on the 13th in order to settle my own little affairs. I found there a cargo of goods consigned to me from Mr. Tuckwell and had the favour of putting them in Your Honours’ magazine for some days ‘till I could get a house to put them into. Several of the freeholders told me that the town was already overstocked with goods and trade in general at a very low ebb. I could not help being a little surprised at what they said but upon diligent inquiry found it to be true. The present shopkeepers have used such extortion, partly by taking advantage of the peoples’ necessities, partly through the extravagant prices they themselves paid for goods from Carolina, that they are generally hated, but more particularly so for their having frequently taken out executions and imprisoned the persons indebted to them after two or three months’ credit. These means have been chiefly used a by a number of Scotch gentlemen who arrived here soon after Mr. Oglethorpe went for England in 1734. Instead of improving their lands they fell into trade and thereby dispirited the poor inhabitants of Savannah from any attempts that way. When they had engrossed most part of the trade they advanced their prices and by fair outward pretenses drew abundance of the people into debt, soon after which they threatened to serve executions in order to get houses and lands mortgaged to them and succeeded with a few weak men. They have drained the ready money into their own hands but seem now to be at a full stand. The people in general hope that Mr. Tuckwell’s wholesale warehouse under Your Honours’ protection will rescue them from future extortion. I intend to set up three of four retailers in Savannah and to make it their interest to deal reasonably by fixing moderate prices at which they shall sell and allowing them commission for their trouble. But I shall make it my chief rule to decline the giving of credit since that has proved very hurtful to those who have received it, for they quitted all thoughts of labour upon finding that goods could be had without. When the workmen had contracted a habit of idleness, their creditors (the shopkeepers) were enraged and served executions upon them… .”

Source: Mills Lane (ed.), General Oglethorpe’s Georgia: Colonial Letters, 1733-1743 (Savannah: Beehive Press, 1990), Vol. I, pp. 248-249.