1 the condition of a peon
2 the practice of making a debtor work for his creditor until the debt is discharged
The words peon and peonage are derived from the Spanish peón (pe'on).
Spanish usageIn its obsolete usage in Spain itself, the word denoted a person who travelled by foot rather than on a horse (caballero). It now means a chess pawn, or a trompo (a kind of rotating toy or top).
In Spain and other Spanish-speaking countries, especially those in Latin America, where the hacienda system kept labourers from leaving estates, peón has also a range of meanings related to unskilled or semi-skilled work or manual labour, whether referring to a low-status wage earner in a variety of rural and urban industries (especially a day labourer or a servant); a peasant; a bullfighter's assistant, or, historically, someone subject to forms of unfree labour.
English usageThe English words peon and peonage were derived from the Spanish word, and have a variety of meanings related to the Spanish usages, as well as some other meanings. In the English-speaking world in general, the term peon is used colloquially to mean a person with little authority, often assigned unskilled or drudgerous tasks; an underling. In this sense, peon can be used in either a derogatory or self-effacing context.
There exists a false etymology that a peon is so named because they are so low in standing as to be urinated upon, hence pee-on.
There are several ways in which the word is used:
- American English: in a historical and legal sense, peon generally only had the meaning of someone working in an unfree labor system (known as peonage). The word often implied debt bondage and/or indentured servitude.
- South Asian English: a peon is usually 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.
- Computing slang: a peon is an "unprivileged user"—a person without special privileges on a computer system. The opposite is a "superuser."
Labor was in great need to support the expanding agriculture, mining, industrial, and public-work jobs that arose from conquerors settling in the Americas. To account for these jobs a system came about where creditors forced debtors to work for them. This system of involuntary servitude was called peonage.
The origin of this form of involuntary servitude goes back to the Spanish conquest of Mexico and African American History when conquistadors forced poor Indians to work for Spanish planters and mine operators. Peonage was prevalent in Spanish America especially in the countries of Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador, and Peru.
Peonage was also common in the South of the United States after the American Civil War. Poor white farmers and African-Americans who could not afford their own land would farm another white man's 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. However, as time passed many landowners began to abuse this system. Instead of the benefits remaining beneficial, the landowner would force the tenant farmer to buy seeds and tools from the land owner’s store which had inflated prices. Many of the tenant farmers could not afford these costs so they were forced into involuntary labor due to the debts they owed the land owner.
After the Civil War, the Thirteenth Amendment was added to the United States Constitution, which 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. Until 1960, some 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 1921 Georgia Farmer John S. Williams and his black overseer Clyde Manning were convicted in the deaths of 11 blacks working as peons in William's farm. See http://law.jrank.org/pages/2820/John-S-Williams-Clyde-Manning-Trials-1921.html Allegedly Williams was the only white farmer convicted for killing black peons between 1877 and 1966.
Because of the Spanish tradition, peonage was also widespread in New Mexico after the US Civil War. Because New Mexico laws supported peonage, the US Congress passed an anti-peonage law on March 2, 1867 as follows: "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 labor 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 42 U.S.C. § 1994 and makes no specific mention of New Mexico.
ReferencesHodges v. U.S. (1906) 203 U.S. 1
peonage in German: Peon
peonage in French: Peon
peonage in Dutch: Peonage
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