In October 1728, a man named Robert Castell died in a debtor’s prison in England. Castell was an architect and a failed publisher, but he was also a friend of James Oglethorpe, a Member of Parliament. So Castell’s death led, indirectly, to the founding of the State of Georgia and the city of Savannah.
In 18th century England, being in debt was a criminal offense. And since London and other cities were overwhelmed by poverty, there was plenty of debt to go around. The debtor’s prison was a familiar part of the landscape. Here, debtors were held (somewhat paradoxically, they had to pay for their room and board) until the money they owed to their creditors had been satisfied. Since most of them had no source of income, it was easy for this to become a life sentence. Some debt prisoners, particularly women, might be able to work off their debts at menial tasks like sewing or laundry. Wealthy ne-er-do-wells might have received enough money from their family members to pay for room, board, servants and some luxuries.
But the poorest, those who had no hope at all of ever paying their debts, were condemned to the “Hole”. This was little better than a dungeon, where people were thrown in, chained up, and forgotten about until they died. And one of these was Robert Castell. He had borrowed money to publish an illustrated book about ancient Roman architecture, complete with expensive copper engravings, but when the book failed to sell he was unable to pay the printshop, fell into debt, and found himself locked away in the Hole at the debtor’s prison known as The Fleet, where he died of smallpox.
Castell’s death illustrated the horrid conditions that were usually found in England’s debtor’s prisons. But Oglethorpe was in a position to do something about it: he was a well-respected Member of Parliament, and now he formed an official committee to investigate and to propose prison reforms. The committee’s report found that most of England’s estimated 60,000 debt prisoners were being kept in lethally substandard conditions, while those private contractors who ran the prisons became wealthy from the room and board the prisoners were forced to pay. Oglethorpe followed up with an “Insolvent Debtors Reform Act”, which mandated improved conditions and ended some of the most abhorrent practices. It also released about 10,000 debtors who had been found to be “of good character” but who had fallen into debt through no fault of their own.
Though well-intentioned, however, the Reform Act produced a social issue: the streets of English cities were already crowded with destitute beggars and obscenely poor people, and dumping another 10,000 indigent citizens to fend for themselves would be a disaster. So Oglethorpe once again stepped in. For decades now, the British North American colony of Carolina had been the target for raids and piracy from the nearby Spanish colony of Florida. Once, there had been another Spanish settlement, known as Guale, between them, but it was long abandoned and now the land around it stood empty of Europeans. (There were Native Americans there, but of course in European eyes they didn’t matter.)
So now Oglethorpe sought a Royal Charter to establish a new English colony in the area of Guale, to be christened “Georgia” (after King George II), and proposed to settle it with newly-freed debt prisoners as well as other social outcasts like the working poor and religious dissenters (including Jews). Under the Royal Charter granted to Oglethorpe, only Catholics, lawyers, and slave-holders were banned from the new colony.
Oglethorpe’s motives were humanitarian, but the Crown Government’s interests were geopolitical. The new colony would serve as a buffer between the British at Carolina and the Spanish in Florida. And, since Spain still claimed the Guale territory as its own and raised the possibility of conflict, the new colony would also serve as a base for British Navy forays into Florida and the Spanish Caribbean.
In November 1733, Oglethorpe and 100 hopeful colonists (along with a number of sheep, pigs, and ducks) left London on a ship called the Ann for the new colony. Landing at the mouth of a river, they made contact with the local Yamacraw people, led by a chief named Tomochichi. Oglethorpe treated the natives well, and he and Tomochichi became friends: at one point the native chief was taken to England to see the Great Father King George.
With the help of the Yamacraw, the colonists settled in on a bluff overlooking the river, and laid out a grid of streets and properties. Writing to his financial backers in London, Oglethorpe noted: “Our people are all in perfect health. I chose the situation for the town upon an high ground. Forty feet perpendicular above high-water mark; the soil is dry and sandy; the water of the river fresh; springs coming out rom the sides of the hills.”
It became the modern city of Savannah.