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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The words peon and peonage are derived from the Spanish peón Template:IPA-es. It has a range of meanings but its primary usage is to describe laborers with little control over their employment conditions.

English usage

The 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 are several ways in which the word is used:


  • 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.
  • Shanghai: among native Chinese working in firms where English is often spoken, the word has been phonetically reinterpreted as "pee-on", again a reference to a worker with little authority suffering indignities from superiors.
  • Computing slang: a peon is an "unprivileged user"—a person without special privileges on a computer system. The other extreme is "superuser."
  • Financial trading slang: a peon is a term used to describe a market participant who trades in derisorily small size, alternatively used to describe a small account.


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 when conquistadors forced poor Natives to work for Spanish planters and mine operators. Peonage was prevalent in Spanish America especially in the countries of Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador, and Peru. It remains an important part of social life, as among the Urarina of the Peruvian Amazon.

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 person's land. 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 mutual, the landowner would force the tenant farmer to buy seeds and tools from the land owner’s store which had inflated prices. Other tactics included debiting expenses against the sharecropper's profits after the crop was harvested and miscalculating the net profit from the harvest, thereby keeping the sharecropper in perpetual debt to the landowner. Since the tenant farmers could not offset the costs 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 the 1960s, 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. 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 labour 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 Template:Usc and makes no specific mention of New Mexico.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Peon" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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