The story

The Virginia Colony (Part 2: Indentured Servitude, Slavery, and the 1622 Massacre)


>

This is a continuation of my lecture on the Virginia Colony, focusing on labor forces and relations between the colonists and the local Powhatan Indians.

The content of this lecture spans the end of APUSH Period 1 and the beginning of APUSH Period 2. In most APUSH textbooks, this content will be found in either Chapter 1 or Chapter 2. Part 1 of this lecture can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BvokFncxkh8


What Is the Difference Between Slavery and Indentured Servitude?

Indentured servants can be freed after working for a certain period of time. Slaves are not given their freedom, causing them to remain slaves until their owner releases them. Neither slaves or indentured servants are paid during their service.

Indentured servants willingly enter an agreement to work for a specific period of time, up to six years or longer if there is a breach of contract, in exchange for something such as land. The contract of an indentured servant can be sold to an interested third party, but the servant is not considered property of the contract holder. Once the indentured servant is released from his contract at the end of the term, he becomes a recognized part of the community and can own property or vote. A slave is considered to be the property of his owner. Slaves are not allowed to own property, earn money for their services or vote. A slave can be bought, sold, left as property in a will and has no rights in society. After the Civil War, laws were changed to allow only the contracts of indentured servants, and not the servants themselves, to be considered real property. Both slaves and indentured servants were often used to work in fields at farms and complete other hard manual labor.


First enslaved Africans arrive in Jamestown, setting the stage for slavery in North America

On August 20, 1619, � and odd” Angolans, kidnapped by the Portuguese, arrive in the British colony of Virginia and are then bought by English colonists. The arrival of the enslaved Africans in the New World marks a beginning of two and a half centuries of slavery in North America.

Founded at Jamestown in 1607, the Virginia Colony was home to about 700 people by 1619. The first enslaved Africans to arrive there disembarked at Point Comfort, in what is today known as Hampton Roads. Most of their names, as well as the exact number who remained at Point Comfort, have been lost to history, but much is known about their journey. 

They were originally kidnapped by Portuguese colonial forces, who sent captured members of the native Kongo and Ndongo kingdoms on a forced march to the port of Luanda, the capital of modern-day Angola. From there, they were ordered on the ship San Juan Bautista, which set sail for Veracruz in the colony of New Spain. As was quite common, about 150 of the 350 captives aboard the ship died during the crossing. Then, as it approached its destination, the ship was attacked by two privateer ships, the White Lion and the Treasurer. Crews from the two ships stole up to 60 of the Bautista’s slaves. It was the White Lion which docked at Virginia Colony&aposs Point Comfort and traded some of the prisoners for food on August 20, 1619.

Scholars note that the arrivals were technically sold as indentured servants. Indentured servants agreed, or in many cases were forced, to work with no pay for a set amount of time, often to pay off a debt and could legally expect to become free at the end of the contract. Many Europeans who arrived in the Americas came as indentured servants. Despite this classification𠅊nd records which indicate that some of them did eventually obtain their freedom—it is clear that the Africans arriving at Point Comfort in 1619 were forced into servitude and that they fit the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ definition of enslaved peoples.

The arrival at Point Comfort marked a new chapter in the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which began in the early 1500s and continued into the mid-1800s. The trade uprooted roughly 12 million Africans, depositing roughly 5 million in Brazil and over 3 million in the Caribbean. Though the number of Africans brought to mainland North America was relatively small—roughly 400,000—their labor and that of their descendants was crucial to the economies of the British colonies and, later, the United States.

Two of the Africans who arrived aboard the White Lion, Antonio and Isabella, became “servants” of Captain William Tucker, commander of Point Comfort. Their son William is the first known African child to have been born in America, and under the law of the time he was born a freeman. In the coming decades, however, slavery became codified. 

Servants of African origin were oftentimes forced to continue working after the end of their contract, and in 1640 a Virginia court sentenced rebellious servant John Punch to a lifetime of slavery. With fewer white indentured servants arriving from England, a racial caste system developed and African servants were increasingly held for life. In 1662, a Virginia court ruled that children born to enslaved mothers were the property of the mother’s owner.

As cash crops like tobacco, cotton and sugar became pillars of the colonial economy, slavery became its engine. Though the slave trade was outlawed in 1807, chattel slavery and the plantation economy it made possible flourished in the South. The 1860 census found that there were 3,953,760 enslaved people in the United States, making up roughly 13 percent of the total population.


Richard Frethorne Describes Indentured Servitude in Virginia

In some European countries including England some of the poor and many laborers were brought to the English colonies by way of ships to work on the farms within these colonies. Because of such an immense amounts of Tobacco crops being planted on these farms, a great deal of blood and sweat was needed for the cultivation of these crops. These poor workers were enticed by the idea of a new and better life in America. By the hiring of Indentured servants, the planters would have a greater chance of gaining economic success. Once the indenture (contract) was up the servants would also possibly receive "freedom dues" which appeared to be a 'win, win' on both sides. Unfortunately, this was seldom the case.

The year is 1623 and Richard Frethorne has written a letter about his life as an indentured servant just three months after arriving to the colony. As we can see from the author's narrative, Virginia of 1623 was a different place from England. It was the first permanent English settlement in the new world (Jamestown). This land of marsh like consistency and vast forests contained some hostile Native Americans, (pirates, and rogues who could and did attack at any time). Subsequently these Indians resisted slavery they protected their homeland and way of life.

The tone of the author is one of humility and despair. Being from England he has never imagined the lifestyle of the indentured servant, which is literally a life just a step above a slave. The difference being that a slave was considered personal property as was an indentured servant however, an indentured servant was only a servant for a specified time and a slave was slave for life. Mr. Frethorne has been brought to the point of begging and at the same time he is trying to inform his parents of the life he is living which is simply the lowest form of existence. He describes death.


Access options

1 Smith , Abbot Emerson , Colonists in Bondage: White Servitude and Convict Labor in America, 1607–1776 ( Chapel Hill , 1947 ), p. 336 .Google Scholar

2 Indentured, or contract, labor was also used elsewhere in the nineteenth century, as, for example, significant movements of bound workers occurred within Asia. This paper will not treat these episodes, but will focus only on migrations to the Americas.Google Scholar

3 Throughout this paper, with reference to indentured servitude the term “institution” will be used broadly to refer to the sets of practices and rules—including both statute and common law—that governed the use of labor contracts written for specified periods and entered into by workers in order to finance migration. Contracts of servitude typically differed from hire labor contracts in specifying relatively long terms—e.g., in the colonial period four years or more–and by involving a greater degree of control of the worker's living and working conditions by the employer, and from debt contracts of service in failing to provide for automatic dissolution of the agreement at any time upon repayment of a stated principal sum by the worker. These differences tended to make indentured servitude a distinctive status at most times and places, with a set of rules and practices specific to it, although of course these might differ among particular episodes, or for a single episode over time.Google Scholar

4 Laslett , Peter , The World We Have Lost , Second edition ( London , 1971 ), Ch. 1Google Scholar Kussmaul , Ann , Servants in Husbandry in Early Modern England ( Cambridge , 1981 )CrossRefGoogle Scholar also Macfarlane , Alan , The Origins of English Individualism ( New York , 1979 ).Google Scholar

5 On early attempts to attract settlers, and the Virginia Company's difficulties, see Diamond , Sigmund , “ From Organization to Society: Virginia in the Seventeenth Century ,” American Journal of Sociology , 63 ( 03 1958 ), 457 –75CrossRefGoogle Scholar Morgan , Edmund S. , American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia ( New York , 1975 ), Ch. 4.Google Scholar

6 The passage fare normally quoted until the middle of the seventeenth century was £6 for example, Smith , John , The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles ( London , 1624 ), p. 162 .Google Scholar A survey of wages in Cambridge, Canterbury, Dover, Exeter, Oxford, Westminster, Winchester, and Windsor for 1620 found a range of daily wages in skilled trades from 12–20d., and for unskilled laborers from 8–12d. British Library of Political and Economic Science, Records of International Scientific Committee on Price History (Beveridge Price Commission). Implied annual wages for full-time skilled workers would be approximately £15–25, and for unskilled workers £10–15. The wages of unskilled servants in husbandry in the teen ages would presumably have been lower.For further discussion of the influence of transportation costs relative to income and wealth on the form of migrations, see infra, “The Decline–and Revival–of Indentured Servitude in the Americas.”Google Scholar

7 The large size of the debt meant that repayment would normally take longer than the single year that characterized the employment of farm servants in England. Thus although the early arrangements did not have all the characteristics of indentured servitude that would later develop, one important element of the indenture system–contracts binding the worker to a master for a number of years–appeared at an early stage.Google Scholar

8 Smith, Colonists in Bondage, p. 9.Google Scholar On this early scheme, see also Hughes , J. R. T. , Social Control in the Colonial Economy ( Charlottesville , 1976 ), pp. 55 – 57 .Google Scholar

9 Brown , Alexander , ed., The Genesis of the United States ( Boston , 1890 ), Vol. II , p. 648 .Google Scholar

10 Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom, pp. 74, 78.Google Scholar

11 This system was clearly used in 1619 Kingsbury , Susan Myra , ed., The Records of the Virginia Company of London ( Washington, D.C. , 1933 ). Vol. III , pp. 226 –27.Google Scholar It is not clear whether it was in use earlier. A regulation of Virginia in 1616 mentions a covenanted obligation of “every farmer to pay yearly into the [Company's] magazine for himself and every man-servant, two barrels and a half a piece of their best Indian wheat” Historical Manuscript Commission, Eighth Report, Vol. 2, No. 208, p. 31.Google Scholar The payment made by the farmer for himself was apparently a rental payment for an allotment of land from the Company (e.g., see Andrews , Charles M. , The Colonial Period of American History [ New Haven , 1934 ], Vol. I , p. 124 ), but it is not specified whether the payment to be made for each servant was a rental fee for a possible additional allotment of land or a rental payment to the Company for the services of the servant himself.Google Scholar

12 Kingsbury , , Records of the Virginia Company , Vol. III , p. 226 also pp. 246, 257–58.Google Scholar

16 The difficulties of devising rental agreements that would provide the proper incentives for planters would have been enormous in view of the problems involved in determining the presence of negligence by masters in the case of death or escape by servants under the conditions of high mortality and poor communications that existed in early Virginia. Sale of the contracts to masters was therefore superior to rental, and it appears that the Virginia Company realized this very quickly, as the only definite evidence of rentals dates from the same year–1619–in which the first outright sales of servants' contracts occurred. Rentals do not appear to have continued in later years.Google Scholar

17 Smith, Colonists in Bondage, p. 12. The Contract that came to be used in these bargains was of a type commonly used in England for a variety of legal transactions, known as an indenture.Google Scholar

18 Kingsbury, Records of the Virginia Company, Vol. III, p. 313.Google Scholar

19 Davis , Lance E. and North , Douglass C. , Institutional Change and American Economic Growth ( Cambridge , 1971 ), P. 211 .CrossRefGoogle Scholar Like its English counterpart, the system of service in husbandry, in the early British colonies indentured servitude increased labor mobility at a relatively low cost, for it involved the migration only of individual laborers who were currently in the labor force. Unlike most migratory movements, the system therefore did not have to bear the costs of transportation for “tied” movers in families, who would make no immediate contribution to production. It might be argued that indentured servitude was adapted directly from the English system of apprenticeship. Some connections did exist. During 1619–1622 the Virginia Company sent several shipments of vagrant children to Virginia their passage had been paid by the City of London, and in return the Company agreed to place them with planters as apprentices see Johnson , Robert C. , “The Transportation of Vagrant Children from London to Virginia, 1618–1622,” in Reinmuth , Howard S. Jr , Early Stuart Studies ( Minneapolis , 1970 ), pp. 137 –51.Google Scholar This was an example of the compulsory power of parish apprenticeship, an institution distinct from the older system of craft apprenticeship see Davies , Margaret Gay , The Enforcement of English Apprenticeship ( Cambridge, Massachusetts , 1956 ), pp. 12 – 13 .Google Scholar Yet servitude, in which a capital sum was initially provided by the master to the servant (to be paid off by the servant's labor), posed very different problems of contract enforcement and labor motivation than did apprenticeship, in which the initial payment was made by the servant, with the master's obligation, in the form of training, to be paid over the course of the agreement. Thus, although some elements drawn from apprenticeship influenced the development of servitude, the incentives of both master and servant were quite different in the two systems, and servitude was more than a transfer of apprenticeship to the colonies. Although indentured servitude was primarily used in order to facilitate migration, once the legal basis of the institution had been laid down it could also be used to improve the functioning of markets for credit for other purposes. Thus, for example, in 1640 a Barbados planter named Richard Atkinson borrowed the sum of 2,000 pounds of cotton from John Batt. The agreement provided “that if the said two thousand pounds of Cotton shall not be paid upon the day aforesaid, that then and immediately upon default of the said payment, it shall bee for the said John Batt, or his assigns, to take the body of me Richard Atkinson, servant for the terme of sixe yeares, without any further trouble or sute of law…” quoted in Harlow , Vincent T. , A History of Barbados, 1625–1685 ( Oxford , 1926 ), p. 294 . Although indentured servitude could have been used in a wide variety of other situations involving debt, that it was overwhelmingly used for transportation was clearly because enforcing repayment of debts was relatively inexpensive when borrowing was done locally, and servitude was therefore unnecessary in these cases.Google Scholar

20 Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom, p. 126.Google Scholar


Africans in the Chesapeake

The English failed in their first attempt to establish a colony in 1585 on Roanoke Island, one of the barrier islands off what would become North Carolina. They left little more than terrain named Virginia for the virgin Queen Elizabeth the First. Twenty odd years later, in 1607 they successfully established a settlement they called Jamestown further north along the Atlantic coast at the confluence of the James River and the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

The Powhatan Confederacy of American Indians populated the land surrounding the Chesapeake and from the start, the Indians resisted the invading colonists. As time went on some Indians made friendly gestures to the settlers such as trading foods and introducing the English to tobacco. While the English offered the Indians friendship, they also brought them decimating diseases, occupied their territory, and sought to enslave or kill them. There was a short period of peace after Pocahontas, Powhatan’s daughter, and John Rolfe married. Peace broke down into hostilities after she and her father Powhatan died three years later. When the Africans arrived in 1619, the colony was still under intermittent Indian attacks.

The English found the Chesapeake Bay surrounded by low-lying land covered with forests and thick undergrowth. Winding streams emptied into rivers flowing into the waters of the bay that was plentiful with seafood. Around the bay were shallow tide-washed shores. Natural waterways made travel less arduous. The weather was mild. Normally, frequent, heavy rains cooled the heat of the long four or five months of summer. Unfortunately, the colonist landed in the time of a drought that lasted from 1606�. Without rain, the rich soil that promised productive subsistence and cash crops was not forthcoming and the settlers soon experienced famine.

Winter was cold with snow and ice, but short, lasting little more than two months. Except for the last nippy month of fall and the cold winters, the Chesapeake climate would prove to be more familiar to Africans than to the English.

The Peopling of Virginia Colony

Overhead view of Jamestown Fort archeological excavation.

The pressing need for laborers shaped the Virginia Colony from the very beginning. According to the Documentary History of Jamestown Island, more than half of the first 104 Jamestown colonists were gentlemen, scholars, artisans, and tradesmen. There were no laborers or sturdy yeomen farmers among the original settlers, people whose basic skills and physical conditioning would have been invaluable in creating a foothold in the wilderness. The 1609 contingent of 659 colonists included 21 peers, 96 knights, 11 doctors and ministers, etc., captains, 28 esquires, 58 gentlemen, 110 merchants, 282 citizens, and others not classified. Less than 50% were persons available for physical labor required to sustain and develop the colony (McCartney 2000 Vol. I: 15󈝽).

In the twelve years following their arrival, the first groups of colonists endured periods of starvation between the arrival of supply ships that also brought more colonists. Most of the new arrivals were still artisans and tradesmen. Relatively few came as indentured laborers to work off the cost of their passage to the colony. Labor continued to be in short supply (Hatch 1949).

Drawing of Jamestown Fort.

Given the Virginia climate and rich soil, by 1614 even inexperienced colonists managed to meet their subsistence needs growing corn, other food crops, and raising cattle. They also had established tobacco as a cash crop. Yet, in spite of over 1000 new arrivals of colonists over the years, war with the Indians, disease, and famine constantly depleted the population. Colonists died of “bloody flux, burning fevers, and swellings, wheras others died of wounds they received from the Indians…for the most part they died of mere famine (Percy 1922 as cited in McCartney 2000 Vo. I:18).” Thus, laborers and food were still in short supply on April 19 of that year Virginia’s new Governor Sir George Yeardley arrived at Jamestown. The 400 colonists who made up the population were stretched thinly across eight settlements and Yeardley found only 10󈝸 houses in Jamestown proper, a “timber” Anglican Church about 50 feet long by 20 feet wide and no coastal fortifications. Yeardley came with a lengthy set of instructions, plus the Virginia Company’s so called “Great Charter ” that laid the groundwork for establishing local representative government and, from the perspective of indentured laborers and the soon to arrive Africans, the precedents for making private land ownership possible though the head-right system. Under the head-right system, anyone who underwrote the cost of another person’s transportation to the colony became eligible for a 50-acre grant of the Virginia Company’s land. By importing hired workers, who agreed to work a certain number of years of labor, i.e. indentured their labor, in return for transportation to Virginia a colonist could gain or increase their land ownership (McCartney 2000 Vol. I: 15󈝽). Learn more about the peopling of Virginia Colony.

The First Africans in Jamestown

“About the last of August [1619] came a Dutch man of warrre that sold us twenty negars.” So history recorded the arrival of the first Africans to an English colony in Jamestown, Virginia. The Africans arrival would not only change the course of Virginia history but the course of what would become the United States of America. There were both men and women in this first group of Africans. Three or four days later, a second ship arrived. One additional African woman disembarked in Virginia. (Travels and Works of Captain John Smith [1910] 1967:541 as cited in Russell [1913] 1969:22 ftn.21).

The first Africans to arrive in Jamestown were welcome additions to the labor force. They were needed for the tasks of opening the wilderness, clearing land, and building settlements around the Chesapeake Bay. The first Africans, as few as they were, fulfilled a sorely needed and relatively empty labor niche in Virginia society. They and the African immigrants that followed also served another equally important purpose. Under the head-right system, they enabled the growth of a new landowning middle class located socially between the gentleman who had been granted the Virginia Company land by the Crown and the laboring class of indentured servants and slaves.

Arrival of the Africans (artist depiction).

Nine months after the arrival of the first Africans, the Census of March 1620 listed 892 English colonists living in Virginia, males outnumbering females, seven to one. Also present were 32 Africans, 15 men and 17 women, a more equal sex distribution that lent it to family formation. There were also four Indians, who like the Africans, were “in ye service of several planters” (Ferrar Papers 1509� as cited in McCartney 2000 Vol. I: 52).

Most of the 󈥴 odd’ Africans who arrived in Jamestown August 1619, remain virtually anonymous. There were three Negro men and two Negro women listed later as servants living in the Yeardley Household. Angelo, a Negro woman who disembarked from the Treasurer three or four days after the first group became a member of the Captain William Pierce household (Hotten 1874 as cited in McCartney 2000:174). Antoney Negro and Isabell Negro arrived in 1621 with a newborn son they immediately had baptized. Although these people and the other first African settlers are mostly lost to history, the act of baptizing their son allows us a small window into the cultural patterns and beliefs of these earliest African in America (Russell [1913] 1969:24 ftn.34).Read more about the first African American Family.

Who Were the First Africans?

Nearly three quarters of the Africans disembarking in the lower-Chesapeake (York and Upper James Basin) came from more southerly parts of Africa from the Bight of Biafra (Present day eastern Nigeria) and West Central Africa, then called Kongo and Angola. The inheritance practices of the Virginia gentry, especially those in York and Rappahannock districts, perpetuated the concentration of enslaved African people who had common cultural characteristics. The resulting ethnic concentration of enslaved communities originally from West Central Africa and the Bight of Biafra in these regions facilitated continuity of family and kinship networks, settlement patterns, and intergenerational transmission of African customs and languages.

Lower Chesapeake Africans mostly came from along the Calabar Coast and West Central African Kongo and Angola Regions.

Among the Africans who came, were “Antonio a Negro” in 1621 aboard the James and in 1622 the Margaret and John brought “Mary a Negro Woman (Hotten 1874 as cited in Russell [1913] 1969:24 ftn.34).” Once in Jamestown, Mary was taken to Bennett’s Welcome Plantation. There she met Antonio, one of only five survivors of a recent Tidewater Indian attack that had killed 350 colonists in a single morning. Their meeting was as fortuitous as Antonio’s survival of the Indian attack.

Although some scholars argue that the Antoney Negro, who lived in Elizabeth City in 1624, was the same person as “Antonio a Negro” who arrived in Virginia in 1621 aboard the James, a more solid argument can be advanced that they were different persons (Breen and Innes 1980:ftn9,116).

When Antonio appears in the 1625 muster of Bennett’s Welcome with the anglicized name Anthony Johnson, Mary appears too as the only woman living at Bennett’s plantation. Sometime after 1625, Mary and Anthony Johnson married. Somehow, they acquired their freedom. A section on Free Africans on Virginia’s Eastern Shore found in this module tells more about people like Mary and Anthony.

Breaking the Bonds of Slavery

Seventeenth century slavery in the Chesapeake was flexible enough to provide enterprising Africans the opportunity to earn their freedom. Through the head-right system, colonists who helped populate the colony with slaves or indentured servants received ownership of 50 acres of Virginia Company land for each laborer they purchased or indentured. Upon completion of their term of service, freed indentured servants received “freedom dues,” usually a quantity of clothing and corn. Slaves were sometime freed, or more often allowed to work for themselves, save their earnings, and seek to buy themselves out of slavery.

Most of the free Africans and their descendants in Virginia became free in the 17th and early 18th century before chattel slavery became the law of the land. Many of them lived on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

Freed slaves as well as former indentured servants could lease land, work, buy slaves, or indenture other servants thus gain head-rights and ownership of private land. Africans could, and some did participate in the head-right system. Most of what little we know or can speculate about Africans’ cultural life in 17th century Virginia comes from the documentary evidence they left as they reached beyond the anonymity of enslavement to become recorded propertied men and women, taxpayers, plaintiffs or defendants in court proceedings.

The law required African women to pay tithes to the colony in shares of tobacco and other crops they might raise. African men married to African women, had to pay the tithe for their wives and, if they had daughters for them as well. This made marriage a costly proposition, but marry they did.

African families inter-married. Marriage broadened kinship ties and networks. In early Colonial Virginia, the boundaries between races and those free or in bounds as servants or slaves were permeable. Some of the African men married English women who were indentured servants or American Indian women enslaved or bound in servitude. Through these relationships, they created inter-group community networks. In order to prevent separation of the family through sale of a member, free people of color often bought their family members.

In addition to forming community through marriage, Free Africans of Northampton also established community ties through commercial transactions.

Africans in Virginia married among themselves, with new African immigrants, the English, and American Indians. By the end of the 17th century, there were about 300 Africans and their descendants living in Virginia and most were enslaved.


Virginia and the American Revolution

Virginia was involved in fighting against what they saw as British tyranny from the end of the French and Indian War. The Virginia General Assembly fought against the Sugar Act which had been passed in 1764. They argued that it was taxation without representation. In addition, Patrick Henry was a Virginian who used his powers of rhetoric to argue against the Stamp Act of 1765 and legislation was passed opposing the act. A Committee of Correspondence was created in Virginia by key figures including Thomas Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee, and Patrick Henry. This was a method by which the different colonies communicated with each other about the growing anger against the British.

Virginia residents who were sent to the First Continental Congress in 1774 included Richard Bland, Benjamin Harrison, Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, Edmund Pendleton, Peyton Randolph, and George Washington.

Open resistance started in Virginia the day after Lexington and Concord occurred, on April 20, 1775. Other than the Battle of Great Bridge in December 1775, little fighting happened in Virginia though they sent soldiers to help in the war effort. Virginia was one of the earliest to adopt independence, and its hallowed son, Thomas Jefferson, penned the Declaration of Independence in 1776.


Assignment: Slavery and Indentured Labourers

INTRODUCTION
The introduction of Indian contractual workers by individual planters during the British period started between 1820 and early 1830s. Arrival registers of the Indian Immigration Archives (MGI) testify that labourers from the Indian Peninsula disembarked in Mauritius as from 1842 and originated from Colombo, Cochin, Pondicherry, Madras and Calcutta. These experimental importations of local planters were an evident means of overcoming the acute shortage of labour arising in the colony. The Importance of Slave Labour

The slave trade which flourished in the 18th century, was attacked by reformers in Britain and in 1787, a society for its abolition was instituted in England. In the face of mounting opposition against slavery and the conditions of slaves on plantations, William Pitt, the British Prime Minister, tabled a motion in Parliament in 1792 to gradually abolish slavery. In 1807, the shipping of slaves to British colonies was forbidden and in 1808, the slave trade was prohibited. When in 1810, the British took over the island, slave trade became illegal. In 1834, British abolished slavery. It is phased out on the island under a transition period known as “apprenticeship”. However, in Mauritius and elsewhere, the sugar plantation economy since its inception had depended, for its success and profitability, on plentiful, cheap, coercible and disciplined labour force. Slave labour had, for centuries, been the backbone of the plantation colonies of the Caribbean. In 1835, Indentured labour system introduced. In subsequent decades hundreds of thousands of workers arrive from India. Mauritius was the first British Colony to embark on the ‘Great Experiment’ of importing an indentured labour workforce from the sub continent. Since the proclamation of the abolition of slavery in 1833, there was the urgent need to replace the local labourers liberated from slavery by an indentured workforce. This workforce later on became a majority population group. 453,063 Indentured labourers were brought in Mauritius under the indenture Agreement.

The status of being a Slave and the Code Noir

Characteristics define an enslaved person:
• The slave has the status of a ‘good’ or ‘bienmeuble’ • A slave can be bought, sold, hired or pawned.
• The owner has absolute power over him or her.
• The owner controls not only the labour of the slave but his person and life after work. Slave women for example were sexually exploited. • The denial of family ties a slave can not only be separated from his or her family but has been removed from his or her homeland. • A slave is an ‘exclu’ in a slave society

(Source: VijayaTeelock, Mauritian History, from its beginning to modern times, 2001) A slave had no existence in law at that time as he/she was a ‘bienmeuble’, (‘res mobiles’, a ‘good’) and the legal status of the slave decided by all laws that applied to goods or moveable property. Far from proposing his workforce as a merchandise, the slave himself is an object. The employer buys the merchandise which belongs to him. The owner has the right to sell, to kill the slave. There is choice of becoming slaves, you are black and automatically you become a slave, maybe why there was no Code des Esclaves but instead Code Noir (LettresPatentes) Ce code rédigé au temps de Colbert restera en vigueurjusqu’en 1848, date de l’abolitiondéfinitive de l’esclavage par la France. Quelquesextraits du Code Noir :

“Déclarons les esclavesêtremeubles… Voulonsque les hommeslibres qui auronteu des enfants avec des esclavessoientcondamnéset les ditsesclavesconfisqués au profit de l’hôpital… Leurdéfendons de tenir le marché des esclaves le dimanche… Défendons aux curés de marier des esclaves sans le consentement de leurs maîtres… Les enfants qui naîtrontserontesclaves… Les esclaves non baptisésserontenterrés de nuitdansun champ voisin… Les esclavesabandonnésserontadjugés à l’hôpital… Déclarons les esclaves ne pouvoiravoirrien qui ne soit à leur maître… Ne.


1640 to 1699

The Virginia government at Jamestown passes statutes and codes that differentiate between white indentured servants and blacks in permanent servitude. By the 1680s, permanent servitude has become even more identified with race.

Governor Sir Francis Wyatt issues a proclamation limiting tobacco cultivation to not more than one thousand plants. He insists that planters cultivate more corn.

Civil War begins in Great Britain after a long period of conflict between Charles I and Parliament over issues of religion, taxes, and land reform. Eventually Oliver Cromwell emerges to leadership of the Parliamentary party after leading military forces to victory over royalist armies.

[Oliver Cromwell, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing right, in oval], Photoprint reproduction of a painting by Robert Walker at Dublin National Gallery. created/published [between 1850 and 1890].

February 1642

Sir William Berkeley becomes governor of the colony of Virginia. He serves until 1652, and then again from 1660 to 1677. Berkeley is a strong Anglican and attempts to establish the Anglican Church more firmly in Virginia.

October 1644

English colonists murder Opechancanough, the great chief of the Powhatan confederation, after his most recent attack on colonists in April.

Governor Sir William Berkeley forces a treaty on the new chief of the Powhatan, Necotowance, in which the Powhatans must cede to the English all peninsular lands between the James and York Rivers as far inland as Richmond Falls.

January 20-27, 1649

King Charles I is tried for treason by Parliament. Although he refuses to recognize the legitimacy of trying a king on such a charge, he is found guilty and beheaded on January 30. The monarchy and the House of Lords are abolished and "parliamentarians" rule. War continues between Cromwell's forces and those of the Scots who support the restoration of the monarchy.

The Powhatan Indians suffer a major defeat at the hands of the English.

This year the death rate in the Virginia colony begins to decline.

Parliament passes the first Navigation Act affecting the colonies. Whatever their geographic origin, imports to England must be carried only in English ships.

July 8, 1652

England and the Netherlands go to war over England's 1651 Navigation Act.

March 12, 1652

Representatives of the new Parliamentary government in England arrive in Jamestown to establish their authority over the colony. Governor Berkeley offers the colony's submission. For the next eight years, the Virginia General Assembly dominates colonial government.

Parliament passes the second Navigation Act decreeing that the colonies can ship their products only to England. The initial list of products includes tobacco, sugar, wool, indigo, and other mainstays of the colonies. Molasses is later added to the list. Under the scrutiny of the Privy Council, the Lords of Trade oversee the American colonies and enforce the Navigation Acts.

March 1660

The Virginia General Assembly is elected but is often prorogued by Governor Berkeley and subsequent governors until 1676.

May 1660

The monarchy is restored and Charles II becomes king.

Jamestown loses its status as the sole port of entry for Virginia shipping.

August 27, 1664

The English take New Amsterdam from the Dutch. Charles II awards the colony to his brother James, Duke of York.

November 16, 1667

A Mr. Garroway, member of the House of Commons in England, argues in Parliament that the death rate in Virginia is still such that a constant influx of colonists is required to maintain a viable settlement.

Officers of the Anglican Church, called "commissaries," are established in the Virginia colony as a substitute for a full-fledged bishopric. The first commissary is James Blair, who in 1690 tries to set up ecclesiastical courts, but the General Assembly successfully opposes his efforts.

February 9, 1674

The English and the Dutch make peace, ending nearly ten years of hostilities.

April 1676

Virginia frontier settlers choose Nathaniel Bacon to lead an expedition against nearby Indians. Bacon, a gentleman, has recently arrived in the colony. He decides not to wait for a formal commission from Governor Berkeley and kills Occaneechee Indians friendly to the colony, threatening the peace that Governor Berkeley has labored to maintain.

May 10, 1676

Governor Berkeley declares Nathaniel Bacon a rebel and offers a pardon to all other members of the expedition if they will lay down their arms. He calls for elections to the General Assembly, which have not occurred for many years.

June 5, 1676

Nathaniel Bacon comes to Jamestown to take his seat in the upper legislative house, the Council, but instead goes into hiding with the assistance of William Drummond of Albemarle. The conflict broadens as backcountry settlers become increasingly discontented with Berkeley's administration, especially its Indian policy. Thomas Mathew, a Burgess from Stafford and witness to the ensuing events, writes an account of the rebellion for Lord Oxford in England in 1705. Thomas Mathew, The Beginning, Progress, and Conclusion of Bacon's Rebellion in 1675 and 1676 (1705).

June 7, 1676

Governor Berkeley's men capture Bacon. The Governor pardons him and on June 10 allows him to return to his seat in the Council.

June 23, 1676

Bacon demands a commission to lead an expedition against Indians on the frontier and receives it on July 29, but after a subsequent events, Governor Berkeley regrets his decision and again declares Bacon a rebel.

August 1676

Bacon and his supporters meet at Middle Plantation where they make plans to increase and consolidate their forces on the frontier. Governor Berkeley eventually flees Jamestown as the rebellion grows larger.

September 19, 1676

Nathaniel Bacon and his supporters enter Jamestown and burn it.

October 26, 1676

Nathaniel Bacon dies of illness. The rebellion dissolves and two of his supporters, William Drummond and Giles Bland, are executed. Berkeley steps down as governor in 1676.

October 10, 1678

King Charles II grants the Virginia colony a new charter in which the General Assembly has no autonomous rights or privileges but continues in existence only at the pleasure of the crown. Disappointment and anger is severe among Jamestown Assembly members. Proclamation on Virginia Colony, October 10, 1678 (Thomas Jefferson's copy)

Throughout 1678, royal power increases in the colony.

Thomas Jefferson (d. 1697), the great grandfather of the third president of the United States, is living in Henrico county.

Thomas Jefferson purchases land from William Byrd. Jefferson is married to Mary Branch, with whom he has a son, Thomas, and a daughter, Martha.

April 25, 1680

The General Assembly meets in Jamestown, barely rebuilt since Bacon and his supporters burned it. Governor Thomas Culpeper makes plans for the restoration of the colony's seat of government.

February 1684

Lord Howard becomes governor of Virginia Colony. A struggle of several years follows between the governor and the Assembly.

February 6, 1685

Charles II dies and is succeeded by his brother, James II, who attempts to restore the country to Catholicism.

December 11, 1688

James II flees England. English leaders invite William of Orange to be king of England. The following year, William and his wife, Mary, daughter of James II, assume the throne and the "Glorious Revolution" is complete.

With the "Glorious Revolution," the Virginia General Assembly's legitimacy as a permanent branch of government is secured.

April 27, 1689

Jamestown celebrates the ascension of William and Mary to the throne of England.

April 23, 1691

Jamestown holds Olympic Games on St. George's Day, the feast day of England's patron saint.

The General Assembly charters the College of William and Mary at Middle Plantation (later Williamsburg) as a seminary for Anglican ministers.

Parliament opens the slave trade to British merchants, and the number of Africans brought to the colony begins to increase dramatically. Sugar and molasses are shipped from the West Indies to New England where they are distilled into rum. In West Africa, rum is traded for slaves, who are taken usually to the West Indies. This triangular trade becomes a mainstay of the American colonies.

October 31, 1698

A fire destroys Jamestown. Thereafter, only a few people continue to live there and the town declines and eventually ceases to exist. In 1699, the seat of government is moved to Williamsburg, formerly called "Middle Plantation."


Slavery vs Indentured Servitude: Which aids racism?

You Are Here: Home » Blog » Reparations » Slavery vs Indentured Servitude: Which aids racism?

Photo: Gayle King interviews Ralph Northam.

Perhaps the main reason so many people objected to Virginia Governor Ralph Northam calling the first 20 Africans to land in Virginia in 1619 indentured servants, and not slaves, is that they believe the conditions of slavery were so much harsher than those of indentured servitude, that calling these Africans indentured servants amounts to a cover-up of their reality. That is because the popular image that we have been sold of the indentured servant is that of a lower-class European, perhaps a little down on his luck, that has decided to exercise his option to make a new start in a new land, and so has entered into a contract to trade so many years of labor for passage to Virginia, and a little land and money at the end of his term. To be sure, he would work hard, but he was not a slave, and he did enter the contract voluntarily. Compare this to the African slaves: Kidnapped in their own country, and brought to this one under conditions so harsh that half didn’t survive the journey.

The truth is that the only real difference between the two forms of chattel bondage is that unlike slaves, indentured servants expected to be in bondage for a set number of years, and then freed. Reality stepped on this difference because most indentured servants died within the first few years of service, and only a minority ever finished their term and received their “freedom dues.”

This perceived different caused one participate in the current debate to tweet out that indentured servitude was the original white skin privilege. Never mind that he is calling it “white skin privilege” even before the English started calling themselves “white,” he is showing his ignorance of the reality of indentured servitude to such a degree that I don’t want to embarrass him by naming him. Far from a privilege, indenture servitude represented a deprecation of English workers from tenant farmers and wage laborers, a reduction to terms of bondage, which paved the way for the perpetual bondage, that when combined with white racism, became the American slave system.

What did it mean to be an indenture servant in the Virginia of 1619?

Let us begin with the myth of a contract voluntarily entered into. That was rarely the case. Consider this passage from The Barbarous Years, The Peopling of British North America, The Conflict of Civilizations 1600-1675, by Bernard Bailyn, 2012, p81.:

The [Virginia] company’s coercive power was directed mainly at the most vulnerable element in Jacobean society, the vagrant children. How many hundreds of children and petty criminals the company managed to collect from the streets and public institutions of London is not precisely known, but some of the numbers were recorded. Between August 1618 and August 1620 the company obtained from Bridewell Hospital, a detention center and jail for vagrant children, “idle wastrels, petty thieves, and dissolute women,” at least 337 of its charges to be sent to Virginia as “apprentices.“

Five months before a Dutch man-of-war sold the colony 󈬄 and odd Negroes” in August of 1619, the Diane docked with 80-100 London children said to have been found starving in the streets. They desired their transport about as much as the Africans did. Others had simply been kidnapped, or were escaping prison or the gallows. Very few can be said to have voluntarily entered into bondage in Virginia.

The voyage these new settlers took could sometimes rival the slave ships in their lethality. This was one of the worst tragedies of 1619:

Of the 180 passengers whom the embattled Elder Francis Blackwell led from Amsterdam to Virginia. no fewer than 130, including Blackwell himself, died on that voyage of seven months. They had been “packed together,” it was reported. “like herrings: they had amongst them the flux, and also want of fresh water. so as it is here [London] wondered at that so many are alive, than that so many are dead.”

Those that succeeded in getting to Virginia weren’t likely to live very long. Here’s an example from “Barbarous Years,” p.91:

The death rate in these larger properties, as well as on the ordinary farms, continued to be devastating. We do not know how many of the 280 settlers sent over to Martin’s Hundred survived the journey, but approximately half of those who did were dead by the end of 1621. A year after 34 men were sent to Berkeley Hundred to join 4 already on the property, 31 were reported dead, 2 of them “slayne.” Of the 120 men and boys sent on the Seaflower to Bennett’s Welcome in 1621, only 10 were alive in 1623, and more than half of the deaths were the result of disease, exhaustion, and malnutrition.

Map of Virginia colony created by John Smith in 1612.

It’s important to remember that the colonial population of Virginia was tiny by modern standards. We are talking about 700 people in 1619. It was founded in 1607, and although it had grown rapidly between 1619 and 1624, there were still only 1,200 people in the colony in 1624. The death rate was so high that although about 6,000 people had been sent there between 1607 and 1624, the loses to disease, deprivation, and conflicts with the native people was such that only about a fifth survived. Three thousand died between 1619 and 1622 alone, and those in bondage suffered the worst conditions. What this meant for most was that a seven year term of indentured servitude was a life sentence, only a minority survived to collect their “freedom dues.” Most indentured servants would die before that dream was fulfilled.

The true condition for indenture servants was such that they should, “more properly called slaves,” according to Daniel Defoe. If Northam’s detractors argued in that sense, they would be right. Indenture servitude has been so prettified by history that the term doesn’t impart an image of its true condition as well as chattel bondage, or slavery, but that’s not what they mean. They mean that those first 20 Africans labored under categorically worst conditions than their English, Irish and Scot counterparts right from the beginning, not that all indentured servants should be called slaves.

This was the Virginia in which the Dutch ship unloaded 20 Africans.

The first Africans that landed in Virginia in 1619, started their journey aboard the Portuguese slave ship San Juan Bautista on a voyage from Angola. They probably were captured by slavers along the Angolan coast. Their trip was typical for these deadly voyages filled with terror and hunger. About 350 Africans begin the voyage, but only 147 were still on board when it docked near its destination, Vera Cruz, Mexico on 30 August 1619. English pirates on two Dutch raiders hoping to steal gold and sliver attacked the San Juan Bautista, and instead captured 50 of the Africans. One of these ships, the White Lion, headed for the nearest English port and quickly exchanged 20 Africans for food at Point Comfort, VA. More came in the second ship, the Treasurer, weeks later.

It is the status of these Africans that all the fuss has been about, ever since Gayle King rebuked VA Governor Northam for saying they were indentured servants, instead of slaves on CBS This Morning 11 February 2019. Supporters of the governor’s position point to the lack of the legal status of slavery in Virginia to argue that they should be properly considered indentured servants. Supporters of Gayle King say that by 1619, African slavery was being widely practiced in the Atlantic World. Slavery didn’t require legal status. They were captured by slavers, transported aboard a slave ship, and bound for slavery in Vera Cruz. So, obviously they should be considered slaves, and calling them anything else is an attempt to prettify slavery.

I think the dialectics of their status is a bit more complicated. Leaving aside the question of whether people, who by all accounts have yet to labor under slavery, should be considered slaves, clearly the Portuguese considered them property in slaves to be sold into slavery. However, these twenty Africans were unloaded in Virginia for food rather than profit. They probably didn’t expect to get top dollar in a port where there was no legal status that allowed perpetual servitude, or slavery yet, and no well defined slave system, as existed in Mexico at the time. There are good historical reasons for this.

16th century class struggle in England made slavery illegal.

A mid-sixteenth century class struggle in England around attempts by the emerging bourgeoisie to put a portion of the workers in chattel bondage [see especially Kett’s Rebellion (1547-1550)], resulted in the Statute of Artificers in 1563 which, among other things, outlawed slavery in England. It also stipulated that workers would be paid a wage [Perhaps the first minimum wage law? Guaranteeing that at least it wouldn’t be zero!], and limiting the length of an unpaid “apprenticeship” to seven years [A maximum slave law?]. This was English law for the next 250 years. It wasn’t repealed until 1813.

This was the law that those first English planters brought to Virginia. This law was also among the less noble reasons they would decide to fight for independence and the “liberty” to develop their racial slave system unhindered by English law in 1776. Remember seven of the first twelve US presidents came from Virginia. The American Revolution wasn’t a Boston tea party, this developing slave economy was the driving force behind their “War of Independence.”

This early working class victory against English slavery made a different in her colonies. Of all the colonies in the Atlantic World around 1619, English colonies stood uniquely alone in depending on Europeans for basic plantation labor. In Virginia, some of this was provided by wage workers, and much by small tenant farmers “working by halves,” which meant sharing his crop with the land owner. But most labor was provided by indentured servants, whose status was quickly descending to that of chattel bondage, particularly after 1622.

This was because advancing capitalism in England, particular in agriculture, had created massive unemployment and poverty among the “necessitous poor.” So even if the capitalist couldn’t enslave them at home, they had a “surplus” population that they could export to the colonies to perform the bondage labor being performed in Spanish and Portuguese colonies by the indigenous people or imported Africans.

This was a period when the English still rejected slavery as it was being practiced by the Spanish. As Theodore W. Allen relates in The Invention of the White Race:

When ship captain Richard Jobson in 1620 and 1621 made a trading voyage to Africa, he refused to engage in slave-trading because the English “were a people who did not deal in any such commodities, neither did we buy or sell one another or any that had our own shapes.”

That is very likely the attitude that existed in the Virginia colony at the time as well. Many of those that were freemen, and actually had come to the colony voluntarily, did so for religious reasons. This gave the young colony a certain moral character. The English pirates that took the slaves from the Portuguese, were looking for gold and sliver, not slaves, but they took what they could get. They had investors backing their raids and they couldn’t afford to return empty handed, so they took about fifty of the slaves and sailed to the nearest English port. They probably could have gotten more for them if they sold them as slaves at any one of the ports in the Atlantic World where slavery was legal. Instead they sailed for an English port, which reported the ship “brought not any thing but 20 and odd Negroes” which they exchanged for “victuall,” meaning food, “at the best and easiest rate they could.” Since these Africans also had to be fed, if only to retain their value, [and Mike Guasco thinks they may have been fed] this deal was a double win for the hungry pirates.

The labor markets these early planters had available to them didn’t include the slave auctions as they would later be developed, or even the slave markets existing then in Vera Cruz. What they had was a developing market for buying and selling European chattel labor as indentured servants. In 1619 Virginia, the plantation labor was composed largely of European indentured servants. This is the labor force those first Africans became a part of. Even as late as 1676 when the chattel labor force had grown to 8,000, 3 out of every 4 plantation slaves was a European.

Indentured servitude was the well developed system of bondage labor fueling the Virginia planter economy at the time. Almost certainly, these first Africans would have been enrolled in that system. It would be only slowly, amidst much class struggle, between this first landing and the time of the Virginia Slave Codes of 1705, that the “peculiar institution” of racial slavery would be developed for African labor in what would become the United States.

Those arguing they should be considered slaves tend to belittle the fact that permanent slavery was illegal in Virginia at the time. But for the capitalist property owner, laws are extremely important. Illegal slaves couldn’t be bought and sold on the open market, would be devalued when accounting for capital wealth, and subject to lost if the “slave” was able to prove she was being held in violation of the law, as Elizabeth Keys did. If racial slavery had already been in place, she would have never had her day in court because she was an African indentured servant. Also, as noted earlier, colonial Virginia was a very small place, with less than a thousand people, there wasn’t a lot of room for a thriving black market in African slaves.

Most historians writing about these first 20 Africans agree with Northam that they were treated as indentured servants. What we know about them supports that conclusion. Historian E.R. Shipp, Morgan State University, Baltimore, wrote about this for USA Today, 8 February 2019:

We know that the Africans who arrived in 1619 on the White Lion (and, a few days later, the Treasurer) were from Angola, and we know how they came to be captured. We don’t have all the names, but we do know that captain William Tucker took two of them into his household, Isabella and Antony, and allowed them to marry. When their child William became the first recorded black birth in what would become the USA, he was baptized into the Anglican faith in 1624. We know that a “Negro woman” named Angelo in a 1624 census had arrived on the Treasurer in 1619. Archaeologists have recently discovered graves that might include hers.

“This first group that came survived and created a solid and growing community of people of African descent, with some of them intermingling with English and the Native peoples,” says Cassandra Newby-Alexander, a professor of history at Norfolk State University and a member of various commemoration commissions. Over a few decades, she said, the African presence grew with the arrival of more ships as well as with births. This resulted in “the emergence of racialized politics, law and a bifurcated society.”

Racial slavery and the laws that support it didn’t just “emerge,” because more Africans arrived. It was purposely build by the colonial ruling class over next hundred years to enslave people who where kidnapped in Africa, and brought to the colonies where their natural skin color was used to brand them as slaves. Shipp goes on to write:

“It’s rather clear that Virginia did not have a set way of dealing with these folks, and it got worked out over time,” Scott, [Daryl Scott, a professor of history at Howard University] says. “They had indentured people in Virginia, and some people may have seen Africans just like they saw other indentured people. We know some people became free, so it looks like they were treated like every other indentured person.”

Other scholars, including Linda Heywood and John Thornton of Boston University, insist that the Africans from the White Lion and the Treasurer were enslaved by the English as they had originally been by the Portuguese slave traders before they were taken by pirates.

This is the debate Northam naively stepped into in his interview with Gayle King.

Doctor Historianess (@historianess) has been a strong advocate of the latter view, that they were slaves when they landed in Virginia and remained slaves, on Twitter.

I don’t see how it could possibly work that way in the real world. The Spanish had brought African slaves to “New Spain,” as Mexico was then called, as early as 1520. In the sixteenth century it probably had more enslaved Africans than any other colony in the hemisphere. This small colony in Virginia couldn’t enslave these Africans as the Portuguese had because they didn’t have anything like that slave system to enslave them in. People go with what they know. What they knew, and had immediately available to them, was indentured servitude.

In 1619, the English hadn’t even claimed the fraudulent label “white” for themselves yet, and white racism, as would come to define the slave system had yet to be created. For example, English and African enjoyed a freedom to intermingle and inter-marry that would be lost for more than three hundred years. The term “white race” or “white people” entered the English language in the latter 17th century, in the context of racialized slavery and unequal status in European colonies. Those terms didn’t appear in English dictionaries before 1690.

Status in Virginia, at that time, depended much more or property ownership and religion, than race. There are many stories that illustrate this brief pre-racial beginnings of the United States. In this period, free Africans had many of the same rights as free Englishmen, including the right to own property, the right to vote, and sue in court. Many enslaved Africans where allowed to earn money, keep livestock, and raise crops for themselves. This allowed some to eventually purchase their freedom.

I’ve already recounted how a local captain took Isabella and Antony, two of those first 20 Africans, into his household and allowed them to marry. They had a child baptized into the Anglican faith in 1624.

Anthony Johnson arrived from Africa in 1621, having also been captured in Angola, and was sold to a English planter named Bennet as an indentured servant. He was freed after serving his term of indenture. He was one of the lucky few who survived the Powhatan massacre of 1622. The settlement where he was working had 57 men when it was attacked. He was one of the five that survived. By 1640, he had married Mary, an enslaved African woman who had arrived in 1622, started a family, and amassed hundreds of acres of land, and owned indentured servants themselves. Of the five slaves the couple owned, one was African American and four were European American. When much of the Johnson plantation was destroyed by fire in 1653, local officials noted that the Johnson’s were “inhabitants in Virginia above thirty years” who were respected for their “hard labor and known service,” and excused Mary and the couple’s two daughters from paying taxes for the rest of their lives. In the already quickly changing racial environment, a special tax had been created for “all free Negro men and women.” Local officials ignored that law, allowing the family to rebuild. On two separate cases, one years later, the courts found in favor of Johnson and against his European adversary. But this era was quickly passing already. Once racial slavery became firmly established, it would be more than 300 years before an African American could receive any justice like this from a Virginia court.

Even as late as 1656, the half-African indentured servant Elizabeth Key was able to sue in Virginia courts and win her freedom, and that of her infant son when her master died, and the overseers of his estate tried to convert her status to that of perpetual bondage.

The first Africans came to America before white racism did.

The lack of white racism in the Virginia of 1619 is reason enough to say it is misleading to call these first 20 Africans slaves, if what is meant is the racialized slavery that was to develop in the next sixty years and then go on to dominate for another two hundred.

Are those that consider even these first Africans to be slaves, saying that white racism existed even then? Or are they saying that white racism was not a decisive component of the slave system as it developed in the United States? Either way, they have a very mechanical view of history as blocks of time with permanent features, when its actual development is dialectic and organic. They are missing out on one of the most dynamic and influential periods in US, and by exception, world history, because if they think there were always “white” people, and they were always racist, and these 20 Africans were never anything but slaves, they will fail to understand the importance of the ensuing period when all that stuff was created.

A brief history of the creation of white racism

The African population of Virginia grew very slowly at first. According to Nell Irvin Painter, [The History of White People, p.41], even though Virginia’s population had grown to 11,000 by mid-century, only 300 were African or African American. By then the majority were slaves, but there still weren’t enough to support a separate stave system based on Africa labor. Starting in 1622, the laws and customs that would support that slave system began being put into place.

In 1619, about half the property of the colony was cultivated by small independent operators that paid rent-in-kind to the big plantation owners, and there was a growing number of free men, including those that had worked off their term and were now wage workers. This changed abruptly just 3 years later.

Painting by Sidney King of 1622 attack.

A massive attack by the Powhatan natives on 22 March 1622 reduced the colony’s population by a third in a single day, in the next year another third would die from privation, and two-thirds of the survivors weren’t fit for work. The colonial capitalists used the ensuing crisis to embark on a scheme to reduce tenants and indentured servants to chattel slaves. By that spring, servants’ contracts started appearing for the first time that allowed the owner to dispose of the servant to his “heirs and assigns.” They had become chattel. This was a qualitative break from the 1563 Statute of Artificers, and it was excused as “Custom of the Country.” The next year, attempts to reduce tenants to servants became common.

While living and labor conditions for slaves and indentured servants were very similar, there was this important difference: With indentured servants, eventual freedom provided a powerful incentive for compliance, which is why lengthening the period of indenture was the favored punishment. The slave could not look forward to eventual freedom, and so violence and torture became the principle tools the masters used to gain compliance. This also made running away the only escape.

Increasingly, as the planters started to turn to permanent servitude, this problem began to assert itself, and it became clear that any labor system based on such slavery would require a stratum of the population willing and able to enforce slavery by, for example, reporting runaways, and participating in slave patrols. BTW, the vaunted 2nd Amendment was proposed by Virginia to ensure its “right” to run armed slave patrols, also known as “well-regulated Militias.”

There was also the problem that their attempts to enslave everyone, English, African, and Natives alike, just wasn’t working out the way they planned. Since the great mass of servants lived and worked together without regards to racial differences that remained as yet largely immaterial, they also revolted together. As the colonial capitalists sought to tighten the screws on their workers, especially in the post-1622 period, this increasing became a problem for them.

“be free or die”

The Virginia record of this period is filled with stories of individual and small group resistance to the worsening bondage they were enduring. Here are just a few examples from The Invention of the White Race:

Freeman Emanuell Rodriggus, an African-American, was brought before the February 1672 session of the Northampton County Court for having “unlawfully entertayned” two runaway European-American bond laborers owned by Captain John Custis of Northampton County.69 In mid-summer 1679, four African-Americans, including one child too young to work, ran away in the company of two free European-Americans, John Watkings and Agness Clerk.70 In November 1690, freeman Edward Short was arraigned for “helping and assisting” European American Roger Crotuff [Crotofte] and African-American bond-laborer John Johnson to break out of the Accomack county prison.71 After Ann Redman, an African-American, took her child and ran away from the plantation of European-American Thomas Loyd in February 1696, she was sought by hue and cry. Some twenty months later Redman was seized from the home of European-American Edwin Thacker, where she had found refuge.72

African and European laborers fought together, often with arms, against the colonial powers and the landowners. In 1661 there was a sizable indentured servants plot over inadequate food rations. Isaac Friend, one of the leaders of the servants, agitated:

“they would get a matter of Forty of them together and get Gunnes, and he (Cluton) would be the first and lead them and cry as they went along ‘who would be for liberty and freed from bondage?’ and that there would enough come to them, and they would goe through the country and Kill those that made any opposition, and that they would either be free or die for it”

In Virginia there were at least 10 popular or servile revolts between the 1663 Servants’ plot for an insurrectionary march to freedom, to the tobacco riots of 1682. In Bacon’s Rebellion, 1676, an army of European and African bond-servants and freedman recently “out of their time” captured and burned the colonial capital of Jamestown, which Governor Berkeley left in a hurry. Governor Berkeley estimated that about 1,500 European chattel bond-laborers arrived in Virginia that year, “the majority English, with a few Scots and fewer Irish.” It took 1100 British troops sent from England in 11 ships to put him back in the statehouse, and they took a while to get there. While there were many similar uprisings both before and after, Bacon’s Rebellion is probably what did it for them. Noted author Michelle Alexander wrote of its significance:

This 1905 painting by Howard Pyle depicts the burning of Jamestown in 1676 by black and white rebels led by Nathaniel Bacon.

The events in Jamestown were alarming to the planter elite, who were deeply fearful of the multiracial alliance of [indentured servants] and slaves. Word of Bacon’s Rebellion spread far and wide, and several more uprisings of a similar type followed. In an effort to protect their superior status and economic position, the planters shifted their strategy for maintaining dominance. They abandoned their heavy reliance on indentured servants in favor of the importation of more black slaves.

Faced with this resistance from a united working class, the law makers, plantation owners, and colonial officers quickly moved forward with their plan to divide the people according to skin color, and make all those with the darkest skin slaves for life:

In 1640, John Punch became the first African American to be sentenced to permanent servitude for daring to run away. For this reason, many historians consider him the “first official slave in the English colonies.” I would agree, particularly because his punishment was racist. The two European men that ran away with him got only the usual extension of the term of servitude, but it still had an end date.

On 8 March 1655, John Casor became the first African declared a slave for life in America without having committed a crime first. Ironically, he started out as an indentured servant whose contract was owned by the successful African plantation owner Anthony Johnson written of above. Casor sued Johnson in court, claiming that he’d already served more than twice the seven year length of his indenture. The court ruled in Johnson’s favor and declared Casor a servant for life. He thus became the first African made a slave for life without it being as punishment for a crime, which was the justification used in Punch’s case.

During the Civil War in England (1649-1660), the Virginia planters remained loyal to the crown. When the monarchy was restored in 1660, William Berkeley returned as governor of Virginia, and the pace quickened.

In 1660, a Virginia Law was enacted that doubled the penalty on “any English servant shall run away in company with any negroes.” Note, in their first racist laws, they weren’t calling themselves white yet.

In 1662, it was declared that for Negro women, the status of the child would derive from that of the mother. That undercut one of the arguments Key had used to win her freedom, and meant that even when the child of a Negro slave was “got by any Englishman,” that child would remain a slave. They also increased the penalties for any “English servant” running away in “in the company of any negro.” These examples of working class solidarity had to be stamped out before racial slavery could be made workable.

In 1667, a Virginia law was enacted “declaring that baptisme of slaves doth not exempt them from bondage.” This was sold as a humanitarian policy, since it allowed slave owners to “endeavour the propagation of christianity” without fearing the lost of their “property” as a consequence. What corruption in the church allowed that madness?

A 1668 law was titled “Negro women not exempted from tax.” This effectively doubled the tax on free African couples, and discouraged Englishmen from marrying African women, but since English women where exempt from taxes, it had the unintended consequent of encouraging free African men to take English brides. This issue would soon be dealt with when all “abominable mixture and spurious issue” was outlawed.

In 1669, a law was passed exempting masters and overseers from prosecution if a Negro slave was killed while being tortured, because slaves cannot “by other then violent meanes supprest.” They couldn’t throw them in jail, and they couldn’t extend the term of someone in permanent bondage, so the law recognized that more violent methods had to be used.

A 1670 law forbid any “Negroes nor Indians” from buying “christian servants.” That same year Anthony Johnson died, and a jury ruled that the colony could seize the son’s 50 acre inheritance because he was “a Negro and by consequence an alien.” This wasn’t his father’s Virginia jury.

After 1672, England got into the slave trade big time. In the next 16 years, the Royal African company transported nearly 90,000 Africans to the Americas. Remember, there were only 300 in 1648, the demographics were changing fast because the colonial capitalists had settled on a solution to their labor problem, and they were moving rapidly forward to build the system we rightly associate with the term slavery.

1676 was the year of Bacon’s Rebellion. This armed rebellion by united English and African bond servants terrified the big landowners and capitalists, and cemented their plans to replace the indentured servant system with one based on racial slavery.

In 1680, “An act for preventing Negroes Insurrections” was passed. It declared “it shall not be lawfull for any negroe or other slave to carry or arme himselfe” with just about any weapon known at the time. That law also prescribed “thirty lashed on his bare back well laid on,” for “any negro or other slave” that shall “lift up his hand in opposition against any christian.” The wording of this law reflects an intermediate stage in the changes afoot. It presumes that all Negroes are slaves, but slavery is not yet the exclusive province of the Negro, and even though the period when Africans could themselves own slaves has long since passed, the masters aren’t calling themselves “white” yet, but the use of “christian” to define the master race was problematic since an increasing number of Negroes were being baptized.

A 1682 law declared “Negroes, Moors [Muslim North Africans], mulattoes or Indians who and whose parentage and native countries are not Christian” would be consider permanent slaves. This law created racial slavery, with a thin religious exception designed to exclude Europeans before they had the label “white” to work with.

The handed-down mythology is that all African slaves came to this country as pagans. The truth is that about 20% were Muslim, and a few where Christian in their homeland. There is evidence that that may have been the case with some of those first twenty. That law also made it easier to kill slaves. Things were changing fast, and not for the better.

It was to take another nine years for the label “white” to finally make it into the Virginia laws. It was in a 1691 law titled “An act for suppressing outlying Slaves.”

And for prevention of that abominable mixture and spurious issue which hereafter may encrease in this dominion, as well by negroes, mulattoes, and Indians intermarrying with English, or other white women, as by their unlawfull accompanying with one another, Be it enacted by the authoritie aforesaid, and it is hereby enacted, that for the time to come, whatsoever English or other white man or woman being free shall intermarry with a negroe, mulatto, or Indian man or woman bond or free shall within three months after such marriage be banished and removed from this dominion forever,…

That appears to be the first use of the label “white” to describe people in a law anywhere, and far from bestowing privileges on the people so labeled, it was used to take away their right to marry freely, and forever sealed its association with segregation, racism, and the suppression of sexual freedom.

Also, in 1691, a special fine of 15 pounds sterling is levied against “any English woman” who gives birth to a mulatto child. If the woman can’t pay the fine in 30 days, she will have to serve 5 years as an indentured servant. If she is already an indentured servant, she will have 5 years added to her service, and the child will be indentured for 30 years. That same year, the General Assembly required that all newly freed slaves leave the colony, and any master who freed his slaves had to pay for their transport out of the colony. They were forcing movement away from the integrated society that had existed towards one in which black skin would be synonymous with slavery.

In 1692, slaves lose the right of trial by jury even in capital cases. This white supremacist regime was not here to meet those first Africans. It had to be build, bit by bit, law by law, over a century.

In 1698, England becomes the biggest slave trafficker in the Western world, as the number of African slaves transported to her colonies skyrockets from 5,000 a year to 45,000 a year.

By 1705, the Virginia Slave Codes, and a series of so-called racial integrity laws, gave legal definition to the term “white” as in race, and institutionalized white supremacy. Any ambiguity in the status of Africans in American was clarified, and whether free or in chains, all lost rights and all were treated as inferior to any white man. This law also provides my candidate for the first white skin privilege: It forbid the whipping of “a christian white servant naked, without an order from a justice of the peace.”

The Slave Codes even employed the label “white” to punish slave owners who would dare intermarry and cross the color line it was creating by taking away their “white” servants. Although some of those first Africans could own English servants, under the new “white” regime, it was entirely unacceptable to have a person of color in authority over the newly labeled “white” person:

And if any person, having such christian servant, shall intermarry with any such negro, mulatto, or Indian, Jew, Moor, Mahometan, or other infidel, every christian white servant of every such person so intermarrying, shall, ipso facto, become free and acquit from any service then due to such master or mistress so intermarrying, as aforesaid.

The first white skin privileges weren’t really new “privileges” at all. No bonus was involved. Rather, the Europeans were forced to declare themselves “white” to preserve the rights they already had, such as the right to vote, be heard in court, and own property. Suddenly, these were only available to those who declared themselves white, assuming they were allowed to. In 1705, that was the main practical effect of such laws. By then, there were few, if any, African’s that still had those rights to lose in Virginia.

Most importantly, in return for accepting the “privilege” of not being reduced to slavery, they placed this new bourgeois creation “race,” above what really matters, class. That split the power of the working class and allow the capitalist to run roughshod over them ever since.

In 1723, the right to vote was taken away from free Negroes, and the right to free their slaves, at any cost, was taken away from their now “white” masters. This law also forbid Negroes from meeting, or keeping weapons. By then, Virginia had more than 27,000 African slaves. It was a little more than a hundred years since those first 20 Africans landed in Virginia, but now the dual plagues of white supremacy and racial slavery were fully in place.

Is this really a debate about the immutability of white racism?

Perhaps what is really at the core of this debate is that those who say they were treated as slaves from the very beginning are saying that they were treated in a racist manner from the very beginning, because it is undeniable that the slavery that developed in North America was racial slavery. This now brings us to the philosophical heart of the debate, and reveals why it has generated so much energy.

If the English treated the Africans in a racist manner, as slaves as compared to the white privileged indentured servants, upon their first introduction, this supports the thesis that racism is a naturally occurring phenomenon, that was triggered as soon as Africans were present. From that perspective, racism will be almost impossible to overcome, if it can be overcame at all.

If, on the other hand, as the history would seem to suggest, the English initially dealt with these first Africans as indentured servants, it is because they weren’t viewing them through the racial lens that would develop over the next hundred years, and continues to trouble us to this day. If this was the case, if racism and “white people” didn’t exist in the Virginia of 1619, but instead were unscrupulously created by the rich and powerful of that day, and pushed on people systematically because there was big money to be made, then racism is an unnatural thing, and although its tenure seems long now, it is but a flash in the million year development of humanity that will be overcome shortly.

The bondage slavery of 1619 was not the racial slavery of 1819

Those arguing that the word which properly brings to mind the racial slavery of the Antebellum South, be equally applied to those first 20 Africans can’t entirely ignore the class struggle, and dynamic changes of this period. But they argue that these were exceptions that should be discounted.

Tweets by Doctor Historianess (@historianess)

They seem to be arguing that since this period was so brief, and involved so few people, we can safely ignore it. That is like those arguing for a static universe saying we can safely ignore the big bang because it lasted less than a second billions of years ago. Wrong, genesis matters! The time and place they beckon us to ignore is precisely the time and place that gave birth to white supremacy.

They present a static image of the status Africans in America before the Civil War, namely they were slaves in 1619 and slaves in 1819 equally, however their arguments can’t ignore the reality that 1619-1705 was a period of dynamic change for the status of Africans in the colonies.

To say they were slaves in 1619, before the laws, before the system, is to treat it as eternal and wipe history clear of the turbulent class struggle that saw the birth of racial slavery and white supremacy. That serves only the interests of reaction and racism. That is how that argument supports racism.

Those pushing it are serving reaction by promoting its view of a static world in which white racism has always existed, and always will, and the “whites” made slaves of the “blacks” as soon as they could. These are some lousy historians that think like that. A clear-eyed study of historical facts shows us something else: In 1619, the English, Irish, Scots and other European’s in Virginia had yet to adopt a common label. White racism and racial slavery had yet to be created. They were created by the ruling class, over the course of the next hundred years, as methods of social control in the furtherance of capitalist profits. This great divide was created to inhibit the class struggle. It has proven to be so effective that they have relied on it ever since, and revered it up in times of crisis, as they are doing now!

Tweet by Doctor Historianess (@historianess)

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam tried to use a few of his fifteen minutes of fame to bring to the world’s attention the approaching 300th anniversary of this extremely important historical event, and he got pummeled for it. Many used the fact that he called those first 20 indentured servants, together with the fact that he did a Michael Jackson impersonation in the 80’s, to label him a racist. Never mind, the fact that most sources Google finds on the subject also says they were indentured servants. That doesn’t make it right, of course. But it does mean you should probably cut some slack for anyone fairly new to the subject not standing on your side of an active debate among historians.

Tweet by Doctor Historianess (@historianess)

I wonder how many of our governors, senators or congress people could even tell you about when, where and how the first Africans came to our country the same year as the Pilgrims. Our president likes invoke Pocahontas as a racial attack. I wonder how much he can tell us about the real Pocahontas and how she navigated the English invasion of her native country? I wonder if he even knows that John Rolfe, the Englishman that documented the arrival of those first Africans, was her husband? The Virginia of 1619 was a very small world. It is good that we are discussing this history.

Even though I think Gayle King was wrong, I applaud her for “correcting” Northam because by doing so she sparked a very necessary national conversation. It would have been better if she had pointed out that in 1619 there were no “white people,” and African and European workers both were slaves. Even better if she used her position to inform her viewers about the news from Haiti at the time.

Why is white supremacy trying to make a come back now?

That is really the maximum question now! I’m not talking about Northam in the statehouse. I’m talking about Trump in the White House. Why are they working so hard to stoke the fires of racial tension now? Bill Weld, a former governor who may challenge Trump for the GOP nomination gave us a clue on ABC News “This Week” Sunday, 17 February 2019, when he said that 󈬉% of the jobs in the country are about to disappear because of artificial intelligence, and robotics, drones.”

Rather than use these technological advancements to unburden humanity, they intend to keep all the profits for themselves, and deliver to everyone else economic dislocation, the likes of which the world has never seen. They are going to want to eliminate what they consider the “superfluous,” parts of the population, and racism has always served them well. It’s no accident that they are financing its come back quicker than they can build drones and robots.

About IBW21

IBW21 (The Institute of the Black World 21st Century) is committed to building the capacity of Black communities in the U.S. to work for the social, political, economic and cultural upliftment, the development of the global Black community and an enhanced quality of life for all marginalized people.

Here are some quick links to NAARC’s website to help you get involved and stay informed:


Watch the video: Northam indentured servant remark challenged (November 2021).