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People & Events
Virginia looks toward Africa for labor
1660 - 1690

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Virginia was being held back. Thanks to tobacco, it had the means to make money. What was needed, though, were laborers -- laborers to clear fields, to plant and harvest crops. During the 1620s and 1630s, when the price of tobacco was high and English workers had too few jobs available at home, Virginia found its supply of labor in England. Then after 1660 the value of tobacco dropped and the Great Plague reduced England's population. In addition, a terrible fire in London destroyed much of the city and created new jobs at home for construction workers of all sorts. No longer able to lure their own countrymen, Virginians looked toward African labor, following the pattern established by the Spanish and Portuguese more than a century before.

Gradually the plantation owners' perspective became more aligned with that of the plantation owners of the Caribbean Islands. Because they were not Christians, blacks could be forced to work for the rest of their lives and be punished with impunity. Moreover, the color of their skin set them apart, making it easy to identify runaways. Also, there was a seemingly inexhaustible supply of Africans, and since little information flowed back across the Atlantic, mistreatment and abuse in America did not alter the flow of enslaved persons from Africa.

Slowly the number of blacks grew in Virginia. In 1625 there were only 23. In 1650 there were about three hundred. By 1700, more than a thousand Africans were being brought into the colony every year. These numbers would increase dramatically in the years to come.

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Historical Documents:
Royal African Company established
Barry Unsworth on desperation of European slave traders
Timothy Breen on the relationship between black slaves and white indentured servants
Peter Wood on the meaning of indentured sevants
Margaret Washington on the earliest Africans in Virginia
Peter Wood on the Africans' experience
David Blight on the formation of the Royal African Company

Part 1: Narrative | Resource Bank Contents | Teacher's Guide

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