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Modern Voices
Betty Wood on the early status of the Africans in Virginia
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Q: What was the status of the Africans who arrived in 1619?
Betty Wood

A: The famous comment of John Wolf that in the summer of 1619 a Dutch man of war brought 20 Africans to Virginia shouldn't lead us to believe that those Africans were immediately enslaved by the English, if by that we mean assigned to a particular legal category, a category that defined these people as pieces of property. The actual legal and the social status of these first Africans to arrive in Virginia was very, very ambiguous indeed. And in the 1630s and '40s, we find examples of free Africans in Virginia, which has led some historians to argue that these first arrivals were treated very much as English servants would have been treated, that is, freed after a set term of years.
Betty Wood
Professor of History
Oxford University

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