All servants imported and brought into the Country. . . who were not Christians in their native Country. . . shall be accounted and be slaves. All Negro, mulatto and Indian slaves within this dominion. . . shall be held to be real estate. If any slave resists his master. . . correcting such slave, and shall happen to be killed in such correction. . . the master shall be free of all punishment. . . as if such accident never happened.
- Virginia General Assembly declaration, 1705
We sometimes imagine that such oppressive laws were put quickly into full force by greedy landowners. But that's not the way slavery was established in colonial America. It happened gradually -- one person at a time, one law at a time, even one colony at a time.
One of the places we have the clearest views of that "terrible transformation" is the colony of Virginia. In the early years of the colony, many Africans and poor whites -- most of the laborers came from the English working class -- stood on the same ground. Black and white women worked side-by-side in the fields. Black and white men who broke their servant contract were equally punished.
Arrival of first Africans to Virginia Colony
Africans in court
All were indentured servants. During their time as servants, they were fed and housed. Afterwards, they would be given what were known as "freedom dues," which usually included a piece of land and supplies, including a gun. Black-skinned or white-skinned, they became free.
Historically, the English only enslaved non-Christians, and not, in particular, Africans. And the status of slave (Europeans had African slaves prior to the colonization of the Americas) was not one that was life-long. A slave could become free by converting to Christianity. The first Virginia colonists did not even think of themselves as "white" or use that word to describe themselves. They saw themselves as Christians or Englishmen, or in terms of their social class. They were nobility, gentry, artisans, or servants.
Anthony Johnson was a free black man who owned property in Virginia
One of the few recorded histories of an African in America that we can glean from early court records is that of "Antonio the negro," as he was named in the 1625 Virginia census. He was brought to the colony in 1621. At this time, English and Colonial law did not define racial slavery; the census calls him not a slave but a "servant." Later, Antonio changed his name to Anthony Johnson, married an African American servant named Mary, and they had four children. Mary and Anthony also became free, and he soon owned land and cattle and even indentured servants of his own. By 1650, Anthony was still one of only 400 Africans in the colony among nearly 19,000 settlers. In Johnson's own county, at least 20 African men and women were free, and 13 owned their own homes.
In 1640, the year Johnson purchased his first property, three servants fled a Virginia plantation. Caught and returned to their owner, two had their servitude extended four years. However, the third, a black man named John Punch, was sentenced to "serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural life." He was made a slave.
Virginia recognizes slavery
Virginia slave codes
Traditionally, Englishmen believed they had a right to enslave a non-Christian or a captive taken in a just war. Africans and Indians might fit one or both of these definitions. But what if they learned English and converted to the Protestant church? Should they be released from bondage and given "freedom dues?" What if, on the other hand, status were determined not by (changeable ) religious faith but by (unchangeable) skin color?
Many historians believe this change in status definition was an attempt to find a permanent and reliable workforce to labor in the plantations. Word had gotten back to England that conditions were rough in the New World, especially for servants. As tobacco plantations expanded and England's surplus of workers declined, this meant a labor shortage for land-owning Virginians.
Virginia looks toward Africa for labor
In 1670 Virginia seized Johnson's land...
Also, the indentured servants, especially once freed, began to pose a threat to the property-owning elite. The colonial establishment had placed restrictions on available lands, creating unrest among newly freed indentured servants. In 1676, working class men burned down Jamestown, making indentured servitude look even less attractive to Virginia leaders. Also, servants moved on, forcing a need for costly replacements; slaves, especially ones you could identify by skin color, could not move on and become free competitors.
This disorder that the indentured servant system had created made racial slavery to southern slaveholders much more attractive, because what were black slaves now? Well, they were a permanent dependent labor force, who could be defined as a people set apart. They were racially set apart. They were outsiders. They were strangers and in many ways throughout the world, slavery has taken root, especially where people are considered outsiders and can be put in a permanent status of slavery.
- David Blight, historian
In 1641, Massachusetts became the first colony to legally recognize slavery. Other states, such as Virginia, followed. In 1662, Virginia decided all children born in the colony to a slave mother would be enslaved. Slavery was not only a life-long condition; now it could be passed, like skin color, from generation to generation.
In 1665, Anthony Johnson moved to Maryland and leased a 300-acre plantation, where he died five years later. But back in Virginia that same year, a jury decided the land Johnson left behind could be seized by the government because he was a "negroe and by consequence an alien." In 1705 Virginia declared that "All servants imported and brought in this County... who were not Christians in their Native Country... shall be slaves. A Negro, mulatto and Indian slaves ... shall be held to be real estate."
Court document regarding Anthony Johnson
English suppliers responded to the increasing demand for slaves. In 1672, England officially got into the slave trade as the King of England chartered the Royal African Company, encouraging it to expand the British slave trade. In 1698, the English Parliament ruled that any British subject could trade in slaves. Over the first 50 years of the 18th century, the number of Africans brought to British colonies on British ships rose from 5,000 to 45,000 a year. England had passed Portugal and Spain as the number one trafficker of slaves in the world.
Royal African Company established
Next: The African Slave Trade and the Middle Passage
Part 1 Narrative:
Map: The British Colonies
Europeans Come to Western Africa
New World Exploration and English Ambition
From Indentured Servitude to Racial Slavery
The African Slave Trade and the Middle Passage
The Growth of Slavery in North America
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