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Arrival of first Africans to Virginia Colony

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Arrival of First Africans to Virginia Colony

It is late summer. Out of a violent storm appears a Dutch ship. The ship's cargo hold is empty except for twenty or so Africans whom the captain and his crew have recently robbed from a Spanish ship. The captain exchanges the Africans for food, then sets sail.

It's not clear if the Africans are considered slaves or indentured servants. (An indentured servant would be required to work a set amount of time, then granted freedom.) Records of 1623 and 1624 list them as servants, and indeed later records show increasing numbers of free blacks, some of whom were assigned land. On the other hand, records from gatherings do not indicate the marital status of the Africans (Mr., Miss, etc.) and, unlike white servants, no year is associated with the names -- information vital in determining the end of a servant's term of bondage. Most likely some Africans were slaves and some were servants. At any rate, the status of people in bondage was very confusing, even to those who were living at the time.

Whatever the status of these first Africans to arrive at Jamestown, it is clear that by 1640, at least one African had been declared a slave. This African was ordered by the court "to serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural life here or elsewhere."

The grounds for this harsh sentence presumabley lay in the fact that he was non-Christian rather than in the fact that he was physically dark. But religious beliefs could change, while skin color could not. Within a generation race, not religion, was being made the defining characteristic of enslaved Virginians, The terrible transformation to racial slavery was underway.

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Related Entries:
Landing of Negroes at Jamestown from a Dutch Man-of-War, 1619
Africans in court
Thomas Davis on the first Africans in Virginia
Peter Wood on the Africans' arrival in 1619
Norrece Jones on the early status of Africans in Virginia
Betty Wood on the early status of the Africans in Virginia

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