Thursday, April 7, 2016

Slavery At Jamestown

Our “peculiar institution” of slavery did not initially exist at Jamestown. The first recorded group of “20.and Odd” Africans is known to have been landed in Virginia in late August 1619 in what was to the settlers an unknown state of bondage. Those Africans joined a number who were already there, which would gradually increase from between thirty and fifty to the low hundreds during the colony’s first four decades, while the English influx grew by tens of thousands.[1]
Those that came in 1619 may have come as slaves, but were not after they landed.  They are thought to have been initially bound to agricultural labor and service under terms similar to English servants’ contracts or indentures, as “no such condition of lifetime servitude was recognized in English or Virginia law at that time.” [2] When they completed the terms of indenture as servants, several achieved their freedom and the capacity to acquire land and property of their own, but others found themselves bound by what proved to be indefinite terms.
The earliest Jamestown settlers were joined over the following decades by over a hundred thousand more who were lured from an economically distressed and overpopulated England by demand for cheap labor and opportunity. As historian James Horn relates, “…about three-quarters of all English settlers arrived in Virginia as indentured servants…[who] (not enslaved Africans) would comprise the main source of labor in the tobacco fields during the entire century"[3] and presaged those who subsequently were brought involuntarily. Many of those so indentured were treated little better than slaves, but some of those that survived and satisfied their contracts went on to play important roles in the colony and local economy.
Virginia’s tobacco labor force was predominately composed of English indentured servants until the 1670s, when that immigration flow slowed to a trickle and increasing numbers of laborers were needed to work the colony’s tobacco fields. Historian Martha W. McCartney wrote, “It is estimated that 75,000 whites emigrated from the British Isles to the Chesapeake colonies between 1630 and 1680, when tobacco consumption was on the rise. Half-to-three-quarters of these people were indentured servants, many of who were poor, unskilled youths. Planters were especially eager to procure male workers to work in their tobacco fields and during the 1630s six times as many men as women became indentured servants”. However, she also tells us that for several decades onward, “…approximately four out of five newly arrived immigrants still perished”.[4]
Involuntary African immigrants and slavery began being introduced in the 1650s following the leads of the Massachusetts and Connecticut colonies. In the 1640s, the Virginia Assembly began enacting policies and laws that fated almost all Africans and African Americans in the colony to a permanent underclass and involuntary servitude. In 1661, with the imposition of new royal rule and aristocratic domination, the nascent Commonwealth began institutionalizing racially based slavery. Charles II’s imperial initiative fostering the slave trade would also result in more bonded Africans being deployed by plantations that had depended on indentured English.
The emergence of the new elite ruling class during William Berkeley’s second governorship also established an attitude among its members toward the lower classes, particularly Africans and African-Americans, that reflected much less humanity and tolerance, and a facility to arbitrarily relegate them to the lowest positions in society.

[1] James H. Sweet notes in his essay, African Identity and Slave Resistance in the Portuguese Atlantic that, “William Thorndale has demonstrated that, in the 1619 census, thirty-two Afro-Virginians were already in the colony”, in Mancall (ed.), The Atlantic World and Virginia, 1550-1624. 225. They were in addition the group that more famously arrived that year. Anthony Parent, in Atlantic Outpost in, Heinemann, et al., Old Dominion, New Commonwealth, says that Governor Berkeley “reported that there were but 300 blacks in 1649, many of whom were free.” 29
[2] Excerpt from Parent’s Atlantic Outpost in Old Dominion, New Commonwealth, 37
[3] Excerpt from James P. P. Horn’s Leaving England: The Social Background of Indentured Servants in the Seventeenth Century; (Jamestown Interpretive Essays, Virtual Jamestown, Virginia Center for Digital History, University of Virginia at

[4] Excerpts from Martha McCartney’s, A Study of the Africans and African Americans on Jamestown Island and at Green Spring, 1619-1803 (Williamsburg, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation – prepared for the Colonial National Historical Park, National Park Service U.S. Department of the Interior Cooperative Agreement CA-4000-2-1017; 2003) 32.

Other Sources:

Horn, James P. P: Adapting to a New World: English Society in the Seventeenth-Century Chesapeake. (Chapel Hill and London, published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia, by the University of North Carolina Press, 1995)
Swingen, Abigail L.; Competing Visions of Empire; Labor, Slavery and the Origins of the British Empire (New Haven CT, Yale University Press, 2015).

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