The Invention of Slavery
The first English settlers in Colonial Virginia did nor arrive with a well-developed concept of race based slavery. Slavery had to be invented.
The Invention of Slavery in Colonial Virginia
Slavery in Virginia, America’s oldest colony, had to be invented. The reduction of human beings from Africa to the status of disposable property took nearly a century to become established in Virginia colonial law. According to the PBS series Africans in America, English settlers of the early 17th Century identified themselves as English, Christian and members of a particular class, rather than primarily as “white” as opposed to “black.” Historically, English slaves could become free by converting to Christianity, so servitude in early Virginia was not necessarily a permanent condition. Records from the 1600s indicate that a number of Africans, imported into the colony were treated similarly to white indentured servants in two significant respects:
- A number of Africans served a set term of indenture and like their fellow white servants had legal standing to sue for their freedom in the Virginia courts.
- Some freed African-American servants owned land and prospered as farmers.
The African Anthony Johnson, made his first appearance on Virginia’s census roles as the servant “Antonio.” Colonial records indicate that Anthony Johnson married another servant named Mary and that both became free after their terms of service expired. Eventually, Anthony purchased land, became prosperous and employed indentured servants of his own. In Johnson’s home county, 13 Africans owned their own homes.
The fact that African servants were not yet regarded as property in mid-17th Century Virginia is also borne out by their access to the courts. Africans in America, presents examples of black servants who brought suit for their freedom. As late as 1675, African Philip Cowen petitioned the court for his freedom. After his original master died, Cowen was indentured to a cousin of the deceased for eight years, after which time, he was to be freed and given a suit of clothes and a quantity of corn. When the new master attempted a second extension of his indenture, Cowen sued for his freedom. The court found in his favor and ordered his freedom plus the promised suit of clothes and barrels of corn.
During the second half of 1650s events converged to encourage race based slavery and to reduce Africans and their descendants to chattel. The demand for labor on burgeoning tobacco plantations led to the importation of ever larger numbers of Africans at a time when the supply of white indentured servants was declining. In 1650 there were about three hundred black people. By 1700, more than a thousand Africans were being brought into the colony every year.
The greater visibility of Africans led to a consciousness of racial differences that did not exist in the early decades of the colony. In 1675, Nathaniel Bacon led a rebellion against the colonial government over land and relations with local Indians. Disgruntled former servants of both English and African descent made up sizable core of Bacons’ forces. Although the insurgency ended a year later after Bacon fell ill and died, Bacon’s Rebellion raised the specter of black rebellion, which became deeply rooted in the antebellum South.
The Triumph of Race Based Chattel Slavery
Combinations of fear and greed ultimately led to the characteristic rationalizations for slavery based on claims about racial differences. In 1862, Virginia reversed traditional English Common Law by stating that the status of a child would be based on the legal status of the child’s mother. This law marked a step toward making servitude an inherited condition.
The “terrible transformation” had begun, the fate of millions of Africans and their descendents in Virginia was not sealed until 1705. The Slave Codes of that year proclaimed:
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 resist 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.