The Origins of Servitude and Slavery in Colonial Virginia

How do you fill jobs that no one wants to do?  One choice is that you can pay workers in these positions extremely well, making these hard jobs desirable.  That is expensive, making it hard or impossible to turn a profit.  The other option is to coerce people into performing that labor – through financial, legal, or violent means…  Which way did landowners in colonial America solve this dilemma?
This lesson was reported from:
A chapter of The United States: An Open Ended History, a free online textbook.  Adapted in part from open sources.

Indentured Servitude

Indentured servitude was a system by which immigrants, typically young Europeans under 25, both men and women, came to the English colonies.

Farmers, merchants, and shopkeepers in the British colonies found it very difficult to hire free workers, primarily because it was easy for potential workers to set up their own farms by moving to frontier lands. Consequently, a common solution was to transport a young worker from Britain or a German state, who would work for several years to pay off the debt of their travel costs. During the indenture period the servants were not paid cash wages, but were provided with food, accommodation, clothing and training. The indenture document specified how many years the servant would be required to work, after which they would be free. Terms of indenture ranged from one to seven years with typical terms of four or five years.

just arrived
Virginia Gazette, March 18, 1775.

Servants could not marry without the permission of their owner, were subject to physical punishment (like many young ordinary servants), and saw their obligation to labor enforced by the courts. To ensure uninterrupted work by the female servants, the law lengthened the term of their indenture if they became pregnant. But unlike slaves, servants were guaranteed to be eventually released from bondage. At the end of their term they received a payment known as “freedom dues” (typically a small parcel of land or a new suit of clothes) and become free members of society. One could buy and sell indentured servants’ contracts, and the right to their labor would change hands, but not the person as a piece of property.

Both male and female laborers could be subject to violence, occasionally even resulting in death. Historian Richard Hofstadter notes that, as slaves arrived in greater numbers after 1700, white labourers in Virginia became a “privileged stratum, assigned to lighter work and more skilled tasks.” He also notes that “Runaways were regularly advertised in the newspapers, rewards were offered, and both sheriffs and the general public were enlisted to secure their return. … The standard penalty in the North, not always rigorously enforced, was extra service of twice the time the master had lost, though whipping was also common.”

Pennsylvania-Gazette-11-25-1762-5-indentured-girls
Pennsylvania Gazette, November 25, 1762.

Slavery

The first Africans to be brought to British North America landed in Virginia in 1619. They arrived on a Dutch ship that had captured them from the Spanish. These approximately 20 individuals appear to have been treated as indentured servants, and a significant number of enslaved Africans earned freedom by fulfilling a work contract or for converting to Christianity.  Like European indentured servants at the completion of their contract, man of these Africans were each granted 50 acres (200,000 m2) of land when freed from their indentures, so they could raise their own tobacco or other crops.

By 1650, there were about 300 Africans living in Virginia, about 1% of an estimated 30,000 population of people of English and European ancestry.  Some successful free people of color, such as Anthony Johnson, in turn acquired slaves or indentured servants for workers. Some historians say this evidence suggests that racial attitudes were much more flexible in 17th-century Virginia than they would later become.

Jamestown 1619Historians generally believe that slavery as an institution was created over time, one law and court case at a time, until Africans could expect to be held for life as the property of their masters.

For example, in 1640, John Punch, a African American indentured servant, escaped from his master, Hugh Gwyn, along with two white servants. Hugh Gwyn petitioned the courts, and the three servants were captured, convicted, and sentenced. The white servants had their indentured contracts extended by four years, but the courts gave John Punch a much harsher sentence. The courts decided that “the third being a negro named John Punch shall serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural life here or else where.” This is considered the earliest legal documentation of slavery in Virginia. It marked racial disparity in the treatment of black servants and their white counterparts, but also the beginning of Virginian courts reducing African Americans from a condition of indentured servitude to slavery. 

There is other evidence that by the 1650s some African Americans in Virginia were serving for life. In 1660 the Assembly stated that “in case any English servant shall run away in company with any Negroes who are incapable of making satisfaction by addition of time…[he] shall serve for the time of the said Negroes absence.” This statute indicates quite clearly that Negroes served for life and hence could not make “satisfaction” by serving longer once they were recaptured. This phrase gave legal status to the already existing practice of lifetime enslavement of African Americans. Statutes were soon passed to define slavery with more conditions than lifetime servitude.

In the 1660s, the colonial legislature adopted a law stating that all children born in the colony would take the status of their mothers, regardless of who their father was. Thus children born to enslaved mothers would be enslaved, regardless of their ethnicity or paternity. This was contrary to English common law for children of parents who are both English subjects, in which the child takes status from the father. But the law also meant that mixed-race children born to white women were born free, and many families of free African Americans were descended from unions between white women and ethnic African men during the colonial era.

Slavery became a racial caste – a status determined at birth, for life.

You can see this process for yourself – Primary Source Analysis: The Evolution of the Virginia Laws of Servitude and Slavery (1643-1691).

slave children
The law developed in Virginia and later adopted in other colonies said that one’s status as either slave or free derived from one’s mother. This meant that both of the children depicted in this photo – from New Orleans in 1863 – were enslaved, despite the obvious European heritage of the girl on the right.

During the early 17th century, Virginia planters developed the commodity crop of tobacco as their chief export. It was a labor-intensive crop, and demand for it in England and Europe led to an increase in the importation of African slaves in the colony. By the mid-eighteenth century, there were 145,000 slaves in the Chesapeake Bay region, spread mostly on large plantations, as compared to 50,000 in the Spanish colony of Cuba, where they worked in urbanized settlements.

Martin's_Best_Virginia_tobacco_advertisement
Enslaved Africans were not a hidden secret – they were included in the advertisements for Virginia tobacco.

Bacon’s Rebellion

The Burning of Jamestown by Howard Pyle, c. 1905
The Burning of Jamestown by Howard Pyle, c. 1905.

Bacon’s Rebellion was an armed rebellion in 1676 by Virginia settlers led by Nathaniel Bacon against the rule of Royal Governor William Berkeley. The governor’s dismissive policy with regard to land on its western frontier, along with other challenges including leaving Bacon out of his inner circle, refusing to allow Bacon to be a part of his fur trade with the Native Americans, and a lack of colonial response to Doeg American Indian attacks, helped to motivate a popular uprising against Berkeley, who had failed to address the demands of the colonists regarding their safety.

A thousand Virginians of all classes and races rose up in arms against Berkeley, attacking Indians, chasing Berkeley from Jamestown, Virginia, and ultimately torching the capital. The rebellion was first suppressed by a few armed merchant ships from London whose captains sided with Berkeley and the loyalists. Government forces from England arrived soon after and spent several years defeating pockets of resistance and reforming the colonial government to be once more under direct royal control.

It was the first rebellion in the American colonies in which discontented frontiersmen took part.  The alliance between indentured servants and Africans (most enslaved until death or freed), united by their bond-servitude, disturbed the ruling class, who responded by hardening the racial caste of slavery in an attempt to divide the two races from subsequent united uprisings with the passage of the Virginia Slave Codes of 1705. While the farmers did not succeed in their initial goal of driving the Indians from Virginia, the rebellion did result in Berkeley being recalled to England.

 

The article was adapted in part from:

  1. Indentured Servitude in the Americas
  2. History of Slavery in Virginia
  3. Bacon’s Rebellion

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