Slavery was not supposed to be part of the plan for Virginia's colonization. In fact, when the English settled Jamestown in 1607, they were resolved not to replicate the Spanish practice in their North American colonies. English expansionists deemed Spain's enslavement of first Indians and then Africans to be barbaric and un-Christian. Some theorists even argued that among England's imperial objectives should be the liberation of Spain's slaves. Richard Hakluyt, the most important of these advocates of American colonization, suggested that the Indian and African slaves held within the Spanish colonies would welcome English liberators and assist in English efforts to drive Spain out of the western hemisphere.
But by the end of the seventeenth century, slavery was firmly established in Virginia. Although not part of the original plan, slavery had become an entrenched institution that would fiercely resist limitation or elimination until the Civil War.
When exactly Virginia's English colonists began to practice slavery is difficult to determine. Records from 1619 suggest that twenty Africans, possibly Virginia's first, arrived in a Dutch ship filled with servants. But these were clearly servants, not slaves; their period of service was fixed and their status was not passed on to their children. But by the 1640s, the few available records suggest that Virginians were starting to distinguish between black and white servants. There are isolated references to some black servants serving unusually long terms, and others actually serving for life. But there are just as many references to black servants completing their indentures and acquiring property. After 1660, however, the records reveal a more rigid differentiation between white and black servants. Over the next two decades, legislative acts in Virginia and the neighboring colony of Maryland expressly defined the permanent and inheritable status of slavery.
More difficult than determining when slavery emerged is sorting out why Virginians resorted to slavery—or more precisely, how these settlers moved from a determination to free slaves to an equally insistent resolve to hold them in bondage. How exactly did Virginians, so anxious to avoid the Spanish example of slavery in 1607, find themselves so economically and philosophically committed to the institution within just half a century.
As with much of Virginia's story, the answer begins with the development of the colony's tobacco economy around 1617. When Jamestown settlers discovered that they could grow the plant and that there was a lucrative market for it in England, the colony's economy exploded. Within a couple of years, settlers who had long struggled just to survive were realizing profits far beyond the wages of working people in England. A man working alone could grow about 1500 pounds of tobacco a year—and at 3 shillings a pound this worked out to an annual income of more than £200, about seven times the annual income of a skilled English craftsman.
With a seemingly endless supply of land for the roughly 1000 colonists in Jamestown in 1617, there were relatively few restrictions on a man earning a good deal of money. But there were even greater opportunities for a man who could bring more than just his own labor to the cultivation of tobacco. If a man had a servant, his profits would double; with five or six, he could easily realize a princely sum of £1000 a year.
As a result, the demand for servants in Virginia increased dramatically around 1620. Planters competed aggressively for the servants delivered by the Virginia Company and made available to individual planters willing to finance a servant's transport in return for a fixed term of service—usually four or five years. With so much money hinging on a planter's ability to obtain servants, the value of servants increased. But as their value increased, their status diminished. In the decade following the discovery of tobacco, Virginia planters turned their servants into quasi-slaves—laborers who were still technically servants but were more abused and less protected than their counterparts in England.
In order to appreciate the gradual transformation of servitude in Virginia, we need to begin with the recognition that freedom was a more cluttered concept in seventeenth-century England than we usually consider it to be today. Over the centuries England had developed several forms of servitude in which individuals bound out themselves or their children to another for a specified period of time. Consequently, while the opposite of freedom in both England and Virginia was slavery, in between these two poles existed a variety of forms of 'unfreedom.' For example, among the 'unfree' of Virginia there were several types of servants. 'Tenants' were delivered to the colony to work directly for the Virginia Company. They were bound to this service for four or five years and were entitled to half the proceeds of their labor. Common 'bond servants,' on the other hand, were bound to an individual. They owed their master generally four or five years of labor and received only room and board for their labor. Worse off than these were the 'duty boys.' These teenagers were auctioned to planters for about £10 apiece and served seven-year terms at no compensation beyond room and board, after which they served as tenants for the Virginia Company for another seven years.
'Unfreedom' therefore took different forms; the lengths of service and contractual terms varied. But rooted as they were in English practice, these forms of servitude traditionally possessed a few customary protections. For example, within the English tradition, while a person might surrender his or her freedom to a master for several years, the servant controlled the contracting process. Annual 'hiring fairs' provided an opportunity for servants to negotiate or renew their labor contracts for the next term of service. These fairs were guided by centuries-old customs and regulated by county courts and ethical standards articulated by churches and local mores.
But in tobacco-boom Virginia, masters had almost complete control over the contracting process. They bought servants from the company, or from one another. Servants were traded for goods, bought and sold mid-contract, and even gambled away in card games. Servants had no control over the transfer of their services from one person to another. Nor were there any institutional or communal restraints on planter behavior. Churches were non-existent and traditional ethical standards had been shattered by the powerful allure of tobacco wealth.
The only institution able to protect servants was the colonial government. And on occasion it did. But colonial officials were among the wealthiest men in the colony, generally owned the most servants, and frequently used their authority to tighten their grip on their workers. Minor offenses, for example, were punished with extraordinary penalties, including extensions on a servants's terms of service. When Thomas Hatch, a duty boy, criticized government officials in a private conversation, he was whipped through the town, had his ear cut off, and had his seven-year term of service (to the governor) doubled.9
Within this environment, servants were extraordinarily vulnerable. The availability of land offered the servant his only hope; if he made it to the end of his term, chances were good that he would acquire property and become an independent farmer. But the slightest misstep would see his term extended, and the least bit of bad luck might force him to contract away his or her freedom for another term of service. A bad harvest, an Indian attack, or a bad hand of cards might force a person to surrender his freedom for several years. And even the most 'respectable' of persons was willing to take advantage of another's misfortune. When Jane Dickenson was taken captive by Indians in 1622, a Jamestown physician, Dr. John Pott, agreed to pay her ransom. But as compensation for the two pounds of beads he paid for her release, he insisted that she work for him for more than a year.10
By 1630, Virginia's tobacco prices had fallen and the boom years had ended. But the plant still produced good—if no longer spectacular—profits for the man who could acquire servants. By that time, servitude in Jamestown had turned into something different than servitude in England. And over the next several decades, Virginians would slide further down this slippery slope, transforming people into commodities and servants into something more degraded than servants. They were not yet slaves. Most servants did eventually become free, and while a servant might have his or her term extended for parenting a child while indented to another, that child did not inherit the parent's unfree status. There was still a large step that had to be taken before servitude became permanent and inheritable. But that step seems to have been shortened by the particular circumstances and attitudes surrounding England's first real encounter with Africa in the middle of the sixteenth century.
It was the color of the Africans that impressed Englishmen the most. They had a long familiarity with the dark-skinned Moors of North Africa, but these people were far lighter in color than the West Africans the English first encountered around 1550.
This striking color led to speculations about its origins. Was blackness caused by the sun? Or was it the legacy of God's curse on Ham? But these explorations into the significance of the African's color were informed by more than rudimentary science. English culture had already loaded the color of black with meaning. It was associated with filth and sin, baseness and dishonesty. In contrast, Elizabethan ideals of feminine beauty emphasized whiteness—especially in combination with pink or red. For the English, therefore, the color of the African was already ideologically charged. And the resulting, prejudiced conclusions about Africans were furthered though sensationalized observations of their social and sexual behavior.
The accounts generated by traders and explorers were filled with lurid descriptions of the Africans' unfamiliar behavior. English readers devoured the sensational details of polygamy, infanticide, and cosmetic mutilation. With equal interest they read of the Africans' religious beliefs, which were characterized as primitively pagan and barbaric. But no feature of African life proved more fascinating to the English than the Africans' sexuality. Writers teased and scandalized English readers with their accounts of the rampant promiscuity and unrestrained sexual indulgence that they claimed was typical among Africans. The alleged sexual aggressiveness of African women seemed particularly tantalizing, as well as the supposed anatomical distinctiveness of the African men. One writer was amazed by their 'large propagators'; another suggested that African men were 'furnished with such members as are after a sort burdensome to them.'
This fascination with Africans' sexual practices veered into the even more peculiar with English speculations about the relationship between Africans and apes. The large monkeys were new to the English as well—and they quickly drew a series of bizarre conclusions. While only a few suggested that the Africans and the apes stemmed from some sort of cross-fertilization, writers commonly suggested that sexual encounters between the humans and apes were common.
By the seventeenth century, a constellation of overlapping ideas had defined the African in the English imagination. Supposedly barbaric in their behavior, ungodly in their religion, connected in some way with apes, and scarred by an offensive color, Africans were defined as the opposite of the English. One historian, Winthrop Jordan, has argued further that they were intellectually useful to the English as a sort of anti-type—a negative social mirror that allowed Englishmen to reassure themselves about their own religious and social character.
For Virginians, we might speculate that this constellation of attitudes regarding the African served them in an even more horrible way. As they allowed their labor practices to slide further toward the inhuman, as they treated their servants with more and more cruelty, their sense of the African as something of a beast allowed them to take the final step toward slavery. Without the arrival of the Africans, Jamestown's planters probably would have respected some ultimate limitation on their abusive labor practices. But in the unrestrained, profit-crazy atmosphere of Virginia, a set of convenient beliefs about blacks and blackness allowed Englishmen to do what was formerly unthinkable.