Episode 4: Slavery in Black & White


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Slavery in Black & White — Introduction:

In this episode, Slavery in Black and White: The Development of Race Based Slavery in the British North American Colonies. Slavery is nothing new in human history, but what is relatively new, however, is the phenomenon of race based slavery – a radical transformation from slavery as it had been practiced up to the point of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Given that the British colonizers conquered many different peoples, and had a general distain for the Irish, Native Americans, Africans, and each of their conquered subjects, how then did it come to be that Africans got tagged with slave status?

The advent of the Atlantic Slave Trade brought about a radical transformation in which race becomes the defining factor in determining who is slave and who is free. In 1619, a Dutch ship entered Jamestown with a cargo that included 19 Africans. Their status was not clear. The main reason the lack of clarity here is that in the early 1600s “slavery” that had no clearly defined legal definition. It was an ambiguous term for an institution that was not yet fully developed conceptually. Prior to the early to mid 1600s, racial terms such as “white” and “Black” had very little social meaning.  In fact, the concept of race is a relatively recent phenomenon in human history – emerging only within the past four or so hundred years.

Europe has had a turbulent history of war, conquest, and enslavement, going all the way back to Roman times. As England ventured out into its colonial age began with Ireland. It was there that England developed the idea of what a plantation colony would be and extended it throughout an empire that would later include Africa, Australia, India and other parts of Asia, and, of course, the Americas.

England’s colonization of the Irish pushed the Irish off their ancestral home lands, who then flooded the streets of London jobless and homeless and were arrested wholesale and imprisoned as vagrants.  From their prisons cells their debts to society were purchased in exchange for seven years indentured servitude the Americas.  After they were purchased as indentured servants they were crammed onto ships headed for the Americas on a voyage in which they were subjected to dysentery pregnant women were suffering miscarriages and many of these immigrants died horrible deaths en route. The similarity between the experience of indentured servants and that of African captives of the Atlantic Slave Trade was not lost on the Irish.

Court records of the period are rife with instances of collaboration between Blacks, poor white and Irish indentured servants. It was not uncommon for Blacks and whites to run away and conspire in rebellions together. It’s from this climate in which we have increasingly unruly groups of poor whites and Blacks whose labor was being exploited by the colonial elite and in which the status of servitude between Blacks and poor whites was virtually identical that a real threat to the elite status began to take shape.

In 1676 Nathaniel Bacon led an uprising of Blacks and poor whites against the colonial elite in Virginia.  Bacon’s Rebellion led to tighter British control of the colony. It may also have hastened the movement toward a labor system based on Black slavery. At about the same time as Bacon’s Rebellion we start to see in the Colonies laws that transform slave status from relatively ambiguous to institution associated exclusively with Blacks.  Any African-American caught in the commission of a crime was committed to slavery for life while white indentured servants simply had years added to their term. Step by step the words in English, Christian, white, and free became nearly synonymous in the minds of white colonizers.

Poor whites also accepted the equation of “Blackness” with slavery even in the face of their own oppression. In many places poor whites were not allowed to vote as property qualifications effectively barred them from citizenshipuntil the 1830s.  The irony of racism is that those who most ardently defended slavery and white supremacy were the very people who didn’t own slaves, had no stake in the institution of slavery, and benefited least from white supremacy. The legacy of Bacon’s Rebellion was to create a system of institutionalized racism that duped poor whites into becoming active agents of their own oppression and divided from the population with which they had the most common – Black slaves.


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