Slavery in Black & White — Introduction:
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In this video, (Part 1) I discuss the factors that drove the transformation from indentured servitude to slave labor and the colonial roots of racism. From African Arrival in 1619 to Ethnic European conflict, there was a gradual, but steady process of transformation from indentured servitude to an institution in which black were stamped with slave status and (Part 2) an examination of the steady process of the transformation of slavery into a race-based institution — a process that began in 1619, but was accelerated in the wake of Bacon’s Rebellion.
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As we saw in a previous video, slavery has been practiced in one form or another by many civilizations throughout history. We also learned, however, that Atlantic slave trade represents a radical departure from the historical practice of slavery. Historically, the practice of slavery has typically involved the expansion of one group as they conquer and enslave their neighbors, but in this context, race was more or less incidental. The Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, and even Native Americans each enslaved a variety of different people, but no one particular racial group was specifically targeted or singled out for slave status.
The advent of the Atlantic slave trade brought about a radical transformation in which race became the defining factor in determining who is slave and who is free. Additionally, in the era of the Atlantic slave trade, slavery no longer functioned as a means to assimilate a population, but to specifically single out a population. Slave status could now to be passed down to one’s children and one’s children’s children, and so on.
In 1619, the English warship, White Lion, entered Point Comfort in the English colony of Jamestown which was eventually absorbed into Virginia. They arrived with a cargo that included some 20 captured Africans. The African captives began their hellish journey along with some 350 others who had been kidnapped from their villages in present-day Angola and forced onto a Portuguese slave ship. By the time the ship arrived in Veracruz Mexico, only 147 (less than half) had survived the middle passage, but their ordeal was just beginning. The survivors were then stolen and divided amongst English pirates, among whom, around 20 were taken to Jamestown colony on August 20, 1619, where they were traded for food.
There’s been much debate over the status of those African arrivals. Did they arrive as slaves or indentured servants? Their status wasn’t clear. The main reason the lack of clarity here is that in the early 1600s “slavery” had no clearly defined legal definition. It was an ambiguous term for an institution that was not yet fully developed conceptually. As such, there was little distinction between slaves and indentured servants. Consistent with a system of slavery and servitude throughout human history, ethnic European servants of the old world typically consisted of poor and conquered people. The notion of race had not yet developed as a factor for this form of servitude in early colonial American history. Prior to the early to mid 1600s, racial terms such as “white” and “black” had little social meaning. In fact, as we saw in a previous episode [What Is Black Studies] the concept of race is a relatively recent phenomenon in human history — emerging only within the past four or so hundred years.
During the period that predated social constructs of “blackness” and “whiteness” as we understand them today, Europe had a turbulent history of war, conquest, and enslavement, going all the way back to Roman times. In other words, before slavery became racially based, Europeans essentially enslaved other Europeans. In fact, the very word slave originates from the Holy Roman Empire’s conquest and enslavement of Slavic peoples in the ninth century.
The relationship between Europe’s various warring groups remained turbulent up until the fairly recent past. In fact, England’s first venture into the colonial era didn’t take place in Africa, nor the Americas, but in Ireland. It was there that England developed the concept of plantation colony and that concept would be extended throughout an empire that would eventually include Africa, Australia, India and other parts of Asia, and, of course, the Americas.
The English conquest and colonization of the Irish brought with it centuries of hostility between England and Ireland. Additionally, with England’s harsh colonial treatment of its Irish subjects, an ideology of supremacy soon developed that would later be applied to other groups as a justification for English domination over its colonial subjects. Edmund S. Morgan, author of American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia writes, that in the eyes of the English, “the Irish … [were] clearly the wrong kind of people. In the English view they were barbarous, only nominally Christian, and generally intractable.”
The English view of superiority over their subjects accompanied colonial policies guided by the economic principle of mercantilism. Mercantilism is the underlying principle that colonies exist solely for the benefit of the mother country. What the English needed from its colonial subjects in Ireland was wool for clothing, and it was England’s needs for wool, that brought about a colonial policy known as the “enclosure movement.” So, while the way in whcih the Irish organized their land had worked for them for countless generations prior to English colonization, colonization transformed Irish society by enclosing the old Irish manors that used to form the basis of food production to promote the herding of sheep.
Remember here that the concept of mercantilism dictates that colonies exist solely for the benefit of the mother country, so the enclosure movement was never intended to be for the benefit of the Irish. The process of enclosure, accompanied by force, resistance, and bloodshed, pushed the Irish off their ancestral homelands. They then flooded the streets of London jobless and homeless where they were arrested wholesale and imprisoned as vagrants. From their prisons cells their debts to society were purchased in exchange for seven years of indentured servitude in the Americas.
Some historians, such as Professor Ron Takaki, author of A Different Mirror: A Multicultural History of the United States, have argued that the export of these Irish immigrants was coercive at best, but Dr. Takaki goes as far as to refer to their forced migration as wholesale kidnapping. After they were purchased for seven years of service they were crammed onto ships headed for the Americas on a voyage in which they were subject to dysentery, pregnant women suffered miscarriages, and many died horrible deaths en route.
If the experience of the poor white and Irish indentured servants sounds familiar, it should. The similarity between their experience and that of African captives of the Atlantic slave trade wasn’t lost on the Irish. They recognized early on that while they didn’t arrive on the same boat as the Africans they arrived on a boat that looked like, felt like, and smelled much like the boat that the Africans arrived on. Court records of the period are rife with instances of collaboration between blacks, poor ethnic European and Irish indentured servants. It wasn’t uncommon for blacks and whites to run away and conspire in rebellions together.
As Howard Zinn notes, in A People’s History of the United States:
“The very fact that laws had to be passed after a while to forbid such relations indicates the strength of that tendency. In 1661 a law was passed in Virginia that ‘in case any English servant shall run away in company of any Negroes’ he would have to give special service for extra years to the master of the runaway Negro.'”
Still, the Africans and Irish that were forced into servitude were treated differently almost from the outset. In another account recorded by Howard Zinn:
“six servants and ‘a negro…’ started to run away. While the whites received lighter sentences, ‘Emanuel the Negro [was] to receive thirty stripes and to be burnt in the cheek with the letter R, and to work in shackle one year or more as his master shall see cause.'”
So, what’s the difference between black slavery and white indentured servitude? The answer, essentially, is time. The legal codification of laws that transformed indentured servitude between Africans and the Irish into an institution in which Blacks were exclusively stamped with slave status was a gradual process. Partly driving that process was the fact that a typical term of indenture was seven years. Coincidentally, between 1620 and 1640, the average life expectancy for imported black slaves was seven years. While it took 10 years to recoup the cost of purchasing a slave, it wasn’t until the 1670s when the life expectancy of black slaves rose above 10 years that lifetime servitude became a more attractive option to indentured servitude.
There was one other factor that hastened the transformation from indentured servitude to lifetime slavery, but I’ll discuss that in a later video. So, for now, what are your thoughts? Why do you suppose Blacks were stamped with slave status as opposed to the Irish? Would it have been in the interest of European ethnic immigrants to continue to forge alliances with Blacks? Tell me your thoughts in the comments below.
I’m Darius Spearman. Thank you for watching African Elements, where we strive to develop content and create opportunities to make it easier for scholars to stay in the discipline. I’d like to give a huge thanks to my Patreon members for supporting this work. If you’re so inclined, you too can pledge a membership for ad free content at the link below. Otherwise, a “like and subscribe” would also be appreciated. Until next time, I’ll see you in the comments.
**END OF PART 1**
Thank you for watching African elements. In this episode, we’re going to talk about how Blacks got stamped with slave status and some of the key steps in the evolution of a relatively new form of exploitation – race-based slavery. Let’s jump into that right now.
Welcome back to African elements. If you’re new to this channel, we create Africana Studies content for the classroom and bring it to you where you’re at. Be sure to stick around until the end for our question of the day so that you can add your insights.
In the last episode, we looked at the colonial roots of racism. In the early evolution of colonization, the expanding empire built its wealth off of the backs of ethnic Europeans and various other groups including Africans. The tendency of oppressed and colonized people to band together motivated the colonial powers – in this case England – to enact laws that were intended to draw differences between the groups and create stratification. Still, even though it’s difficult to imagine now, in the early 1600s race and racism wasn’t yet firmly entrenched.
In his book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, Ibram X. Kendi notes that the word race as applied to human beings doesn’t appear in any dictionary until 1606. In an uncanny coincidence, the first permanent English colony in the Americas was established at Jamestown in 1607.
Even though the concept of race was still in its infancy, the connection between colonization and racial oppression was established from the outset. In 1589, one of the chief promoters of English colonization of the Americas, Richard Hakluyt published a collection of nearly all available documents describing British overseas ventures. In it, Hakluyt urged explorers, traders, and missionaries to fulfill their superior destiny, to civilize, Christianize, capitalize, and command the world.
Hakluyt set the framework for the early history of the British North American colonies whereby European ethnic immigrants, Native Americans, and women as well as Africans occupied a social caste that defined them as colonial subjects to be ruled over and whose value lay solely on their capacity to generate capital.
As we’ve seen, the Irish were often forced migrants to the early American colonies, but even those who came willingly began to make up a discontented class of poor whites often referred to as the “giddy multitude.” The giddy multitude resented their status as mere economic units to be exploited for capital gain and had a strong sense that they had been duped into coming to the Americas.
Those who survived their term of indenture, were typically given land far out on the colonial frontier where they confronted hostile Native Americans who didn’t take kindly to intruders. For the colonial elite, those undesirables were simply out of sight and out of mind. They weren’t concerned with the harsh and hostile climate into which the poor had been cast out, and they expended little thought or effort into offering the frontier folk any sort of protection as colonial subjects. Consequently, the giddy multitude was becoming an increasingly unruly group of poor whites and blacks who began to pose a real threat to the colonial elite.
As European ethnic immigrants and African captives increasingly banded together to resist exploitation, acts of interethnic solidarity prompted the colonial elite to enact laws to drive a wedge between the communities. Virginia’s first legal decision to acknowledge race came in 1630 when a White colonist was sentenced to be whipped for, “defiling his body in lying with a negro.” As Ibram X Kendi notes, in addition to being the first decision to acknowledge race in the colonies, “It was the first recorded instance of gender racism in America.” That initial step in designating Blacks with a separate and distinct legal status eventually paved the way for race-based slavery – but were not quite there yet.
Along the way, laws were enacted that punished black and white runaways differently and imposed special penalties for whites who ran away in the company of Blacks.
In yet another step, the colonial ethos of civilizing and Christianizing its colonial subjects brought with it a contradiction that also had to be addressed from a legal standpoint. If civilizing their subjects meant Christianizing them wouldn’t Christianizing Africans make them ineligible for slave status? Could Christians enslave other Christians? To address that dilemma, Virginia decreed in a 1667 law that conversion to Christianity doesn’t alter one’s status of bondage. “the conferring of baptisme doth not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage.”
Since African arrival in 1619, the laws that separated black and white were gradually enacted in such a way as to make the words White, Christian, and free practically synonymous while blackness became synonymous with slave status. But there was one event that accelerated that trend.
Poor folks on the frontier had a rough go of it. Not only were they excluded from the best land near the coast, but their presence on the frontier forced them into conflict with the indigenous population. In 1676, Nathaniel Bacon approached the British appointed Governor of Virginia, Lord William Berkeley and requested an army commission so that he and the frontier folk could deal with the Native American problem themselves. Fresh off a very costly war with Metacom who let an indigenous resistance against English settlement onto Algonquian land, Lord Berkeley was reluctant to be drawn into another conflict with native Americans. He was also understandably reticent about arming a group of unruly whites and blacks on the Virginia frontier.
Instead of sending help, Lord Berkeley resolved to fortify a chain of forts protecting the colonial elite in Jamestown – a solution that provided no comfort to those out on the frontier, so the frontiersmen (black and white) rallied behind Bacon. When Nathanial Bacon boldly “proclaimed liberty to all Servants and Negroes,” Berkeley declared Bacon a rebel and, Bacon’s Rebellion was on.
The rebels marched on Jamestown, captured it, and pillaged the estates of the pro-Berkeley elite and burned Jamestown to the ground. By the time an English force arrived to crush the revolt, Bacon himself had died dysentery, and his army of indentured and former servants along with runaway slaves was already falling apart.
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. Some historians argue that Virginia planters, fearing other insurrection by former white servants, affixed their gaze more exclusively to Africa for laborers and sought to divide blacks and whites by creating an artificial color line. This is the moment when race and racism radically altered the system of forced labor that had been practiced by human civilizations for thousands of years by injecting race into the equation.
Did Bacon’s Rebellion hasten the establishment of a racialized labor system based on black slave labor? Let’s review the evidence. It’s clear that the colonial elite were deeply concerned about the potential for blacks and poor whites to join forces. While the trend toward making slave status exclusive to Blacks began before Bacon’s rebellion, there does seem to be to be clustering of those efforts in the 1660s through the early 1700s. That trend can be seen even in the rebellion itself. In 1680, Virginia legislators pardoned only the White rebels.
Additionally, 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. Slave status became based on the status of the mother – an odd development in a patrilineal society but it also marks the turn toward perpetual slavery in which slavery is passed down from generation to generation. By 1691 there were also laws against “abominable mixture” or miscegenation. At the same time, while slave status is based on the status of the mother there is actually an economic incentive for white slave owners to rape black slave women – a dirty little secret about slavery that was a common experience for black women.
In 1705, the Virginia legislature also denied Blacks the ability to hold office.
Simultaneously, we see deliberate effort to emphasize a color line between blacks and poor whites by elevating the status of poor whites just enough to keep the giddy multitude at bay and to create an artificial incentive for poor whites to protect status which was only slightly better that of black slaves. As Ibram X. Kendi also notes, Virginia lawmakers made slave patrols compulsory for non-slaveholding Whites; these groups of White citizens were charged with policing slaves, enforcing discipline, and guarding routes of escape.
Step by step the words in English, Christian, white, and free became nearly synonymous in the minds of white colonizers. It also became synonymous in the minds of poor whites even in the face of their own oppression. As poor whites cast their lot with the colonial elite, let’s not forget that in many places until the 1830s property qualifications excluded many poor whites from voting. By 1860, only about a quarter of southern families owned slaves, yet during the Civil war – a war openly premised on protecting and extending slavery – the Confederacy instituted a policy that exempted anyone who owned 20 or more slaves from service in the military. So it was largely the non-slaveholding class that were left to go off to war, fight and die to preserve and protect the elite status of the slaveholding class. The sheer stupidity is mind boggling.
As the colonies, and later the United States went down a path of increased dependence on Black slave labor, the diabolical ingenuity racism of was that it proved an effective way to oppress blacks AND to dupe poor whites into becoming active and willing agents in their own oppression.
What are your thoughts? Since it seems that racism was initially prompted to serve a colonial purpose, do you see any of those colonial frameworks in place today? How might those frameworks be dismantled? This is a question that can only be addressed through collective dialogue, so I greatly appreciate your insights in the comments below.
I’m Prof. Darius Spearman. Thank you for watching African elements where we are working to develop Africana studies content for the masses. Again, I’d like to give a huge shout out to my patron subscribers supporting this work. If you like to join them, you can check out my Patreon page at the link below otherwise, the like and subscribe would also be appreciated. Until next time, I’ll see you in the comments.
**END OF PART 2**