1619: How slavery started in the English colonies

A Liberal Dose


In the last couple of weeks, I have talked about the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, how it started, and the role Portugal and Spain played in its expansion. This week, I’m going to discuss it in the context of England and her colonies - the antecedent of the United States, so closer to home for most of us.

England was late getting into the colonizing game (if you don’t count Ireland and Scotland). The first successful English colony in the New World was Jamestown, established in 1607. As we’ve discussed before, most of the labor in the early days of that colony was performed by poor white indentured servants, who had essentially sold themselves into servitude (usually for seven years) for passage to the colony, in hopes of one day being free and owning land.

Twelve years later, a ship called the White Lion landed in the Virginia colony. It was an English privateer operating under a Dutch letter of marque - in other words, the ship and its sailors were English, but they had a license from the Netherlands authorizing them to attack Dutch enemies in their name. The English and Dutch were allies against the Spanish and Portuguese. The White Lion had captured a Portuguese ship and taken her cargo, which included African slaves (remember how active Portugal was in the slave trade). The White Lion’s captain traded about two dozen of these slaves to the Virginia colonists for food and supplies. This was the first incidence of the slave trade in English colonies. It is NOT correct that this was the first instance of slavery in North America, as many modern sources claim; the Spanish had been bringing African slaves to North America for a century or more by that time. It was the first slavery in an ENGLISH colony in North America.

Being new to the game, it took the Virginia colonists a while to get the hang of it. They treated these first Africans as indentured servants, freeing most of them after a few years; they and their children were the beginning of a population of free blacks in the Virginia colony.

Meanwhile, starting in earnest after the bloody war with the Powhatans of 1622, the Virginians were enslaving captured Native Americans. A shipment of over a hundred more African slaves arrived in 1628, and, before very long, the consensus was that Africans were to be enslaved for life, not temporarily. For roughly 50 years, the forced labor in Virginia tobacco plantations was a shared experience between three groups: African slaves, poor white indentured servants, and Native American captives. They worked in the fields together, socialized together, and frequently intermarried. Free blacks, meanwhile, had many of the same rights as other colonists.

Meanwhile, in the Caribbean, the English established colonies in Barbados, in 1627, the Bahamasm in 1648, and had taken Jamaica from the Spanish by 1661. These colonies became home to sugar plantations and were operated in the same way the Spanish operated theirs - with a high death rate for the African slaves due to harsh treatment.

A scholar named Gary Taylor did a fascinating study about 20 years ago, published as “Buying Whiteness.” He did a computerized search through digital copies of everything published in London in the 1600s, looking for instances of people being referred to as “white.” He found virtually no such instances in the early 1600s, then they started popping up in the mid-1600s, and by the late 1600s they were extremely common. In other words, the timeline of English people thinking of themselves as “white” (which no one, really, is) perfectly matched the timeline of the growth of slavery in English colonies. Paintings changed, too - instead of having ruddy complexions in portraits, English were painted as almost alabaster white. Did their complexion change? No. Their self-perception changed. They were now defining themselves AGAINST someone - someone they had come to view as inferior.

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.    


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