No one can discuss American history without talking about the prevalence of slavery. When the Europeans attempted to colonize America in its early days, Indians and Africans were enslaved because they were “different from them”. The excerpt below from American Slavery: A Very Short Introduction follows the dark past of colonial America and how slavery proceeded to root itself deeply into history:
America held promises of wealth and freedom for Europeans; in time, slavery became the key to the fulfillment of both. Those who ventured to the lands that became the United States of America arrived determined to extract wealth from the soil, and they soon began to rely on systems of unpaid labor to accomplish these goals. Some also came with dreams of acquiring freedoms denied them in Europe, and paradoxically slavery helped to make those freedoms possible as well. As European immigrants to the colonies initiated a system of slavery, they chose to enslave only those who were different from them—Indians and Africans. A developing racist ideology marked both Indians and Africans as heathens or savages, inferior to white Europeans and therefore suited for enslavement. When continued enslavement of Indians proved difficult or against colonists’ self-interest, Africans and their descendants alone constituted the category of slave, and their ancestry and color came to be virtually synonymous with slave.
Although Europeans primarily enslaved Africans and their descendants, in the early 1600s in both northern and southern colonies, Africans were not locked into the same sort of lifetime slavery that they later occupied. Their status in some of the early colonies was sometimes ambiguous, but by the time of the American Revolution, every English colony in America—from Virginia, where the English began their colonization project, to Massachusetts, where Puritans made claims for religious freedom—had people who were considered lifetime slaves. To understand how the enslavement of Africans came about, it is necessary to know something of the broader context of European settlement in America.
In the winter of 1606, the Virginia Company, owned by a group of merchants and wealthy gentry, sent 144 English men and boys on three ships to the East Coast of the North American continent. English explorers had established the colony of Roanoke in Carolina in 1585, but when a ship arrived to replenish supplies two years later, the colony was nowhere to be found. The would-be colonists had either died or become incorporated into Indian groups. The English failed in their first attempt to establish a permanent colony in North America. Now they were trying again, searching for a place that would sustain and enrich them.
By the time the English ships got to the site of the new colony in April 1607, only 105 men and boys were left. Despite the presence of thousands of Algonquian-speaking Indians in the area, the leader of the English group planted a cross and named the territory on behalf of James, the new king of England. They established the Jamestown Settlement as a profit-making venture of the Virginia Company, but the colony got off to a bad start. The settlers were poorly suited to the rigors of colonization. To add to their troubles, the colony was located in an unhealthy site on the edge of a swamp. The new arrivals were often ill, plagued by typhoid and dysentery from lack of proper hygiene. Human waste spilled into the water supply, the water was too salty for consumption at times, and mosquitoes and bugs were rampant. No one planted foodstuffs. The colonists entered winter unprepared and only gifts of food from the Powhatan Indians saved them.
In the winter of 1609/10, a period that colonist John Smith called the “starving time,” several of the colonists resorted to cannibalism. According to Smith, some of the colonists dug up the body of an Indian man they had killed, boiled him with roots and herbs, and ate him. One man chopped up his wife and ate her. John Smith feared that the colony would disappear much as Roanoke had, so he established a militarized regime, divided the men into work gangs with threats of severe discipline, and told them that they would either work or starve. Smith’s dramatic strategy worked. The original settlers did not all die, and more colonists, including women and children, arrived from England to help build the struggling colony.
The first dozen years of the Jamestown Colony saw hunger, disease, and violent conflicts with the Native People, but it also saw the beginnings of a cash crop that could generate wealth for the investors in the Virginia Company back in England, as well as for planters within the colony. In 1617, the colonist John Rolfe brought a new variety of tobacco from the West Indies to Jamestown. In tobacco the colonists found the saleable commodity for which they had been searching, and they shipped their first cargo to England later that year. The crop, however, made huge demands on the soil. Cultivation required large amounts of land because it quickly drained soil of its nutrients. This meant that colonists kept spreading out generating immense friction with the Powhatan Indians who had long occupied and used the land. Tobacco was also a labor-intensive crop, and clearing land for new fields every few years required a great deal of labor. The colony needed people who would do the work.
Into this unsettled situation came twenty Africans in 1619. According to one census there were already some Africans in the Jamestown colony, but August 1619, when a Dutch warship moored at Point Comfort on the James River, marks the first documented arrival of Africans in the colony. John Rolfe wrote, “About the last of August came in a dutch man of warre that sold us twenty Negars.” According to Rolfe, “the Governor and Cape Marchant bought [them] for victuals at the easiest rates they could.” Colonists who did not have much excess food thought it worthwhile to trade food for laborers.
The Africans occupied a status of “unfreeness”; officials of the colony had purchased them, yet they were not perpetual slaves in the way that Africans would later be in the colony. For the most part, they worked alongside the Europeans who had been brought into the colony as indentured servants, and who were expected to work usually for a period of seven years to pay off the cost of their passage from England, Scotland, Wales, the Netherlands, or elsewhere in Europe. For the first several decades of its existence, European indentured servants constituted the majority of workers in the Jamestown Colony. Living conditions were as harsh for them as it was for the Africans as noted in the desperate pleas of a young English indentured servant who begged his parents to get him back to England.
In March 1623, Richard Frethorne wrote from near Jamestown to his mother and father in England begging them to find a way to get him back to England. He was hungry, feared coming down with scurvy or the bloody flux, and described graphically the poor conditions under which he and others in the colony lived. He was worse off, he said, than the beggars who came to his family’s door in England. Frethorne’s letter is a rare document from either white or black servants in seventeenth-century Virginia, but it certainly reflects the conditions under which most of them lived. The Africans, captured inland, taken to the coast, put on ships, taken to the Caribbean, and captured again by another nation’s ships, were even farther removed from any hope of redemption than Frethorne. Even if they could have written, they would have had no way of sending an appeal for help. As it happens, Frethorne was not successful either. His letter made it to London but remained in the offices of the Virginia Company. His parents probably never heard his appeal.
Featured headline image: Cotton gin harpers. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.