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Slavery Takes Root in Colonial Virginia Previous Next
Digital History ID 3576


Black slavery took root in the American colonies slowly. Historians now know that small numbers of Africans lived in Virginia before 1619, the year a Dutch ship sold some twenty blacks (probably from the West Indies) to the colonists. But it was not until the 1680s that black slavery became the dominant labor system on plantations there. As late as 1640, there were probably only 150 blacks in Virginia and in 1650, 300. But by 1680, the number had risen to 3,000 and by 1704, to 10,000.

Until the mid-1660s, the number of white indentured servants was sufficient to meet the labor needs of Virginia and Maryland. Then, in the mid-1660s, the supply of white servants fell sharply. Many factors contributed to the growing shortage of servants. The English birth rate had begun to fall and with fewer workers competing for jobs, wages in England rose. The great fire that burned much of London in 1666 created a great need for labor to rebuild the city. Meanwhile, Virginia and Maryland became less attractive as land grew scarcer. Many preferred to migrate to Pennsylvania or the Carolinas, where opportunities seemed greater. To replenish its labor force, planters in the Chesapeake region increasingly turned to enslaved Africans. In 1680, just seven percent of the population of Virginia and Maryland consisted of slaves; twenty years later, the figure was 22 percent. Most of these slaves did not come directly from Africa, but from Barbados and other Caribbean colonies or from the Dutch colony of New Netherlands, which the English had conquered in 1664 and renamed New York.

The status of blacks in seventeenth century Virginia was extremely complex. Some were permanently unfree; others, like indentured servants, were allowed to own property and marry and were freed after a term of service. Some were even allowed to testify against whites in court and purchase white servants. In at least one county, black slaves who could prove that they had been baptized successfully sued for their freedom. There was even a surprising degree of tolerance of sexual intermixture and marriages across racial lines.

As early as the late 1630s, however, English colonists began to distinguish between the status of white servants and black slaves. In 1639, Maryland became the first colony to specifically state that baptism as a Christian did not make a slave a free person.

During the 1660s and 1670s, Maryland and Virginia adopted laws specifically designed to denigrate blacks. These laws banned interracial marriages and sexual relations and deprived blacks of property. Other laws prohibited blacks from bearing arms or traveling without written permission. In 1669, Virginia became the first colony to declare that it was not a crime to kill an unruly slave in the ordinary course of punishment. That same year, Virginia also prohibited masters from freeing slaves unless the freedmen were deported from the colony. Virginia also voted to banish any white man or woman who married a black, mulatto, or Indian.

The imposition of a more rigid system of racial slavery was accompanied by improved status for white servants. Unlike slaves, white servants and free workers could not be stripped naked and whipped. As the historian Edmund S. Morgan has suggested, a hardening of racial lines contributed to a growth in a commitment to democracy, liberty, and equality among white men.

In 1676, friction between backcountry farmers, landless former indentured servants, and coastal planters in Virginia exploded in violence in an incident known as Bacon’s Rebellion. Convinced that Virginia's colonial government had failed adequately to protect them against Indians, backcountry rebels, led by Nathaniel Bacon, a wealthy landowner, burned the capital at Jamestown, plundered their enemy's plantations, and offered freedom to any indentured servants who joined them. In the midst of the revolt, Bacon died of dysentery. Without his leadership, the uprising collapsed, but fear of servant unrest encouraged planters to replace white indentured servants with black slaves, set apart by a distinctive skin color. In 1660, there were fewer than a thousand slaves in Virginia and Maryland. But during the 1680s, their number tripled, rising from about 4,500 to 12,000.

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