A Brief History of Slavery: Part I – From Indentured Servants to African Slaves

As someone who has seen the fallout of race relations in places like Baltimore, Atlanta, D.C., and Philadelphia; I have wondered why our ancestors ever deigned to bring Africans to this continent. Why have we foisted upon ourselves the burden of a people so vastly different and alien to our own culture and proving a milestone around our necks for our (((enemy))) to exploit to the detriment of our civilization?

These sentiments have been shared in many conversations, many private chats, or over shared drinks, long before the post modern age. Why slavery, why Africans, why the development of a distinctly regional agrarian society built upon plantation agriculture? The “Nigger Question,” as it was historically referred to even before the Civil War, became the great fault line in White America.

What this series will attempt to do is lay the foundation of why slavery developed in North America, how it changed from the Colonial era right up to the antebellum period, and finally what drove the events that ultimately led to the Civil War and the destruction of the “peculiar institution.”

To understand the roots of the sectional conflict that birthed Slavery and the great divide between North and South, you have to understand the four waves of migration from the British Isles in the 17th and early 18th century that were to form the core of what would become the American identity. These four waves are greatly documented in “Albion’s Seed” (a must for anyone interested in studying American cultural and social mores and the roots of regional identity). Nowhere is this more apparent than in the development of two distinctly different versions of British North America: 17th century Chesapeake Bay culture of Virginia and Maryland, and the Plymouth Colony that would come to dominant “Yankee” New England.

The establishment of the Jamestown Colony in 1607 was a private venture of the Virginia Company. These private entrepreneurs sought to get England into the game of Empire in the New World and establish an outpost with the potential to raid Spanish trade routes. The context of early colonial history cannot be divorced from the great religious divisions between Protestantism and Catholicism that had plunged Europe into a century’s worth of conflict that culminated in the Thirty Years War. This provides the necessary backdrop for understanding why Jamestown was chosen as the site for this New Colony, and the relationship between Britain and her Protestant allies.

The first appearance of chattel African slavery in British North America was the result of this raiding of Spanish trade routes. 19 Africans were delivered by Protestant Dutch traders to Jamestown in 1619. These African slaves had been seized from a Spanish ship that the Dutch had captured. However, the Spanish had instituted a policy of baptism of slaves in the Catholic faith. By the rules of Christendom during the era, Christians were not supposed to hold other Christians as slaves. Therefore, this first group of African slaves in Virginia were treated in much the same way as the other 1000 or so indentured servants in the colony. This meant that after a period of bonded labor, usually seven years, they were free men and had the rights of any freeborn Englishman to own property.

 It was from this muddled beginning that the first issues around the social status of African slaves was born out as a result of the need for more labor, as well as the extremely high mortality rate for early European settlers in the Chesapeake Bay. It was the development of a planter elite who transported the English country gentry lifestyle to the region, the increasing numbers of Africans being imported to British North America, and a small cultivated weed brought to Virginia by John Rolfe that was to have the greatest impact in the development of Slavery in North America.

-By William Poole

One comment

  1. I haven’t researched the point but I suspect “peculiar institution” was a poor word choice that has become a meme to ripple through history. Perhaps it was meant to refer to plantation agriculture as peculiar since the majority of the planet knew no such thing. But slavery is not peculiar at all. It has been normal throughout history and around the world. Abolition/egalitarianism on the other hand is quite peculiar.