Skip to main content

Photo: Gayle King interviews Ralph Northam.

Perhaps the main reason so many people objected to Virginia Governor Ralph Northam calling the first 20 Africans to land in Virginia in 1619 indentured servants, and not slaves, is that they believe the conditions of slavery were so much harsher than those of indentured servitude, that calling these Africans indentured servants amounts to a cover-up of their reality. That is because the popular image that we have been sold of the indentured servant is that of a lower-class European, perhaps a little down on his luck, that has decided to exercise his option to make a new start in a new land, and so has entered into a contract to trade so many years of labor for passage to Virginia, and a little land and money at the end of his term. To be sure, he would work hard, but he was not a slave, and he did enter the contract voluntarily. Compare this to the African slaves: Kidnapped in their own country, and brought to this one under conditions so harsh that half didn’t survive the journey.

The truth is that the only real difference between the two forms of chattel bondage is that unlike slaves, indentured servants expected to be in bondage for a set number of years, and then freed. Reality stepped on this difference because most indentured servants died within the first few years of service, and only a minority ever finished their term and received their “freedom dues.”

This perceived different caused one participate in the current debate to tweet out that indentured servitude was the original white skin privilege. Never mind that he is calling it “white skin privilege” even before the English started calling themselves “white,” he is showing his ignorance of the reality of indentured servitude to such a degree that I don’t want to embarrass him by naming him. Far from a privilege, indenture servitude represented a deprecation of English workers from tenant farmers and wage laborers, a reduction to terms of bondage, which paved the way for the perpetual bondage, that when combined with white racism, became the American slave system.

What did it mean to be an indenture servant in the Virginia of 1619?

Let us begin with the myth of a contract voluntarily entered into. That was rarely the case. Consider this passage from The Barbarous Years, The Peopling of British North America, The Conflict of Civilizations 1600-1675, by Bernard Bailyn, 2012, p81.:

The [Virginia] company’s coercive power was directed mainly at the most vulnerable element in Jacobean society, the vagrant children. How many hundreds of children and petty criminals the company managed to collect from the streets and public institutions of London is not precisely known, but some of the numbers were recorded. Between August 1618 and August 1620 the company obtained from Bridewell Hospital, a detention center and jail for vagrant children, “idle wastrels, petty thieves, and dissolute women,” at least 337 of its charges to be sent to Virginia as “apprentices.“

Five months before a Dutch man-of-war sold the colony “20 and odd Negroes” in August of 1619, the Diane docked with 80-100 London children said to have been found starving in the streets. They desired their transport about as much as the Africans did. Others had simply been kidnapped, or were escaping prison or the gallows. Very few can be said to have voluntarily entered into bondage in Virginia.

The voyage these new settlers took could sometimes rival the slave ships in their lethality. This was one of the worst tragedies of 1619:

Of the 180 passengers whom the embattled Elder Francis Blackwell led from Amsterdam to Virginia. no fewer than 130, including Blackwell himself, died on that voyage of seven months. They had been “packed together,” it was reported. “like herrings: they had amongst them the flux, and also want of fresh water. so as it is here [London] wondered at that so many are alive, than that so many are dead.”

Those that succeeded in getting to Virginia weren’t likely to live very long. Here’s an example from “Barbarous Years,” p.91:

The death rate in these larger properties, as well as on the ordinary farms, continued to be devastating. We do not know how many of the 280 settlers sent over to Martin’s Hundred survived the journey, but approximately half of those who did were dead by the end of 1621. A year after 34 men were sent to Berkeley Hundred to join 4 already on the property, 31 were reported dead, 2 of them “slayne.” Of the 120 men and boys sent on the Seaflower to Bennett’s Welcome in 1621, only 10 were alive in 1623, and more than half of the deaths were the result of disease, exhaustion, and malnutrition.

Map of Virginia colony created by John Smith in 1612

Map of Virginia colony created by John Smith in 1612.

It’s important to remember that the colonial population of Virginia was tiny by modern standards. We are talking about 700 people in 1619. It was founded in 1607, and although it had grown rapidly between 1619 and 1624, there were still only 1,200 people in the colony in 1624. The death rate was so high that although about 6,000 people had been sent there between 1607 and 1624, the loses to disease, deprivation, and conflicts with the native people was such that only about a fifth survived. Three thousand died between 1619 and 1622 alone, and those in bondage suffered the worst conditions. What this meant for most was that a seven year term of indentured servitude was a life sentence, only a minority survived to collect their “freedom dues.” Most indentured servants would die before that dream was fulfilled.

The true condition for indenture servants was such that they should, “more properly called slaves,” according to Daniel Defoe. If Northam’s detractors argued in that sense, they would be right. Indenture servitude has been so prettified by history that the term doesn’t impart an image of its true condition as well as chattel bondage, or slavery, but that’s not what they mean. They mean that those first 20 Africans labored under categorically worst conditions than their English, Irish and Scot counterparts right from the beginning, not that all indentured servants should be called slaves.

This was the Virginia in which the Dutch ship unloaded 20 Africans.

The first Africans that landed in Virginia in 1619, started their journey aboard the Portuguese slave ship San Juan Bautista on a voyage from Angola. They probably were captured by slavers along the Angolan coast. Their trip was typical for these deadly voyages filled with terror and hunger. About 350 Africans begin the voyage, but only 147 were still on board when it docked near its destination, Vera Cruz, Mexico on 30 August 1619. English pirates on two Dutch raiders hoping to steal gold and sliver attacked the San Juan Bautista, and instead captured 50 of the Africans. One of these ships, the White Lion, headed for the nearest English port and quickly exchanged 20 Africans for food at Point Comfort, VA. More came in the second ship, the Treasurer, weeks later.

It is the status of these Africans that all the fuss has been about, ever since Gayle King rebuked VA Governor Northam for saying they were indentured servants, instead of slaves on CBS This Morning 11 February 2019. Supporters of the governor’s position point to the lack of the legal status of slavery in Virginia to argue that they should be properly considered indentured servants. Supporters of Gayle King say that by 1619, African slavery was being widely practiced in the Atlantic World. Slavery didn’t require legal status. They were captured by slavers, transported aboard a slave ship, and bound for slavery in Vera Cruz. So, obviously they should be considered slaves, and calling them anything else is an attempt to prettify slavery.

I think the dialectics of their status is a bit more complicated. Leaving aside the question of whether people, who by all accounts have yet to labor under slavery, should be considered slaves, clearly the Portuguese considered them property in slaves to be sold into slavery. However, these twenty Africans were unloaded in Virginia for food rather than profit. They probably didn’t expect to get top dollar in a port where there was no legal status that allowed perpetual servitude, or slavery yet, and no well defined slave system, as existed in Mexico at the time. There are good historical reasons for this.

16th century class struggle in England made slavery illegal.

A mid-sixteenth century class struggle in England around attempts by the emerging bourgeoisie to put a portion of the workers in chattel bondage [see especially Kett’s Rebellion (1547-1550)], resulted in the Statute of Artificers in 1563 which, among other things, outlawed slavery in England. It also stipulated that workers would be paid a wage [Perhaps the first minimum wage law? Guaranteeing that at least it wouldn’t be zero!], and limiting the length of an unpaid “apprenticeship” to seven years [A maximum slave law?]. This was English law for the next 250 years. It wasn’t repealed until 1813.

Kett's Rebellion 1549.

Kett’s Rebellion 1549.

This was the law that those first English planters brought to Virginia. This law was also among the less noble reasons they would decide to fight for independence and the “liberty” to develop their racial slave system unhindered by English law in 1776. Remember seven of the first twelve US presidents came from Virginia. The American Revolution wasn’t a Boston tea party, this developing slave economy was the driving force behind their “War of Independence.”

This early working class victory against English slavery made a different in her colonies. Of all the colonies in the Atlantic World around 1619, English colonies stood uniquely alone in depending on Europeans for basic plantation labor. In Virginia, some of this was provided by wage workers, and much by small tenant farmers “working by halves,” which meant sharing his crop with the land owner. But most labor was provided by indentured servants, whose status was quickly descending to that of chattel bondage, particularly after 1622.

This was because advancing capitalism in England, particular in agriculture, had created massive unemployment and poverty among the “necessitous poor.” So even if the capitalist couldn’t enslave them at home, they had a “surplus” population that they could export to the colonies to perform the bondage labor being performed in Spanish and Portuguese colonies by the indigenous people or imported Africans.

This was a period when the English still rejected slavery as it was being practiced by the Spanish. As Theodore W. Allen relates in The Invention of the White Race:

When ship captain Richard Jobson in 1620 and 1621 made a trading voyage to Africa, he refused to engage in slave-trading because the English “were a people who did not deal in any such commodities, neither did we buy or sell one another or any that had our own shapes.”

That is very likely the attitude that existed in the Virginia colony at the time as well. Many of those that were freemen, and actually had come to the colony voluntarily, did so for religious reasons. This gave the young colony a certain moral character. The English pirates that took the slaves from the Portuguese, were looking for gold and sliver, not slaves, but they took what they could get. They had investors backing their raids and they couldn’t afford to return empty handed, so they took about fifty of the slaves and sailed to the nearest English port. They probably could have gotten more for them if they sold them as slaves at any one of the ports in the Atlantic World where slavery was legal. Instead they sailed for an English port, which reported the ship “brought not any thing but 20 and odd Negroes” which they exchanged for “victuall,” meaning food, “at the best and easiest rate they could.” Since these Africans also had to be fed, if only to retain their value, [and Mike Guasco thinks they may have been fed] this deal was a double win for the hungry pirates.

The labor markets these early planters had available to them didn’t include the slave auctions as they would later be developed, or even the slave markets existing then in Vera Cruz. What they had was a developing market for buying and selling European chattel labor as indentured servants. In 1619 Virginia, the plantation labor was composed largely of European indentured servants. This is the labor force those first Africans became a part of. Even as late as 1676 when the chattel labor force had grown to 8,000, 3 out of every 4 plantation slaves was a European.

Indentured servitude was the well developed system of bondage labor fueling the Virginia planter economy at the time. Almost certainly, these first Africans would have been enrolled in that system. It would be only slowly, amidst much class struggle, between this first landing and the time of the Virginia Slave Codes of 1705, that the “peculiar institution” of racial slavery would be developed for African labor in what would become the United States.

Those arguing they should be considered slaves tend to belittle the fact that permanent slavery was illegal in Virginia at the time. But for the capitalist property owner, laws are extremely important. Illegal slaves couldn’t be bought and sold on the open market, would be devalued when accounting for capital wealth, and subject to lost if the “slave” was able to prove she was being held in violation of the law, as Elizabeth Keys did. If racial slavery had already been in place, she would have never had her day in court because she was an African indentured servant. Also, as noted earlier, colonial Virginia was a very small place, with less than a thousand people, there wasn’t a lot of room for a thriving black market in African slaves.

Most historians writing about these first 20 Africans agree with Northam that they were treated as indentured servants. What we know about them supports that conclusion. Historian E.R. Shipp, Morgan State University, Baltimore, wrote about this for USA Today, 8 February 2019:

We know that the Africans who arrived in 1619 on the White Lion (and, a few days later, the Treasurer) were from Angola, and we know how they came to be captured. We don’t have all the names, but we do know that captain William Tucker took two of them into his household, Isabella and Antony, and allowed them to marry. When their child William became the first recorded black birth in what would become the USA, he was baptized into the Anglican faith in 1624. We know that a “Negro woman” named Angelo in a 1624 census had arrived on the Treasurer in 1619. Archaeologists have recently discovered graves that might include hers.

“This first group that came survived and created a solid and growing community of people of African descent, with some of them intermingling with English and the Native peoples,” says Cassandra Newby-Alexander, a professor of history at Norfolk State University and a member of various commemoration commissions. Over a few decades, she said, the African presence grew with the arrival of more ships as well as with births. This resulted in “the emergence of racialized politics, law and a bifurcated society.”

Racial slavery and the laws that support it didn’t just “emerge,” because more Africans arrived. It was purposely build by the colonial ruling class over next hundred years to enslave people who where kidnapped in Africa, and brought to the colonies where their natural skin color was used to brand them as slaves. Shipp goes on to write:

“It’s rather clear that Virginia did not have a set way of dealing with these folks, and it got worked out over time,” Scott, [Daryl Scott, a professor of history at Howard University] says. “They had indentured people in Virginia, and some people may have seen Africans just like they saw other indentured people. We know some people became free, so it looks like they were treated like every other indentured person.”

Other scholars, including Linda Heywood and John Thornton of Boston University, insist that the Africans from the White Lion and the Treasurer were enslaved by the English as they had originally been by the Portuguese slave traders before they were taken by pirates.

This is the debate Northam naively stepped into in his interview with Gayle King.

Doctor Historianess (@historianess) has been a strong advocate of the latter view, that they were slaves when they landed in Virginia and remained slaves, on Twitter.

Doctor Historianess (@historianess) has been a strong advocate of the latter view, that they were slaves when they landed in Virginia and remained slaves, on Twitter.

I don’t see how it could possibly work that way in the real world. The Spanish had brought African slaves to “New Spain,” as Mexico was then called, as early as 1520. In the sixteenth century it probably had more enslaved Africans than any other colony in the hemisphere. This small colony in Virginia couldn’t enslave these Africans as the Portuguese had because they didn’t have anything like that slave system to enslave them in. People go with what they know. What they knew, and had immediately available to them, was indentured servitude.

In 1619, the English hadn’t even claimed the fraudulent label “white” for themselves yet, and white racism, as would come to define the slave system had yet to be created. For example, English and African enjoyed a freedom to intermingle and inter-marry that would be lost for more than three hundred years. The term “white race” or “white people” entered the English language in the latter 17th century, in the context of racialized slavery and unequal status in European colonies. Those terms didn’t appear in English dictionaries before 1690.

Status in Virginia, at that time, depended much more or property ownership and religion, than race. There are many stories that illustrate this brief pre-racial beginnings of the United States. In this period, free Africans had many of the same rights as free Englishmen, including the right to own property, the right to vote, and sue in court. Many enslaved Africans where allowed to earn money, keep livestock, and raise crops for themselves. This allowed some to eventually purchase their freedom.

I’ve already recounted how a local captain took Isabella and Antony, two of those first 20 Africans, into his household and allowed them to marry. They had a child baptized into the Anglican faith in 1624.

Anthony Johnson arrived from Africa in 1621, having also been captured in Angola, and was sold to a English planter named Bennet as an indentured servant. He was freed after serving his term of indenture. He was one of the lucky few who survived the Powhatan massacre of 1622. The settlement where he was working had 57 men when it was attacked. He was one of the five that survived. By 1640, he had married Mary, an enslaved African woman who had arrived in 1622, started a family, and amassed hundreds of acres of land, and owned indentured servants themselves. Of the five slaves the couple owned, one was African American and four were European American. When much of the Johnson plantation was destroyed by fire in 1653, local officials noted that the Johnson’s were “inhabitants in Virginia above thirty years” who were respected for their “hard labor and known service,” and excused Mary and the couple’s two daughters from paying taxes for the rest of their lives. In the already quickly changing racial environment, a special tax had been created for “all free Negro men and women.” Local officials ignored that law, allowing the family to rebuild. On two separate cases, one years later, the courts found in favor of Johnson and against his European adversary. But this era was quickly passing already. Once racial slavery became firmly established, it would be more than 300 years before an African American could receive any justice like this from a Virginia court.

Even as late as 1656, the half-African indentured servant Elizabeth Key was able to sue in Virginia courts and win her freedom, and that of her infant son when her master died, and the overseers of his estate tried to convert her status to that of perpetual bondage.

The first Africans came to America before white racism did.

The lack of white racism in the Virginia of 1619 is reason enough to say it is misleading to call these first 20 Africans slaves, if what is meant is the racialized slavery that was to develop in the next sixty years and then go on to dominate for another two hundred.

Are those that consider even these first Africans to be slaves, saying that white racism existed even then? Or are they saying that white racism was not a decisive component of the slave system as it developed in the United States? Either way, they have a very mechanical view of history as blocks of time with permanent features, when its actual development is dialectic and organic. They are missing out on one of the most dynamic and influential periods in US, and by exception, world history, because if they think there were always “white” people, and they were always racist, and these 20 Africans were never anything but slaves, they will fail to understand the importance of the ensuing period when all that stuff was created.

A brief history of the creation of white racism

The African population of Virginia grew very slowly at first. According to Nell Irvin Painter, [The History of White People, p.41], even though Virginia’s population had grown to 11,000 by mid-century, only 300 were African or African American. By then the majority were slaves, but there still weren’t enough to support a separate stave system based on Africa labor. Starting in 1622, the laws and customs that would support that slave system began being put into place.

In 1619, about half the property of the colony was cultivated by small independent operators that paid rent-in-kind to the big plantation owners, and there was a growing number of free men, including those that had worked off their term and were now wage workers. This changed abruptly just 3 years later.

Sidney King painting of 1622 attack.

Painting by Sidney King of 1622 attack.

A massive attack by the Powhatan natives on 22 March 1622 reduced the colony’s population by a third in a single day, in the next year another third would die from privation, and two-thirds of the survivors weren’t fit for work. The colonial capitalists used the ensuing crisis to embark on a scheme to reduce tenants and indentured servants to chattel slaves. By that spring, servants’ contracts started appearing for the first time that allowed the owner to dispose of the servant to his “heirs and assigns.” They had become chattel. This was a qualitative break from the 1563 Statute of Artificers, and it was excused as “Custom of the Country.” The next year, attempts to reduce tenants to servants became common.

While living and labor conditions for slaves and indentured servants were very similar, there was this important difference: With indentured servants, eventual freedom provided a powerful incentive for compliance, which is why lengthening the period of indenture was the favored punishment. The slave could not look forward to eventual freedom, and so violence and torture became the principle tools the masters used to gain compliance. This also made running away the only escape.

Increasingly, as the planters started to turn to permanent servitude, this problem began to assert itself, and it became clear that any labor system based on such slavery would require a stratum of the population willing and able to enforce slavery by, for example, reporting runaways, and participating in slave patrols. BTW, the vaunted 2nd Amendment was proposed by Virginia to ensure its “right” to run armed slave patrols, also known as “well-regulated Militias.”

There was also the problem that their attempts to enslave everyone, English, African, and Natives alike, just wasn’t working out the way they planned. Since the great mass of servants lived and worked together without regards to racial differences that remained as yet largely immaterial, they also revolted together. As the colonial capitalists sought to tighten the screws on their workers, especially in the post-1622 period, this increasing became a problem for them.

“be free or die”

The Virginia record of this period is filled with stories of individual and small group resistance to the worsening bondage they were enduring. Here are just a few examples from The Invention of the White Race:

Freeman Emanuell Rodriggus, an African-American, was brought before the February 1672 session of the Northampton County Court for having “unlawfully entertayned” two runaway European-American bond laborers owned by Captain John Custis of Northampton County.69 In mid-summer 1679, four African-Americans, including one child too young to work, ran away in the company of two free European-Americans, John Watkings and Agness Clerk.70 In November 1690, freeman Edward Short was arraigned for “helping and assisting” European American Roger Crotuff [Crotofte] and African-American bond-laborer John Johnson to break out of the Accomack county prison.71 After Ann Redman, an African-American, took her child and ran away from the plantation of European-American Thomas Loyd in February 1696, she was sought by hue and cry. Some twenty months later Redman was seized from the home of European-American Edwin Thacker, where she had found refuge.72

African and European laborers fought together, often with arms, against the colonial powers and the landowners. In 1661 there was a sizable indentured servants plot over inadequate food rations. Isaac Friend, one of the leaders of the servants, agitated:

“they would get a matter of Forty of them together and get Gunnes, and he (Cluton) would be the first and lead them and cry as they went along ‘who would be for liberty and freed from bondage?’ and that there would enough come to them, and they would goe through the country and Kill those that made any opposition, and that they would either be free or die for it”

In Virginia there were at least 10 popular or servile revolts between the 1663 Servants’ plot for an insurrectionary march to freedom, to the tobacco riots of 1682. In Bacon’s Rebellion, 1676, an army of European and African bond-servants and freedman recently “out of their time” captured and burned the colonial capital of Jamestown, which Governor Berkeley left in a hurry. Governor Berkeley estimated that about 1,500 European chattel bond-laborers arrived in Virginia that year, “the majority English, with a few Scots and fewer Irish.” It took 1100 British troops sent from England in 11 ships to put him back in the statehouse, and they took a while to get there. While there were many similar uprisings both before and after, Bacon’s Rebellion is probably what did it for them. Noted author Michelle Alexander wrote of its significance:

This 1905 painting by Howard Pyle depicts the burning of Jamestown in 1676 by black and white rebels led by Nathaniel Bacon.

This 1905 painting by Howard Pyle depicts the burning of Jamestown in 1676 by black and white rebels led by Nathaniel Bacon.

The events in Jamestown were alarming to the planter elite, who were deeply fearful of the multiracial alliance of [indentured servants] and slaves. Word of Bacon’s Rebellion spread far and wide, and several more uprisings of a similar type followed. In an effort to protect their superior status and economic position, the planters shifted their strategy for maintaining dominance. They abandoned their heavy reliance on indentured servants in favor of the importation of more black slaves.

Faced with this resistance from a united working class, the law makers, plantation owners, and colonial officers quickly moved forward with their plan to divide the people according to skin color, and make all those with the darkest skin slaves for life:

In 1640, John Punch became the first African American to be sentenced to permanent servitude for daring to run away. For this reason, many historians consider him the “first official slave in the English colonies.” I would agree, particularly because his punishment was racist. The two European men that ran away with him got only the usual extension of the term of servitude, but it still had an end date.

On 8 March 1655, John Casor became the first African declared a slave for life in America without having committed a crime first. Ironically, he started out as an indentured servant whose contract was owned by the successful African plantation owner Anthony Johnson written of above. Casor sued Johnson in court, claiming that he’d already served more than twice the seven year length of his indenture. The court ruled in Johnson’s favor and declared Casor a servant for life. He thus became the first African made a slave for life without it being as punishment for a crime, which was the justification used in Punch’s case.

During the Civil War in England (1649-1660), the Virginia planters remained loyal to the crown. When the monarchy was restored in 1660, William Berkeley returned as governor of Virginia, and the pace quickened.

In 1660, a Virginia Law was enacted that doubled the penalty on “any English servant shall run away in company with any negroes.” Note, in their first racist laws, they weren’t calling themselves white yet.

In 1662, it was declared that for Negro women, the status of the child would derive from that of the mother. That undercut one of the arguments Key had used to win her freedom, and meant that even when the child of a Negro slave was “got by any Englishman,” that child would remain a slave. They also increased the penalties for any “English servant” running away in “in the company of any negro.” These examples of working class solidarity had to be stamped out before racial slavery could be made workable.

In 1667, a Virginia law was enacted “declaring that baptisme of slaves doth not exempt them from bondage.” This was sold as a humanitarian policy, since it allowed slave owners to “endeavour the propagation of christianity” without fearing the lost of their “property” as a consequence. What corruption in the church allowed that madness?

A 1668 law was titled “Negro women not exempted from tax.” This effectively doubled the tax on free African couples, and discouraged Englishmen from marrying African women, but since English women where exempt from taxes, it had the unintended consequent of encouraging free African men to take English brides. This issue would soon be dealt with when all “abominable mixture and spurious issue” was outlawed.

In 1669, a law was passed exempting masters and overseers from prosecution if a Negro slave was killed while being tortured, because slaves cannot “by other then violent meanes supprest.” They couldn’t throw them in jail, and they couldn’t extend the term of someone in permanent bondage, so the law recognized that more violent methods had to be used.

A 1670 law forbid any “Negroes nor Indians” from buying “christian servants.” That same year Anthony Johnson died, and a jury ruled that the colony could seize the son’s 50 acre inheritance because he was “a Negro and by consequence an alien.” This wasn’t his father’s Virginia jury.

After 1672, England got into the slave trade big time. In the next 16 years, the Royal African company transported nearly 90,000 Africans to the Americas. Remember, there were only 300 in 1648, the demographics were changing fast because the colonial capitalists had settled on a solution to their labor problem, and they were moving rapidly forward to build the system we rightly associate with the term slavery.

1676 was the year of Bacon’s Rebellion. This armed rebellion by united English and African bond servants terrified the big landowners and capitalists, and cemented their plans to replace the indentured servant system with one based on racial slavery.

In 1680, “An act for preventing Negroes Insurrections” was passed. It declared “it shall not be lawfull for any negroe or other slave to carry or arme himselfe” with just about any weapon known at the time. That law also prescribed “thirty lashed on his bare back well laid on,” for “any negro or other slave” that shall “lift up his hand in opposition against any christian.” The wording of this law reflects an intermediate stage in the changes afoot. It presumes that all Negroes are slaves, but slavery is not yet the exclusive province of the Negro, and even though the period when Africans could themselves own slaves has long since passed, the masters aren’t calling themselves “white” yet, but the use of “christian” to define the master race was problematic since an increasing number of Negroes were being baptized.

A 1682 law declared “Negroes, Moors [Muslim North Africans], mulattoes or Indians who and whose parentage and native countries are not Christian” would be consider permanent slaves. This law created racial slavery, with a thin religious exception designed to exclude Europeans before they had the label “white” to work with.

The handed-down mythology is that all African slaves came to this country as pagans. The truth is that about 20% were Muslim, and a few where Christian in their homeland. There is evidence that that may have been the case with some of those first twenty. That law also made it easier to kill slaves. Things were changing fast, and not for the better.

It was to take another nine years for the label “white” to finally make it into the Virginia laws. It was in a 1691 law titled “An act for suppressing outlying Slaves.”

And for prevention of that abominable mixture and spurious issue which hereafter may encrease in this dominion, as well by negroes, mulattoes, and Indians intermarrying with English, or other white women, as by their unlawfull accompanying with one another, Be it enacted by the authoritie aforesaid, and it is hereby enacted, that for the time to come, whatsoever English or other white man or woman being free shall intermarry with a negroe, mulatto, or Indian man or woman bond or free shall within three months after such marriage be banished and removed from this dominion forever,…

That appears to be the first use of the label “white” to describe people in a law anywhere, and far from bestowing privileges on the people so labeled, it was used to take away their right to marry freely, and forever sealed its association with segregation, racism, and the suppression of sexual freedom.

Also, in 1691, a special fine of 15 pounds sterling is levied against “any English woman” who gives birth to a mulatto child. If the woman can’t pay the fine in 30 days, she will have to serve 5 years as an indentured servant. If she is already an indentured servant, she will have 5 years added to her service, and the child will be indentured for 30 years. That same year, the General Assembly required that all newly freed slaves leave the colony, and any master who freed his slaves had to pay for their transport out of the colony. They were forcing movement away from the integrated society that had existed towards one in which black skin would be synonymous with slavery.

In 1692, slaves lose the right of trial by jury even in capital cases. This white supremacist regime was not here to meet those first Africans. It had to be build, bit by bit, law by law, over a century.

In 1698, England becomes the biggest slave trafficker in the Western world, as the number of African slaves transported to her colonies skyrockets from 5,000 a year to 45,000 a year.

By 1705, the Virginia Slave Codes, and a series of so-called racial integrity laws, gave legal definition to the term “white” as in race, and institutionalized white supremacy. Any ambiguity in the status of Africans in American was clarified, and whether free or in chains, all lost rights and all were treated as inferior to any white man. This law also provides my candidate for the first white skin privilege: It forbid the whipping of “a christian white servant naked, without an order from a justice of the peace.”

The Slave Codes even employed the label “white” to punish slave owners who would dare intermarry and cross the color line it was creating by taking away their “white” servants. Although some of those first Africans could own English servants, under the new “white” regime, it was entirely unacceptable to have a person of color in authority over the newly labeled “white” person:

And if any person, having such christian servant, shall intermarry with any such negro, mulatto, or Indian, Jew, Moor, Mahometan, or other infidel, every christian white servant of every such person so intermarrying, shall, ipso facto, become free and acquit from any service then due to such master or mistress so intermarrying, as aforesaid.

The first white skin privileges weren’t really new “privileges” at all. No bonus was involved. Rather, the Europeans were forced to declare themselves “white” to preserve the rights they already had, such as the right to vote, be heard in court, and own property. Suddenly, these were only available to those who declared themselves white, assuming they were allowed to. In 1705, that was the main practical effect of such laws. By then, there were few, if any, African’s that still had those rights to lose in Virginia.

Most importantly, in return for accepting the “privilege” of not being reduced to slavery, they placed this new bourgeois creation “race,” above what really matters, class. That split the power of the working class and allow the capitalist to run roughshod over them ever since.

In 1723, the right to vote was taken away from free Negroes, and the right to free their slaves, at any cost, was taken away from their now “white” masters. This law also forbid Negroes from meeting, or keeping weapons. By then, Virginia had more than 27,000 African slaves. It was a little more than a hundred years since those first 20 Africans landed in Virginia, but now the dual plagues of white supremacy and racial slavery were fully in place.

Is this really a debate about the immutability of white racism?

Perhaps what is really at the core of this debate is that those who say they were treated as slaves from the very beginning are saying that they were treated in a racist manner from the very beginning, because it is undeniable that the slavery that developed in North America was racial slavery. This now brings us to the philosophical heart of the debate, and reveals why it has generated so much energy.

If the English treated the Africans in a racist manner, as slaves as compared to the white privileged indentured servants, upon their first introduction, this supports the thesis that racism is a naturally occurring phenomenon, that was triggered as soon as Africans were present. From that perspective, racism will be almost impossible to overcome, if it can be overcame at all.

If, on the other hand, as the history would seem to suggest, the English initially dealt with these first Africans as indentured servants, it is because they weren’t viewing them through the racial lens that would develop over the next hundred years, and continues to trouble us to this day. If this was the case, if racism and “white people” didn’t exist in the Virginia of 1619, but instead were unscrupulously created by the rich and powerful of that day, and pushed on people systematically because there was big money to be made, then racism is an unnatural thing, and although its tenure seems long now, it is but a flash in the million year development of humanity that will be overcome shortly.

The bondage slavery of 1619 was not the racial slavery of 1819

Those arguing that the word which properly brings to mind the racial slavery of the Antebellum South, be equally applied to those first 20 Africans can’t entirely ignore the class struggle, and dynamic changes of this period. But they argue that these were exceptions that should be discounted.

Tweets by Doctor Historianess (@historianess)

Tweets by Doctor Historianess (@historianess)

They seem to be arguing that since this period was so brief, and involved so few people, we can safely ignore it. That is like those arguing for a static universe saying we can safely ignore the big bang because it lasted less than a second billions of years ago. Wrong, genesis matters! The time and place they beckon us to ignore is precisely the time and place that gave birth to white supremacy.

They present a static image of the status Africans in America before the Civil War, namely they were slaves in 1619 and slaves in 1819 equally, however their arguments can’t ignore the reality that 1619-1705 was a period of dynamic change for the status of Africans in the colonies.

To say they were slaves in 1619, before the laws, before the system, is to treat it as eternal and wipe history clear of the turbulent class struggle that saw the birth of racial slavery and white supremacy. That serves only the interests of reaction and racism. That is how that argument supports racism.

Those pushing it are serving reaction by promoting its view of a static world in which white racism has always existed, and always will, and the “whites” made slaves of the “blacks” as soon as they could. These are some lousy historians that think like that. A clear-eyed study of historical facts shows us something else: In 1619, the English, Irish, Scots and other European’s in Virginia had yet to adopt a common label. White racism and racial slavery had yet to be created. They were created by the ruling class, over the course of the next hundred years, as methods of social control in the furtherance of capitalist profits. This great divide was created to inhibit the class struggle. It has proven to be so effective that they have relied on it ever since, and revered it up in times of crisis, as they are doing now!

Tweet by Doctor Historianess (@historianess)

Tweet by Doctor Historianess (@historianess)

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam tried to use a few of his fifteen minutes of fame to bring to the world’s attention the approaching 300th anniversary of this extremely important historical event, and he got pummeled for it. Many used the fact that he called those first 20 indentured servants, together with the fact that he did a Michael Jackson impersonation in the 80’s, to label him a racist. Never mind, the fact that most sources Google finds on the subject also says they were indentured servants. That doesn’t make it right, of course. But it does mean you should probably cut some slack for anyone fairly new to the subject not standing on your side of an active debate among historians.

Tweet by Doctor Historianess (@historianess)

Tweet by Doctor Historianess (@historianess)

I wonder how many of our governors, senators or congress people could even tell you about when, where and how the first Africans came to our country the same year as the Pilgrims. Our president likes invoke Pocahontas as a racial attack. I wonder how much he can tell us about the real Pocahontas and how she navigated the English invasion of her native country? I wonder if he even knows that John Rolfe, the Englishman that documented the arrival of those first Africans, was her husband? The Virginia of 1619 was a very small world. It is good that we are discussing this history.

Even though I think Gayle King was wrong, I applaud her for “correcting” Northam because by doing so she sparked a very necessary national conversation. It would have been better if she had pointed out that in 1619 there were no “white people,” and African and European workers both were slaves. Even better if she used her position to inform her viewers about the news from Haiti at the time.

Why is white supremacy trying to make a come back now?

That is really the maximum question now! I’m not talking about Northam in the statehouse. I’m talking about Trump in the White House. Why are they working so hard to stoke the fires of racial tension now? Bill Weld, a former governor who may challenge Trump for the GOP nomination gave us a clue on ABC News “This Week” Sunday, 17 February 2019, when he said that “25% of the jobs in the country are about to disappear because of artificial intelligence, and robotics, drones.”

Rather than use these technological advancements to unburden humanity, they intend to keep all the profits for themselves, and deliver to everyone else economic dislocation, the likes of which the world has never seen. They are going to want to eliminate what they consider the “superfluous,” parts of the population, and racism has always served them well. It’s no accident that they are financing its come back quicker than they can build drones and robots.


IBW21 (The Institute of the Black World 21st Century) is committed to enhancing the capacity of Black communities in the U.S. and globally to achieve cultural, social, economic and political equality and an enhanced quality of life for all marginalized people.