Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The Birth of Racism in America

In the late summer of 1619 a storm beaten Dutch ship (possibly a pirate ship) appeared in the harbor at Jamestown. The ship had nothing to trade except twenty Africans recently taken from a Spanish vessel. An exchange for food was made and the Dutch ship sailed away. It is not clear if the Africans were considered slaves or indentured servants by the English settlers. There was no precedence in England for enslaving a class of people for life and making that status inevitable. It is clear, however, that by 1640, at least one African had been declared a slave. This African was ordered by the court "to serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural life here or elsewhere."

The development of slavery in Virginia set the pattern for the development of slavery throughout the South and laid the foundations for the development of race relations in America.

Although blacks were held in hereditary servitude long before Virginia laws specifically recognized slavery, a large number of Virginia’s blacks worked as servants for a limited term or otherwise earned their freedom just like whites. White and black servants worked together in the fields, shared the same punishments, the same food, and the same living quarters. The most remarkable evidence of a racially open society comes from the records of Northampton County. These records indicate that some twenty nine per cent of the county’s blacks were free and that a least two of these, Francis Payne and Anthony Johnson were planters (Johnson even becoming a slave owner himself).

During the second half of the 17th century, the British economy improved and the supply of British indentured servants declined as poor Britons had better economic opportunities at home. To lure cheap labor to America, terms of indentures became fixed and shorter. By the 1670s Virginia had a large number of restless and relatively poor white men (most of them former indentured servants) threatening the established order of the wealthy and propertied. A popular revolt in 1676, the so called Bacon’s Rebellion, led Virginia planters to begin importing black slaves in large numbers in preference to the more expensive and politically restive white indentured servants.

The increasingly high price of free labor was incompatible with the profitable running of plantations. The landowners turned to slave labor, encouraging the first massive introduction of slaves from Africa in 1698. The new labor force was more controllable because blacks, as a group, were not normally thought to be naturally guaranteed the “rights of Englishmen” accorded to white freemen. In short, the system was to be based purely on force, and Virginia’s laws soon reflected this.

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