The Origins of Slavery in British North America 27 August 2019.

The Spanish “conquistadors” wanted to turn the “New World” into a paying proposition.  In the early 1500s, when Native Americans started dying like flies from European diseases to which they had no immunity, the Spanish began importing huge numbers of African slaves.[1]

In the 1500s-1600s, British “merchant” ships sailing “beyond the lines,” often engaged in piracy.[2]  One of them, the “White Lion,” captured a Portuguese ship carrying slaves from Africa to the Caribbean.  In August 1619, the captain of the “White Lion” traded 20-30 slaves to English colonists in Jamestown, Virginia, for food.  These were the first African-Americans in British North America.  The Pilgrims only landed near Plymouth Rock a year later.

The new arrivals posed conceptual problems for the English colonists.  First, slavery did not exist in England and had not for 500 years.  Moreover, the English commonly talked about themselves as “free” men as opposed to the cowardly “subjects” of the tyrannical Spanish kings.  So, how did an Englishman adopt the law of his nation’s enemy?  Second, these particular Africans came from Angola, a kingdom reached by Catholic missionaries a hundred years before.  They were mostly Christians.  OK, enslaving Muslims might be OK, because they had done it to Christians first.[3]  Enslaving Christians though, even if they were Catholics, seemed wrong.  So, the colonists decided to treat the Africans as “indentured servants,”[4] not slaves.

Indentured servants were people who had received passage to Virginia in return for a promise to work for 4-7 years for the person who paid for their passage.  After that, they were free and they received a bit of land of their own, along with some clothes and tools.  In between arrival and liberation, the indentured servants worked the tobacco farms of other men.  This was killing work for anyone, black or white—and the vast majority of “servants” were white.  Hard physical labor for long hours out of doors along the Chesapeake.  Before air-conditioning or insecticides.  People—white and black—keeled over from heat stroke, malaria, and the “flux.”[5]

The thing is, living and working alongside black people creeped-out white people.  Sure, we’re kinda-sorta better about this now.  They weren’t.  Early “indentured servants” from Africa increasingly turned into slaves (1650).  The children of black women inherited the status of their mother, even if the father was white (1662).  Not many Englishwomen wanted to move to Virginia at this time, so there was a lot of inter-racial rape by white men.[6]

Most workers in Virginia were English “indentured servants.”  They became increasingly angry about their situation.  Angry young men with guns, if you see the connection.  In 1676, they rebelled against the rich guys—who wanted to get along with the Native Americans—in what is called “Bacon’s Rebellion.”  Once the rich guys regained control, they put a stop to “indentured servants.”  They started importing lots of African slaves.  Slaves didn’t have any rights and they couldn’t get guns.  A slave-owner could work them harder: slaves worked longer hours and more days than did whites.  That was a “white privilege” of that time.

[1] “America’s original sin,” The Week, 30 August 2019, p. 11.

[2] To be fair, so did the ships of every other European country.

[3] See: any playground dispute in elementary school.

[4] “Indenture” is an old word for contract.  As far as IU’s housing office knows, you are all “indentured students.”

[5] Drinking contaminated water led to explosive diarrhea + projectile vomiting until a person was totally dehydrated.

[6] Those “23 and Me” sites show that the average African-American is about one-sixth European-American.  One hundred and fifty years after slavery.  So, the figure in 1860 may have been much higher.  Or so I think.

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