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Not 1619, but 1662
Slavery in Virginia becomes self-perpetuating (Moments that Made America)
“About the latter end of August, a Dutch man-of-war of the burden of 160 tons arrived at Point Comfort,” John Rolfe wrote in 1619. The Dutch ship was a privateer, a licensed pirate, which had been preying on Spanish merchant vessels. It landed at Point Comfort, in the English colony of Virginia, to reprovision. Ships were always welcome in the dozen-year-old colony, and Rolfe hoped the Dutch captain had useful supplies to trade for foodstuffs. He was disappointed. “He brought not anything but 20 and odd Negroes, which the Governor and Cape Merchant bought for victuals,” Rolfe said.
The “Negroes” were part of a larger group of West Africans who had been stolen from their homes and bound as slaves for the sugar colonies of West Indies aboard a Portuguese trader. The Dutch privateer had intercepted the Portuguese vessel and carried off some of its slaves. Virginia wasn’t the best place to unload slaves, which were more valuable in the Caribbean, but the Dutch captain needed food and his twice-stolen cargo was his currency.
The 1619 arrivals were not the first Africans to reach Virginia. A census recorded several months earlier listed thirty-two Africans residing in the colony. Nor were these earlier residents the first Africans in what would become the United States. The Spanish had brought enslaved Africans to Florida, Texas and New Mexico in the previous century.
The status of the African arrivals was unclear. The Rolfe letter explains that they were “bought.” But indentured servants were also bought, and sold, during the period of their indentures. And Virginia in 1619 had no laws governing slavery. So at first the Africans fell into the larger category of unfree labor.
But when they proved to be an important part of the answer to the overriding economic question facing the colony—how to find enough labor to tend the tobacco on which the colony’s survival rested—the Virginians purchased more of them. And they knew enough about slavery as practiced in the Caribbean to realize they could impose permanent servitude on the slaves they purchased. Thus the treatment of the Africans differed from that of the English indentured servants, whose terms of service were limited. If the Virginians had tried to extend the indenture terms, the supply of indentured servants, who volunteered for the service, would have dried up. The Africans, needless to say, had not volunteered for transport to America.
Even so, decades were required before Virginia law became settled regarding slavery. Workers weren’t the only category of persons in short supply in Virginia; women were, too. Inevitably English men had sex with African women. The colonial authorities tried to discourage the practice. A 1630 court session handed down the following sentence: “Hugh Davis to be soundly whipped before an assembly of Negroes and others for abusing himself to the dishonor of God and shame of Christians by defiling his body by lying with a negro, which fault he is to acknowledge next Sabbath day.” The problem persisted, although the punishment shifted. In 1640 the court mandated: “Robert Sweet to do penance in church according to the laws of England, for getting a negro woman with child, and the woman whipt.”
On the crucial question of the status of such children—of enslaved mothers and free fathers—the laws took even longer to settle. The children of enslaved mothers by enslaved fathers were presumed to be slaves, but because the identity of a father can be uncertain, a significant loophole remained.
In 1662 the Virginia assembly closed it. “Whereas some doubts have arisen whether children got by any Englishman upon a Negro woman should be slave or free, be it therefore enacted and declared by this present Grand Assembly, that all children born in this country shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother,” the assembly declared.
It was this decision, declaring definitively that the children of enslaved mothers were likewise enslaved, that made the institution of slavery in Virginia self-perpetuating. No longer did it depend on imports of newly enslaved people from Africa. Even apologists for slavery often quailed at the brutality of the Atlantic trade, whose “middle passage” claimed countless lives. The United States Congress in 1808 would ban America’s participation in the trade. It did so secure in the knowledge that the offspring of existing slaves, and their offspring, and their offspring’s offspring, would provide all the enslaved labor American planters would ever require.
The 1662 Virginia statue included a warning against fornication between whites and blacks, and specified fines for whites engaged in such acts. But the gist of the statue had the opposite effect, adding an economic incentive to biological and other motives for sex with enslaved women: the children so produced would become the marketable property of the master. By no means did every master treat his enslaved offspring like livestock; the children of Thomas Jefferson by Sally Hemings were favorites around Monticello, and were freed at adulthood. But many masters did, and the incentive to do so existed in all cases.
In the first half of the nineteenth century, on plantations in the older states where tobacco had worn out the soil and cotton didn’t flourish, revenues from the sale of the offspring of slave mothers—sale typically to planters in the newer states of the Gulf Coast—frequently made the difference between profit and loss. The profits from the domestic slave trade helped explain the stubbornness of resistance to emancipation in Virginia and other old states, to the surprise and dismay of Jefferson, Henry Clay and other planters who hoped slavery would wither and die.
At the same time, the profits from the domestic trade increased the determination of slavery’s practitioners to extend the realm of slavery to the West. It was this determination, more than any other single factor, that produced the sectional crisis of the 1850s and the Civil War.