In defense of his blackface, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam mentioned “indentured servants”. The interviewer replied:”Aka slaves.” Both are wrong. There was a difference between slaves and indentured servants; the terms were not synonyms. Some of the earliest black people in the Virginia Colony were bound servants, yes, but forty years later most blacks were enslaved.
(2-12-2019) Jamestown was the first colony to grow roots, when John Rolfe arrived, bearing seeds from the Spanish tobacco crops in Central America. In 1612 he had his first successful crop and that was the beginning of Virginia’s economy.
The tobacco was of inferior quality, but it was cheap; common English people quickly became addicted and the Jamestown plantations desperately needed more workers to keep up with the demand. The first forced laborers were not slaves. In London men called “spirits” kidnapped kids (get it?) and spirited them away (get it?) to Virginia. Prisoners (convicts) were sent to the colony because the English jails were overflowing. Young girls also crossed the ocean to be wives for the colonists.
And then there was indentured servitude.
To keep the planters motivated to produce, and to increase production, the governor of Virginia (don’t you just love history?) soon allowed the purchase of land, but land was worthless without workers, and he quickly recognized that the principal wealth was servants. He introduced the “headright” system: planters got fifty acres for every indentured servant whose crossing they subsidized. The servants were the poorest of the poor from the English cities. Some were so starved or sick that they didn’t even survive the crossing, but they still counted toward the fifty acres, so who cared, right? Many of those who did arrive alive were so malnourished that they weren’t able to do the hard labor for long, but it was still a way for planters to quickly amass lots of land. Others got their strength back and gained their freedom after the agreed upon period of time, usually between four and seven years.
Today we view indentured servitude as slavery as well, since it’s unpaid labor. And bound servants were definitely treated differently from their masters; for minor crimes or misdemeanors they received corporal punishment, while their masters would only pay small fines for the same transgressions. They couldn’t marry without their masters’ approval, and they could be sold if their master needed money or fell ill or died. They were already considered chattel, so what was the difference between slaves and indentured servants? Is Virginia Governor Ralph Northam right or is he muddying the waters? Or is he simply confused?
When the approximately twenty enslaved Africans were brought to the Virginia Colony by a Dutch sea captain in 1619, their status as slaves ended. Reports vary as to whether it was a Spanish or Portuguese ship that the enslaved were on when the English raided it, before in turn selling them to the Dutchman. And they were either captured by the Portuguese in a war with the kingdom of Ndongo, in present-day Angola, or they came from a Portuguese colony. Either way, at least half of them had Christian names. If they came from a Portuguese colony they had probably been converted there; if they were captured by the Spanish, they would have immediately been baptized. The point is: the English didn’t enslave Christians. Also they had no need for slaves. Their form of bound labor was indenture and it worked for them, so the newcomers also came under indenture, and were freed after four to seven years. Up to at least the 1640s, most blacks in the Virginia Colony were free, accepted, and respected members of their community, where miscegenation (marriage between black and white) was quite common. Race and skin color doesn’t seem to have been a big issue in the beginning.
However, something changed around 1640. This was the first year that the Virginia Assembly discriminated against blacks as a group. This was also the first year that a black indentured servant who had run away was punished with servitude for life. Now, that is aka slavery. His white fellow runaways only got a few lashes and some time added. It was also in 1640 that the first cases of pure slavery from the beginning can be found in the historical records. So there was really only a period of little more than twenty years, between 1619 and 1640 without any slavery. From then slavery based on race gradually replaced indentured servitude regardless of race.
Riches argues that this was due to an event in Providence, a small island off Nicaragua, in 1638-39. The Virginia Company brought English colonists to both Virginia and Providence, and ran trade ships between them; the two colonies had close ties and regular communication. Adventurers (pirates) who raided Spanish ships near Providence took slaves as well as gold and other valuables. These slaves were sold and put to work on the island’s plantations. Not all the colonists in Providence agreed on slavery; one Protestant minister encouraged the slaves to run away into the mountains, which they readily did. The governor told the slaves to come back, or else. This led to a revolt.
After the revolt was quashed, many slaves were shipped to Virginia by the Company, and sold to planters there. Thus slavery was introduced to Virginia. On top of this, the Spanish attacked and took Providence in 1640, and the English colonists fled to the Virginia colony with their slaves. So now Virginia had free blacks, blacks under indenture and, within a very short period of time, quite a few black slaves. The Virginia colonists were well aware of the revolt in Providence, so they mistrusted these slaves. This is when we begin to see a difference in treatment and policy based on race: when they feared an attack by a nearby indigenous tribe, the colonists were warned to arm every person, except blacks.
A 1661 law officially allowed servitude for life. In 1662 slavery became official, when a bill passed claiming that the status of the mother — free or slave — determined the status of a child. That was the beginning of slavery from birth to death. Fines were steep for whites who had children with blacks, thus discouraging mingling of the races. The English had always been reluctant to enslave Christians, but in 1667 a bill passed the Virginia Assembly stating that baptism was no longer a reason to free slaves, thus closing another gate. The next step was to simply not ask if a black person was a Christian, and to rationalize that a black person didn’t have the mental capacity to fully understand Christianity, anyway. A 1688 bill made it legal for a white slaveholder or overseer to kill a black slave. The first law against miscegenation was passed in 1691.
Not only were blacks gradually driven into slavery, they were actively humiliated. In Surry County, a 1672 bill prescribed that blacks couldn’t congregate, and that black slaves and indentured black servants must only wear blue clothing made of course cloth, to differentiate between them and free people, who could wear white clothes made of finer materials like silk. The reason: it would then be obvious that the black person had stolen the item of clothing if it was anything other than the course blue.
In 1680 the Assembly adopted similar measures for blacks throughout the Virginia Colony, and they went even further: slaves were banned from attending funerals or feasts; they couldn’t carry any type of weapon; they were not to leave their plantation without a pass from their master; and runaways could be killed. This was a major difference between slaves and indentured servants — punishment for servants under indenture was usually added time; for slaves it was corporal punishment or death, because they were already bound for life. A 1692 bill denied blacks a trial by jury, bearing witness or giving testimony in court. By 1705 Virginia had an official Slave Code.
Virginia was just the beginning. Maryland, established in 1633, also began importing slaves in 1642, and when the Crown gave the Carolina colony to rich cavaliers in 1663, half of them just happened to be members of the Royal African Company, which bought black slaves in Africa and shipped them via the Middle Passage to the Americas. Carolina was set up with a black-slave-based economy from the start. The rest is history, as they say.
So I learned something new, again. I thought blacks were enslaved from those very first people in 1619 onward. I was wrong. (I will have to correct some previous posts!) And yes, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam was partly right; for the first forty years of the Virginia Colony, give or take, most bound blacks worked under indenture, like bound whites. But after those first forty years, blacks were enslaved, with no hope of freedom for most, for over two centuries, until the Emancipation Declaration in 1863.
So, no — though it was bad enough, indentured servitude was not the same as slavery, because indentured servitude was not race-based and it was usually for no more than seven years. It did, however, make the step to slavery conveniently smooth. Furthermore, the shift in the Virginia Colony from no slavery in 1619 to de facto slavery in 1640 and de jure slavery by 1662 demonstrates how easy it is for a society to decide — based on fear — that one group of people doesn’t deserve protection under the law, and to then proceed to take away said group’s rights one by one while at the same time constructing a rationale that it’s okay because those people aren’t really even people.
The tradition of blackface is rooted in the white supremacist need to always put blacks down, to humiliate them, to make them seem far inferior, so that enslaving them could be justified.
- William Cummings. “Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam slammed for referring to ‘first indentured servants from Africa’ instead of slaves.”
USA TODAY, Feb. 11, 2019, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2019/02/11/ralph-northam-cbs-interview/2835591002/
- “History of slavery in Maryland.” Wikipedia, https://www.wikiwand.com/en/History_of_slavery_in_Maryland
- “History of Slavery in Virginia”. Wikipedia, https://www.wikiwand.com/en/History_of_slavery_in_Virginia
- “John Rolfe”. Historic Jamestowne, Jamestown Rediscovery. https://historicjamestowne.org/history/pocahontas/john-rolfe/
- Zann Nelson. “First Blacks in Virginia were freemen.” Orange County Review, Sep 16, 2016,
- Researching Early Maryland History. Enoch Pratt Free Library, https://www.prattlibrary.org/research/tools/index.aspx?cat=109&id=4890
- W. T. M. Riches. “White Slaves, Black Servants and the Question of Providence: Servitude and Slavery in Colonial Virginia 1609-1705.” Irish Journal of American Studies, vol. 8, 1999. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/30002672?read-now=1&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
- Constance Sublette and Ned Sublette. American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry. Lawrence Hill Books, 2015.
- Alan D. Watson. “A Consideration of European Indentured Servitude in Colonial North Carolina.” The North Carolina Historical Review,
vol. 91, No. 4 (Oct), 2014, North Carolina Office of Archives and History, 2014, JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/44113224?read-now=1&refreqid=excelsior%3A92de1f0caa0b41a5fcba2276326b9fa1&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
- Brendan Wolfe. “Free Blacks in Colonial Virginia.” Encyclopedia Virginia, https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Free_Blacks_in_Colonial_Virginia
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