Fisrt African Slaves in America
Jamestown from a Dutch slave trader


A Dutch slave trader exchanged his cargo of Africans for food in 1619. The Africans became indentured servants, similar in legal position to many poor Englishmen who traded several years labor in exchange for passage to America. The popular conception of a racial-based slave system did not develop until the 1680's.

The legend has been repeated endlessly that the first blacks in Virginia were "indentured servants," but there is no hint of this in the records. The legend grew up because the word slave did not appear in Virginia records until 1656, and statutes defining the status of blacks began to appear casually in the 1660s. The inference was then made that blacks called servants must have had approximately the same status as white indentured servants. Such reasoning failed to notice that Englishmen, in the early seventeenth century, used the word "servant" when they meant slave in our sense, and, indeed, white Southerners invariably used servant until 1865 and beyond. Slave entered the Southern vocabulary as a technical word in trade, law and politics.

Jamestown had exported 10 tons of tobacco to Europe and was a boomtown. The export business was going so well the colonists were able to afford two imports which would greatly contribute to their productivity and quality of life. 20 Blacks from Africa and 90 women from England. The Africans were paid for in food; each woman cost 120 pounds of tobacco. The Blacks were bought as indentured servants from a passing Dutch ship low on food, and the women were supplied by a private English company. Those who married the women had to pay their passage--120 pounds of tobacco.

With the success of tobacco planting, African Slavery was legalized in Virginia and Maryland, becoming the foundation of the Southern agrarian economy.

Although the number of African American slaves grew slowly at first, by the 1680s they had become essential to the economy of Virginia. During the 17th and 18th centuries, African American slaves lived in all of England’s North American colonies. Before Great Britain prohibited its subjects from participating in the slave trade, between 600,000 and 650,000 Africans had been forcibly transported to North America.

Following the arrival of the twenty Africans aboard the Dutch man-of-war at Jamestown, the face of American slavery began to change from the "tawny" Indian to the "blackamoor" African in the years between 1650 and 1750. Though the issue is complex, the unsuitability of Native Americans for the labor intensive agricultural practices, their susceptibility to European diseases, the proximity of avenues of escape for Native Americans, and the lucrative nature of the African slave trade led to a transition to an African based institution of slavery. During this period of transition, however, the colonial "wars" against the Pequots, the Tuscaroras, the Yamasees, and numerous other Indian nations led to the enslavement and relocation of tens of thousands of Native Americans. In the early years of the eighteenth century, the number of Native American slaves in areas such as the Carolinas may have been as much as half of the African slave population. During this transitional period, Africans and Native Americans shared the common experience of enslavement. In addition to working together in the fields, they lived together in communal living quarters, produced collective recipes for food and herbal remedies, shared myths and legends, and ultimately became lovers. The intermarriage of Africans and Native Americans was facilitated by the disproportionality of African male slaves to females (3 to 1) and the decimation of Native American males by disease, enslavement, and prolonged wars with the colonists.

As Native American societies in the Southeast were primarily matrilineal, African males who married Native American women often became members of the wife's clan and citizens of the respective nation. As relationships grew, the lines of distinction began to blur. The evolution of red-black people began to pursue its own course; many of the people who came to be known as slaves, free people of color, Africans, or Indians were most often the product of integrating cultures. In areas such as Southeastern Virginia, The Low Country of the Carolinas, and Silver Bluff, S.C., communities of Afro-Indians began to spring up. The depth and complexity of this intermixture is revealed in a 1740 slave code in South Carolina:

"all Negroes and Indians, (free Indians in amity with this government, and Negroes, mulattos, and mustezoes, who are now free, excepted) mulattos or mustezoes who are now, or shall hereafter be in this province, and all their issue and offspring...shall be and they are hereby declared to be, and remain hereafter absolute slaves."

Millions of Native Americans were also enslaved, particularly in South America. In the American colonies in 1730, nearly 25 percent of the slaves in the Carolinas were Cherokee, Creek, or other Native Americans. From the 1500s through the early 1700s, small numbers of white people were also enslaved by kidnapping, or for crimes or debts.

In the Americas, there were added dimensions to slavery, especially reactions to the racial characteristics of chattel slavery. This fundamental difference from the condition of slaves in Africa emerged gradually, although the roots of racial categories were established early. Acts of resistance that combined indentured Irish workers, African slaves, and Amer-Indian prisoners did occur, although in the end these alliances disintegrated. Furthermore, slaves did not consolidate ethnic identifications on the basis of color, but it was widely understood that most blacks were slaves and no whites were slave. Although there were black, mulatto and American-born slave owners in some colonies in the Americas, and most whites did not own slaves, chattel slavery was fundamentally different in the Americas from other parts of the world because of the racial dimension.

The first public slave auction of 23 individuals, disgracefully, was held in Jamestown square itself in 1638. What were to become the parameters and properties of the "peculiar institution" were defined in the Virginia General Assembly from about 1640 onwards. Negro indenture, then, appears to have been no more than a legal fiction of brief duration in Virginia. Black freedmen would live in a legal limbo until the general emancipation in 1864, unable to stand witness in their own defense against the testimony of any Euro-American. The General Court dispositions that appear after 1640 seem to support this contention. Barbados was the first British possession to enact restrictive legislation governing slaves in 1644, and other colonial administrations, especially Virginia and Maryland, quickly adopted similar rules modeled on it. Whipping and branding, borrowed from Roman practice via the Iberian-American colonies, appeared early and with vicious audacity.

One Virginian slave, named Emanuel, was convicted of trying to escape in July, 1640, and was condemned to thirty stripes, with the letter "R" for "runaway" branded on his cheek and "work in a shackle one year or more as his master shall see cause."

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