In the beginning there were indentured servants. This is not scholarly work per se, but information to satisfy my own curiosity as to how this country became the way it is today in regard to race relationship.
First of all, we all know that slavery or being enslaved has been a human construct since the beginning of time. However, I believe from my readings and research, the history of slavery in the Southern United States was the only society in which several generations of families could and would be enslaved. So how did we get to that point. Well, it started with the colonization of the Americas by the British beginning in the 1600s.
It is worth noting that during the 16th Century (1500s) there were a number European (Spain, France, Portugal) footholds of civilization in the Americas. In fact as Spain was exploring Florida, every one of their expeditions included both free and enslaved Africans. The first record of African slaves were with the Lucas Váquez de Ayllón expedition of 1526. The first permanent settlement occurred in the Pensacola, Florida area, by the Spanish in 1559 by Tristan de Luna. It would be the oldest multiyear settlement until a hurricane in 1561 devastated the area. However, the oldest continuous European settlement goes to St. Augustine, founded in 1565 by Pedro Mendez de Aviles. Free and enslaved African descendants were crucial to the development the city.
Now, the British saw what was happening down in Florida, so not to be outdone, the British decided that “Hey, we don’t want the Spaniards grabbing all the glory and resources of the America.” So they too set out to establish, their own beachhead in the Americas with the founding of Jamestown in Virginia some 50 plus years later.
Okay, we got the Spanish settled down in Florida, now what about Jamestown, Virginia. Founded in 1607, The British didn’t have enough people as laborers to help “tame” the new land, so “two men, an uncle and his nephew, each named Richard Hakluyt” went about extolling the riches of North America. In pamphlets sent around the country, they basically said go west, across the Atlantic; “gain glory, profit, and adventure.” Now there were a number of red-blooded Englishmen with no money, property, etc, that basically said “Why not? We can become kings of our own domain in the new lands.” So many of them signed-up as indentured servants. New products could be sent back to England and the clergy could Christianize all those “Heathen Indians.”
The stage was now set to sail across the Atlantic. The Virginia Company of England provided the investments to fund the founding of Jamestown. In other words, Jamestown was a business enterprise and with all new enterprises, the investors were out to earn a quick “buck” or in Jolly Olde England terms, Quid/Pound. Needless to say this first attempt at settling in the New World was a disaster. The first settlement in 1607 saw 105 souls, the second landing in 1609 saw 500 Englanders. But by the Spring of 1610 there were only 60 settlers left. What happened?
Well, a drought had set in so it was difficult to farm and being too arrogant a people, they refused the help of the Native Americans. After all the Native Americans were “savages,” what did they know? The Englanders ended up eating everything in sight, horses, pigs, cattle, poultry, and each other .
Not to be deterred, by heavy financial losses, The Virginia Company of London sent more colonist and began experimenting with different types of tobacco. Without getting into the history of tobacco, the raising and cultivating of tobacco became the “goose that laid the golden egg.” It saved the investors’ money and by 1617, 55,000 pounds of tobacco was sent to England – Whoopee!! Jamestown could survive by growing and marketing tobacco.
Tobacco fields grew by leaps and bounds throughout Virginia. But, growing tobacco was a very labor intensive endeavor. At the time tobacco was becoming “king,” England was encountering a population boom. What to do with all of these new people. At first the working class provided the man power. But then there were not enough of them, so the homeless and unemployed were recruited as indentured servants.
In exchange for four to seven years of their labor, these indentured servants were, fed, clothed and at the completion of their contract, were given ”a bushel of corn for planting, a new suit of clothes and 100 acres of land”. These newly released indentured servants were now free to earn their own living.
Now here is the rub. After awhile, these tobacco plantation owners began running out of indentured servants. After all, employment conditions in England began to improve, so why go to the New World and try to “make it” under the reported harsh living conditions. This left the tobacco barons with only two choices for laborers; exploit/hire Native Americans who could leave and return home, or the second option occurred when a “Dutch” Ship appeared in the Jamestown harbor area (mouth of the James River) in 1619.
This is were the story divergences based upon the resource used.
According to PBS this Dutch ship had pirated a Spanish ship that held captive Africans. Depending on the source/reference (PBS, History website or encyclopediavirginia.)
However, https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/first-african-slave-ship-arrives-jamestown-colony. or https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Virginia_s_First_Africans state these African captives were stolen from the slave ship San Juan Bautista by two English privateer ships, the White Lion and the Treasure.
Needing supplies for the ship (White Lion or unnamed Dutch ship,) the British colonists traded food to the Dutchmen/ Englishmen for the enslaved Africans. “The colonists purchased the Africans, baptized them, and gave them Christian names.”
“…some of these Africans, like their white counterparts, were purchased according to the usual terms for all indentured servants. They and other Africans who were transported to America at this time would become free after their years of service.” The Virginia Encyclopedia probably has the best write-up of the first African’s traded for food
But purchasing/hiring European and African indentured servants to work the tobacco fields turned out to be an unsustainable endeavor. After a while, the colonists had a choice to make; continue using indentured servants who one day will become free and compete against the establishment, or, enslave generations of a specific class of people. I think we all know what their decision became. By the way, at the time, the English did not classify themselves white or black. Yes, they recognized people as black and white, but that is not how they were classified. People were classified according to their standings in society; poor, artisan, gentry, nobility
That all changed with the adoption of race-based slavery. In order words, in the British American colonies, the end of the indentured servant gave rise to the generational enslavement of Africans (“From Nation to Race: The Origin of Racial Classification in Eighteenth-Century Thought”)