History of slavery in Virginia

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Am I Not A Man And A Brother?

Slavery in Virginia is an institution that was started by European monarchs in about 1619 and practiced for over 150 years by and with the support of the British Crown. Attempts by citizens of the colony of Virginia to put a stop to the practice were overturned by decrees of the king.

At the time the practice first appeared in the colony, primarily by English and Dutch merchants, the ruler of England was King James and the ruler of the Netherlands was Maurice of Orange.


When Slavery arrived in Virginia in 1619, Virginia was a newly established colony having been formed in 1607. The English Virginia Company established a system of transporting indentured servants to the colony because of labor shortages. The first time Africans were brought to the colony was on board a Spanish slave ship which had been captured by Dutch sailors.

Virginia first started to recognize slavery in its legal code around 1662 and later, with a culmination of laws in the slave code of 1705. In the early years of the practice, Africans were treated much the same way that white indentured servants were, earning their freedom after a specified period of time and being granted land upon being freed from their assigned indenture.

An early example of this is Anthony Johnson, who is regarded by some as the first slave owner. Anthony was an African who completed his indenture and once he became a property owner, sought to have indentured servants of his own. What makes Johnson's case different is that in the John Casor suit, Johnson sought to have Casor held not as an indenture for a short specified number of years, but as a slave for life. In the case, the Northamton court ultimately ruled in favor of Johnson, making Casor his lifelong property.

Becoming an institution

As the 17th century came to a close, an increasing number of slaves were brought from Africa by English and Dutch slave ships to the Virginia, Maryland, and other southern colonies. The labor-intensive farming of cotton and tobacco led to greater need for people who could work the crop, and the monarchs back in Europe profited off of the trade for the support of their empires and wars.

Freedom for some slaves

From the begnning, some slaves achieved freedom in various ways. Some purchased their own freedom, some had masters who granted them freedom out of a feeling of benevolence, others escaped, and some became free by joining the familiess of the plantation owners with mixed-race descendants. It was not uncommon for free people of color to stay in Virginia after being emancipated, though there were some who migrated westward.

Escaped slaves were known to have found a place to live in the Great Dismal Swamp Maroons.

For a long period after their first introduction, very few slaves were imported. At the end of the first half-century there were only some two thousand, and as late as the year 1715 they numbered only about twenty-five thousand. In the sixty years, however, immediately preceding the Revolution, they came in ever-increasing numbers, so that at the latter date they almost equalled the white population of the colony

Virginian Colonists attempt abolition

In the decades leading up to the American Revolution, the colonists living in Virginia were increasingly opposed to the institution. The reasons why were many: Some colonists opposed slavery on the grounds of merit and consistency, in that that they wanted freedom for themselves and everyone around them. Others, feared slave rebellions which were happening in other parts of the world. Still others, opposed the continued introduction of slaves because they were different: different color, different culture, and different belief systems. Lastly, slaves were increasingly being taught Christian beliefs, and it was looked on as inexcusable for one Christian to enslave another Christian.

With the great increase of this element in the population, the colonists were quick to realize their danger] and numerous acts were passed by the Colonial Legislature designed to lessen, if not actually to stop, further importations.[1] Alluding to these efforts of the Virginia people, the historian George Bancroft noted:

  • Again and again they had passed laws restraining the importation of negroes from Africa, but their laws were disallowed. How to prevent them from protecting themselves against the increase of the overwhelming evil was debated by the King in Council; and on the 10th of December, 1770, he issued an instruction under his own hand commanding the Governor "upon pain of the highest displeasure, to assent to no laws by which the importation of slaves should be in any respect prohibited or obstructed."[2]

Edmund Burke, in his speech on conciliating America, in response to the suggestion that the slaves might be freed and used against the colonies, said,

  • Dull as all men are from slavery, must they not a little suspect the offer of freedom from the very nation which had sold them to their present masters - from that nation, one of whose causes of quarrel with those masters is their refusal to deal any more in that inhuman traffic. An offer of freedom from England would come rather oddly, shipped to them in an African vessel, which is refused an entry into the ports of Virginia or Carolina, with a cargo of three hundred Angola Negroes.

In addition to legislative enactments, appeals were addressed directly to the throne. But the great personages interested in the slave trade proved more influential with the King than the prayers of his imperilled people. There is something at once pathetic and prophetic in the appeals made by these Virginians to their sovereign against the slave trade. The petition presented by the House of Burgesses in 1772 recites:

  • We implore your Majesty's paternal assistance in averting a calamity of a most alarming nature. The importation of slaves into the colonies from the coast of Africa hath long been considered as a trade of great inhumanity, and under its present encouragement we have too much reason to fear will endanger the very existence of your Majesty's American dominions. We are sensible that some of your Majesty's subjects may reap emoluments from this sort of traffic, but when we consider that it greatly retards the settlement of the colonies with more useful inhabitants and may in time have the most destructive influence, we presume to hope that the interests of a few will be disregarded when placed in competition with the security and happiness of such numbers of your Majesty's dutiful and loyal subjects. We, therefore, beseech your Majesty to remove all these restraints on your Majesty's Governor in this colony which inhibits their assenting to such laws as might check so pernicious a consequence.[3]

But the King and Ministers continued to turn deaf ears and except with respect to more moderate measures the Royal Veto was interposed to annul all anti-slavery laws.

The First Draft of the Declaration of Independence

Chief among the causes which aroused the opposition of the Virginia colonists and placed them in the forefront of the Revolution was the course of the King with respect to this momentous subject. When Thomas Jefferson came to write the Declaration of Independence and to epitomize the grounds of indictment which the colonists presented against the British King, it was the latter's veto of the laws passed by Virginia to suppress the slave trade, and the active aid lent by his Government to force the captives of Africa upon his defenseless subjects, that evoked the fiercest arraignment in that historic document. Mr. Jefferson declared:

  • He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it's most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, & murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

These words expressed precisely what had happened in Virginia. She as well as other colonies, had perseveringly attempted to repress the slave-trade while the king had perseveringly used his veto to protect it. The governor, clothed with the king's authority, had invited slaves to rise against their masters.[4]

Robert Dale Owen, an early abolitionist, regarded King George III as "a pillar of the slave-trade".[5]

See also


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