The first Africans landing on colonial America’s shores in late August 1619 were indentured servants, not slaves and each was granted freedom once their indentured terms expired or was satisfied. Aboard the ship White Lion… they arrived at Old Point Comfort (today’s Hampton, Virginia) at the mouth of the James River. The historical record evidence “20 and odd” African captives are exchanged by the ship’s captain for some victuals. Three or four days later another ship, the Treasurer comes into port with a human cargo of more captured Africans. These Africans had legal rights under British rule during the first half of the 16th century in colonial Virginia and no different than other colonists, they became British subjects by English law and the children of these Africans were freeborn Englishmen: Afro-Englishmen. They were then eligible for headrights for land in the new colony in the Chesapeake Bay region, where former indentured servants were more common.
Slaves cannot breathe in England; If their lungs receive our air, that moment they are free. They touch our country, and their shackles fall were the poetic words of William Cowper, a British poet of the Eighteenth century. Point in fact, from the early 1600s forward, slavery within the North American colonies under British rule was a prohibited, criminal practice and totally repugnant to English law.
England’s status as a republic… committed to a rule of law tradition that prohibited slavery on its soil and conferring legal protection for all people date back to the Magna Carta of 1215. Prohibiting slavery on its soil and guaranteeing justice for all throughout the Kingdom became the common law when Archbishop Stephen Langton gathered English barons and forced King John and future sovereigns and magistrates adherence: that everybody is subject to the law, including the King. This principle is intended to be a safeguard against arbitrary governance, whether by a totalitarian leader or by mob rule. Thus, England’s rule of law tradition was hostile both to dictators and to anarchy. It is encapsulated in its motto… “no one is above or below English law”.
Moreover, in North America… the government of each colony was touted as being “a government of laws, not of men” with the colonial governor, appointed by the King holding ultimate power and authority. This ideal of being “a government of laws, not of men” was adopted by the United States government and was enshrined by America’s second President John Adams in the Novanglus Essays, published in February 1775.
Virginia being a government of laws, not of men meant that the first Africans after serving their indentured servitude terms fell into a well-established socio-economic system. Virginia’s socio-economic system reflected no racism or repression. For example, Anthony Johnson was one of the first Africans to arrive in colonial Virginia, and after serving as an indentured servant until 1635, he became free and a major property owner… owning 250 acres of fertile land and holding five indentured servant contracts by 1651. As well, Johnson married an African named Isabelle—she gave birth to the first Afro-Englishman in 1623 or 1624 who was a freeborn Englishman. His name was William Johnson and no different from today… born in colonial America conferred British subjecthood. However, in 1652, “an unfortunate fire” caused “great losses” for Johnson. He applied to the colonial court for tax relief and without regard to Johnson’s African origins, the colonial court not only reduced his taxes, evidencing that kidnapped Africans who became free British subjects had rights under England’s common law in early colonial America but, surprisingly, Virginia’s rule of lawgivers even exempted Johnson’s wife and his two minor daughters from paying taxes at all “during their natural lives”.
During this time, taxes were levied on people, not property, as under Virginia’s 1645 Taxation Act provides; “All negro men and women and all other men from the age of 16 to 60 shall be tithable”. The colonial court’s exemption of Johnson’s wife and daughters from the obligation to pay taxes gave them the same social status and rights of freeborn white women, who were not taxed in colonial Virginia. Then in 1654… in a civil case titled Anthony Johnson versus Robert Parker, this Afro-Englishman prevailed against a white defendant in a replevin case involving John Casor, a black indentured servant whose contract was owned by Johnson… but had been transferred to Parker. Casor had complained to Parker that his indentured contract had expired seven years earlier and that he was being held in an illegal state of servitude. Parker intervened on behalf of Casor and cajoled Johnson into releasing him since keeping indentured servants past their term of servitude was considered a serious matter and an offending party could be severely punished for such an offense. However, Johnson who was illiterate brought a lawsuit once he found out that he’d been tricked, as Casor signed a term of indentured to Parker/ Afterwards, Johnson sought the nullification of his release and the return of Casor.
Initially, the colonial court ruled in favor of Parker, but Johnson appealed the decision and in 1655, the ruling was reversed. The higher court found in favor of this Afro-Englishman Johnson, by nullifying the release and directing Parker to return Casor and to pay court fees. In sustaining Johnson’s cause of action against Parker in a colonial court, the verdict established Afro-Englishmen and/or foreigners of African ancestry could bring lawsuits in colonial times and prevail under England’s rule of law. Without dispute, Johnson’s securing tax relief in 1652 and the disposition of his civil case to nullify his release of his indentured servant in 1655 are significant because they do establish the normal social status accorded to people of African ancestry who became Englishmen and subjects of the King… a status that was practically and theoretically incompatible with a system of racial repression or structural racism.
Colonial governor Sir George Yeardley was the ultimate rule of lawgiver in Virginia when the first Africans arrived in 1619. He functioned as the first legislative head of Virginia’s House of Burgesses and had veto power, subject to judicial review of England’s Privy Council in London and ultimately, the Court of the King’s Bench. After the Virginia Company of London lost its proprietary charter in 1624… the colony was taken over by the English crown and became a crown colony. Governors were appointed by the ruling monarch to oversee the interests of the Crown. However, during the interreignum period of 1649 until 1660 when England had no monarch and Virginia was under Commonwealth Rule and Oliver and Richard Cromwell appointed Virginia’s governors. William Berkeley, who was governor at the time of the execution of King Charles I, remained in office until the arrival of a Commonwealth fleet in 1651. Berkeley was returned to the office by votes of Virginia’s House of Burgesses and by appointment of the restored King Charles II in 1660.
English law prohibited slavery on British territories, thus kidnapped Africans who arrived on Virginia’s shores in 1619 were treated as indentured servants—not slaves. Once, Anthony Johnson was discharged from servitude in 1635, he became an Englishman by law, with full rights, status, and privileges… no different than a white colonist. Johnson’s treatment during colonial times were antithetical to the existence of a structural racist regimen.