During colonial times within the North American colonies the Atlantic slave trade was robust and from 1526 to 1867… some 12.5 million Africans had been kidnapped and 10.7 million had arrived in the Americas. The first Africans forced to work in the New World left from Europe at the beginning of the 16th century, not from Africa. The first slave voyage direct from Africa to the Americas sailed around 1526. But during early colonial times, slavery was prohibited within the North American colonies under English law and laws were being enforced.
Thus, when the first Africans arrived in the colony of Virginia in 1619 their legal status and condition were indentured servants… not slaves. History supports, Africans were not and could not be deemed slaves since “slave” was not a legal status or condition recognized on British soil or by English law during colonial times. The colony of Virginia was British soil… controlled by English law and slavery was not only prohibited by law… it was a crime by law. Thus, Virginia’s first Africans were protected by English rule of law.
Nonetheless, it is the belief of some historians that from the very arrival of Africans in 1619… they were legal slaves. However, this was not and could not be true. The false notion… that Africans who arrived in Virginia in 1619 held the legal status and condition of slave has caused other historians, as well as many educators to believe the evidence is far too sketchy to permit any definite conclusion either way. Their tentativeness is unnecessary, as the question of being a slave within the North American colonies have always turned upon English law and the legal prohibition and criminality of practicing slavery on Virginia’s soil in 1619 and what subsequent positive English laws… if any, then legally authorized slavery and decriminalized the practice of engaging in slavery on British soil… the North American colonies. Unfortunately, historians have conflated the colloquial use of the word “slave” to refer to the 19 enslaved Africans who arrived in Virginia in 1619… all of whom were protected by English rule of law.
The outcome of the legal case involving the black man named John Punch is instructive on the question of slavery’s evolution within the colony of Virginia. Punch, James Gregory, and a man named Victor… a Dutchman were all indentured servants contracted to a Virginian named Hugh Gwyn. The three indentured servants each performed similar jobs for Gwyn, and all felt so exploited that each was willing to take risks to pursue freedom and run away. But all were captured… not long after. Though fleeing the same circumstances… the fates of the runaways differed, as Punch (the only black) was condemned to lifelong servitude, while the terms of the other two men were only extended by four years. The court declared “a negro named John Punch shall serve his said master or assigns for the time of his natural life here or elsewhere.”
In A Biographical History of Black America since 1528 the scholar Edgar A. Toppin explains the importance of the John Punch case in the legal history of slavery. He observed that “Punch in effect, became a slave under this ruling” and “… the first known case in Virginia involving slavery.” Similarly, other historians have also emphasized the importance of this court decision, as being one to establish a legal acceptance for slavery. However, Tom Costa in his article, “Runaway Slaves and Servants in Colonial Virginia” frames the Punch decision as representing the first known case to evidence a difference between Europeans and Africans to be made by colonial courts in criminal sentencing.
With respect to Toppin and Costa’s views… the Punch decision was a breakdown in the colonial judicial, appellate review process. This was a civil case… a breach of servitude contract action and it is unfathomable to give any historical weight, precedent or any legal significance to the Punch decision. Wells Center view the Punch decision as being anecdotal since slavery was prohibited within the colony of Virginia and this inferior court’s ruling was subject to many appellate reviews… that did not happen, as Punch was both black and poor living in Virginia.
Rooted in common experience, whiteness, like blackness is not a natural but rather a constructed source of human differentiation. There were no white colonists. There were no black colonists. These were socially constructed delusions during colonial times. Working together in the same fields, sharing the same huts, the same situation one must be struck by what can only be called equality of oppression during early colonial times.
And in 1676… concerns about a possible native American uprising and their safety… Bacon’s Rebellion erupted in Virginia. It was led by Nathaniel Bacon, a recent arrival to Virginia and a member of the governor’s Council. Bacon demanded a commission to fight the Native Americans and when none was given, he led volunteers against some of Virginia’s closet Native American allies, which led to an armed rebellion that pitted Virginia’s governor William Berkeley against Bacon and his followers.
The Bacon’s Rebellion is commonly thought of as the first armed insurrection by American colonists against England and their colonial government. A hundred years before the American Revolution. The events leading up to the rebellion were… at the time, wealthy colonists had built profitable tobacco plantations and freely used their wealth to pay the governor’s salary and for his dutiful allegiance. Only people who owned land could vote, and the indentured servants and poorer Virginians who could not vote… felt disenfranchised. Poor farmers had been hit hard by falling tobacco prices, and many on the borders of the colony’s frontier wanted to expand westward. There, they faced threats from Native Americans committed to protecting their ancestral lands.
When the colonists called on their governor for military support… he refused. Berkeley had long tried to balance his colonists’ wishes against those of the Native American tribes on Virginia’s borders. But his attempts failed… especially when he used new trade rules to increase his wealthy supporters’ fortunes. Bacon, was Berkeley’s cousin by marriage and he was furious by what he viewed as the governor’s disloyalty and favoritism towards supporters. In March 1676… after attacking a friendly tribe and falsely accusing them of stealing his corn, Bacon insisted that the governor finance and support a militia to attack Native American tribes on the colony’s border. Berkeley refused, infuriating Bacon and he begun to amass a militia of his own: a mix of European indentured servants, enslaved and Africans.
Bacon’s Rebellion led to the burning of Virginia’s capitol Jamestown, the hanging of twenty-three of Bacon’s followers and governor Berkeley being recalled by the King. The fear of civil war among whites frightened Virginia’s ruling class, who took steps to consolidate power, as indentured servants both white and blacks and African slaves joined the colonial rebellion. Bacon died of dysentery.
And without dispute… the alliance between white, Afro-Englishmen, European indentured servants and Africans alarmed the British and Virginia’s elite. They elected to harden the racial caste of being of African ancestry, to prevent future alliances of black and white colonists by creating the white race. Ironically, many of the patriots of the founding generation and in particular Thomas Jefferson revered Bacon and they all believed that Bacon’s Rebellion was a prelude to the later American Revolution against King George III. This perception was later reflected in the Virginia House of Delegates chamber of the State Capitol in Richmond, which recalls Bacon as “[A] great Patriot Leader of the Virginia People who died while defending their rights October 26, 1676.”
While cultural anthropologists and other academics appears to be in agreement… the “white race” as a recognized social construct developed in colonial Virginia post-1676. Prior to that time, none of the colonists gave weight or consideration to their racial ancestry and the laboring class of Europeans in colonial Virginia showed little interest in “white identity”. Virginia’s “white class” policy obliterated the distinct social classification of colonial blacks and conferred white privilege upon poor whites. Virginia’s narrative was that African blood equals to being racially inferior and lesser to any white colonist.
Contributing to the effectiveness of this race-based narrative was European’s caste traditions that equated darker-skinned people holding lower societal ranking, as they were universally associated as being laborers and servants who worked outside in the sun and elements. Within two generations… this narrative came to divide colonials based upon race and it racialized Virginia and to varying degrees, all of the North American colonies. And over time, Virginia’s ruling class policy of white-skinned privilege and the narrative that those unearned privileges evidenced racial superiority grew to influence political, social, legal, and labor systems throughout Atlantic World societies.
Creating a white race… meant violating English law such as denying long-established common-law right of habeas corpus relief to Afro-Englishmen and foreign-born darker-skinned people and denying birthright British citizenship to people of African ancestry and the right of liberty at birth. They lost the right to get married, the right to defend oneself, the right to read and write and the right of self-directed physical mobility causing a wholesale abandonment of English rule of law. These liberty rights inured to everyone born in colonial America that made hereditary slavery a crime. Virginia’s policy deprived colonial blacks of these common law rights and protections… rights and protections that were self-evident and respected during Anthony Johnson’s lifetime in early colonial Virginia.
The race-based policy initiative advanced by Virginia’s ruling class in the wake of Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 created the “white race” and structural racism. This policy violated English law and it was furthered by England’s policy of salutary neglect and colonial tyranny as it existed in derogation of the English Bill of Rights and the Petition of Rights and the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679..