African Ancestry in Virginia
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  • HISTORY & BACKGROUND

    Virginia Background:

    A Virginia census taken in March 1619 tabulates a population of 928 individuals residing in the colony. Among the 928 were "4 Indians, 18 Negro men and 17 Negro women all called non-Christians" this group identified as being "in the service of seu[er]all planters.." In August of 1619 John Rolfe writing to the Treasurer of the Virginia Company in London notes that "about the latter end of August, A Dutch man of Warr...brought not anything but 20 odd Negroes which the Governor and Capt. Merchant brought for victualle..." Whether enslaved or free (but indentured,) their story is the beginning of the African presence in British North America.

    Jamestown (http://www.apva.org/) the first successful permanent English settlement in British North America was founded in May 1607. The settlers were not prepared or equipped for what they found, their very survival was based on the assistance they received from the Indians (http://www.vmnh.org/indbackgr.htm) they encountered. The Indians (http://www.vmnh.org/tribes.htm) paid an almost fatal price for their assistance, as had the other Indian groups in South America and the Caribbean in their dealings with the Spanish, French and Portuguese in the preceding decades.

    It was hoped that Jamestown would serve as a "bulwark against Spanish expansion in America...and a source of gold, silver and raw materials that England could not produce." However it was not gold, but "Tobacco" that "proved to be the economic salvation of Virginia, and provided a means that brought land into use and made slavery profitable." So profitable was slavery that "...from 1700 to 1780 about twice as many Africans as Europeans crossed the Atlantic to the Chesapeake and Lowcountry (South Carolina). Much of the early wealth of early America derived from slave-produced commodities. Between 1768 and 1772, the Chesapeake and Lowcountry generated about two thirds of the average annual value of the mainland's commodity exports. Slavery defined the structure of these two British American regions."

    "Indentured servants - primarily white men ages eighteen to twenty-five provided the bulk of labor until slavery began to predominate...70-85 percent of the immigrants to the Chesapeake before 1700 arrived as servants." But their indentures were limited to a specific time period and more labor was needed as the colony grew. By 1650 there were approximately 300-500 Blacks in Virginia, for some their status was similar to indentured servants (http://gateway-va.com/pages/bhistory/johnson.htm) and "they enjoyed many of the same privileges and rights as Englishmen. They owned property,...had access to courts: they could sue, be sued and give evidence. However there were differences, by 1640 the General Assembly debarred Negro men from keeping arms and serving in the militia. After 1643 Black women, unlike their English counterparts, were liable to be taxed along with all men above the age of 16." Further restrictions were added as the population grew, and as the century came to a close their position further deteriorated.

    June Purcell Guild in his book "The Black Laws of Virginia" wrote "Law always reflects the social condition and thinking of the people who make it. This summary of the major enactments of the Virginia Assembly, therefore, not only clarifies the legal position of the Negro, but reveals something of the official attitude of the people whom his fate was and is cast" Whether indentured or enslaved, by 1660 the English attitude toward slavery had hardened, due to the continued need for more and cheaper labor and the increase in the Black population. In December 1662 the Virginia Assembly passed the Act defining the Status of Mulatto Bastards: "Whereas some doubts have arisen whether children got by any Englishmen upon a Negro shall be slave or Free, Be it therefore enacted and declared by this present Grand assembly, that all children born in this country shalbe held bond or free only According to the condition of the mother."

    "In the process of regularizing custom by statutory means the General Assembly formally stripped the Negro of his humanity and reduced him to chattel." In truth their humanity was never in question just that of those that enslaved them. Virginia's first Slave Code (http://www.history.org/other/teaching/slavelaw.htm) was adopted in 1705.

    Sources:

    William Thorndale, "The Virginia Census of 1619," Magazine of Virginia Genealogy, Vol. 33, Summer 1995, No. 3. (See Mary W. McCartneys article "An Early Virginia Census Reprised" for another discussion on the date of this census which she places in 1620)

    John Thornton, "The African Experience of the 20 and Odd Negroes Arriving in Virginia in 1619," William & Mary Quarterly, Vol. LV, July 1998, No. 3.

    Philip D. Morgan, "Slave Counterpoint Black Culture in the 18th Century Chesapeake & Lowcountry," University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

    Ira Berlin, "Many Thousands Gone the First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America," Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998.

    Jacqueline Jones, "American Work - Four Centuries of Black & White Labor," W.W. Norton & Company, 1998.

    Works Project Administration "The Negro in Virginia," John F. Blair Publisher, 1994.

    E. Salmon & E. Campbell, Jr. eds. "The Hornbook of Virginia History" - 4th Edition, 1994

    Warren Billings, ed., "The Old Dominion in the 17th Century" Univ. NC Press, 1975.

    June Purcell Guild, LL.M. "The Black Laws of Virginia," Whittet & Shepperson, 1936.

     



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