From the beginning, the first Africans who began arriving in Virginia in 1619 faced a harder life than the white indentured servants whose labors they shared.
Singled out by religion and the color of their skin, they were seen very early on as servants for life. They also knew so little about their strange new environment that they were far more dependent on their masters for simple survival.
So successful was this endeavor that -- within a few decades -- the fate of the Africans and their descendants would be sealed for more than 200 years.
"For a long time people had the idea that slavery evolved from earlier forms of servitude. But it was being very consciously developed," said noted former Colonial Williamsburg historian Lorena S. Walsh, who will talk about the early development of slavery at 2 p.m. Sunday in her lecture at Jamestown Settlement.
"There weren't a lot of Africans in Virginia prior to the 1670s. But by then most had been bought up by the very biggest planters because they had made a choice. They were through using indentured white servants as field workers. They wanted Africans that could serve as slaves for life."
Based on her ground-breaking 2010 book "Motives of Honor, Pleasure, and Profit: Plantation Management in the Colonial Chesapeake 1607-1765," Walsh's talk is part of a series of February programs at Jamestown Settlement exploring the experiences of the first Africans in English Virginia.
It draws upon years of work analyzing plantation account books, diaries, correspondence, wills, bills of sale and other period documents in search of why slavery sprang up so quickly in a place that had no tradition of such intense bonded labor.
Even during the ambiguous period before their condition was clearly defined, blacks never shared the status of white indentured servants, Walsh says.
"Most of those who survived in the original group that arrived in 1619 continued to be held as slaves rather than servants -- and so did their children," she said, "with only a very few exceptions."
Within two decades, blacks were being passed on by their masters in wills, defining them as slaves by custom if not by law. And when the colony's richest elites began copying the harsh labor practices pioneered on the sugar plantations of the English West Indies colonies of Jamaica and Barbados, their lives and legal status deteriorated in ways from which they couldn't recover.
Long before a shortage of European indentured servants made them more costly, planters in Virginia's richest tobacco-growing regions between the James and Rappahannock rivers began investing in Africans because they could be made to work harder and longer.
Soon they were being segregated from servants into outlying quarters where they could be fed less and disciplined more harshly, Walsh says.
Unlike European servants, whose bleak lives still included rights such as a defined term of servitude and the right to worship on Sundays, Africans could be driven to work day and night. Even the women were compelled to serve as field hands, usually for life.
"It was much more efficient. You can see tobacco production increase not from any technological change but from the longer and harder work demanded of each laborer," Walsh says.
"By the late 1690s, every large planter had chosen slavery irrevocably."
Early choices spawned slavery in Virginia
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