On July 9. 1640, a Virginia court ruled that a Black indentured servant who ran away was in fact a slave. This is a moment by which we can talk about the codification of chattel slavery as the key labor force in early Virginia, with implications that still dominate the nation’s culture nearly 400 years later.
We usually start dating African slavery in the future United States in 1619, when the first Africans arrived in Jamestown. This is of course correct. But it’s a bit more complicated than that. First, there was a ton of Native slavery already, both in New Mexico and to some extent in Virginia. So 1619 really isn’t the start of slavery in the future United States. Second, in Virginia through much of the seventeenth century, the actual status of slaves was in flux. The early labor system of the region was more like indentured servitude. Because Virginia was largely a poor colony compared to the sugar colonies of the Caribbean, it had to rely more on English migration as indentured servants than the system of chattel slavery that developed more fully after the 1670s. Even for Africans then, it meant that slavery wasn’t necessarily a lifetime status. We know of plenty of examples of Africans who did become free during these years in Virginia, some of which who would later own slaves themselves. This was not out of the norm for either African or Native slavery systems, which were much more fluid that what the Europeans would develop .
But from the very beginning, it was clear that Africans would not have the same status as whites. The debate over whether capitalism created racism is one I find extremely tiresome, usually used by class-first Marxists who don’t really want to take racial politics that seriously. It is absolutely certain that capitalism did exacerbate racism and that the early slave systems was an aggressive move by early capitalist societies to take violent control over labor and land, a “war capitalism” as articulated by the great historian Sven Beckert. What happened in Virginia was absolutely a part of this. But I think there is little question that racism was already part of the pre-capitalist world, as based on how people reacted to those different from them. The Crusades is as good an example as any; sure, the stated issue was about religion, but it was also based in ideas of difference that very much included skin color. The way Shakespeare and other Stuart playwrights talk about Africans is another example of this. Capitalism very much helped create the modern world, but the roots of racism already existed.
John Punch was the English name of an African brought to Virginia sometime around 1630 or so. He was an indentured servant. It’s unclear why he had this status instead of a slave. But in this time when indentured servitude was common in Virginia, it’s worth noting that it was still a brutal way to live. Your master really was your master, with nearly full property rights. You couldn’t be sold. But if you were a woman, your master could rape you, impregnate you, and then have your contract extended for violating the rules against getting pregnant. It was pretty awful and the only reason that people agreed to it who originated in England is that conditions were so incredibly bad in that country that if you actually survived the tropical diseases (highly unlikely) and served out your term without dying of other causes, you’d have land for yourself, impossible at home.
Anyway, we don’t know a whole lot about Punch. But in 1640, he was still an indentured servant belonging to the big landowner Hugh Gwyn. And he escaped to Maryland with some white indentured servants. They were all caught and prosecuted. The two white servants had their terms extended by four years. But Punch was given a lifetime sentence. He was no longer an indentured servant. He was a slave. He was actually married to a white woman, probably another indentured servant, and they had children. In fact, genealogy people claim that Barack Obama is likely a descendant, though I really don’t trust that whole line of research which seems to want to find out that we are all related to famous or significant people. It does seem that the children of this relationship did become free, based on the scattered and fragmented records of the era.
That’s about all we know about Punch. The transformation in his status is the first definitively known moment when an African was considered a lifelong slave in Virginia. What this decision did was to begin a process by which Africans were codified as definitively different than Europeans. It’s not as if slaves didn’t fight for their rights. After all, the civil rights movement began in 1619 and continues to the present without stop. But European courts soon made the differences clear. For instance, in 1658, a woman named Elizabeth Key, who was the product of a interracial relationship sued to say she should be free because she was half-European. Her father, who was in the House of Burgesses, acknowledged her as his daughter. She was also baptized. But when he died, she was classified as a slave. She won her case. But there was no way the Virginia courts were going to allow the products of these relationships to be free, so they created a law that stated that the labor status of children of interracial relationships would be determined by the labor status of the mother. In other words, Virginia codified that if masters raped slaves, they would personally profit by the children which they could then work, sell, or rape as well. Other suits led to new laws too. For instance, after an African sued to say they should be free because of a conversion to Christianity, Virginia passed a law saying that religious conversion provided no change in labor status.
By the 1670s, Virginia was moving to full-fledged chattel slavery. Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 was a big reason to make that move, as white former indentured servants were a growing underclass in society that could rise up in violence against the increasingly entrenched elite. But conditions in England were improving and the appeal of selling yourself for years to maybe survive in Virginia wasn’t the same as it was 30 years earlier. Moreover, the growth of the Transatlantic slave trade lowered the prices on Africans to the extent that colonies such as Virginia and Maryland could afford to buy them. By 1700, the indentured servant system was basically dead and the full-fledged chattel slavery labor system was fully implemented. The racism at the heart of the American labor market remains powerful today.
This is the 362nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.