Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

A Comparison of Laws Importing and Regulating the Servants of Virginia and Jamaica in the Seventeenth Century

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

A Comparison of Laws Importing and Regulating the Servants of Virginia and Jamaica in the Seventeenth Century

Article excerpt

In the sixteenth century, as Spain imported tons of precious metals from her far-flung empire, England occupied herself with the conquest of Ireland. Not until the seventeenth century, as a response to political and religious dissension and to waning economic conditions, did England encourage settlement of New World colonies.

England's approach to planting New World colonies was experimental and inconsistent. The purposes of the Crown for settling colonies, primarily the expansion of commerce and the exploitation of natural resources, were often far different from the desires of the new inhabitants. Both the Crown and private investors initially justified their imperial ambitions by proselytizing Anglican Christianity. Widely disparate motivations brought the original settlers to each of these plantings. Some colonies were havens for religious dissenters, loyal to the Crown, but willing to sever all worldly ties to practice their beliefs. James City ( 1607, later renamed Jamestown) began as a joint-stock venture, financed by those seeking the gold and riches of the New World. It became a commonwealth when the Virginia Company dissolved in 1624. Jamaica (1655) was a seized territory, a refuge for pirates and privateers, originally governed by martial law, and serving mainly as an English base for West Indian trade.

Colonial law reflects these differences in origin and the relationships each had.with the imperial government. The text of law "proves little except, at times, the intentions of its formulators. The determination and the ability of the state to enforce the law and the role which corruption in public office plays in subverting it are factors which cannot be ignored."2 The Crown may have been the ruling government, but the planters and colonists formulated and enforced those laws that maintained the social and physical security of their new countries. The populations of the colonies differed greatly, and their laws reflected those differences and their similarities. This paper will compare those laws that attempted to define and regulate servants and labour in Virginia and Jamaica.3

The location and size of the Virginia Company were indefinite. The charter authorized the Virginia Company " to deduce a colony of sundry of our People" and " to begin their Plantation and Habitation in some fit and convenient Place, between four and thirty and one and forty Degrees of the said Latitude, alongst the Coasts of Virginia".4 The planters considered the land unclaimed and unoccupied. They found, however, that the greatest threat to their colony came not from other European adventurers, but from the indigenous inhabitants. Since the early sixteenth century, the Spanish had conducted slaving raids along the North Atlantic seaboard. Tales of those raids and accompanying European diseases spread throughout the east coast before the first English colonists arrived. Native Americans later physically threatened the colony, but they and their vast lands also served as a refuge for disgruntled servants and labourers who fled the strictures of the English.

King James I issued the first charter for the Virginia Company, in April 1606. Investors with a vision of Inca riches bought stock in the company hoping to share in windfall profits. Others, who had modest assets but their own labour, became members of the Virginia Company by travelling to the new colony as "Planters". The "certain Knights, Gentlemen, Merchants, and other Adventurers" who received the charter of the company were on no more equal footing than they had been in England.5 Most of those who invested financially in the Virginia Company never travelled to the colonies. Planters earned shares in the company by agreeing to work for the company for a set number of years. They shared the profits of the company and, at the end of their contractual obligation, received a piece of land. Although they held a higher status than the indentured servants brought to Virginia, in reality they, too, were

servants of the company. …

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