Into Slavery: Racial Decisions in the Virginia Colony

By Joseph Boskin | Go to book overview

Introduction
The Problem: Development of an Equation

"These two words, Negro and Slave, being by custom grown Homogeneous and Convertible..."

Morgan Godwyn, The Negro's and Indian Advocate, Serving for their Admission into the CHURCH Or A Persuasive to the Instructing and Baptising of the Negros and Indians in Our Plantations ( London, 1680), p. 36.

"Generally speaking," Alexis de Tocqueville acutely observed in the early part of the nineteenth century as he analyzed race relations in the United States against the backdrop of History:

men must make great and unceasing efforts before permanent evils are created; but there is one calamity which penetrated furtively into the world, and which was at first scarcely distinguishable amid the ordinary abuses of power: it originated with an individual whose name history has not preserved; it was wafted like some accursed germ upon a portion of the soil; but afterwards nurtured itself, grew without effort, and spread naturally with the society to which it belonged. This calamity is slavery.1

So it was with the gradual establishment of slavery in the North American colonies in the seventeenth century. Though the English possessed ideas and images about dark-skinned people, enslavement as a policy was not an object of settlement. Nor was the destruction of such people an aim of the original colonists. Yet, within an incredibly short space of time, both policies became an integral part of custom, attitudes, stereotypes, and law. Of the two distinct cultural groups with whom the English interacted in the New World, the Indian was eventually destroyed, the African gradually enslaved.

The slave system emerged in the 1660s and '70s in Virginia and Maryland with the enactment of major laws which reflected the predominant attitudes towards Negroes. These laws provided for lifelong servitude for blacks as contrasted with whites and Indians; discounted baptism as a means for changing slave status to free status; decreed that a child would inherit its mother's social position; and, with strong sanctions, prohibited intermarriage.

-3-

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