Into Slavery: Racial Decisions in the Virginia Colony

By Joseph Boskin | Go to book overview

3
The Name

"As his name is, so is he."

I Sam., 25:25


British Attitudes Towards Blackness

The failure to incorporate the African into educational institutions indicates the English refusal to commit themselves to this crucial process. To what extent did this inaction reflect early English attitudes and practices in other areas? Is it possible to detect in the early behavior of the English the reasons which would lead to the exclusion of the African and their enslavement, and which would limit their options in dealing with the African? Were there sociopsychological factors at work which intruded consciously or subsconsciously to vitiate against the English bringing the African into the various levels of colonial society?

Relatively little is known of the reactions of either the English or the African in the first years of encounter. Obviously more evidence is available for an understanding of English actions in the period following the first boatload of black men and women into Virginia. It is highly possible that some Africans learned to read and write in those early years, but their observations and feelings are not known. Only the English record exists and even here the facts are very meager and spotty. It can be surmised that both groups found the habits and practices of the other strange, grating, and foreboding. It is most unfortunate that, at this point it is impossible to analyze the way in which the African responded to the English and their circumstances. Even the tribal community or geographic origins of the early Africans are obscured by the loss of printed materials. More important, to what extent did their reactions spur the English into defensive behavior?

Census figures in the first several decades reveal that by numbers alone the Africans posed no threat. Several censuses taken in the mid-1620s show a very small number of persons of African descent, a situation which prevailed until the 1640s. In 1624 and 1625 a total of twenty persons were counted as being "negars" or "Negors."1 A handful of blacks arrived in Virginia annually thereafter, principally from Africa but apparently from the Caribbean region as well. Natural increase added to the slowly growing black population. By the latter decades of the seventeenth century, Africans may have constituted approximately five percent of the population. However, there is no certainty as to the number of blacks in the colony. There is some evidence that there were 300 Negroes in 1649. And in Governor William Berkeley's census of 1671, out of a total population of 45,000, 6,000 white servants and 2,000 blacks were listed. Wesley Frank Craven wrote that "the size of Virginia's Negro population at any time after 1625 remains a difficult question."2

-26-

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