Into Slavery: Racial Decisions in the Virginia Colony

By Joseph Boskin | Go to book overview

4
The Decisions, The Laws

"Bee it Enacted ..."
Negro Angell v. Matthews, McIlwaine 413,
( 1675):
"Angell a negro Servant to Capt Matthews
deced Petitioning to this Court that her Said
master promised that when he died shee
should be free which being Examined, It is
ordered that she Returne to her Service."

Catterall, Judicial Cases Concerning Slavery


Judicial Decisions: Towards a Legal Status as Slave

Laws reflect the customs, concerns, and intentions of a people. Devised to clarify issues and solve problems, the juridical process acts as an inhibitor of choices, but also as a definer of allowable choices, and is designed to direct behavior towards socially acceptable ends. Laws are the inheritors of the immediate past and mirror the expectations of a future unencumbered. They are, in short, a reflection of the anxieties and objectives of groups who desire to use the law to maintain control over actions and thus are a tangible guide into the workings of a society.

Although the first Africans in the Virginia and Maryland colonies were legally amphorous, sandwiched somewhere within the status of servitude, they were in an extremely vulnerable position. Given their indefinite legal place -- for having no indenture they could not easily be regarded in the same category as whites -- Africans wound up at various levels of society. While some blacks became permanent workers (Alternative 3: Lifetime Slavery), others were given their freedom after years of servitude, in the manner of indentured servants (Alternative 2). This situation would generally prevail until the legislation of the 1660s removed any doubts as to the place of Africans in the colonies (Alternative 4: Perpetual Slavery).

Court cases in the 1620s thus made no distinction between white and black servants. In that first decade, however, distinctions of other types were being made which would result in specific decisions and laws. For it appears that from the very beginning, as illustrated by names, census data, and other evidence, blacks were in "a singularly debased status in the eyes of white Virginians. If not subjected to permanent and inheritable bondage during that decade ... black Virginians were at least on their way to such a condition."1

Not more than eleven years after the arrival of the boatload of Africans, there appeared the first of a series of cases which involved and seriously

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