For 40 years after the first Africans were forced to the British Colonies, black and white laborers socialized in difficult but rough equality. Regardless of color, poor indentured servants suffered from long-hours, brutal punishment, harsh weather, and disease. Minor offences could result in longer terms of service. But most laborers had some legal rights, at least, and could imagine one day being free.
Gradually, elites imposed legal distinctions between the races. After Massachusetts first legally recognized slavery in 1641, other colonial legislatures began transforming limited-term servitude into a more nefarious form: “chattel slavery.” The “chattel” system treated people as cattle. Workers, particularly Blacks, were considered property without rights normally associated with being human.
As more mixed-race children appeared, some white owners acted to hide and control evidence of sexual relations with Africans who worked for them. In December of 1662, Virginia passed a law declaring that all children born in Virginia “shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother….” Sadly and ironically, this “rewarded” whites who raped Black female laborers by increased their supply of laborers.
In 1664, the General Assembly of Maryland passed a bill whereby blacks already in the colonies, or imported later, and all new children of enslaved mothers, “shall serve durante vita,” which meant they would do “hard labor for life.” Other colonies followed suit, and the door to eventual freedom was slammed shut.
The race line was drawn deeper when poorer colonists, of all races, began demanding fairer treatment and better access to land. Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676 accelerated the drift toward race-based chattel slavery. After thousands of poor and middle class Virginias of all colors rampaged through the colony, burning the capital and chasing away the Governor, colonial authorities demanded a solution.
Many colonial legislatures responded by deepening the legal distinction between whites and blacks. Poor whites were empowered to discipline blacks, capture runaway slaves, and serve in militias protecting slaveholders. Race-based bigotry was encouraged. Free Blacks could no longer employ whites, own weapons, or travel without restriction. Masters gained total control when Black indentured servants were treated as “property” and called “slaves.” Should the masters’ “corrective punishments” end up killing slaves, masters were not charged with murder because, many argued, no man would “purposefully” destroy their own property.
In a powerful and intentional manner, the machinery of government, along with the myth of the innate racial inferiority of Africans, intensified and strengthened our particular horrific version of white supremacy.
- Lesson #8: There was a time when exploitation was mostly between economic classes independent of race – the American version of chattel slavery was a consciously constructed form of control.
- Lesson #9: Cooperating rebellious poor people of all colors threatened the power of American elites, so the elites turned to racism to divide and conquer. (This dynamic still works.)
- Lesson #10: Defining “people” as “property” fosters exploitation and sadism.
Further recommended reading about:
In order to facilitate shorter and more available sources, I am beginning to include more links in my recommended reading section. This week I am offering three such links. Please email me at HughTM@gmail.com with suggestions for historical works you recommend about Bacon’s Rebellion and the transformation of slaver in the British colonies from indentured servitude to the chattel system.
The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) offers a short and accessible resource for exploring the development of chattel slavery, including the case of Anthony Johnson that led to Virginia declaring in 1705 that, “[a] Negro, mulatto and Indian slaves … shall be held to be real estate.” Read more at:
Prof. Theodore William Allen, whose papers were donated to the University of Massachusetts/Amherst after he died, got me thinking of the links between chattel slavery and Marxist depiction of the worker who becomes alienated from their work, body and identity. Read more at: http://readsettlers.org/settlers-data/ii/02_THEODOREWALLEN_ClassStruggleAndTheOriginsOfSlavery_Somerville1976_p34.pdf
The non-profit Facing History and Ourselves clearly and succinctly links Bacon’s Rebellion to the rise of our unique form of racism at the following site:
Next blog: The Diversity and Resistance of the Enslaved
I have created a subscription link for all those who would like to subscribe to “400Years” and automatically receive my blog postings. Go to this link to subscribe:
About this project:
This particular year-long commitment – which I am calling “400 Years” – is aimed mainly at people like me: people who identify as white, accept that racism gives them privileges, and want to confront systemic racism more consistently and constructively. Of course anyone can support the project, but my main hope is to encourage self-identifying whites who want to increase their efforts to confront racism and deconstruct white supremacy. I don’t intend on spending time trying to convince people who resist anti-racism activism. I want to help those who want to practice anti-racism to do it more often and more effectively.
This project will focus mainly on how racism in the United States has hurt Africans and their descendants. While non-whites from Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East are often brutal victims of racism, I have been taught most by victims who happen to be black.
So when white people wanting to be more active in anti-racism ask me, “Where do I start?”, I often say, “Start with the history. People of color have already shared their wisdom in countless writings from slave narratives to peer reviewed articles to award winning historical works.” The weight of 400 years of race-based oppression fuels my commitment. Perhaps it will help you with your own efforts to deconstruct white supremacy.