Africans Arrive in Virginia

The arrival of between twenty and thirty African indentured servants in Virginia marked the beginnings of what would ultimately become a firmly entrenched institution of slavery in the British North American colonies and a plantation economy dependent upon slave labor for its existence.

Summary of Event

In August of 1619, a Dutch warship carrying “20 and odd” Africans landed at Point Comfort, Virginia. These Africans, the first to arrive in the British colonies, most likely were put to work not as slaves but as indentured servants. Neither the laws of the mother country nor the charter of the colony established the institution of slavery, although the system was developing in the British West Indies at the same time and was almost one hundred years old in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies. Indentured servitude
[kw]Africans Arrive in Virginia (Aug. 20, 1619)
[kw]Virginia, Africans Arrive in (Aug. 20, 1619)
Social issues and reform;Aug. 20, 1619: Africans Arrive in Virginia[0830]
Colonization;Aug. 20, 1619: Africans Arrive in Virginia[0830]
American Colonies;Aug. 20, 1619: Africans Arrive in Virginia[0830]
Virginia;arrival of Africans

To be sure, African indentured servants were discriminated against early on—their terms of service were usually longer than those of white servants, and they were the object of certain prohibitions that were not imposed on white servants—but in the early seventeenth century, at least some black indentured servants, like their white counterparts, gained their freedom and even acquired some property. Anthony Johnson, Johnson, Anthony who labored on Richard Bennett’s Virginia plantation for almost twenty years after he arrived in Virginia in 1621, imported five servants of his own in his first decade of freedom, receiving 250 acres (100 hectares) on their headrights. Another former servant, Richard Johnson, Johnson, Richard obtained one hundred acres for importing two white servants in 1654. These two men were part of the small class of free blacks that existed in Virginia throughout the colonial period.

Such cases as the two Johnsons were rare by mid-century. As early as the 1640’, some African Americans were in servitude for life, and their numbers increased throughout the decade. In 1640, in a court decision involving three runaway servants, the two who were white were sentenced to an additional four years of service, while the other, an African named John Punch, Punch, John was ordered to serve his master “for the time of his natural Life.” Punch is the earliest African enslaved in Virginia for whom documents still exist. In the 1650’, some African servants were being sold for life, and the bills of sale indicated that their offspring would inherit slave status. Thus, slavery developed according to custom before it was legally established in Virginia.

Not until 1661 was chattel slavery recognized by statute in Virginia and then only indirectly. The House of Burgesses (or General Assembly) passed a law declaring that children followed the status of their mothers, thereby rendering the system of slavery self-perpetuating. In 1667, the assembly strengthened the system by declaring that, in the case of children that enslaved at birth, “the conferring of baptisme doth not alter the condition of a person as to his bondage or freedome; that divers masters, freed from this doubt, may more carefully endeavor the propagation of christianity.” Until this time, Americans had justified enslavement of Africans on the grounds that they were “heathen” and had recognized conversion as a way to freedom. This act closed the last avenue to freedom, apart from formal emancipation, available to African American slaves.

In 1705, Virginia would establish a comprehensive slave code Slavery;Virginia slave codes
Law;slavery and , completing the gradual process by which most African Americans were reduced to the status of chattel. Slaves could not bear arms or own property, nor could they leave their plantation without written permission from their master. Capital punishment was provided for murder and rape; lesser crimes were to be punished by maiming, whipping, or branding. Special courts were established for the trials of slaves, who were barred from serving as witnesses, except in the cases in which slaves were being tried for capital offenses.

In the other British colonies, the pattern was similar to that of Virginia. African racial slavery existed early in both Maryland Maryland;slavery and the Carolinas Carolinas;slavery . Georgia attempted to exclude slavery at the time of settlement, but yielding to the protests of the colonists and the pressure of South Carolinians, the trustees eventually repealed the prohibition in 1750. Georgia, slavery The Dutch brought slavery to the Middle Colonies early in the seventeenth century. The advent of British rule in 1664 proved to be a stimulus to the system in New York and New Jersey, but in Pennsylvania and Delaware, the religious objections of the Quakers delayed its growth somewhat and postponed legal recognition of slavery until the early eighteenth century.

In seventeenth century New England New England;slavery and , the status of Africans was ambiguous, as it was in Virginia. There were slaves in Massachusetts as early as 1638, possibly before, although slavery was not recognized by statute until 1641, the first enactment legalizing slavery anywhere in the British colonies. New England became heavily involved in the African slave trade, particularly after the monopoly of the Royal African Company was revoked in 1698. Like Virginia, all the colonies enacted slave codes in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century, although the New England codes were less harsh than those of the Middle or Southern colonies. In all the colonies, a small class of free blacks developed alongside the institution of slavery, despite the fact that formal emancipation was restricted.


Slavery in Virginia grew slowly in the first half of the seventeenth century. In 1625, there were twenty-three Africans in Virginia, most of whom were probably servants, not slaves. By mid-century, a decade before the statutory recognition of slavery, the black population was only three hundred, or 2 percent of the overall population of fifteen thousand. In 1708, there were twelve thousand African Americans and sixty-eight thousand whites. In a little more than fifty years, the black population had jumped from 2 percent to 15 percent of the total Virginia population. In the Carolinas, blacks initially made up 30 percent of the population but within one generation outnumbered whites, making South Carolina the only mainland colony characterized by a black majority. In New England, blacks numbered only about one thousand out of a total population of ninety thousand.

Although slavery developed haphazardly, as it developed, it became more and more entrenched. Plantation owners and others who used slaves developed ideologies justifying the institution of slavery at the same time that economic structures developed that depended upon slavery for their success. Moreover, as the Virginia colony developed its own distinctive culture, separate from the British culture that had been left behind, slavery came to be an integral part of that culture. Thus, by the time of the American Civil War (1861-1865), the end of slavery would become synonymous in the minds of many Southerners with the demise of a way of life.

Further Reading

  • Davis, David Brion. The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1966. The first in a trilogy examining slavery. Analyzes the sources of the ideas in Western culture that justified slavery.
  • Faggins, Barbara A. Africans and Indians: An Afrocentric Analysis of Contacts Between Africans and Indians in Colonial Virginia. New York: Routledge, 2001. Examines social relations between Africans and Native Americans. Describes Africans’ life in Point Comfort and Jamestown.
  • Jordan, Winthrop D. White over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812. New York: W. W. Norton, 1968. Examines the British colonists’ attitudes toward Africans, particularly their views on African religions and skin color. Characterizes the establishment of slavery as an unthinking decision.
  • Morgan, Edmund S. American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. Reprint. New York: W. W. Norton, 2003. Argues that the switch to black slavery was intended to curb the growth of a discontented lower class by decreasing the number of freemen coming out of indentures and looking for land.
  • Morgan, Philip D. “British Encounters with Africans and African-Americans, Circa 1600-1780.” In Strangers Within the Realm: Cultural Margins of the First British Empire, edited by Bernard Bailyn and Philip D. Morgan. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991. Posits a useful model to distinguish between a slave-owning society and a slave society. Maintains Virginia made the transition from slave-owning to slave society in 1710, when slaves represented 20 percent of the population.
  • Parent, Anthony S., Jr. Foul Means: The Formation of a Slave Society in Virginia, 1660-1740. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003. Refutes previous historians’ views that racial slavery created a Golden Age in Virginia. Instead, Parent maintains the institution of racial slavery was a calculated move by the emerging planter class to consolidate its power, with invidious consequences for Virginia and American society.
  • Vaughan, Alden T. “The Origins Debate: Slavery and Racism in Seventeenth Century Virginia.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 97 (July, 1989): 311-354. Comprehensive examination of the scholarly literature on the origins of slavery and racism.

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i><br />

Nathaniel Bacon; John Smith. Virginia;arrival of Africans