Throughout the book, The Origins of Slavery, the author, Betty Woods, depicts how religion and race along with social, economic, and political factors were the key factors in determining the exact timing that the colonist’s labor bases of indentured Europeans would change to involuntary West African servitude. These religion and racial differences along with the economic demand for more labor played the key roles in the formation of slavery in the English colonies.
When the Europeans first arrived to the Americas in the late sixteenth century, at the colony of Roanoke, the thought of chattel slavery had neither a clear law nor economic practice with the English. However by the end of that following century, the demand for slaves in the English colonies including the Chesapeake, Barbados, Pennsylvania and the Carolinas was so great and the majority of labor was carried out by West African slaves. The argument of whether Native Americans could also be used as a form of labor for the plantation societies of the English colonies is one that was long disputed between the English.
Both Native Americans and West Africans were used as social mirrors. This meant that the English set both groups of people against themselves to emphasize what they conceived of as being completely different qualities of religious, social, and political organization, sexual behavior, and skin color. As Betty Woods explores the meaning of freedom and bondage in this small, yet impactful, five chapter book, she further determines the explanations English colonist used in answering the quest for cheap plantation labor.
The significance of religion and race in English society was so great that its significance is what shaped the colonist idea of their society. The thought that English could not and would not strip their own English of their rights is what led them to believe that slavery must be of people who were non English and non-Christian. The thought that the English themselves would be slaves was inconceivable. By the 1620s and 1630s groups were being contemplated as prospective workers. Other Europeans, Native Americans and West Africans were the groups thought to be most suitable for the economic demand of labor.
Many of the early views of West Africans were received through the bible until written accounts of encounters with these people were made. These written accounts of the encounters of West Africans led to the idea West Africans could be brought over and sold in the Americas to work in chattel slavery. This in turn made them the ultimate choice for the labor force of the English. However the famous sale of twenty Africans to the colonists at Jamestown in 1619 by Dutch slave traders did not equate to the introduction of chattel slavery just yet.
Many early African slaves were treated similarly to indentured servants brought in from England. They could work the land for a set number of years then after their term was up be freed and given a piece of land. Indentured servitude was not hereditary but their contract could be sold, bartered, given away or gambled away. These contracts gave away the servant’s labor but it did not give away the servant’s person. Despite this African presence, slavery was slow to arrive in Virginia because the mortality rate for indentured servants was so high during the first decades of the Virginia colony.
Indentured servitude remained the primary source of labor in Virginia through the 1680s, until economic considerations made slaves the cheaper alternative. In many ways the enslavement of West Africans by the English could be said to have begun not in Virginia but rather in the Caribbean. By the 1660s the English had come to regard Barbados as being by far their most highly prized colony in the New World. The island’s value to England was set on the relationship that had been forged during the previous twenty years between sugar and slavery.
In 1625 after being settled by several hundred settlers the intent to acquire land to grow a profitable crop for the colonist was achieved when the discovery of sugarcane was made. They borrowed their planting and labor methods from the sugar colonies of the Portuguese in Brazil. These sugar plantations in the Caribbean required a huge labor force from the English. Since there was a Civil War in England at this time, there was a lack of indentured servants that were coming over to the colonies. This required the planters in Barbados to look for another source of labor.
This search of labor ended when the same Dutch slave traders who sold to the Portuguese in Brazil provided West African slaves for the labor demanded in the Barbadian cane fields. By widening the lens to include the whole of English America, Wood makes it possible to appreciate how fully the Caribbean patterns were adopted in, and adapted to, the mainland plantation colonies. The colonies would not just become a colony with slaves but rather a slave colony. Since land was scarce in Barbados, it was divided among ealthy planters rather than giving the land to indentured servants at the end of their contracts. This caused the people of Barbados to rally for a new colony. They established their new colony in the Carolinas in 1669. These people also brought with them their slaves and the concept of chattel slavery that they had adopted. Woods writes that Carolina Lowcountry represented an extension of Barbados to the North American mainland and the Barbados slave code written in the 1660s became the model for the Carolina slave code adopted in 1696.
During the latter half of the seventeenth century Virginia was also beginning to evolve a model of slavery that related to the one found in the Carolina colonies brought up by the people of Barbados. Increasingly in the latter 1600s the English in Virginia employed a language that clearly differentiated Africans from themselves. They began to refer to themselves as “white” and to their African slaves as “black”. This new language provided a tool for social control in the colonies.
The planters felt they desperately needed a social structure to discourage landless English colonists and slaves from finding common cause against them. In Carolina Africans outnumbered Europeans and the planter class needed the help of all the English colonists to police the slave population. Wood’s final chapter shows how the concept of slavery in Barbados, the Carolinas, and Virginia was a completely different and how the model of chattel slavery differed. The Puritans intended to establish in Massachusetts a Godly Society modeled on their vision of ideal Christian government.
When the opportunity arose to introduce slave labor into their communities, Puritans consulted the Old Testament to find a model of how slavery should function. The result was something between an indentured servant and a chattel; slaves were defined as property, but had personal legal rights, including rights to sue and be sued, to trial by jury and to own property. In contrast to the Puritan version of slavery, Wood points out that the Barbadian planters and their Carolina and Virginia emulators specifically rejected any suggestions that West African slaves had any personal rights; they were purely chattels.
Those slave owners denied any moral responsibility for the welfare of their slaves, and most colonial slave-owners even prevented Christian religious instruction to the slaves. It is ironic that in the final decades of United States slavery, 200 years later, the descendants of those planters would place so much emphasis on biblical justifications for their peculiar institution,” when, in fact, the type of slavery practiced in the South bore no resemblance to the bondage described in Old Testament law.