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Essay: Exploring the Origin and Expansion of Slavery in the Chesapeake: Life Before Bondage

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  • Published: 1 April 2019*
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In order to understand the origin and expansion of slavery in the Chesapeake, a life before slaves must be explained first. The Chesapeake Bay was home to the colony of Jamestown founded on May of 1607. In the early years between 1607-1622, the population of Jamestown fluctuated, with approximately 10,000 people shipped by the Virginia Company and only 700 surviving by the end of 1622. A combination of bad weather, lack of infrastructure, conflict with Native Americans, and no source of water/food led to the high mortality rates of the colony. After about a decade of no profit, the Virginia Company decided to create a Headright system that allowed labor workers to become land owners. These land owners now had motivation to tend to their land and cultivate crops for profit. A man named, John Rolfe developed a strain of tobacco. Tobacco contained nicotine which was very addictive and was able to grow extremely well in the Virginia environment. By 1669 about 10 million pounds of tobacco were being produced and exported. This transformed tobacco into a cash crop that generated money and wealth. Now that the Chesapeake had a cash crop, there was a need for workers to tend to the tobacco. The 1620’s saw the first indentured servants, which were the English lower sort. It is important to note that the indentured servants were white workers that were under contract for a set amount of years. Native Americans were resistant and died easily due to diseases. African slave population in the early 1600’s was too low and the trip from Africa to North America was too expensive and long. As the time progressed well into the mid 1600’s there is a marked shift of a specific kind of people targeted to be labor workers. During the 1600’s, labor in the Chesapeake shifted to slavery because of a decrease of white labor workers moving to North America, uprisings from indentured servants against the King, and strict laws such as babies being born into slavery as a “birthright” from their mother.

As previously mentioned, the shift in labor was caused by a decrease in the number of white laborers traveling to the Chesapeake from England. Life for indentured servants in the Chesapeake was not optimal. Since indentured servants were of the lower sort of England, they had no skills, were poor, and were mostly young, single men. The climate was hot/humid with a swampland environment that brought diseases such as dysentery. If they did not die upon arrival, then they would have to work in the tobacco fields. A contract that lasted between 4-7 years to pay off the debt garnered from the trip made to North America. They were seen as property, with their only purpose being to grow tobacco. If they were able to survive the years in servitude, they were rewarded tools, food, seeds, and 50 acres of land. This promise is what brought thousands of young men to the Chesapeake. However, the economic highs and lows of overproduction of tobacco impacted the servants the most. The poor conditions that indentured servants lived through led to a decrease in the number of white workers coming from the mother country. From 1607-1700 around 120,000 people immigrated to the Chesapeake, but the population was only at 85,000 by the beginning of the 1700’s. The numbers showed just how meek the possibility of surviving and thriving truly was. This discouraged people from making the move to the New World regardless of how promising it was made to look.

Rebellions of indentured servants and farmers was a result to the poor life they lived in the Chesapeake. Newly freed servants became farmers but many were affected by the Navigation Acts. The Navigation Acts were imposed by England as a way to control trading between the New World and the Old World. It monopolized the incoming trade from the colonies. Although the Navigation Acts brought prosperity to England and helped increase shipping, it crushed small plantation owners and put them in debt. Servants worked in terrible conditions and once they were free, they could not make profit. When crops were not bringing revenue, newly freed farmers wanted the governor to alleviate tax burden and to be allowed to attack remaining Native Americans in the area for their land to use for their tobacco crops, but Governor William Berkley rejected their plans. Therefore, they rebelled against the colony with the help of Nathaniel Bacon. In the summer of 1676, Bacon’s rebellion became the first colonial rebellion defying the colony. Bacon began to lead colonists in attacks against Native Americans. Bacon’s Rebellion consisted of marching into Jamestown, running off the governor, burning down the governor’s mansion and several buildings. However, the rebellion did not last long as Bacon drank polluted water and developed dysentery and eventually died.

As white labor was decreasing, European forces were looking elsewhere to get labor. The gap between rich, white plantation owners and poor, white farmers decreased with the introduction of African slaves. This led them resorting to forced labor of African slaves. Because of Bacon’s rebellion things shifted from indentured servants to slavery. Under slavery children inherited slavery from mother, unable to become free, difficult for people to free their slaves. Virginians did not want free Africans in their colony to avoid uprising. The slaves received harsher experiences working longer hours and longer days, got less food, less medical care, housing conditions were poor. Virginia also attempted to divide poor whites from African slaves. In 1690 passed a law to prohibit interracial relationships and interracial sexual relations. Virginia Laws were implemented in order to keep order and obedience. Virginia Law, Act XII, passed on December 1662 stated that a negro woman’s child must serve “according to the condition of the mother” regardless of whether the father was white. This meant that children were being born into slavery and there was not a way to stop that. The law did punish white men, by making them pay a fine, but ultimately there was no serious punishment. However, the law only served to punish the babies as they were seen as less human. It also added to more slaves, plantation owners would have new slaves being born and would not have to spend money on buying them. Strict laws like these were created to keep slaves as slaves and to have the white men in power. Virginia Laws allowed for the shift into slavery to grow because of their harsh and violent nature.

One of the consequences that resulted from the shift to slavery in the 1600’s was the racial separation created. Throughout the late 1600’s there was a conscious decision made that created a racially divided society. By the end of the 1600’s having white skin meant freedom and black skin meant unfree/slavery. Race was the main focus and the determining factor for way of life for a very long time after as well. Another consequence was that the brutality shown to slaves made them to be seen as less human. Another consequence that could be seen as positive, was the profit that white plantation owners made from slavery. Finally, slavery had a lasting impact on American society and the social construct of race separation.

In conclusion, the shift to slavery was a gradual change that impacted the lives of the colonists living in the Chesapeake. As stated before the main reasons for the shift were, labor in the Chesapeake shifted to slavery because of a decrease of white labor workers moving to North America, uprisings from indentured servants against the King, and strict laws placed on African Americans such as babies being born into slavery as a “birthright” from their mother.

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