Slavery And Racism Essays

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In 1791, Julien Raimond published one of the first critiques of racial prejudice. Raimond was a free man of racially mixed ancestry from the French colony of Saint-Domingue (today the country of Haiti), and his essay ‘Observations on the Origin and Progress of White People’s Prejudice against People of Colour’ argued that legal discrimination against people of African origin resulted from psychological biases. Raimond’s work was the first sustained account of how racial prejudice operates – and how it might be eliminated. Today, the idea that unconscious biases permeate individual psychology, prompting discriminatory behaviours and perpetuating social inequality, is central to discussions of race in politics, academia and everyday life. But this idea was the product of a specific 18th-century moment, with surprising and troubling motivations behind it.

Raimond was an activist for the rights of people of colour. In 1789, he left his home in Saint-Domingue just before the outbreak of the French Revolution. He went to Paris to lobby the government to grant equal status to free people of African origin. In Paris, Raimond joined a circle of radical thinkers and politicians who believed that racial equality had to be part of the emerging Revolution. But Raimond was no opponent of slavery. On the contrary, while his allies argued for its abolition, Raimond insisted that racial equality and abolition of slavery had nothing to do with each other. The first page of his treatise claimed that a cabal of ‘white plantation-owners … have cleverly conflated the cause of people of colour with that of slaves’. Raimond, in fact, wanted to preserve slavery. He believed that eliminating racial prejudice would bring white and non-white slave-owners together in a united front against enslaved Africans. He drew on the pro-slavery arguments of white plantation-owners. Raimond’s idea that there is such a thing as ‘racial prejudice’ and that discrimination is rooted in this psychological phenomenon originated in these plantation-owners’ defences of slavery.

Raimond’s ideas strike many present-day readers as bizarre and hypocritical. After all, he pioneered modern critiques of racial prejudice while also defending slavery. Most people today presume that racism led to slavery, and that slavery and racism were practically synonymous. But in the 18th century, this was not so clearly the case. From Raimond’s perspective, as an 18th-century creole slave-owner, slavery and racism were distinct, and it seemed urgent to disentangle them. Slavery, after all, had existed for thousands of years, while modern racial discrimination, Raimond held, was something recent, contingent and reformable. Like many thinkers of his era (including many of the United States’ Founding Fathers), Raimond saw the world divided between an elite of propertied men and a servile mass of labourers. He saw that the power of a tiny elite would be more resilient if the privileged included people of different colours.

Raimond is familiar to historians of the Haitian Revolution, but has been otherwise eclipsed by Henri Grégoire, his renowned ally. Grégoire was a Left-wing French bishop who threw himself into the cause of revolutionary politics, advocating for the legal equality of French Jews (who suffered from many forms of discrimination before 1789) while also serving as an important member of abolitionist organisations in Paris. Part of a transatlantic network that included branches in the US and Britain, early abolitionists such as Grégoire laid the foundations for a campaign against the slave trade and the institution of slavery itself. Raimond, however, had other goals. Befriending Grégoire, he convinced the priest that improving the status of free people of colour would do more good than ending slavery. Raimond reoriented the activism of Parisian abolitionist networks in the first years of the Revolution. Drawing on the concept of ‘prejudice’, which had become a key concept of European philosophy and politics, he diverted attention from the issue of slavery and refocused it on racial discrimination, which he saw as a kind of psychological dysfunction.

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As long as Europeans have practised imperialism and slavery, some Europeans have criticised these forms of domination and exploitation. In his essay ‘On Cannibals’ (1580), the French essayist Michel de Montaigne defended the rights of South American peoples against European invaders. The 16th-century Spanish priest Bartolomé de las Casas denounced Spain’s conquests in the Americas, which had left millions dead and millions more enslaved. But it was not until the late-18th century that an organised opposition to slavery and racial discrimination arose in the West. The values that marked the ‘Age of Revolutions’ and inspired political transformations across the Atlantic were also at work here. As thinkers increasingly imagined that there were natural rights shared by all people, and as sympathy for suffering became a dominant theme in European novels, plays and essays, slavery struck growing numbers of people as unacceptable. The first opponents of slavery in the West, however, did not analyse slavery as an institution linked to a set of unconscious beliefs and attitudes. Indeed, it was colonial slave-owners in Saint-Domingue who insisted that racial prejudice made slavery inevitable.

Saint-Domingue was the jewel of the French empire. The centre of the world’s sugar production, the colony was far more valuable than the vast tracts of land in North America that France had lost to Britain in the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). While French officials could negotiate away Canada and Louisiana without batting an eye, they had clung to the priceless Saint-Domingue. A coveted colonial possession, Saint-Domingue was also home to one of the world’s most brutal systems of slavery. Of a population of nearly 600,000, half a million were slaves. Between the white planter minority and the majority of African slaves emerged a mixed-race community of free people known as gens de couleur or ‘people of colour’. Descendants of relations between white planters and Africans, members of this group rose to become wealthy members of colonial society – and slave-owners themselves. They faced barriers to official jobs and other signs of elite status, however, and lobbied the French monarchy for recognition of their legal equality.

White elites resisted sharing power with gens de couleur. By the 1770s, they developed a self-serving argument according to which giving equal rights to gens de couleur would undermine the system of slavery. As one official put it, the colonial state needed to disseminate a ‘prejudice’ by which inhabitants of the colony would believe that people with African ancestry were inherently inferior to Europeans. If African slaves saw free ‘people of colour’ enjoying equality with whites, they would be reminded that they were not by nature slaves, and that slavery was a political condition. Thus, in the words of a contemporary, ‘prejudice contributes to the peace of the colony’ because it manipulates enslaved peoples into believing that their enslavement results naturally from their own inferiority.

Raimond found a way to make the concept of racial prejudice a tool for the perpetuation of slavery

The justification of racial discrimination in terms of its supposedly positive effects on slaves themselves (who, it was said, would be more content with their enslavement if they believed it was natural) differs sharply from later justifications of slavery that would appear in the American South. There, as pressure from abolitionist groups and the fear of slave rebellions inspired slave-holders to adopt more radical positions, elites began to search for pseudo-scientific arguments that claimed enslaved African people truly were inferior to whites. French slave-holders of the late-18th century, in contrast, implicitly accepted the idea that African inferiority was a myth: they simply argued that the myth was useful. They held that the hierarchies of the slave system needed to be reinforced by patterns of thought and feeling through which all members of colonial society would automatically associate blackness with inferiority. Raimond would take their thinking a step further, finding a new way to make the concept of racial prejudice a tool for the perpetuation of slavery.

Before its appearance in the debate about slavery in the French colonies, ‘prejudice’ had become a prominent topic in debates across Europe. The modern idea that prejudice is a false opinion held without one’s being aware of it had developed only a few generations before. Until the 17th century, prejudice designated a category of preliminary decisions reached by a court on the basis of an intermediate degree of evidence. The change in the meaning of ‘prejudice’ began with the philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650), who insisted that rational thinking could take place only after getting rid of ‘preconceptions’ and ‘habitual opinions’.

Descartes’s approach spread across Europe. The Universal Dictionary (1690) defined prejudice as ‘a preoccupation of mind’ and referred the reader to ‘Descartes’s method’ for ‘curing oneself’ of it. Thinkers turned his formula for proper thinking into a tool of social critique. In his Essay on Prejudices (1770), the radical philosopher Paul-Henri Thiry d’Holbach attacked European monarchies as peddlers of prejudice, accusing them of disseminating false ideas in order to control the masses. This wave of attacks on ‘prejudice’ crested in 1789, with the beginning of the French Revolution. In the summer of that year, France’s new legislature, the National Assembly, abolished the feudal privileges of the aristocracy, a move seen by jubilant reformers as the death-knell of prejudice.

For abolitionists and anti-slavery activists, the moment seemed ripe to attack racial hierarchies, the ‘aristocracy of skin’. If nobles, whose superior status depended on their claims to superior ‘blood’ and ancestry, had lost their privileges, radicals thought it also time for white colonial elites to lose their own privileges based on racial origin. Certainly, white slave-holders feared the logic of revolution. Having insisted in the years before the Revolution that slavery was linked to prejudice against people of African descent, their position in France’s changing political culture, in which ‘prejudice’ of all sorts was condemned, seemed untenable. But while a few abolitionists sensed that it might be possible to attack slavery as an expression of prejudice, Raimond took the initiative. He drafted the first analysis of racial prejudice as a sociological and historical phenomenon, and insisted that it would be ‘neither difficult nor dangerous’ to eliminate it. Yet as he attacked the ‘endless lies by which the white colonists confuse the National Assembly’, he used white plantation-owners’ ideas in order to redefine the colonial slave system, one in which slave-holding elites of African and European origins would rule together.

Raimond’s theory of prejudice was sophisticated. In contrast to social reformers such as d’Holbach or pro-slavery colonial elites who had attacked or defended unconscious psychological bias, he saw prejudice as something more than a form of irrational thinking that could be instilled in people by political leaders. Positing racial prejudice as a distinct form of mental activity, he analysed how bias against people of colour emerged through social interactions. Raimond’s Observations on the Origin and Progress of White People’s Prejudice against People of Colour (1791) included many claims that were self-serving and untrue, but it was nevertheless a groundbreaking work in the history of ideas – and one whose disturbing historical significance is largely ignored today.

Developing a genealogy of racial prejudice in Saint-Domingue, Raimond began with a study of the colony’s history. He noted that, in the early 18th century, during the first generations of the colony’s existence, almost all the white settlers who travelled to the colony had been men. They had married African women. They – and the French state – acknowledged these relationships. They freed and recognised their mixed-race children, setting them up as plantation-owners in their own rights. A mixed-race property-owning class emerged, equal in rights and wealth to their white neighbours and relatives. By the 1760s, however, white colonists increasingly saw free people of colour as a threat to access to land and capital in a colony that was increasingly crowded, filled with recent immigrants from France seeking to become rich. Using racial difference as a weapon in their economic struggle, white colonists began to impose discriminatory legislation against mixed-race people.

Raimond’s story about the rise of discrimination against free people of colour echoes most historians’ accounts today as far as the facts go, but his explanation of why discrimination began would find little scholarly support. His account of racial prejudice was rooted in a social psychology steeped in misogyny. He argued that the arrival of poor white women from France overturned the relative equality among slave-owners of European and mixed ancestry in Saint-Domingue. Coming to Saint-Domingue in search of rich husbands, they spurned free men of colour and resented white colonists’ preference for mixed-race heiresses. Through their feminine wiles, they turned the white men of Saint-Domingue against free people of colour, excluding the latter from a range of offices and honours. In Raimond’s view, colonial racial prejudice was a recent development caused by sexual tension and competition. The good news, he thought, was that keeping white women out of the colony and promoting interracial marriage would end prejudice. Through such a strategy, ‘in 20 years, I dare to predict, prejudice will be erased’.

While criticising white women as proponents of prejudice, Raimond was nearly silent about the enslavement of African people. He did not try to justify slavery in explicit terms, and seems to have taken its existence as a given. In some of his later writings, such as the pamphlet Reflections on the Real Reasons for the Problems and Disasters in our Colonies (1793), he laid out his vision of a ‘reformed’ slavery. He argued that the condition of enslaved peoples should be ‘improved, in such a way that it neither destroys our trade nor causes any individual persons’ business to suffer’. What this would mean in practice remained unclear, but the timing of these remarks is revelatory. Raimond was prepared to grant vague concessions to the enslaved peoples of the French colonies in 1793 – when Saint-Domingue was in the midst of a massive slave revolt. He had not been prepared to do so in 1791, when plantation-owners still controlled colonial society. Even in 1793, he insisted that the French government had to ‘impose order and restrain the rebel slaves’ before it could make any compromises. Nor would these include the end of slavery itself, since, as he put it, slaves were ‘easy to mislead’ and not intellectually equipped for freedom. Slavery, he assumed, would live on long after racism had died.

Treating racism as a quantifiable, curable problem can mean ignoring objective factors that drive conflict

Raimond dreamed of a world where the line between the privileged few and the exploited majority was drawn by access to wealth and property rather than by race. In the tumult of the Age of Revolutions, when old regimes were crumbling from the colonial Americas to the courts of Europe, his scheme did not appear particularly outlandish. His emphasis on sexuality as a tool for social change would not have shocked colleagues such as Grégoire, who developed his own schemes for eliminating racial discrimination through the promotion of mass interracial coupling. Raimond’s ideas found little foothold in Saint-Domingue, where the slave-owning elites of colour whose interests he championed fared poorly. Caught between a hostile rebel slave army and suspicious white planters, the slave-owning creole elite were unable to turn events to their advantage. Raimond’s idea of racial prejudice, on the other hand, grew into a cornerstone of modern thinking about race. Allies such as Grégoire took up the argument that Europeans’ discriminatory treatment of people of African origin was rooted in unconscious, irrational bias. Although Raimond himself had of course opposed abolitionism, the anti-slavery activists soon condemned discrimination against free people of colour and enslavement of Africans alike as expressions of racial prejudice. Raimond’s insistence on the importance of unconscious bias remains central to contemporary US society, where the struggle to quantify prejudice sometimes supersedes struggles against inequality.

The concept of racial prejudice offers an explanation for an apparent paradox of US politics in the post-Civil Rights era. Since the 1960s, and notwithstanding the resurgence of white nationalism, open displays of racial bias have become increasingly uncommon and taboo in the US. Americans believe themselves to be less racist than ever before, with researchers noting a ‘decline in self-reported racial prejudice’. Yet even as Americans express anti-racist values, there remain stark racial disparities in income, access to healthcare and education, and a host of other measures of wellbeing. It therefore seems that we must explain, as the philosopher Eric Mandelbaum put it in 2016, ‘how a group of explicitly egalitarian people can still make biased group decisions’. By invoking racial prejudice, social scientists, politicians and activists can account for enduring inequalities in the US, presenting them as effects of unconscious biases that can be revealed, assessed and perhaps eliminated through sophisticated psychological techniques.

Efforts to measure and reduce racial prejudice have become particularly visible in public life since the 1980s, in large part through the work of Anthony Greenwald, who invented the implicit-association test in 1998, and Mahzarin Banaji. Yet social scientists’ ambitious goals have not been achieved. Research finds a ‘tenuous relationship’ between measurements of bias and real-world behaviour. While critics challenge efforts to quantify unconscious racism as unscientific, pundits complain of sensationalism. Claims that prejudice lurks everywhere, even in the minds of babies (in 2009, Newsweek asked ‘Is Your Baby Racist?’), strike conservative pundits as ludicrous overreach. Critics come from the Left, too. The South African psychologist Buhle Zuma notes that research on prejudice narrowly pursues ‘an abstract concept, used as a proxy for what happens in people’s minds’. The sociologist Orlando Patterson argues that discussions of bias are a ‘devious substitute’ for social progress, derailing questions about how to promote ‘civility and tolerance’ with ‘invasive’ investigations of people’s hidden prejudices. Treating racism as if it were a quantifiable and curable problem that should be addressed in psychological terms can mean ignoring objective factors that drive conflict between groups, the material advantages that accrue to those who benefit from unequal structures, or the practical steps that might improve public life.

For Raimond, the founder of the modern concept of racial prejudice, this was indeed the goal. While it has long been used as a tool of activism and protest against social and economic inequalities linked to race, Raimond intended his analysis of racial prejudice to attack racism without affecting inequality. He hoped that bias against people of African origin could be exposed and uprooted from French colonial society without altering its fundamental social and economic institution: slavery. Once racial prejudice was gone, Raimond imagined, there would be little change in the status of the enslaved Africans of Saint-Domingue, while a racially diverse elite would justify its power on the grounds of intellectual, rather than racial, superiority. Raimond’s ideal world, where new forms of hierarchy make racism obsolete, is not the one we live in. But as long as our own conversations about race and inequality hinge on unexamined concepts, we risk moving towards his grim utopia.

The quotations fromJulienRaimond’s essay ‘Observations on the Origin and Progress of White People’s Prejudice against People of Colour’(1791)are from a translation by Blake Smith.

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Blake Smith

is a postdoctoral fellow at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. His research, focusing on the French East India Company, has appeared in scholarly journals such as French Cultural Studies and the Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, as well as popular media such as The Wire and The Appendix.

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date: 10 March 2018

Race and the Origins of Plantation Slavery

Summary and Keywords

“Twenty and odd” Africans arrived in Virginia aboard a Dutch vessel in 1619 shortly after permanent colonization of the English Americas began. There has been significant academic debate about whether the enslavement of peoples of African descent in England’s early 17th-century colonies was an inevitable or “unthinking decision” and about the nature and degree of anti-black racism during the 17th century. The legal and social status of African peoples was more flexible at first in the English colonies than it later became. Some Africans managed to escape permanent enslavement and a few Africans, such as Anthony Johnson, even owned servants of their own. There was no legal basis for enslavement in the British Americas for the first several decades of settlement and slave and servant codes emerged only gradually. Labor systems operated by custom rather than through any legal mechanisms of coercion. Most workers in the Americas experienced degrees of coercion. In the earliest years of plantation production, peoples from Africa, Europe, and the Americas often toiled alongside each other in the fields. Large numbers of Native Americans were captured and forced to work on plantations in the English Americas and many whites worked in agricultural fields as indentured and convict laborers. There were a wide variety of different kinds of coerced labor beyond enslavement in the 17th century and ideas about racial difference had yet to become as determinative as they would later be. As the staple crop plantation system matured and became entrenched on the North American mainland in the late 17th and early 18th centuries and planters required a large and regular supply of slaves, African laborers became synonymous with large-scale plantation production. The permeable boundaries between slavery and freedom disappeared, dehumanizing racism became more entrenched and U.S.-based planters developed slave codes premised on racial distinctions and legal mechanisms of coercion that were modeled on Caribbean precedents.

Keywords: slavery, race, plantations, African-Americans, Native Americans, indentured servants, Caribbean, Chesapeake, Lowcountry, agriculture

Rise of Plantation Slavery

Systems of slavery and forced labor were pervasive throughout the Atlantic World in the late 16th and early 17th centuries but they existed in various forms and for an array of purposes. Enslavement could be a permanent or a temporary condition and a wide range of peoples could be subject to captivity, forced labor, or enslavement as they moved through the Atlantic World. Forms of bondage and captivity were used with captives of war, as payment or collateral for debt and even as punishment for crime or as a means of moral redemption.1 The form of racialized slavery in the Americas in which Africans were viewed as labor units and as chattel and used primarily on plantations to produce specialized crops for foreign markets was unique among systems of slavery.2

The fully formed plantation complex in the Americas had several key characteristics. Plantations were large-scale capitalist enterprises that were manned by forced laborers (chiefly African slaves) that needed to be regularly resupplied and they produced staple crops for foreign markets. They also normally had plantation populations that were not self-reproducing and, for the most part, they were subject to the political authority of European governments. Plantation owners and managers kept their large enslaved populations under control with draconian punishments; they limited their workers’ mobility and dehumanized them to a status nearly akin to livestock. They developed slave codes to help institutionalize racism and other forms of social control to buttress the plantation system.3 The plantation complex drove the economic development of the Americas and had a transformative impact on the ecology, economy, culture, and social structure of the European colonies that formed in the Americas. The plantation complex that had its archetype in places like Barbados in the late 17th century, or Jamaica and St. Domingue in the 18th century or Cuba in the 19th century had not fully matured in the early 17th century at the outset of English colonization in the United States.

By the early 17th century, there had been a transition in the Iberian Atlantic, particularly in Brazil, towards a mature plantation complex as sugar plantations moved across the ocean from the Atlantic Islands. The production of sugar was first wed to slavery and large-scale agricultural enterprise in the Mediterranean in the 13th century and then this nascent plantation complex moved to the Atlantic Islands off the coast of Africa, closer to an emerging African labor supply for a labor-intensive and brutal crop.4 Sugar agriculture migrated again to northeastern Brazil in the second half of the 16th century.5 The Brazilians began by trying to use indigenous Brazilian labor but disease among that group and overwork soon destroyed the effort. Although Brazilian planters continued to use Natives as labor (even after such practice was banned in 1570), they turned to the transatlantic African slave trade to supply sugar plantation labor forces that were perpetually in need of replenishing.6 The sugar plantations in early Brazil were different than the archetype of the plantation that would emerge in the Caribbean as sugar agriculture spread there in the 17th century. The Brazilian model had individual cane farmers and separate mill owners for processing. The Caribbean model consolidated this division into larger landholdings in which the agricultural production of sugar and its processing at the mill was all part of one plantation, usually owned by a single plantation owner.7 By the 18th century, the largest Caribbean plantations had absentee owners. They entrusted estate management to local white managers and overseers and, for lower managers such as the drivers or head sugar boilers, even to the enslaved Africans.8

The English colonies that were settled in the early 17th century were not intended primarily as new frontiers for a plantation complex that would use African slaves to grow staple crops even though that model had already proven very successful in Brazil. These early English colonies were, for the most part, outposts perched on the edge of a powerful Iberian empire in the Americas; they were places from which the English could prey on Spanish American settlements and trade.9 The English experimented with agriculture and slavery from the outset of settlement but developed no plantation economies until the middle of the 17th century. Until the 1640s, Native Americans were still more common as laborers in English colonies than Africans, and there were less Africans slaves in the English Caribbean than there were English slaves in North Africa.10 The Africans who appeared in English colonies before the plantation revolution were usually slaves who were brought largely from Iberian orbits. They had often come from port cities in Africa. They spoke multiple African and European languages. They bore Iberian names, and they had some knowledge of cultures and economies around the Atlantic basic. They were part of an emerging creole Atlantic culture.11

Sugar plantations transformed the English empire in the Americas in the 1640s, beginning in Barbados, spreading through the easternmost islands of the Lesser Antilles and then moving throughout the Lesser Antilles and into the Greater Antilles in Jamaica. The locus of sugar production began in the areas of the Americas that were closest to Africa because of the shipping costs involved with replenishing labor forces.12 Enslaved Africans, though, became the preferred workers from the earliest days of the spread of the English plantation complex. The English used other populations of vulnerable and exploitable laborers (white servants who were often Irish, convicts, and Native Americans) largely to fill labor needs when they could not acquire or afford sufficient numbers of African slaves. Englishmen had first participated in the slave trade in the 1560s but it was only in the second half of the 17th century that the English began to develop a transatlantic trade that could supply the needs of these flourishing plantations.13 The economic heart of the English empire remained in the Caribbean in the 17th century, not on England’s mainland American colonies. Between 1661 and 1710, at least three people (forced or free) migrated to the English Caribbean for every one person who went to the mainland’s plantation colonies.14 The development of plantation economies with institutionalized slave codes entrenching racial slavery and predominantly African labor forces in the early English colonies was to some extent a ripple effect of the economic and demographic transformations that sugar wrought in the Caribbean.

Plantation Slavery in the Chesapeake

The first permanent English settlement in the Americas occurred in the Chesapeake at Jamestown in 1607. No one was certain how the colony would thrive at the outset, but tobacco took hold as a staple crop shortly thereafter. John Rolfe harvested the first tobacco in Virginia in 1612, bringing it back to the mainland with him from Trinidad, and tobacco production began on a much larger scale by the end of the decade.15 Small tobacco plantations spread quickly but not evenly throughout the Chesapeake. Some areas, such as the eastern shore, experimented with the new crop and found little gain so they transitioned quickly to mixed farming or to producing provision crops or naval stores such as turpentine, pitch, tar, and ship lumber.16 The best plantation grounds were built along the many riverways to make shipping easier, and in Virginia the largest planters began to concentrate along the York River.17 Tobacco plantations varied considerably from those producing sugar or rice. Tobacco production never had as significant economies of scale as sugar production or rice production in the Lowcountry. Tobacco could be grown by a small landholder with a handful of laborers on a small property, and the labor demands of tobacco did not necessarily require slaves. Compared to sugar plantations, which were the most significant plantation enterprises in the English Americas, start-up costs for tobacco planting were minimal.18 Plantations in the Chesapeake eventually had self-reproducing populations, especially by the end of the 18th century when planters no longer relied on the slave trade from Africa and found that they still had a surplus of labor.19 Whereas sugar was never successfully grown without slaves, tobacco was grown on many small Chesapeake plantations without slaves, and landholders sometimes worked in the field alongside their laborers.

In the first half-century after the crop was first planted, most Chesapeake tobacco plantations were cultivated by indentured white indentured servants alongside a few Native Americans and a small minority of black laborers, whose default status was enslavement. Disease and rebellion precluded the enslavement of Native Americans on a large scale in the Chesapeake. Recent evidence suggests that the gradual transition to an African labor force began on some of the Chesapeake’s largest, most fertile plantations as early as the 1650s with planters who could afford the few African slaves arriving in the colonies.20 However, for the most part, the plantation labor force transitioned slowly from servants to slaves in the decades between 1670 and 1720. The supply of European indentured servants to the Chesapeake failed to meet the long-term demand for plantation labor in the Chesapeake. The numbers of indentured servants arriving in the Chesapeake began to level out in the 1660s, began falling in the 1670s, and dropped sharply in the 1680s.21 To some degree, the dwindling number of servants was due to the larger issue of English population decline at home. England’s total population dropped by about 8 percent between the 1650s and the 1680s, the only time in English history in which the population decreased between the 16th and the 20th centuries.22 The fall in population meant less white migrants to the Americas. Not only were there fewer migrants willing to leave England for the Chesapeake by the 1680s and 1690s but they had more options available when it came to choosing a colony, especially as the English expanded through the Caribbean and up the eastern seaboard of North America.23 Actually, by the 1660s the Cheapeake’s white population was reproducing naturally, and if European servants and their children had been enslaved for life, this white population of coerced laborers would have met the region’s labor demands. But European planters and colonial architects were not willing to subject white laborers to this enslaved status, nor is there any sign they considered doing so.24

Although Chesapeake planters were willing to use Africans as slaves from the outset of settlement, supply and price forced them to choose other options. The transatlantic slave trade to the Americas was always a seller’s market and the Chesapeake was on the periphery of the massive plantation system supplied by a growing transatlantic slave trade to the Caribbean and Central and South America. Until the second half of the 17th century, the English in the Americas were forced to rely heavily on other nations to deliver the slaves they needed.25 The planters in the Chesapeake simply could not compete financially for new African slaves, and not until the last decade of the 17th century were they consistently supplied with Africans through the transatlantic slave trade.

The slave trade emerged slowly and episodically in the Chesapeake, the only mainland colony area to develop a substantial enslaved African population before 1690. The first “twenty and odd” Africans to arrive in the Chesapeake came in 1619 as slaves. They had been seized from a Portuguese slaving vessel by an English privateer carrying a letter of marque from Holland.26 Between 1619 and 1628, somewhere between seventy-five and one hundred Africans may have arrived in Virginia, but the supply of these laborers was very limited.27 Indeed, before the 1670s, the vast majority of Africans delivered to the colony came via privateers or through trade with Caribbean colonies and the Chesapeake was not part of the most common Atlantic sea routes.28 For the first two decades after Virginia was first settled, James I actively discouraged privateering raids against the Spanish, making it even less likely that privateers would supply any slaves to Virginia.29

The first known transatlantic slaving voyage to deliver slaves to the Chesapeake came in 1628 and the next did not come until 1656. A few slaving ships arrived in the early 1660s but lagged during the second Anglo-Dutch Naval War of the mid-1660s.30 As a result, people of African descent, free or enslaved, never made up more than 5 percent of the Chesapeake’s population for the first five decades of settlement and that population grew very slowly.31 Only 300 to 500 blacks resided in the Chesapeake in the 1640s, about 2,000 in 1671 and then about 3,000 by 1681.32 However, the transatlantic slave trade to Virginia increased in scale significantly in 1698 at the end of King William’s War.33 Essentially, there was a surge in slaves in the last third of the 17th century and then another phase of even more rapid expansion at the outset of the 18th century. By 1720, Virginia and Maryland had been transformed from societies with some slaves to slave societies.34

At the end of the 17th century, the English had begun to develop a transatlantic slave trade to supply their American colonies, particularly Caribbean sugar colonies. Chesapeake planters may have been on the periphery of a flourishing Caribbean world but they began to be able to compete financially for some of the transatlantic slaves. The planter elite that would come to control the 18th-century Chesapeake had begun to emerge. Virginia’s gentry began consolidating landholdings and developing the kind of wealth that would allow its members to compete in the transatlantic sellers’ market for slaves.35 The advantages of slaveholding became increasingly obvious. Planters could hold Africans as slaves for life and enslave their offspring as well. Compared to white servants, planters could compel greater work intensity from their African slaves and control them more completely through violent and draconian measures that became institutionalized in slave codes modeled on Caribbean codes.

Although nearly all Africans arrived in the Chesapeake as saleable commodities—people with a price—the boundaries between slavery and freedom for blacks do appear to have been quite permeable in the years before a full transition to African slavery in the region. Slaves and English and European servants were held by custom rather than by law until the transition to an African plantation labor force really began in the 1670s. Before that point, there were a few prominent examples of black slaves, especially on the eastern shore where tobacco plantations did not thrive, who gained their freedom, such as Anthony Johnson. Johnson first appeared in Virginia in 1621 where he was sold to the Bennett family as “Antonio a Negro.” He was married by 1640 and living on the eastern shore where he continued to labor for the Bennetts in some capacity but he had gained some autonomy. Johnson was free by 1651 and obtained a 10 acre headright for purchasing and bringing his own servants into the colony. He even received tax relief when his plantation was burned to the ground, and he left sizeable estates to his heirs. But after his death some white planters were able to seize some of his lands when the courts ruled that “Johnson was a negro and by consequence an alien.”36 The opportunities that blacks such as Johnson had for freedom may be the result of Chesapeake planters’ recognition of and adherence to Iberian models of slavery. These models recognized a slave’s right to self-purchase or coartación and manumission as a central tool in slave management and control.37 The dominant form of racialized chattel slavery in the New World to which the English were exposed, was, after all, an Iberian model, and many Africans brought to Virginia had been taken from Iberian slavers or slave systems. The permeable boundaries between slavery and freedom for some blacks disappeared quickly after the implementation of slave codes and the transition to a predominantly African labor force.

Had Africans been more readily available and more affordable relative to white indentured servants as the Chesapeake developed from the 1610s to the 1670s, Chesapeake planters clearly would have transitioned more rapidly to an African labor force in those earlier decades. This is what happened after 1690. The increasing supply of Africans and the decreasing supply of servants meant that the servant to slave price ratio started to fall sharply in the 1690s, just as the standard indentured servant contract also was shortened from seven years to four years.38 In the 1670s, probate inventories show that African slaves were valued at three times as much as servants but by 1690 that ratio had fallen to two to one.39 In choosing to purchase Africans, whose bondage extended for life and was inherited by their children, over white indentured servants, whose term of servitude was becoming shorter and who benefitted from cultural commitments and prejudices that precluded their enslavement, the planters were making an economically rational decision but there were other cultural prejudices at play that kept Chesapeake slaveholders from enslaving and dehumanizing European servants, an even more rational economic choice.

Plantation Slavery in the Carolina Lowcountry

The first successful English settlement of the Carolinas came in 1670 as a proprietary colony.40 The colony’s principal investors and many of the settlers and slaves were from Barbados. Several of Carolina’s early governors had Barbadian connections, and six of the ten parishes at the outset of the Carolina colony shared names with Barbadian parishes.41 The settlement of the Carolinas came at the tail end of two decades of a Barbadian diaspora. Whites from a small and overpopulated Caribbean island that had been completely cleared for sugar planting sought places to invest in the expansion of the plantation frontier, and they sought places that would help to act as resource satellites.42

Initially, Barbadian investors envisioned South Carolina as a colony that would provide timber, cattle, and provisions and even Native American slaves for their sugar plantations. However, the settlers in South Carolina always were open to other economic possibilities for the new colony. The financial success of plantation systems in the Caribbean and, to a lesser extent, in the Chesapeake motivated the proprietors and many of the wealthiest settlers with Caribbean connections to find a staple crop for another plantation frontier. They experimented with a range of economic activities.43 In the early years of settlement, the deerskin trade, livestock husbandry, and provision growth made Carolina’s economy diverse, but they lacked a staple crop.44 Although the Carolinas was founded as a part of a greater Caribbean world, the settlers’ experimentation quickly demonstrated that the climate would not allow for the expansion of sugar into the region. There was a boom in the production of naval stores such as tar, pitch, turpentine, and lumber between 1690 and 1720. But it was rice that would become South Carolina’s dominant plantation crop.45 The rice plantation complex first sprang up along the Ashley and Cooper Rivers.46 Planters cultivated rice in the uplands in the 1690s, then expanded it to the marshy swamps of the lowlands in the 18th century in order to satisfy the water demands of the crop. By the middle of the 18th century, planters had learned how to use tidal cultivation to improve crop yields and soil fertility.47

Whereas the Chesapeake had a staple crop and plantations before it became a slave society, Carolina was a slave society before it had a staple crop and plantations. The English settled Carolina when the pool of available indentured servants was already in decline and when the number of overseas migrants from England was also diminished because of the shrinking English population.48 From the beginning, then, white servants never made up a significant portion of the plantation labor force in South Carolina.49 Thus, at least a quarter of the population at the outset of the colony consisted of African slaves, largely brought from the Caribbean by migrating whites, even though the colony lacked a staple crop.50 Many of these Africans had probably arrived from Africa recently and had little experience in the Caribbean. They were, presumably, purchased in the sugar islands and then shipped quickly afterwards to the Carolinas. It is unlikely that Barbadian sugar planters, always in need of labor, would be willing to move slaves who had adapted to the disease environment of the Caribbean, survived their first year and begun to develop expertise in sugar planting.51

The first documented shipment of Africans directly to South Carolina from Africa did not arrive until 1710, the colony’s first slaves being supplied through the Carolina planters’ Caribbean connections, although there may have been some unrecorded slave shipments from Africa in the earliest years.52 The English had begun to develop a slave trade to supply Caribbean plantations in the second half of the 17th century, but the demand for slaves was usually much higher than the transatlantic slaving markets could supply, and Carolina planters, quite simply, could not compete for slave shipments from Africa until they had established rice plantations. Slave trade captains went where they could fetch higher prices for their cargoes.

Native American slaves helped to meet the labor demands in early Carolina until the transatlantic slave trade in Africans to the region began. The trade in Native American slaves was so large that before 1715 the Carolina colony actually exported more slaves than they imported. Somewhere between 24,000 and 51,000 Native Americans were enslaved in the colony and brought into the hands of the English.53 Some of these slaves ended up being drawn into the Carolina colony as laborers. Native Americans continued to toil alongside Africans in the early years of rice planting. As late as 1708, when blacks became a majority in South Carolina, there were 1,400 enslaved Native Americans in the colony, comprising a third of the colony’s population.54

The Yamasee War in 1715 caused a sharp decline in the region’s Native population and put an end to the supply of Native American slaves.55 Planters began to turn more fully to a labor force comprised entirely of Africans, as had happened in the Chesapeake. In the first decade of the 18th century, as Carolinians embraced rice as the staple crop, their success produced the capital necessary to compete to acquire African slaves. As a result, the colony moved rapidly toward a black majority. Between 1700 and 1730 the African slave population nearly doubled every decade, because in the deadly Lowcountry environment where imported Africans died rapidly from new diseases, malnourishment, and overwork, planters would need enormous numbers of slaves.56

Rice plantations, operating with economies of scale and large populations of slaves, produced a lucrative crop. They required significantly more capital to establish than a Chesapeake tobacco plantation but not nearly as much as a sugar plantation.57 South Carolina’s rice plantations grew into vast estates, and their high ratio of blacks to whites and deadly labor system required a transatlantic slaving system to maintain them. As a result, Carolina plantations resembled the Caribbean plantation frontiers much more than they resembled the Chesapeake tobacco plantations.58 Rice became king in the South Carolina economy. By 1720, more than half the value of South Carolina exports came from rice and it was clearly the colony’s principal staple commodity.59 By the 1770s, South Carolina’s rice grandees had become the wealthiest planters on the mainland.60

The brutal demands of this staple crop shaped the lives of the enslaved. Rice work regimes intensified after the plantations were moved to the Lowcountry and then again in the middle of the 18th century when planters learned to control the tidewaters to flood and water their fields. Building the earthworks necessary to control the waters in tidal culture required about as much labor, according to some contemporaries, as building the pyramids.61 The Lowcountry plantations continued growing in size as the century progressed. In the 1740s, three-quarters of South Carolina’s slaves lived on plantations with twenty or more slaves while only a fifth of Chesapeake slaves lived on plantations with more than twenty slaves.62 Lowcountry planters turned to indigo production in the 1740s to compliment rice and help survive downturns in the rice market and enlarged their plantations and slaveholding as they expanded.63 Driven by the profits made in rice and indigo production, the Lowcountry plantation frontier then expanded to Georgia after the 1750–1751 removal of a ban on African slaves in that colony, then to East Florida after the British gained the region in 1763.64

Development of Racial Prejudice

Conceptions of physical difference and cultural notions of who was eligible for enslavement have always been at the core of slavery. Throughout history, slaves and other “subaltern” laborers, such as indentured servants or serfs, have often been described by the master class as being somehow physically different. Russian nobles, for example, in the 18th and 19th centuries suggested that their serfs had black bones, although they were of the same ethnic group. Medieval writers spoke of the dark or black skin of their serfs and slaves and described them in dehumanizing ways as beastlike. In a variety of slave systems, slaves have been associated with or described in degraded terms as livestock.65

Yet, the system of racialized chattel slavery that had fully matured on plantations in the Americas by the 18th century was at an extreme end of a continuum in slave systems of coercion, dehumanization, and violence. Racism justified and buttressed this system more fully perhaps than it has with any slave system. Yet, racism is an idea that changed over time. As with any historical idea, it must be contextualized rather than treated as a transhistorical essence that does not change across centuries. Early 17th-century English racism looked very different than the elaborately imagined scientific racism of the late 19th century. Scientific racism did not emerge among Europeans until the late 18th century and racial thinking was rarely articulated in depth before that point.66 In the early 17th century racial characteristics were generally not understood to be as fixed as they would come to be described in the 18th and 19th centuries. Englishmen wondered about the extent to which physical differences were not innate but instead the product of environment. They also wondered about the extent to which these differences were malleable from one generation to the next. They worried about the malleability of their own bodies and temperaments as they began an era of global expansion through different climates, especially extremes of cold and heat.67 In other words, in the early English empire “race” was a more flexible category, with fewer fixed boundaries than the concept would become in the next centuries.

The evolving nature of the concept of race raises important questions about when, how, and why the particular kind of anti-black racism that was used to justify and buttress the plantation labor system emerged in the English Americas. The English clearly held deeply ingrained prejudices towards Africans and, to some extent, Native Americans when they began their successful mainland American colonization in the early 17th century. Some of this prejudice was born of cultural and religious difference and some of it was born of visible markers of physical difference. Regardless of what soil that prejudice was rooted in, the English enslavement of Africans in the first permanent English colonies does seem to have been, as historian Winthrop Jordan described, an “unthinking decision.”68 The first generation of Africans in Virginia were almost never explicitly described as slaves, an observation that has led to some erroneous conclusions among scholars about their status, namely, that they might have been free. Nearly half the Africans listed in early Virginia censuses in the 1620s were simply listed as “negar” or “negors,” following Spanish usage, but not as slaves.69 It is important to recognize here that their status as slaves did not need to be explained; it was understood. Not only did the English hold racist assumptions about Africans but they also followed the precedent of Iberian enslavement of Africans for plantation labor in the Atlantic Islands and in the Americas. The English borrowed from these Iberian models and then developed and codified systems of racial slavery with even less permeable boundaries between freedom and slavery for blacks. There was never any question about the role that Africans would assume in the colonization of the Americas. The vast majority would at least begin that journey as slaves in a “system” whose exact parameters had not yet been set, and if they escaped slavery they could easily be brought into bondage again. For the English, at the outset of colonization, the issue was not whether Africans would be slaves but rather how to acquire them and control them as the population grew.

Seventeenth-century English racial prejudice was focused to some extent on skin color but it also took other aspects of physiology and culture into account. The English associated blackness with the devil, but Englishmen rarely focused at all on the skin color of Native Americans.70 Instead, 17th-century Englishmen generally focused more on the cultural differences between Native Americans and Europeans than on skin color differences. A few Englishmen even suggested that the Native Americans were born white but that a variety of cultural practices and patterns of living had made their skin darker.71

Other assumptions about innate physical differences between Europeans, Africans, and Native Americans, especially the relationship between their bodies and their suitability for the environment and labor, may have had an even greater impact on the development of plantation labor systems in the Americas. For example, as the 17th century progressed, the English noted that Africans seemed to survive better than whites when they labored in the Lowcountry and in the sugar colonies. This was true, but the only reason that Africans survived better was that they had already acquired some immunity to malaria and yellow fever that new English immigrants did not possess. Nevertheless, the English interpreted the better African survival rates (as dismal as they still were in the sugar colonies) as a sign that African bodies were somehow better suited than English bodies for labor in the hot climates of the greater Caribbean. This simple fact of epidemiology reinforced ideas about innate difference.72

In the era before the rise of the plantations, religious prejudice played a key role in shaping the system of slavery and in determining who was eligible to be reduced to slavery. The Virginian slave codes, for example, offer evidence that some slaves were able to seek baptism through freedom.73 One historian has suggested that the near absence of missionary work among slaves in the 17th-century English colonies was in part due to slaveholder’s concerns that baptism might allow the slaves a route to freedom.74 In the minds of the English colonial architects, religious differences between the enslaved and freemen posed a threat to English culture and identity in the newly formed English colonies and the absence of Christianity amongst the enslaved—the slaves’ “paganism”—was as much a threat as their blackness. In 1644, as African slaves began to arrive in significant numbers in the eastern Caribbean, Antigua authorities passed an “Act Against Carnall Coppullation between Christian and Heathen.”75 As the plantation complex rose up in English colonies and planters transitioned to an African labor force, the religious justification for enslavement disappeared along with any small opportunities that might have existed for slave manumission through baptism. Slave Codes were enacted to clarify any confusion over the issue, and race (particularly skin color), rather than religion, became the marker of difference that mattered. Skin color made slaves visibly different from their masters and this made them easier to identify, monitor, and subjugate.

The so-called “Curse of Ham” found in Genesis 9:20–27 became an increasingly popular explanatory tool and a religious justification of enslavement that was also used to explain the permanence of black skin, especially after Europeans discovered that Native Americans living in similar hot environments and at the same latitude as Africans had much lighter skin and that their own European bodies did not change in the Caribbean. This evidence dealt a blow to European ideas about how innate physical differences between groups of people such as skin color were grounded in the environment and the climate. Such an intellectual problem led more Europeans to embrace the Curse of Ham as an explanatory tool for African skin color. This biblical passage describes Ham uncovering his drunken father’s naked body and incurring the wrath of God, with Ham and his sons being cursed for eternity to be the servants of servants.76 Although not found in the biblical text itself, early modern Europeans speculated that Africans’ skin color was a fixed marker originating in this curse and that they were destined by the curse to be slaves.77

It is clear that the English conceptualized Africans and, to a lesser extent, Native Americans, as different and as outsiders to such an extent that these groups were always considered eligible for lifetime inheritable enslavement and eligible for the dehumanization that came with chattel status.78 The boundaries between slavery and freedom, as well as ideas about race, were more flexible in the early 17th century but the greater opportunities for black freedom and agency that were exhibited by men such as Anthony Johnson quickly disappeared as the plantation system developed. By 1680 in Virginia, one contemporary noted that “These two words, Negro and Slave” had “by Custom grown Homogenous and Convertible.”79 The same was true for South Carolina from the outset. After the Yamasee War in 1715, as African slaves became the vast majority of each plantation’s labor force, the few surviving Native American slaves on South Carolina rice plantations were, as one historian suggests, “swallowed in the tide” and listed no longer as Native Americans but as Africans.80

In the 17th century, Protestant Englishmen certainly held some ethnocentric prejudice that was not necessarily racial at all, such as their prejudice towards the Irish and Jews. The Irish were forced to labor in the brutal work of sugar planting alongside Africans in the early English Caribbean. Some scholars and even some 17th-century commentators have described the Irish condition in the West Indies as a kind of slavery.81 Yet, the Irish were also never subject to lifetime inheritable bondage. Although Europeans (particularly the Irish) were subject to brutal conditions and degrees of forced labor in the English plantation Americas, they were never used as chattel slaves or dehumanized to the degree that they were treated like livestock as were peoples of African descent. At the same time, while some Native Americans were treated as indentured servants, there were no African indentured servants. Thus, the growth of slavery in the colonies deepened the racial prejudices that the English brought with them to America. The combination allowed the Chesapeake and Carolina planters to dehumanize Africans and subject them to an inheritable chattel slavery that they could not apply to lower-class English and European whites, even though the economics of plantation slavery in all its locations might have justified a non-racial slavery in America.82

Slave Codes

Racial slavery was first adopted throughout the English Atlantic world without any comprehensive slave codes. Without “positive law,” slavery existed without legal definition or enforcement mechanisms but those who managed to acquire slaves, usually from Iberian worlds, had no difficulty keeping them, employing coercive and violent mechanisms of control beyond the law.83 Thus, slaves were held by custom rather than by law until 1661, when the first comprehensive slave codes were developed in the English Atlantic. Yet some legal precedents before 1661 reflected how race was being used customarily to define status and degrade Africans and Native Americans. As early as 1636, for example, the Barbados assembly decided that “Negroes and Indians . . . should serve for life unless a contract was before made to the contrary.”84 Essentially, they were acknowledging that Africans would normally be lifetime slaves. Europeans were not included in the law, and the decision was made even before sugar plantations began to transform the social and economic landscape of the island. Englishmen in Virginia may have recognized inheritable lifetime enslavement through the status of the mother long before the 1660s as well. In 1642 in Virginia, black women were counted as tithables or taxable property.85 In addition, blacks in early Virginia were recognized as outsiders who had no stake in the colony whereas white indentured servants were required to defend the colony. In 1639, for example, a Virginian law required all persons in the colony to be armed for its defense except blacks.86

As the enslaved African population grew throughout the English colonies, slaveholders began to codify a racially based plantation labor system much more comprehensively, adding legal coercion to their existing tools of dehumanization, violence, and social control and ensuring the institutionalization of racial prejudice. The first comprehensive slave code was developed in Barbados in 1661 after sugar had transformed the island’s economy and as the island’s planters transitioned to a predominantly African labor force. The Barbadian slave code of 1661 was re-enacted with minor modifications in 1676, 1686, and 1688 and was used as a basic template for the adoption of comprehensive slave codes in other English plantation colonies: Jamaica in 1664, South Carolina in 1696, Antigua in 1702, and Virginia in 1705. This codification was not uniquely English. The French followed the same pattern as sugar transformed their islands; they adopted the Code Noir to address the growth of slavery in 1685.

In Virginia, the absence of a significant enslaved black population before 1670 led to less need for specific legislation defining slavery. As a result, Virginia’s slave codes developed more slowly than in Barbados and on an ad hoc basis, addressing potential threats to order and social control as they appeared. The evolving Virginian codes show a gradual disappearance of permeable boundaries between slavery and freedom in the colony and the entrenchment of inheritable lifetime enslavement for blacks as that population grew. A 1662 act noted that “some doubts have arisen whether children got by any Englishmen upon a Negro shall be slave or Free” and so “Be it therefore enacted . . . that all children born in this country shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother.”87 A 1667 Virginia law made it more difficult for blacks or Native Americans to seek freedom through baptism, specifying that baptism would no longer “alter the condition of the person as to his bondage or Freedome.”88 A 1669 Virginian act regarding the “casuall killing of slaves” became the clearest indication that blacks had long since been dehumanized and reduced to the status of property and a powerful testament to the extent to which the violence inherent in slavery had become institutionalized. The act made it almost perversely clear that if punishment of a slave by a master resulted in death, it could not be a felony; rather, the death must have been an accident because no master would intentionally destroy his property.89 By 1705, Africans’ chattel status in Virginia was laid out clearly, with no opportunity for any confusion, in a long and comprehensive slave code. Much of it was based on the earlier Barbadian code. It also reiterated some of the acts that had been passed in Virginia to date, such as the one protecting masters from felony charges if they killed their slaves during punishment. Among the many stipulations, the 1705 Virginian code also dictated clearly that “All negroe, mulatto, and Indian slaves shall be held, taken, and adjudged to be real estate.”90

The reality of a significant enslaved African population in South Carolina from the outset meant that comprehensive slave codes emerged there much more quickly to control this population. The Carolina Constitution of 1669 set the groundwork for the slave society to come by asserting a slaveholder’s right to “absolute Power and Authority over his Negro Slaves.”91 The word “power” had been added to an early draft to ensure that there was no confusion about the relationship between whites and their African slaves in the new mainland colony.92 The colony transitioned quickly towards a black majority with a brutally demanding staple crop and a plantation system that resembled Caribbean sugar estates. Throughout that transition the colonists continued to adopt more draconian and dehumanizing slave codes in the Lowcountry than they had in the Chesapeake.93 In 1683, the first act concerning slavery outlawed “Trading between servants and slaves” to discourage social interactions and combined resistance from the lower classes. Such laws helped solidify racial divides.94 The Carolinas were fully integrated into a greater Caribbean and news of slave rebellions in Barbados and in Antigua in the 1680s may have encouraged the rapid transition to slave codes that enshrined more draconian punishments and more absolute authority for masters.95 The 1696 comprehensive South Carolinian slave code borrowed heavily from the Barbadian code but also drew from Jamaican modifications to that Barbadian code.96 In South Carolina, punishments for slaves such as “gelding” (castration) or severing Achilles tendons were institutionalized in the slave codes, while in Virginia such punishments were reserved for very specific crimes such as rape, which allowed castration.97 South Carolina’s use of the term “gelding,” previously meaning the castration of male livestock, demonstrates the extent to which African slaves had come to be viewed as a type of livestock as race-based slavery and the plantation system exploded across the Lowcountry.98 Slave codes had helped to complete and root the transformation to race-based plantation slavery on the North American mainland.

Discussion of the Literature

One of the most significant and longstanding debates in early American historiography is what has been termed the “Origins Debate.” At its most reductionist level, the key question can be summarized as which came first in the early United States, slavery or racism? The origins debate is focused on the status of the first generation of blacks in the Chesapeake. There are significant sociopolitical implications for the “Origins” debate that help to explain why it produced such a voluminous and contentious literature, particularly during the Civil Rights movements. If the institution of slavery gave birth to racism, then racism will be easier to eradicate now that slavery has been abolished. If racism predated slavery and is much older and more deeply ingrained, then the implications are that it will be more difficult to eradicate.

The scholarship tends to align itself in two camps. The first would argue that the English enslavement of Africans in the Chesapeake was an “unthinking decision,” as historian Winthrop Jordan originally suggested, because of deep-seated European racism that predated colonization. They point out that the punishment of Africans in early Virginia was always more severe than that of white indentured servants, that whites were never subject to inheritable lifetime bondage and that Africans were held as slaves by custom until the legalization of slavery. Scholars such as Carl Degler, Winthrop Jordan, and David Eltis have done work that endorses this first view.99 The second group would argue that racism and the institution of slavery evolved more slowly over time in the early United States and was contingent on a series of events and demographic and economic forces. Scholars who endorse this position will sometimes go as far as to argue that the planter elite conspired to encourage the development of racism and slavery to divide lower class whites from blacks and control a guaranteed labor force. Some of these scholars have pointed to Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia 1676—largely a rebellion of white colonists on the frontier who felt that the government, controlled by the most elite planters, needed to defend them from Native American attacks—as a key event in the story of the transition to African slavery. Edmund Morgan, for example, argued that the suppression of Nathaniel Bacon’s forces enabled the planter elite to consolidate their position and encouraged them to entrench the system of slavery and racism because they realized that the hostility toward Native Americans demonstrated that the “Resentment of an alien race might be more powerful than resentment of an upper class.”100 The scholars who defend this second position have also focused on examples of prominent free blacks such as Anthony Johnson and argued that there was significant racial flexibility and opportunity for free blacks in early Virginia. They stress that slavery did not start to be legalized in Virginia until the 1660s which means that chattel slavery was nonexistent or at best nascent at the outset in Virginia. There were opportunities, they would argue, for what Ira Berlin calls the “charter generation” of Africans before a plantation revolution changed race relations in the Chesapeake.101 Oscar and Mary Handlin, Edmund Morgan, Ira Berlin and, most recently, Anthony S. Parent stress this second point of view.102 The dominant historiographical consensus in recent years, evident in the work of John C. Coombs and Lorena Walsh, tends to support the idea that racial slavery was practiced in Virginia before the slave codes.103


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