Monday, June 20, 2011


            We've heard the stories of Jane and "Uncle Tom", both of whom escaped from slavery via the Underground Railroad; perhaps it's time to sketch in some historical background.  How did slavery, and heroic resistance to this evil chapter in the larger story of our nation's history, gain a foothold in early America, land of the free?
            Like most settlers, the first Africans came here not as slaves but as indentured servants.  On a Dutch trading ship in 1619, between 20 and 30 black immigrants, probably from West Africa, arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent English Settlement in the Colonies.  Founded 12 years earlier by an expedition of 104 men led by an overbearing little sea captain named John Smith, the Virginia colony was teetering on the brink of survival.  But the new arrivals, followed by thousands of black servants like them and, eventually, some four and a half million African slaves, were about to solve a very big labor problem.
            The Virginia Company of London (also known as the London Company) had secured a charter from the English Crown to look for precious metals in North America.  Wealthy stockholders, or "governors", were appointed leaders of the commercial venture, which the company had named the Virginia Charter after Queen Elizabeth I, the "Virgin Queen", whose reign ended in 1603. 
            America's first labor-management disputes, reflecting the severe working conditions -- and absence of gold -- in the Colonies, prompted the London Company to grant European settlers who had worked off their period of indenture a few acres of land each; and in 1619 the company initiated plans to send a ship full of eligible young women to be their wives.  Although 1620 may be more familiar as the year the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock, 1619 was as momentous in American history.  Yet another notable event that year was the formation of America's first representative legislature, the House of Burgesses, in response to the newly freed European settlers' demands for a voice in their own political affairs.  But none of these amenities applied to those who were still indentured; black or white, they were often treated harshly. 
            Indentured servitude was not only a provision of English common law permitting debtors and criminals to be sold into servitude for up to seven years; it was also a way for the destitute to finance their passage to the New World.  Initially, African indentured servants had the same rights as their European counterparts -- with the significant exception that they were granted no land when they were freed, as Europeans were.  This also excluded blacks from voting, through protective legislation mandating ownership of land as a requirement for voting rights -- enacted by the new European-American gentry who had only recently been indentured servants themselves. 
            As the Africans' labor became increasingly more valuable in the Colonies, particularly on Tidewater tobacco plantations, the duration and severity of their servitude was extended until it finally became permanent slavery.

                                            TOBACCO: THE PARENT OF SLAVERY?
            Native Americans had been smoking tobacco in pipes long before Columbus's time, but the plant was unknown in Europe until the explorer returned with some tobacco seeds from the New World.  Then it was grown by European farmers for the next century or so primarily for use as a tranquilizing medication.  Tobacco was first cultivated commercially in North America in 1612 by John Rolfe, an English planter who developed a mild strain in Virginia, from seeds he'd brought from South America, as well as a method of curing it.  Controversial even then -- the Puritans considered tobacco a dangerous narcotic, and James I referred to it as an "uncomely evil" and "that damned weed" -- the plant grew exceptionally well in Virginia's soil and climate.
            It was Rolfe, not John Smith, who two years later would marry Pocahontas.  In the meantime, he created a sensation in Europe with his new smoking tobacco.  To satisfy the increasing demand for it in Europe, by 1621 every settler in the colony was required to meet a yearly quota of 1,000 tobacco plants, which with an average of eight leaves per plant yielded about 100 pounds of dried tobacco leaf.  In 1623, 60,000 pounds of tobacco were cultivated for export with the labor of both black and white indentured servants. 
            Africans, however, were much more capable of tolerating the hot, grueling work of clearing the land of timber, converting swamps to cropland and cultivating the tobacco and semi-tropical crops like cotton and sugar cane for which the New World was so suitable.  And the agricultural wonders being wrought by a stable African labor force began to attract more and more white emigrants from all over Europe.  By the time John Tucker, the first African-American, was born in 1624 -- the year Virginia became a royal colony -- the number of African indentured servants had grown considerably, their economic importance measured in the increasing amount of tobacco being exported. 
            Perhaps the knowledge that the Spanish and Portuguese were holding Africans in bondage for life in Central and South America and the Caribbean encouraged English landowners to enact laws restricting the freedom of Africans.  In any case, in 1635 the Virginia Assembly (the House of Burgesses plus the governor and his council) made it a capital crime for an African to disobey an order given by a European.  The result was slavery for Africans arriving in Virginia after that time. 
            A significant number of Africans had already been freed, however.  Some returned to Africa, some stayed in Virginia, the rest drifted into other colonies to work as sharecroppers or at such menial work as they could find.  With the institution of slavery well in place in Virginia by 1650, other colonies as far north as Connecticut followed suit and acquired African slaves of their own to work in cultivating tobacco.
            During the rest of the 1600's in the developing Carolina colonies, slavery began to become increasingly more repressive.  Southern plantations tended to be isolated and self-sufficient, each like a little kingdom unto itself.  Wealthy Europeans were now comfortable living in the New World after the initial wave of settlers had managed to push the native Americans farther west, and African slaves had cleared most of the coastal swamps teeming with mosquitoes carrying diseases like malaria and yellow fever.  These European planters lorded over their plantations like absolute monarchs.  Meting out punishment with impunity, they held the power of life and death over their slaves.

                                             CLIMATE, AGRICULTURE & SLAVERY
            After years of research I have concluded that, due to climate, two distinct forms of slavery diverged in the colonies.  Starting in Virginia and moving north, tobacco was the most important crop for the first century of English colonization.  Its reliability as a staple crop, however, diminished the farther north it was planted. 
            Although tobacco requires a fair amount of attention, crops like cotton, rice, indigo and sugar cane, which need the hot wet climate that prevailed in the southern colonies, are extremely labor-intensive; and more African slaves, who could tolerate this kind of climate, were required to cultivate them.  Combined with the relative isolation of the Deep South's plantations, this spawned the use of extremely cruel methods to control slaves.  To add to the problem, the rich planter class encouraged the help of those without slaves in case of insurrection.
            From Virginia northward, however, slavery developed in a different manner.  From the very beginning Virginians were relatively tolerant with their slaves.  Many slave masters cohabited with their slave women to produce mulatto children.  ("Mulatto" is derived from a Spanish word meaning "cross-bred.")  It was not unusual for the master in this part of the country to set his mulatto children free to avoid embarrassment.  By 1700 a sizable population of free mulattoes lived in America, many in such northern cities as Philadelphia, Boston and New York.  Neither white nor black, entirely free nor entirely slave, free mulattoes were for the most part descendants of freed African indentured servants or children of masters and their slave women. 

                                                       FREE PEOPLE OF COLOR
            Generally restricted to their own communities and activities, these "free people of color" developed their own subculture, which offered little social interaction with the swelling numbers of new European immigrants.  Nonetheless, some free blacks gained influence in the north, especially in religious matters.  As an instigator of the "Boston Massacre" of 1770, Crispus Attucks, probably the descendant of freed African indentured servants, gained posthumous fame as the first American killed in action in the Revolutionary War.  Both the Abolitionist Movement and the Underground Railroad started in earnest after the American War of Independence.
            Another subculture developed among free African-Americans in the western region of Virginia, where a large group of very light-complexioned free mulattoes formed small farming communities in the vicinity of Philippi.  In general they got along well with native Americans and there was considerable intermarriage between the two cultures. 
            Some free mulattoes were offspring of European men who had married African women and moved west to avoid racial harassment.  On the western edge of the advancing American frontier these people developed their own rural subculture based on anti-slavery sentiments -- particularly after 1787 when the U.S. Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance, named for the vast tract of land that would eventually become five Midwestern states and part of another.  Slavery was outlawed in the new territory. 
            Later, in Cutler, Ohio, a community in western Washington County a few miles north of the Ohio River -- which divided the slave state of Virginia (now West Virginia) from the free state of Ohio -- their descendants, along with white abolitionists, would help many fugitive slaves find their way through the rugged countryside of southeastern Ohio to freedom.

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