1619—How slavery in the US began

Four hundred years ago the first Africans were sold into the future United States. But at that point racialised slavery, and racist ideology, were yet to develop, argues James Supple

In August 1619 the first African slaves arrived in the colony of Virginia. Colonist John Rolfe recorded in a letter to England the purchase of these “20 and odd” labourers from English privateer ship The Golden Lion in exchange for food and supplies.

They had originally been seized from the Kingdom of Ndongo in present day Angola, transported across the Atlantic by Portuguese traders.

The event’s 400 year anniversary has been marked with commemorations and discussions of the legacy of slavery across the US—including a multi-media 1619 project by the New York Times.

Virginia, the first permanent English colony in North America, had been established in 1607.

Britain was a latecomer to the European invasion of the Americas. Spain and Portugal had already carved out enormous empires following Columbus’ arrival in the Caribbean in 1492, bringing death and destruction. The Indigenous population of the island of Hispaniola, where he established a colony, was reduced from millions to just 200 within 50 years.

Portugal pioneered the African slave trade from the 1450s, establishing its first slave plantations on islands off the African coast.

Spain too made widespread use of African slaves shipped across the Atlantic.

It is often assumed that racism has always existed.

But it was only in the British colonies in North America and the Caribbean that a systematic racist ideology developed on the basis of skin colour. Racism emerged as a product of capitalism, to justify the treatment of slaves on plantations producing immense wealth through crops like sugar, tobacco and cotton.

Slavery had been an accepted practice in the Ancient Greek and Roman world. But in these societies slavery was never confined to particular races—virtually anyone could be enslaved. While they held prejudices against other peoples, the main dividing line was not race, but whether someone was considered “civilised” or “barbarian”. People were capable of becoming civilised—as shown by the incorporation of many different groups into the Roman Empire, including the population of north Africa as well as previously “barbarian” peoples in modern day France and Britain.

Even in 16th century England, small numbers of black Africans were employed at the royal court and by tradesman due to valued skills as musicians, salvage divers and sailors. The idea that they were innately inferior to whites did not yet exist.

For almost the first century, Africans in the British colonies had the same rights and status as white indentured servants brought from Britain. They faced no special discrimination on account of their black skin.

Initially, Africans were a small minority of the labour force in the colonies that would become the United States. For decades, British indentured servants were far more numerous than Africans. A census in 1624/25 recorded 507 “servants” living in Virginia, of whom just 23 were Africans, out of a total population of 1218 adults.

Most servants signed on for a limited term of up to seven years in exchange for their passage from Britain. They were, in effect, temporarily enslaved.

The number of indentured servants in Virginia surged from the 1620s as tobacco growing boomed. Britain was emerging as the world’s first industrial capitalist nation, generating huge demand for the new product.

Rich investors were granted land in exchange for importing servants to the colonies to work their plantations.

The conditions for indentured servants were incredibly brutal—they were under the almost complete power of their masters. But this treatment was imposed on European and African servants alike.

The racialised system of slavery for life, confined exclusively to blacks, had not yet developed.

In fact the plantation owners in Virginia initially preferred to purchase British servants, since they were cheaper for most of the 1600s. The appalling death rate in the early years of the colony also meant most servants did not survive to the end of their term of service.

Indentured servants received their freedom once their term expired, and were also entitled to land grants or “freedom dues”. This same right was initially granted to African servants.

There is evidence that a number of freed black men received land, and even imported their own indentured servants. A man named Anthony Johnson was granted 250 acres in 1651 after buying five indentured servants. His son, Richard Johnson, who was also an indentured servant for three years, later gained the right to 100 acres of his own.

A series of new laws gradually enshrined discrimination against African-Americans.

One key step was imposing lifetime slavery on African indentured servants. Rich planters began to impose this as a way of increasing the amount of labour squeezed from their servants, in an effort to increase profits.

Increasing a servant’s term of service was a common punishment for escape. The first record of a punishment of lifetime servitude—turning someone into a slave—is in 1640 on an African named John Punch. In 1661 the Virginia Assembly passed a law which recognised that Africans could be slaves for life.

But the fact these laws had to be passed at all shows that initially, Africans were not the subject of lifetime slavery or special discrimination. Racist ideology, which held Africans to be inferior or even subhuman, had not yet been invented.

Social control

Virginia’s colonial rulers shifted to reliance on African slaves instead of European indentured servants in response to a series of uprisings.

As more indentured servants began to survive their terms and gain freedom, there were increased problems with social control, with a growing number of poor tenant farmers and labourers.

The situation exploded into successive rebellions. The most famous is Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676, in which several hundred rebels almost succeeded in taking control of the colony. The rebels burned Jamestown to the ground and forced Governor Berkeley to flee.

It was led by Nathanial Bacon, a large landowner and one of the elite. His initial demand was for an expedition to slaughter more of the local Indigenous population in order to seize more land for colonisation. Bacon mobilised both white and black indentured servants as well as poor freedmen with promises of land and economic justice.

The prospect of such a multi-racial rebellion terrified the colony’s rulers. North America’s distance meant it took four months for British troops to arrive to restore order. And there was the threat that a future rebellion could enlist one of the other European powers, each with their own empires close by, to secure independence.

Their solution was to turn increasingly to the use of African slaves on the plantations, and to promote an ideology of white racial superiority in order to divide and rule. The poor white population received few material privileges, with a small planter class controlling most of the wealth and land. But their freedom and white identity became a symbol of social status.

Between 1660 and 1705 the Virginia Assembly passed a barrage of laws that imposed racial discrimination against blacks—both slaves and free. They were banned from acting as witnesses in court, serving in the militia, possessing arms, intermarriage with whites and even from “lift[ing] his or her hand” against any white man or woman. According to academic Theodore Allen, parish churches were instructed to read aloud these new laws twice a year, as were court sheriffs, so that, “the general public was regularly and systematically subjected to official white supremacist agitation”.

By 1680 there were still just 3000 blacks out of a population of 44,000 people in Virginia. But by 1770 there were 409,500 black slaves across the Southern British colonies.

Britain also established large plantations in the Caribbean based on black slavery from the 1650s.


Initially, plantation owners simply imposed the shackles of lifetime slavery on Africans because they could. Unlike British servants, who expected some rights in the courts and only accepted their temporary loss of liberty in exchange for passage to North America, African arrivals in the colony had already been sold into slavery against their will.

It was only the development of the ideas of freedom associated with the bourgeois revolutions in France in 1789 and the American War of Independence in 1776 that made ideological justification of slavery essential.

Brutal treatment at the hands of the ruling class had been a fact of life for peasants in Europe for centuries. Outright slavery was simply one of a series of brutally exploitative situations.

But the new capitalist societies based on “free” waged labour proclaimed that “all men are created equal”, as the US Declaration of Independence put it. This meant that the existence of blacks born into perpetual slavery, and the scale of the barbarities inflicted on them, required special rationalisation.

The plantation owners began to justify their use of black slaves by claiming they were not really human. This was developed into a theory of racial differences with a supposedly “scientific” justification.

There was enormous wealth at stake in the continuation of black slavery. Not only did plantation owners in the Americas make huge fortunes, British merchants profited enormously from slave trading. The production of huge volumes of cotton fed the development of textile factories as part of Britain’s industrial revolution.

The slave trade expanded rapidly between 1650 and 1700, with just under one million transported. At its peak 3.5 million slaves were transported within 50 years.

As Robin Blackburn put it, “In the late 18th century Britain was awash with the profits of empire. The profits of the plantations and the slave-based trades probably constituted the largest single source of imperial gains.”

The trans-Atlantic slave trade stands as one of capitalism’s greatest crimes. Not only did it unleash unbelievable brutality against fellow human beings, it created racist ideas to justify it that outlived slavery itself—and are with us still.


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