A Brief History of Slavery in Colonial Virginia

In the early 1600s, colonial officials found it difficult to find laborers to help them develop land in the “New World.” A new concept called indentured laborers developed in which British residents would sign contracts where they would work in the New World as payment for their passage and a small farm. Most of these indentured laborers were young people who planned on staying permanently. In some cases, British criminals were forced to become indentured servants rather than serving time in prison. They were not slaves but were required to work for 4-7 years to pay off their debt from passage and their farm.

The first Africans reached Jamestown in 1619 when they were brought in by Dutch traders that captured a Spanish slave ship. It is a custom of the Spanish to baptize the slaves before removing them from Africa. It is an English tradition that anyone who has been baptized to be exempt from slavery. Therefore, the first African became indentured labrorers. These Africans were eventually freed and joined the colonists as part of the community, eventually owning land and having slaves of their own.

It wasn’t until 1640 when slavery first appeared in Virginia when African John Punch was sentenced to slavery after trying to flee his indentured labor service. The white men who fled with him were, however, only sentenced to one additional year of indentured labor. This is viewed in history as the first legal sanctioning of slavery in the English colonies and the first legal distinction made between Europeans and Africans.

The next instance of slavery that we see in Virginia is the civil case between Anthony Johnson and Robert Parker.  John Casor, an African indentured laborer complained that his master Anthony Johnson (a freed African) held him past his indentured time. A neighbor, Robert Parker threatened Johnson that he would testify in court and touted that he would lose some of his lands if he did not free Casor. Johnson then freed Casor. Casor then entered into an indentured service with Parker. Feeling bamboozled Johnson sued Parker for possession over Casor. The court ruled that Parker illegally took Casor and that he belonged to his rightful master for “the duration of his life.” Casor was now a slave.