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When the Virginia colony was founded in 1607, the majority of unfree laborers in the colony were indentured servants, men and women who signed a legal contract called an indenture that bound them to work for a certain individual for a certain number of years, in exchange for which they received room, board, and some type of education or training. During their indenture, the servant was legally subject to the rule of their master; although there were laws to protect servants, Virginia’s spread-out settlements meant that working conditions in actuality varied widely. No matter how oppressive their master, however, at the end of their indenture period, the individual servant was free to leave (usually with a set of supplies and a sum of money adequate for starting out on his or her own way in the world).
The second class of unfree labor consisted of slaves. At the beginning of the colonial period, records indicate that the most significant difference between slavery and indentured servitude lay in the expectation that, in the latter case, the individual would receive the sort of training and tools necessary to eventually take their place as a free person. In the early seventeenth century, race-based slavery for life did not exist in the Anglo-American world. Instead, where it existed, slavery was linked to the cultural and religious background of the enslaved person: non-Christian captives taken in a war, for example, might be enslaved, but not Christians, regardless of their racial or ethnic background. Nor was slavery always a permanent and inheritable condition: in the early years of the colony, individual slaves were able to win their freedom by demonstrating proof of their conversion to Christianity; in addition, enslaved persons were sometimes able to arrange to purchase their freedom, and policies regarding the status of children born to enslaved persons remained in flux until the mid-seventeenth century.
From the beginning, both forms of unfree labor coexisted in Virginia: the funders of the colony relied upon a mix of incentives (free land in exchange for a period of labor) and the bad economy in England to encourage laborers to come to the new colony as indentured servants, while the colonists took captives as slave hostages during their frequent conflicts with the local native population. The first slaves from Africa arrived at Jamestown in 1619.
Initially, the majority of the colony’s labor force consisted of indentured servants, but over time, as the English expanded their participation in the Atlantic and Indian slave trades and market conditions in the mother country improved, the balance shifted. By the end of the 1670s, black slaves began to replace both white indentured servants and Indian slaves as Virginians’ primary source of labor.
William Waller Hening, ed., The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia from the First Session of the Legislature in the Year 1619 (New York: R. & W. & G. Bartow, 1823), 2:283, 490-492.
An Act Declaring Who Shall Be Slaves (1670)
WHEREAS some dispute has arisen whither Indians taken in war by any other nation, and by that nation that taketh them sold to the English, are servants for life or term of years, it is resolved and enacted that all servants not being Christians imported into this colony by shipping shall be slaves for their lives; but what shall come by land shall serve, if boys or girls, until thirty years of age, if men or women, twelve years, and no longer.
An Act to Repeal a Former Law Making Indians and others Free (1682)
WHEREAS by the 12 act of assembly held at James City the 3d day of October, Anno Domini 1670, entitled an act declaring who shall be slaves, it is enacted that all servants not being Christians, being imported into this country by shipping shall be slaves, but what shall come by land shall serve if boys and girls until thirty years of age, if men or women, twelve years and no longer; and for as much as many negroes, moors, mullatos, and others borne of and in heathenish, idolatrous, pagan and Mahometan parentage and country have heretofore, and hereafter may be purchased, procured, or otherwise obtained as slaves of, from or out of such their heathenish country by some well-disposed Christian, who after such their obtaining and purchasing such negro, moor, or mulatto as their slave out of a pious zeal, have wrought the conversion of such slave to the Christian faith, which by the laws of this country doth not manumit them or make them free, and afterwards, such their conversion, it hath and may often happen that such master or owner of such slave being by some reason enforced to bring or send such slave into this country to sell or dispose of for his necessity or advantage, he the said master or owner of such servant which notwithstanding his conversion is really his slave, or his factor or agent must be constrained either to carry back or export again the said slave to some other place where they may sell him for a slave, or else depart from their just right and title to such slave and sell him here for no longer time than the English or other Christians are to serve, to the great loss and damage of such master or owner, and to the great discouragement of bringing in such slaves for the future, and to no advantage at all to the planter or buyer; and whereas also those Indians that are taken in war or otherwise by our neighboring Indians, confederates or tributaries to his majesty, and this his plantation of Virginia are slaves to the said neighboring Indians that so take them, and by them are likewise sold to his majesties subjects here as slaves, be it therefore enacted by the governor council and burgesses of this general assembly, and it is enacted by the authority aforesaid, that all the said recited act of the third of October 1670 be, and is hereby repealed and made utterly void to all intents and purposes whatsoever. And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid that all servants except Turks and Moors, whilst in amity with his majesty which from and after publication of this act shall be brought or imported into this country, either by sea or land, whether Negroes, Moors, Mullattos or Indians, who and whose parentage and native country are not Christian at the time of their first purchase of such servant by some Christian, although afterwards, and before such their importation and bringing into this country, they shall be converted to the Christian faith; and all Indians which shall hereafter be sold by our neighboring Indians, or any other trafficking with us as for slaves are hereby adjudged, deemed and taken, and shall be adjudged, deemed and taken to be slaves to all intents and purposes, any law, usage or custom to the contrary notwithstanding.