The first Africans arrived in English North America in August of 1619. They were enslaved in West Central Africa in present-day Angola and sold to Portuguese slavers, who had built a vast trade network among Africa, Europe, and the New World. Bound for Vera Cruz, Mexico, the Africans were seized by an English privateer vessel, the White Lion, whose captain had been authorized by the Dutch to attack Portuguese and Spanish ships. The White Lion delivered some twenty Angolan captives to Old Point Comfort (now Hampton), Virginia. It is likely that the Africans had been introduced to Christianity, as Portuguese law required that slaves be baptized before arriving in the Americas. Among the first arrivals was a woman called “Angela,” who came aboard the Treasurer, the White Lion’s consort vessel. A 1625 record states that she worked in the household of William Pierce of Jamestown. Although the Africans at Jamestown were not free, they were integrated into a workforce of indentured servants. At first, they were granted some economic and social mobility. Because the colony did not have a defined system of slavery, some may have earned their freedom after a period of forced labor. Among the first generation were those who worked for years as servants, obtained their freedom, raised free children, owned land, and even owned their own laborers. This generation included Anthony and Mary Johnson, free blacks who owned a farm on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, as well as an enslaved man. However, others were held in lifelong slavery as early as the 1630’s, and the likeliness of earning freedom declined. In 1640, a black indentured servant named John Punch was sentenced to “servitude for natural life” for running away with two white servants, who were given extended terms of service. Punch’s case was one of the first documented examples of lifelong service for black servants. The practice of holding Africans as slaves evolved and preceded laws that codified slavery. Racial hierarchies hardened with the passage of the first slavery laws. Although Maryland and Massachusetts were the first colonies to legalize slavery, it was the Virginia slave code, a series of laws enacted between 1662 and 1705, that became the standard that the other colonies followed.
In 1661, slavery was officially acknowledged in Virginia statutory law. A year later it was made hereditary, an act that would ensure its continuance even after the slave trade was abolished. Children would inherit the free or enslaved status of their mothers. This law addressed the status of mixed-race children who were born to white men and black women, a stigmatized but common occurrence given the gender hierarchies at the time. Enslaved women of childbearing age were valuable to slaveowners as they ensured a continual labor supply. It was considered more unacceptable for white women to have biracial children. A law in 1691 stipulated that white women who gave birth to mixed-race children would be fined or punished with five years of additional service, if they were indentured servants. Their children were forced to work as servants for thirty years. The same statute included Virginia’s first prohibition of miscegenation, declaring that any English man or woman who married a “negroe, mulatto, or Indian” would be banished from the colony.
A number of other laws restricted the rights of slaves and free blacks. These laws precluded baptism as an avenue to freedom and decreed that masters who killed disobedient slaves would not be charged with a felony. To prevent insurrections, slaves could not congregate in large numbers, leave their plantations without written authorization, or remain at other plantations for longer than four hours. Separate courts were held for slaves charged with capital crimes, denying them trial by jury. Even free blacks were denied the right to vote, testify in court, serve in militias, or buy white indentured servants. Although Africans were brought to the colony in its early years, their numbers in proportion to white settlers remained relatively low for most of the seventeenth century. Until the 1670s, white indentured servants comprised 80 percent of the workforce. In 1685, there were 38,100 whites and only 2,600 blacks in eastern Virginia. A significant spike in the black population did not occur until around 1700. Improved economic conditions in England began to slow the migration of indentured servants, who increasingly became less adequate to meet the labor demands in the colony. The shift toward African slavery progressed as England became more involved in the trans-Atlantic trade and slaves became readily available. By 1700, slaves were replacing indentured servants as the dominant labor force. The black population rose dramatically in the seventeenth century in eastern Virginia, reaching 20,900 in 1715 and 85,300 in 1745. The plantation society in the 1700s shifted closer toward racial parity as it moved further from racial and social equality.
This document is part of a collection of Virginia County Court Records, 1642–1842. The collection consists of manuscript records removed from the courthouse of Charles City County in 1862 by the father of Arthur G. Fuller, who served as an officer in the United States Army. Included are affidavits, appraisals, bonds, complaints, deeds, indentures, inventories, judgments, marriage bonds, order books, orders, petitions, receipts, and wills of Charles City County. The collection was a gift of Arthur G. Fuller in 1901.
This affidavit, dated March 22, 1693, is from Warwick County (now Newport News), Virginia. It was submitted to Governor Sir Edmund Andros by Dudley Digges, Richard Whitaker, Cater Hubberd, William Cary, and William Rosser. The document concerns the imprisonment of Frank, an African American slave belonging to Henry Gibbs, and questioning about a slave uprising. The affidavit notes that “a rumor of an evil and desperate design contrived by the Negroes and Frank” was discovered.