- Purchase/rental options available:
Eighteenth-Century Studies 38.2 (2005) 361-367
[Access article in PDF]
Slavery in Eighteenth-Century Virginia
1619. That August, "twenty Negars" were brought to the colony of Virginia. John Rolfe, a tobacco planter and once the husband of Pocahontas, recalled that "Capt Jope" exchanged the 'odd bunch' for "victualles whereof he was in greate need . . ." Originally, they were part of a larger cargo of Africans who were being carried on a Spanish slaver from Luanda, Angola to Vera Cruz. However, late in July or early August of that year, an English ship, the Treasurer, and a Dutch man-of-war attacked and looted the San Juan Bautista off the coast of Campeche. Purportedly, the Dutch vessel made its way to Virginia by accident. So began the African American experience in British North America, and likewise, America's ambiguous relationship with race and slavery. In Berlin's Generations of Captivity, Parent's Foul Means, and Harvey and O'Brien's George Washington's South, the history of that relationship is revisited.
Generations is the third and final installment of an epic history of slavery in the United States. In George Lucas fashion, the first volume of that trilogy, Slaves Without Masters, appeared in print in 1974. Twenty years later, Many Thousands Gone appeared in print. The first installment presented the end of the tale. The one that followed presented the beginning. Fittingly, Generations fills the gaps left by the other two volumes and offers new insights of its own, as it examines how the institution changed over time and space. Incidentally, this review will focus on how slavery changed over time in the Chesapeake.
A long time ago in a land far, far away . . . an elite group of Afro-Europeans emerged along the coast of the Dark Continent from unions between European traders and African women. Neither fully African nor European, these "Atlantic Creoles" acted as cultural go-betweens in an emerging trans-Atlantic economy that crisscrossed Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Multilingual, bi-cultural, and cosmopolitan in their world view; "some traveled broadly as blue-water sailors, supercargoes, interpreters, and shipboard servants. Others were carried to foreign places as exotic trophies to be displayed before curious publics eager for a glimpse of the lands beyond the sea" (24). Many, however, found themselves in the New World by happenstance.
That was the case with Antonio a Negro, an Angolan African who worked in Virginia as a bond-servant. Arriving shortly after the Dutch man-a-war had landed in the colony, he married and started a family. "Once free, Antonio a Negro anglicized his name to Anthony Johnson . . ." By 1651, he "earned a 250-acre headright, a substantial estate for any Virginian, let alone a former slave." His son John "did even better . . . receiving a patent for 550 acres." His son "Richard owned a 100 acre estate" (37). [End Page 361]
The Johnson family's good fortune, however, did not last very long, nor did that of Creoles elsewhere. As the colony neared the end of the century, the feudal-like system of bondage Johnson knew began to wither. Staple economies grew up in their place: tobacco in the Chesapeake, rice and indigo in the Low Country. Almost overnight, the demand for those products and the increasing dependence on African labor transformed the Chesapeake from a society with slaves into a full-blown slave society. Rather than weather the approaching storm, Johnson fled.
A plantation era followed: a time of wealthy and powerful planters. Unlike those who came before, enslaved Virginians of this era experienced a markedly different life than that of Anthony Johnson. Color assumed more weight in determining who qualified as...