How did slavery develop in colonial Virginia?

Preparing to leave African shores - photo from 1607: A Nation Takes Root

Preparing to leave African shores – photo from
1607: A Nation Takes Root

In 1501, shortly after Christopher Columbus discovered America, Spain and Portugal began shipping African slaves to South America to work on their plantations. In the 1600s, English colonists in Virginia began buying Africans to help grow tobacco. The first Africans who arrived at Jamestown in 1619 were probably treated as servants, freed after working for a set number of years. By the early 1700s, the Virginia Assembly had passed a set of Black Codes, or slave laws, which institutionalized life-long slavery and stipulated that offspring of a female inherited their enslaved status from their mother.

Africans who arrived as slaves had already suffered many terrible months before reaching Virginia. Most lived in tribal villages in western Africa before they were captured in wars or kidnapped by other Africans who traded slaves. The captives were tied together in long human chains called coffles and forced to walk many miles to a trading fort on the sea coast. They were then sold to white slave merchants who packed them into large slave ships that carried them across the ocean to America. The voyage across the Atlantic Ocean was called the middle passage and was one of the most frightening experiences that many enslaved people ever endured. During a four to six week voyage in the cramped hold of the slave ship, as many as one out of five slaves died as a result of mistreatment, filthy conditions and inadequate food and water supplies. Those who survived the middle passage arrived in Virginia tired, weak, sick, and probably terrified.

Working a re-created 18th-century garden at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown

Working a re-created 18th-century garden at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown

The slaves’ nightmare did not end when the middle passage was over. Once they arrived at a port in Virginia, such as the one at Yorktown, slaves were brought up on the deck of the ship and sold. Tobacco planters poked and prodded each slave to see if he or she was healthy and strong enough to do the hard work in the tobacco fields. Most enslaved people had been separated from their families when captured or when sold at the slave market. Once they were sold, both men and women were put right to work hoeing in the tobacco fields, usually during the hot Virginia summer. During their first year in Virginia, new slaves went through “seasoning” which meant letting their bodies get used to the new climate and the many new diseases found in Virginia. Many enslaved people died within the first year.

Not all black Virginians were enslaved. From Virginia’s early history, a few black people were free. By 1782, there may have been as many as 2,000 free black people living and working in Virginia. Free blacks often worked as farmers and as tradesmen, and some owned property including slaves of their own.


Ideas for Educator Engagement: Through Their Eyes 

The Library of Virginia has documents from the 1655 court case Anthony Johnson versus John Casar, in Northhampton County. This case is just one step in the development of slavery as an institution. After looking over the case, have students write a journal entry or letter from the point of view of Johnson, Casar, or from the perspective of anyone else who might have been impacted by this case.