What was the relationship between the Africans and the English in early Virginia?

Tobacco Card, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation

Tobacco Card, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation

Africans in seventeenth-century Virginia were separated from the English majority by race and culture, and ultimately by law. In Virginia during much of the early seventeenth century, the supply of English indentured servants was such that finding workers was not a problem. Initially, the first Africans were probably servants and lived much like white indentured servants did; indeed, Africans sometimes lived with white servants. Some eventually won their freedom and acquired their own land and servants. Until the late seventeenth century, there were no special legal restrictions on free Africans in Virginia, though they were usually poorer on average than other free persons.

As the demand for labor increased, especially for tobacco growing, planters began acquiring African servants and holding them for life, creating a system of slavery in Virginia. By the 1660s, there was a clear demand for slaves, and slave ships began to arrive in Virginia more frequently. From the 1660s through the 1680s, laws were passed by the Virginia General Assembly, which further codified slavery in the colony and continued to affect change in relationships between the English and Africans. For example, one act passed by the General Assembly in 1667 stated that, “… the conferring of baptism doth not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage or freedome…” Thus, Virginia planters were able to rationalize slave-owning as basic to the plantation economy and no longer felt obligated to try to Christianize their slaves.

Another change occurring in the late 1670s had great implications for the African-American culture, which gradually developed from its beginnings at Jamestown. Prior to this time, the enslaved Africans had come to Virginia from the area we know today as Angola in west central Africa. By the 1670s, Europeans were taking slaves from different parts of the African continent, with slave traders operating from the coast of West Africa. Many of these Africans were from the Akan culture, an ancient group known for their gold working skills and rich spiritual tradition. This infusion of diverse African cultures set the stage for the emergence of today’s African-American culture.