The New York Times Book Review
Africans in America: America's Journey through Slaveryby Charles Johnson, Patricia Smith, Patricia R. Smith, Iona Morris (Read by), WGBH Series Research Team Staff
The acclaimed account of slavery in America, illuminating how Africans and Europeans built a nation. A riveting narrative history of America, from the 1607 landing in Jamestown to the brink of the Civil War, Africans in America tells the shared history of Africans and Europeans as seen through the lens of slavery. It is told from the point of view of the Africans who arrived in shackles and endured the terrible dichotomy of this new land founded on the ideal of liberty but dedicated to the perpetuation of slavery. Meticulously researched, this book weaves together the experiences of the colonists, slaves, free and fugitive blacks, and abolitionists to present an utterly original document, a startling and moving drama of the effects of slavery and racism on our conflicted national identity. The result transcends history as we were taught it and transforms the way we see our past.
The New York Times Book Review
Outstanding . . . It is a triumph of historical research, worthy of a place on anyone's bookshelf.-USA Today
What Eyes on the Prize did for the civil rights movement, Africans in America will do for slavery."-The Village Voice
A magnificent achievement, history at its superb best, brilliantly researched, poetically written, brimming over with original documents that cannot help but move the reader.--Howard Zinn, author of A People's History of the United States
- Macmillan Audio
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Read an Excerpt
Africans in AmericaAmerica's Journey Through Slavery
By Charles Johnson
Rebound by SagebrushCopyright ©1999 Charles Johnson
All right reserved.
It was at last concluded that three ships should be prepared and furnished out for the search and discovery of the Northern part of the world, to open a way and passage to our men for travel to new and unknown Kingdoms.
from Richard Hakluyt's Principal Navigations, 1589
IN APRIL 1607, three such vessels manned by 120 colonists landed on the fringes of the Virginia wilderness at a place they named Jamestown. These men clung desperately to the hope of building the first permanent English settlement in the New World. Their mission, as outlined in the charter granted by King James, was "first to preach and baptize into the Christian religion... and recover out of the arms of the Devil a number of poor and miserable souls."
The colonists' picture of the New World was painted in warm, brilliant, eager colors. It was a place where men could grow rich, where the vanquished could be born again, where poisoned souls could be saved, and a heaven on earth built on the cornerstone of Christianity. It was expected that established Christians would work side by side with their eager new converts, andthat their joint effort would cause the strange land to grow fruitful. It was an ambitious dream fueled by arrogance and imperialistic fervor. Englishmen believed that God had given them the right to the land and to impose whatever laws they needed to make it theirs.
Indeed, the English clung to a powerful vision. They had come to the New World to save it. Under the comforting cloak of Christianity, they would bond with converts, find an ally in the elements, and craft a utopia. Setting sail for Jamestown, the hopeful pioneers must have grasped a frightening but irresistible opportunity--broadening and expanding one's future, beginning life again, doing God's work. And perhaps growing wealthy in the process.
For the settling of Jamestown was not only a religious mission, it was a very important business venture. The Virginia Company of London, a group of English investors, recruited the first group of settlers. They paid them to find precious metals and minerals and useful plants for dyes and medicine, although they would settle for less-glamorous goods such as glass, tar, and iron.
The Virginia Company's plan was for settlers to combine their labors to produce whatever the land yielded. Once those products arrived in England, the company would pay out dividends to all members, determined by the number of shares they owned. Men could purchase shares, but could acquire them simply by paying for their passage to Virginia.
With the money obtained by selling shares, the company would ship unemployed laborers, and some skilled craftsmen, from England. These men would toil for the company for seven years in return for their transport. After that they would be free to engage in whatever work they wished, carving a niche for themselves in the New World.
Writing years before of his attempt to settle the first English colony in North America on Roanoke Island, Sir Walter Raleigh responded eloquently to his first glimpse of a world that must have resembled Jamestown:
I never saw a more beautiful country, nor more lively prospects... the plains adjoining without bush or stubble, all fair green grass... the birds towards the evening singing on every tree... cranes and herons of white, crimson, and carnation perching on the river's side, the air fresh with a gentle easterly wind, and every stone that we stooped to take up, promised either gold or silver.
Not everyone was as giddily overwhelmed by the surroundings.
The colonists who ventured upon Jamestown's ragged shore were a varied lot. When King James granted the company charter in 1606, he called for "propagating the Christian religion to such people, as yet live in darkness and miserable ignorance of the true knowledge and worship of God." The all-male group, urged to make a success of the colony as soon as possible, perhaps viewed the settlement as a sort of military enterprise, despite their designated role as religious missionaries.
The land was a canny, time-tested adversary. Because the settlers were too lazy and arrogant to work the land, the land deprived them of food and gave them no clue as to where they were or how utterly they were surrounded by yet more land. Gentlemen and their servants felt overwhelmed. The Indians could have helped them, but the English considered them savages, then enemies. The idyllic picture described years before by Sir Walter soon proved no more than a mirage. The birds may have been singing on every tree--but that was because they knew the land intimately, understood its secrets.
Settler George Percy chronicled a snippet of time in 1607:
The fourth day of September died Thomas Jacob Sergeant. The rift day, there died Benjamin Beast. Our men were destroyed with cruell diseases, as Swellings, Flixes, Burning Fevers, and by warres, and some departed suddenly, but for the most part they died of meere famine. There were never Englishmen left in a forreigne Countrey in such miserie as wee were in this new discovered Virginia.
The giddy ambition that had characterized the colonists' arrival soon became a clawing at the soil, a wail in their bellies. The cattle, hogs, and poultry had long ago been eaten. Then the settlers dined on the horses. There was even evidence of cannibalism--rather than die in their failed utopia, some colonists found sustenance in makeshift cemeteries by feeding on the bodies of those who had left this life before them.
In his Generall Historie of Virginia, written seventeen years after his arrival on the shores of Jamestown, Captain John Smith chronicled the gruesome fate of several hapless settlers:
Nay, so great was our famine, that a salvage we slew and buried, the poorer sort tooke him up againe and eat him; and so did divers one another boyled and stewed with roots and herbs: And one amongst the rest did kill his wife, powdered her, and had eaten part of her before it was knowne; for which hee was executed, as hee well deserved: now whether shee was better roasted, boyled or carbonado'd, I know not; but of such a dish as powdered wife I never heard of. This was that time, which still to this day we called the starving time.
It was the colonists' third winter in the world they had hoped to make new.
In those first three years, nine hundred settlers arrived in Virginia. By the spring of 1610, only sixty were left alive. Many died still clutching their unattainable dream, the dream that Virginia, with all its lush promise, was supposed to be--a place where genteel Englishmen could come and, preferably overnight, find their fortunes.
The Virginia Company had paid money to establish the colony, and they wanted a quick return on their investment. The colonists felt pressured to discover and exploit commodities that would heap profits upon the motherland.
The commodities were not forthcoming. Explored rivers, expected to yield a route to China, led nowhere. After ten years, the dream had all but died. Desperate to revive it, the colonists experimented with tobacco seeds from Trinidad, hoping the fickle land would receive and nurture the crop. The land relented, and by 1617, the first shipment of tobacco to England suggested that the colony had found a key to survival. Three years later, nearly 55,000 pounds of tobacco were exported to England for sale. Plantations were everywhere, and tobacco was literally sprouting in the streets of Jamestown.
In London, King James cursed the "stinking suffumigation" and raised the import duty to stem the demand. But by then the English couldn't imagine life without tobacco. And in Jamestown, the fledgling settlement that had knocked at death's door, it was time for bigger dreams.
There was power to be had. Families who cultivated more acreage produced more tobacco. With cheap land available, there seemed to be no limit to how much one could make--if there were enough workers to handle the crop.
The colonists saw two very distinct choices. In what later became known as the Massachusetts model, they could call for whole families and communities to be brought over from England. Family units would work the farms, the businesses, the trade shops, with perhaps a hired hand or two to help out.
The second choice was for Virginia colonists to capitalize on the desperation of the lower classes in England, skilled and unskilled laborers who imagined that redemption awaited them in the New World. Promised access to an earthly paradise, those people became indentured servants, contracted to work an average of four to seven years. They were fed, sheltered, and clothed in exchange for their work. If they lived to complete their period of service, they could begin a free life with a bushel of corn, a new suit, and a parcel of land. The printed indenture forms were to be found everywhere in England, with blank spaces for names and periods of service.
The propaganda campaign of the Virginia Company of London succeeded. There were no moral or physical qualifications for the honor of being bound to servitude in Virginia. Criminals escaped the gallows by signing up. In some instances, innocent people were accused of crimes in order to force them into indentures. People were kidnapped, plied with alcohol. Children were offered sweets. And they were lured to a place where malaria and dysentery and starvation waited to kill them--that is, if they weren't worked to death by their owners.
In chaotic English ports, human beings were crammed into merchant ships for a long voyage on meager rations. On some Atlantic crossings, almost 20 percent of the recruited servants lost their lives. More died of scurvy upon arriving in Virginia.
But the rampant "sign-up" continued unabated, for Virginia's headright system gave landowners more property for each new arrival. Thousands of people--vagrants and ne'er-do-wells or honest farmers and craftsmen--were pulled from the villages and back roads of England, and later from the German Rhineland, by the promise of a new life. For the next hundred years, between half and two-thirds of all white immigrants to the American colonies came as indentured servants. Any dream in the New World was better than no dreams in the Old. Even if, for many, the dream turned out to be the worst kind of nightmare, each desperate individual willing to take the risk could still hope to overcome the odds.
The servant was concerned mostly with how long the indenture would be and the conditions under which work would be performed. At its best, the period of service was an amicable apprenticeship. At its very worst, it was a seemingly endless exploitation likely to end in death instead of freedom.
Loving Father and Mother,
This is to let you understand that I your child am in the most heavy case by reason of the nature of the country [which] is such that it causeth much sickness .... I have nothing at all--no, not a shirt to my back but two rags... nor but one pair of shoes, but one pair of stockings, but one cap, but two bands .... If you love me, you will redeem me. Good father, do not forget me, but have mercy and pity my miserable case. I know if you did but see me you would weep ....
Your loving son,
Richard Frethorne, March 20, 1623
Jamestown had survived due to the growth of the tobacco crop. But despite the convincing spiel served up by those hoping to recruit servants, the colony was far from ideal. As was fairly standard in Europe at the time, the settlers were driven by an almost mindless focus on profit and a chilling casualness about just how much suffering a human could endure. One man who stole two or three pints of oatmeal had a needle forced through his tongue; he was then chained to a tree and left to starve and die publicly. Servants were mutilated, maimed, and sold like cattle. They were put up as stakes in card games. They were murdered with impunity. The servants who didn't die of disease perished because they were abused by the people they worked for or killed by the Indians whose lands they threatened.
Of the fifteen thousand people transported to Virginia during the first fifteen years after 1607, only two thousand survived.
About the last of August came in a Dutch man of warre that sold us twenty Negars.
--John Rolfe, Jamestown, 1619
In the early seventeenth century, the Dutch sought to become major players in the Spanish and Portuguese maritime monopoly. They planned and executed well-timed raids on Portuguese ports in Brazil and West Africa and on colonial settlements in Central and South America. And in August 1619, a Dutch ship robbed a Spanish vessel of its cargo--Africans.
The ship emerged as if the violent storm had given it birth, drawing its shape from a clinging mist. Its shimmering edges hardened as it dropped anchor at Jamestown. Those aboard were ghosts before they became men. No one recorded the ship's name or investigated its origins.
The crew offered to trade the Africans for food, and twenty captives were released to their new owners. There had been Africans in North America before, but the first permanent African settlers in an English colony arrived that long-ago summer. It was a full year before the Pilgrims reached Massachusetts on the Mayflower.
The blacks who were put to work in Jamestown may have shared the same status as English indentured servants. On that day in 1619, there was probably no difference, no distinction made.
The conditions on early Virginia tobacco plantations were extremely harsh. Field workers were housed in overcrowded shacks and given barely enough food to fuel their work. They had little chance to provide for themselves, for nothing was as important as the efficient production of tobacco.
No one was a slave for life. All the indentured servants worked equally hard and were punished equally. And if they looked far enough into their futures, if the reality of their surroundings had not already destroyed their spirits, they could imagine freedom.
On a March morning in 1622, three years after the mysterious Dutch ship left its human offering at Jamestown, thirty nations of the Powhatan Confederacy sought to avenge the murder of a revered tribal head by waging a full-scale attack on the British. They wanted to push the settlers back into the sea. On the Bennett plantation along the James River, fifty-two colonists lost their lives in the massacre. Among the five survivors was a servant called Antonio.
Antonio may have arrived at the colony from Angola the year before aboard the James. Sold into bondage to toil in the tobacco fields, "Antonio, a Negro" is listed as a "servant" in the 1625 census. Virginia had no rules for slaves. So it was possible that Antonio knew hope. Perhaps he felt that redemption was possible, that opportunities existed for him even as a servant. Already, he had done what so many others had failed to do--stay alive.
"Mary a Negro woman" had sailed to the New World aboard the Margrett and John. Soon she became Antonio's wife.
"Antonio the Negro" became the landowner Anthony Johnson. His history, his motivations, the words he may have spoken, have the same ghostly edges as the mysterious ship that pierced the fog at Jamestown years before. Over the course of a lifetime, he and Mary bought their way out of servitude, raised four children, and struggled to claim a slice of the stubborn new world as their own. Determined to build an independent life, Anthony could not foresee the role his skin color would eventually play in his fate and the fate of his family.
Although it is not known exactly how or when the Johnsons became free, court records in 1641 indicate that Anthony was master to a black servant, John Casor. During that time, the couple lived on a comfortable but modest estate and Anthony began raising livestock. In 1645, a man identified as "Anthony the negro" stated in court records, "now I know myne owne ground and I will worke when I please and play when I please."
It cannot be proved that it was actually Anthony Johnson who spoke those words. But if he did not speak them, he felt them, felt them as surely as he felt land beneath his feet. The words didn't reflect his state of ownership as much as they reflected his state of mind. He owned land. He could till the soil whenever he wished and plant whatever he wished, sell the land to someone else, let it lie fallow, walk away from its troubles. He could sit in his house--his house--and ignore the land altogether. Anthony Johnson was a man in control of his own.
By 1650, the Johnsons owned 250 acres of land stretched along Pungoteague Creek on the eastern shore of Virginia, acquired through the headright system, which allowed planters to claim acreage for each servant brought to the colony. Anthony claimed five headrights, although there is no way to know if he was actually responsible for the servants' presence in Virginia or if he'd acquired their certificates some other way. Many landowners of the time purchased headrights to increase the size of their claims.
No matter how he amassed his acreage, Anthony's "owne ground" was now formidable.
The couple was living a seventeenth-century version of the American dream. Anthony and Mary had no reason not to believe in a system that certainly seemed to be working for them, a system that equated ownership with achievement. If not for the color of their skin, they could have been English.
Very few people who had inked their signatures on indenture forms received the promise of those contracts. At the end of their periods of servitude, many were denied the land they needed to begin their lives again. Anthony Johnson was one of a select few able to consider a piece of the world his own.
The first Virginia colonists thought of themselves as Christians or Englishmen, not white people. The word white was not yet used to refer to a type of person. There were owners and servants, and the only thing that made one servant different from another was the contracted length of servitude. If you were a servant, your color did not improve or exacerbate that situation. Black and white servants were oppressed equally. They performed the same tasks and were punished in the same way when they were perceived to have failed in some way. White women, later deemed fairest and most fragile, not only worked in the fields alongside black servants, but were also briskly reprimanded at the whipping posts.
Sometime in the mid-seventeenth century, that changed. Darker became wrong.
Europeans had long believed that they had the missionary right to enslave anyone who was not a Christian. But slaves could then convert to Christianity and gain their freedom. And since it was impossible to look at a person and determine his or her religious persuasion, physical difference was an easier, more permanent way to exploit the captives. Workers who had reached the end of their indentured period found contracts were not being honored, and the resulting unrest bordered on rebellion.
Treating black and white workers differently, making them suspect each other, may have been a swift and easy way to isolate the two factions, smash the budding alliances, and regain control over the workforce. Those in power lived in constant fear that beleaguered black and white laborers would realize strength in numbers and join to rise up against authority. As racial categories grew harsher, the English gradually chose to describe themselves not as Christians, but as white people.
In 1639, the colony of Maryland declared that a Christian baptism did not make a slave free. Religious salvation no longer spelled liberty. Soon the definition of who could be made a slave would change forever. No longer were non-Christians singled out. Now if you did not look European--if your skin was not white--you could be enslaved.
In 1640, three of farmer Hugh Gwyn's servants escaped to Maryland. The circumstances of their "crimes" were identical. When they were captured and carted back to Jamestown for trial, the disparities in their punishments mirrored the new chasm between black and white.
"The said three servants shall receive the punishment of whipping and to have thirty stripes apiece," the court record stated.
One called Victor, a Dutchman, the other a Scotchman called James Gregory, shall first serve out their times according to their indentures, and one whole year apiece after... and after that... to serve the colony for three whole years apiece.
The third being a negro named John Punch shall serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural Life.
It was John Punch's physical appearance that sparked the reprimand. In no surviving legal record has any white servant in America been sentenced to spend his life as a slave.
Over time, powerful Virginia landowners began to realize that enslaving Africans made good economic sense. England's economy had revived, and fewer indentured servants were signing up for the voyage to the colony. Colonists saw their life expectancy increase, and "slaves for life" became an attractive investment. No matter how difficult their lives might be, whites were assured that their degradation would never equal that of Africans.
In 1641, Massachusetts became the first English colony in North America to recognize slavery as a legal institution. Connecticut followed in 1650; Virginia in 1661. The impending tragedy now had a heartbeat. In 1663, a Virginia court decided that if a child was born to a slave, that child would also be enslaved.
An African woman could no longer rejoice in the fact that her child would be born free. Because she was black and the child came from her body, the child would serve a master.
There were other options. Blacks and whites could have both retained their indentured status, or both groups could have been doomed to eternal servitude. Standing at the first of many crossroads, the American colonies chose to focus on color difference. The foundation of the agrarian economic system would be the systematic oppression of black people. Once that decision was made, a huge door swung shut. Only the colonies' newest targets of discrimination felt the need to undo what had been done, to set matters back on even ground.
In the relentless march that is history, some changes are instantaneous, lightning swift, extreme enough to change a cultural or physical landscape almost overnight. But the colonies' gradual acceptance of slavery as a race-based economic solution spanned a generation, all the more chilling because there was no one moment to point to and say, "That is where it began." The individuals involved--blacks and whites, landowners and servants--were simply living their lives, day-to-day. And the misfortune of a group of people who were black at the wrong time and place certainly didn't seem to have consequences for the world.
Anthony Johnson symbolized that terrible transformation, that slow turn toward sanctioned oppression. Although he was still free, the proud landowner now wore the face of a slave. In his behavior, he was no different from his neighbors--he worked his land, raised his children, took pride in what he had built. His plantation was the nucleus for one of America's first black communities. But there was nothing he could do about being black.
In 1653, a consuming blaze swept through the Johnson plantation. After the fire, court justices stated that the Johnsons "have bine inhabitants in Virginia above thirty yeares" and were respected for their "hard labor and known service." When the couple requested relief, the court agreed to exempt Mary and the couple's two daughters from county taxation for the rest of their lives. This not only helped Anthony save money to rebuild, it was in direct defiance of a statute that required all free Negro men and women to pay taxes.
The following year, white planter Robert Parker secured the freedom of Anthony Johnson's servant John Casor, who had convinced Parker and his brother George that he was an illegally detained indentured servant. Anthony later fought the decision. After lengthy court proceedings, Casor was returned to the Johnson family in 1655.
These two favorable and quite public decisions speak volumes about Anthony's standing in Northampton County. The very fact that Johnson, a Negro, was allowed to testify in court attests to his position in the community. In the case of the community benevolence following the fire, the fact that Anthony was a Negro never really seemed part of the picture. He was a capable planter, a good neighbor, and a dedicated family man who deserved a break after his fiery misfortune. In the case of his legal battle for Casor, Anthony's vision of property and the value accorded it mirrored that of his white neighbors and the gentlemen of the court. Anthony Johnson had learned to work the system. It was a system that seemed to work for him.
Two years after the Johnsons' servant Casor was returned, white planter Matthew Pippen claimed that one hundred acres of the family's land actually belonged to him. It is unclear why the Johnsons failed to contest the claim.
In search of more-yielding land, the Johnsons moved north to Maryland's Somerset County in 1665 after selling two hundred Virginia acres to planters Morris Mathews and John Rowles, on credit. Two years later, influential planter and officeholder Edmund Scarburgh delivered 1,344 pounds of tobacco to the Somerset County sheriff, payment due Anthony for the land he'd sold the two planters.
The next month, however, Scarburgh claimed the tobacco for himself and convinced the court to attach Anthony Johnson's estate for that amount. He'd forged a letter in which Johnson promised to repay money allegedly owed to Scarburgh. A Virginia county court ignored the fact that Anthony Could not read or write and declared that the letter, "written under the said Anthony Johnson's hand," was legitimate. Anthony, perhaps sensing that it was useless to challenge the powerful, land-hungry Scarburgh, never contested the court's decision.
In Maryland, the Johnsons lived on a three-hundred-acre farm called Tonies Vineyard. And in the spring of 1670, Tonies Vineyard was where "Antonio, a Negro"--respected because he had managed to live so long on his own terms--met the end of his life. He was still a free man when the shackles binding him to this world were unlocked.
Upon her husband's death, Mary Johnson renegotiated the lease for ninety-nine years. In August of that year, however, an all-white jury ruled that Anthony's original land in Virginia could be seized by the state "because he was a Negroe and by consequence an alien." The disputed two-hundred-acre parcel was granted to sole occupant John Rowles. And fifty acres that Anthony had given to his son Richard wound up in the hands of wealthy white neighbor George Parker. It didn't matter that Richard, a free man, had lived on the land with his wife and children for five years.
The "hard labor and knowne service" that had served the family so well in the New World was now secondary to the color of their skin. The world that allowed captive slave "Antonio, a Negro," to grow confident as Anthony Johnson, landowner and freeman, ceased to exist. The Virginians no longer needed to lure workers to their plantations. Now they could buy them and chain them there.
Mary Johnson lived on Tonies Vineyard for another decade following her husband's death. In 1677, John Johnson or his son John Jr. purchased a forty-four-acre tract and called it Angola after Antonio's birthplace. Although they sought to live as well as their white neighbors, the world was changing around them, conspiring to remind them each moment of their lives that they were darker and therefore wrong. They were black, meant to be slaves even though they were free.
Perhaps Anthony Johnson's heirs were confused by the slow but relentless onset of the "terrible transformation." Although Richard and John Johnson fared fairly well after their father's death, the third generation of Johnsons faced conditions that even the perseverance and independent mind-set of their grandfather could not have overcome. They were forced to fight continually for their independence, since soon even free blacks could be captured and sold into a lifetime of slavery. No one would doubt a plantation owner's word if he claimed ownership of a black person, if he insisted that he had a perfect right to sell that person into servitude. Free Africans had no way of proving they were free.
The Johnsons may have turned inward, dependent upon the love and protection of family to keep their own dream from dying, as the institution of race slavery, long familiar in Spanish America and the Caribbean, began to flourish. Rules became more important. In 1669, Virginia declared it lawful to kill an unruly slave during punishment. In 1691, a white woman marrying a black man, whether or not he was free, would be banished. A year later, it became legal to kill runaway slaves. Owners would be paid two tons of tobacco for each life lost.
One hundred years after Anthony Johnson left his home in Africa, his grandson John died with no one left to carry his name. With his death, the family simply vanished. All further record of the Johnsons' achievements, their struggle--and the plantation named for a faraway birthplace--disappeared.
It had been a century since "Antonio, a Negro" had left his home in Angola. It was a hundred years and a million dashed dreams from the moment when Anthony Johnson saw a place for himself in the world and stood there, claiming his ground.
By the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, the economic future of the new colonies would be tied to the buying, selling, and maintenance of black people, bred to be the lifelong slaves of whites. England became the dominant force in the slave trade.
Throughout the eighteenth century, England's triangular trade with Africa and the New World poured thousands of captives into the British colonies. Moreover, England became a major supplier of slaves for the Dutch, French, and Spanish. The slave merchants sometimes realized huge returns--in 1737, a voyage of the slave ship Lively netted a profit of 300 percent. Of course, that level of financial gain could not be guaranteed. A ship could sink or be captured. But the specter of misfortune didn't quell the enthusiasm of English merchants for that chance at a windfall.
The profits of the trade led to the miraculous economic and cultural transformation of cities in England. By 1800, Liverpool, a once-lackluster port, had absorbed enormous slave-trading profits that provided much of the foundation for the Industrial Revolution. One British economist wrote, "It is the first principle and foundation of all the rest, the mainspring of the machine which sets every wheel in motion."
Regarding the slave trade, the various factions of British society seemed to be of the same mind. It was an extremely positive undertaking. It provided steady employment for shipbuilders and seamen. It was a school for sailors. And it was legal, with the possibility of reaping enormous profit. Although the English had abandoned the practice of converting the Africans to Christianity, they felt that they were doing a good deed by liberating them from their homeland. Hearing of slavery in Africa, the English were convinced that the poor savages left behind would be condemned to a fate much worse than anything awaiting them on colonial shores.
With the English Parliament's 1698 abolishment of the African Company's monopoly on slaving, every freeborn British citizen had been granted the right to trade in slaves. The demand for slaves in the sugar colonies soared. For six years beginning in 1680, the Royal African Company had transported 5,000 slaves from their homeland; in the first nine years following the end of the company's monopoly, the port at Bristol shipped an average of 18,000 slaves a year. The total number of Africans transported annually on British ships increased swiftly from 8,000 to 45,000.
These captive people came directly from Africa, not from other colonies, so they lacked the English language and experience with the alien world they'd been thrust into. It became easier for whites to consider themselves superior--the language barrier made Africans seem so foreign, so unreachable. So unlike their English saviors.
The English took comfort in the fact that the Africans did not look like them, did not sound like them, and were thoroughly unfamiliar with English customs.
In 1705, the Virginia General Assembly declared:
All servants imported and brought into this County... who were not Christians in their native Country... shall be accounted and be slaves. All Negro, mulatto and Indian slaves within this dominion... shall be held to be real estate. If any slave resist his master... correcting such slave, and shall happen to be killed in such correction... the master shall be free of all punishment... as if such accident never happened.
It was not uncommon to see a man's, woman's, or child's back crisscrossed with raw scars, not uncommon to see Africans hobble about with missing feet, to see a ragged stump where a hand should be. It was not uncommon to see their eyes swollen shut, their heads bound in rusty iron contraptions, their bones broken. It was not uncommon to hear that someone alive was now dead, someone who had dared to stand tall before his master and say, in his own language, "No. No more."
It was now legal to kill African slaves for the sake of discipline, and their deaths were not uncommon.
The Virginia colony designed laws to hold Africans in eternal slavery--not because they were poor, not because they were vagrant, not because they had been accused and found guilty of crimes, but simply because they were African. And although those first Africans may have come to Virginia as indentured servants, that semiprotected status was no longer available to them. While the indentured servant labored to fulfill a contract, the slave labored for his life, with no seven-, fourteen-, or twenty-one-year limit to his misery. A slave labored under the burden of knowing that his children, even those yet unborn, were destined to be slaves for the span of their natural lives.
Excerpted from Africans in America by Charles Johnson Copyright ©1999 by Charles Johnson. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Charles Johnson, recipient of a 1998 MacArthur Foundation Award, is the author of five works of fiction, including Dreamer. He has received many honors and awards, including the National Book Award. He is Professor Emeritus at the University of Washington.
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This documentary is essential to anyone looking for a concise, but thorough histroy of Africans people in America. Included are not only the major stepping stone of American history but accounts of the first Africans to live on North American soil, various slave revolts that you may not have heard of, and the construction of difference via legal and social structures in American. Read this if you want more than what you high school-or college teacher for that matter- gave you, and enough to round out your understanding of the long hsitory of African in America.