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Indentured Servitude and Slavery in Virginia in the 1600s

Indentured servitude and slavery possessed different connotations for individuals in Virginia in the 1600s. Some slave masters would grant freedom to slaves after a certain period. In other instances, they would provide these individuals with a piece of land within their plantation to work. Such slaves would consequently purchase their freedom from the profit gained after harvesting their crops. Notable figures within the Virginia colony are Anthony Johnson and Elizabeth Key. However, a few issues arose within the 1600s that led to changing rules for black Americans. This dark history would plague society, exposing generations of African-Americans to the horrors of European American slavery.

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The aftermath of Bacon’s rebellion increased the divide between white settlers and African indentured servants and slaves. It consisted of white settlers (farmers) and black indentured servants and slaves. While it did not last for an extended period, the union between white settlers and their black counterparts alarmed the ruling elite (PBS par.8). Therefore, the ruling white settlers began enacting restrictive rules to prevent black individuals from possessing any form of power in Virginia (BRI par.12). The system also imposed hereditary slavery, limiting opportunities for black people to regain their freedom. While indentured servants could earn their freedom, promoting slavery would perpetuate this cycle, ensuring black individuals did not gain power in the colony. The system also gave white settlers more power, providing them with a labor supply consisting of slaves that would increase their potential to accumulate wealth and dissuade them from another rebellion (BRI par.12).

Anthony Johnson and Elizabeth Key indicate that the white settlers sought to develop a system to alleviate their status as equal human beings despite black people’s efforts and triumphs. While Anthony Johnson had served as a slave and gained his freedom, his descendants would never inherit his property as they were deemed ‘aliens.’ (FHO par.13) In previous years, Johnson was recognized as a hardworking landowner, where laws had exempted his wife and daughters from paying taxes after their house was burned. However, after the incidents of Bacon’s rebellion, Virginia’s increasingly restrictive laws stripped his son of his 50 acres inheritance (FHO par.13). In another instance, Elizabeth Key successfully filed for wrongful enslavement as her father was an Englishman. Under European law, she would inherit his status, where she was granted freedom after being enslaved in Northumberland (ZEP par.4). Nonetheless, after Key’s case, the colony changed the law (ZEP par.8). The stories of Johnson and Key indicate the difficulty for black individuals to attain freedom in Virginia. The colony would alter laws used in Europe to prevent black individuals from obtaining similar rights to their white counterparts. Key’s case resulted in perpetual slavery while Johnson’s son was disinherited as an ‘alien.’

John Casor’s suit against Anthony Johnson alleged that the latter failed to honor his indenture, where the former was forced to work for seven years past his agreement. However, when Casor took the case to court, the court ruled in favor of Johnson, illustrating that free blacks could own slaves (Eschner par.9). Casor was sentenced to a lifetime of slavery as Johnson denied having seen his indenture documents. The case indicates that slavery and indenture were separate systems. Casor could work for another individual as indenture was a contract (Eschner par.2). On the other hand, slavery was perpetual and limited an individual’s ability to gain freedom. While Casor could take Johnson to court over his rights, Bacon’s rebellion prevented other black individuals from taking similar action as slavery was turned into an eternal system.

In conclusion, early 17th century Virginia upheld different laws from those at the turn of the century. While black Americans had more rights, they would be revoked by the 1700s. Moreover, the connotations’ white’ and ‘black’ arose due to the alliance between the races, showcasing the connection between freedom and slavery. Finally, the century established the different ‘races’ dividing individuals based on their skin color despite a lack of accurate scientific information to prove this issue.

Works Cited

BRI. “Bacon’s Rebellion.” Bill of Rights Institute, 2021, Web.

Eschner, Kat. “The Horrible Fate of John Casor, the First Black Man to Be Declared Slave for Life in America.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 2017, Web.

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FHO. “Race and Belonging in Colonial America: The Story of Anthony Johnson.” Facing History and Ourselves, 2021, Web.

PBS. “Africans in America/Part 1/Bacon’s Rebellion.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, Web.

ZEP. “July 21, 1656: Elizabeth Key Wins Her Freedom.” Zinn Education Project, 2021, Web.

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StudyCorgi. 2022. "Indentured Servitude and Slavery in Virginia in the 1600s." November 8, 2022. https://studycorgi.com/indentured-servitude-and-slavery-in-virginia-in-the-1600s/.

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