Slavery in Africa and British American Colonies

In the middle of the seventeenth century, the British American colonies were strongly connected to and ruled by the motherland. Servants and slaves did the hard job in the thriving colonial economies.

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Many servants were Europeans who paid the transportation by agreeing to work for a certain number of years. Over the whole century, the transatlantic slave trade was a spreading practice, and a corpus of legislation determined the status of slaves, contributing to the development of the modern idea of race and slavery (Handler & Reilly, 2017). This case study will highlight how the Virginia legislation from 1642 to 1705 followed the mainstream, governing the life of both servants and slaves, and assimilating the latter to mere objects.

In What Ways Was the Practice of Slavery Different Between Africans and Europeans?

Most Europeans brought to the colonies had the status of servants, ratified by indenture or covenant contracts. However, some servants crossed the ocean without neither indenture nor covenant, and several legislative acts regulated their status. Overall, servants became free citizens after some working years for their master. Initially, Africans could be both servants slaves, but the act passed in 1705 bound their status to the estate they were serving, eventually eliminating any chance of gaining freedom.

How Did the Length of Service of Slaves Change Between 1642 and 1705?

Initially, black slaves and black servants held a similar status. The Act XXVI enacted in March 1642 aimed at settle disputes among masters and servant without indenture or covenant imported into Virginia (Acts of the Virginia Commonwealth, n.d.). The Act ruled that men and women older than twenty-year-old were to serve their masters for four years. If their age was between twelve and twenty years, they had to work for five years. Children under twelve-year-old were bound to work for seven years. In October 1705, a new Act concerning servants and slaves declared that Black, Mulatto and Indian slaves were real estates and not chattels.

How Was the Status of Children Born to Slaves by White Men Determined?

The Act XII, promulgated during December 1662, stated that the status of children born from a relationship between an English man and an African woman depended on the condition of the mother: according to her situation, children were enslaved or free (Acts of the Virginia Commonwealth, n.d.). Also, the Act specified that white Christian individuals having sexual intercourse with Africans, implicitly non-christian, would have been liable to pay a fine.

In What Ways Were Slaves Treated Similarly to Property?

Following the Act of October 1705, non-white slaves were treated as part of the estate they bound (Acts of the Virginia Commonwealth, n.d.). In case of death of an estate owner, for example, slaves were assimilated were to be inventoried, assessed, and shared among the heirs according to the law. Also, if a third person happened to injure a slave, the owner could file a case and recover damages for the injury.


The analysis of the legislation enacted from 1642 to 1705 offers the starting point for some reflections. First, the act concerning children from mixed couple suggests that black slaves were non-christian, and regarded, if not animals, something different from humans.

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Secondly, it highlights the increasing difference in the condition of servants without covenant or indenture and slaves. While servants were bound to serve their master for a precise number of years before becoming free citizens, slaves had no hope for freedom. Finally, the assimilation of all non-white slaves to real estates even strengthened this position: treating them like a property deprived slaves of the smallest sparkle of humanity.


Acts of the Virginia Commonwealth. (n.d.). Web.

Handler, J., & Reilly, M. (2017). Contesting “White Slavery” in the Caribbean. Enslaved Africans and European indentured servants in seventeenth-century Barbados. New West Indian Guide, 91(1-2), 30-55. Web.

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