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Slavery in Virginia

The history of slavery in Virginia traces back to the 1600s, as it was found as the colony of the English through the London Virginia Company. The latter created a headright system that would allow and encourage colonists arriving in Virginia to bring servants on indenture to conduct labor in the state, and some land was given to people who paid for the arrival to the colony. Due to the promise of land, servants began arriving at the colony but were met by deadly diseases as well as harsh conditions that resulted in numerous deaths as well as the mistreatment on the part of their masters. The first laws passed to regulate the presence, and the work of servants in Virginia included benefits for masters with lengthy indentures and limited the rights of servants; however, the latter were allowed to express their complaints in court. The legislation required masters to provide sufficient diet, clothing, and transportation for their servants, prohibited cruel treatment, as well as directed masters not to manipulate servants into agreeing to longer terms of contract service.

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The mentioned legislation was neither preventative nor always enforced, which allowed masters to be strict in punishing servants, with conditions on Virginia’s tobacco fields approaching slavery. Workers were treated as commodities and could be traded or exchanged. By 1705, the Act Concerning Servants and Slaves made slavery encompass all levels of society in Virginia, replacing the previously-established indentured servitude as the tool for enforcing bound labor in the territory (Edwards et al. 159). Therefore, slavery was one of the options that Virginia and other states that had plantations could use. Instead of indentured servitude, which did not impose severe punishments and could be implemented on a contract basis, Virginians chose slavery that would allow white elites establish a more reliable workforce and such that would not question or threaten their interests. In addition, as the flow of white servants from England fell at the beginning of the 1660s and declined significantly in 1680s, planters had to rely on slaves to a great degree. Thus, it may be suggested that indentured servitude was not ended by slavery in itself, but rather the rise of slavery came at the end of servitude.

With the growth of the English empire and the impact that it had on the development of America, its impact on trade of slaves became more significant, which caused enslaved people from Africa becoming highly widespread in Virginia overall. By the 1690s, slaves in the state accounted for the majority of the bound workforce belonging to the gentry, or the high class, but only 25% to 40% to the rest of the population (Wolfe and McCartney). As time went on and the supply of slaves increased, planters and farmers acknowledge that they would prefer to have lifelong slaves to indentured servants that would hope to gain freedom one day. This shows that the ability to control workers to the fullest extent was the defining factor behind choosing slavery over indentured servitude. It was economically more sufficient for slaveowners to use slaves without the need to compensate them for their work adequately. Thus, there could be other options beyond slavery that could have allowed to establish mechanisms for the fair work on plantations. However, like other states, Virginia would follow the different route, which resulted in centuries of oppression and inequality that perpetuated throughout America.

Works Cited

Edwards, Rebecca, et al. America’s History: Concise Edition, Combined Volume. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2017.

Wolfe, Brendan and Martha McCartney. “Indentured Servants in Colonial Virginia.” Encyclopedia Virginia, 2015, Web.

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