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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Guest Post - Julian Charity of Shirley Plantation on Slavery in Colonial Times


Our guest post today is by Julian Charity, Historian for Shirley Plantation in Charles City, Virginia.  Julian also has a new book release that we will be giving away to one lucky visitor this week.  We will be reviewing his book, about war at Shirley Plantation from the American Revolution, soon.

Slavery at Shirley Plantation 

by Julian Charity


Plantations in the New World supplied the English empire with an abundance of tobacco.  Cultivation of tobacco was labor intensive and cost prohibitive unless it is produced in large quantities. In order to keep the cost down and the production quantity up, indentured servants and slaves provided an economical labor force.  With indentured servants and slaves, the plantations became the economic backbone of the English empire.

The first record of servants at Shirley Plantation dates to 1616 when John Rolfe documented that Captain Isaac Madison commanded 25 men in planting and curing tobacco. These men were all white and indentured servants, also called indentures. Indentured servants were the original labor force at Shirley as well as in the rest of the English colonies. Indentured servants were people of various races who were contractually obligated to become laborers for a specified period of time in exchange for debt repayment, food, lodging, transportation to the colonies, and the teaching of a trade. Indentured servants were brought from Africa, the Caribbean islands, Scotland, Ireland, and England. In some of the British colonies of New England, servitude took the form of apprenticeships, in which an individual was a servant in exchange for learning a craft. In Virginia and throughout the southern colonies, where the economy was primarily agricultural, most indentured servants were field hands who tended tobacco fields. Though indentured servitude sounded appealing, the lives of these men and women were very difficult. They faced harsh punishments for petty crimes and transgressions against their masters. Penalties included whipping, hanging, shooting, and even burning the indenture alive. Masters could extend servants contracts and they had little recourse, legal or otherwise.

Africans first arrived in Virginia in 1619. The majority of these Africans likely became indentured servants though records from this era were unclear regarding their fates. The first documented African slave in Virginia came in 1640. John Punch, an African indentured servant, ran away from his master and a Virginia court ordered that Punch’s punishment be a lifetime of service to his master. In 1622, records for Shirley Plantation first mention an African or islander when documents indicated that eleven men including “One Negar,” had died since April.

Until Virginians committed to slave labor, indentured servants comprised the majority of the workforce.  Edward Hill I, the first Hill Carter family member to live at Shirley, probably took part in the indentured servant system. He imported 43 people in 1661. These people were likely indentures because the indentured servant system was more cost-effective and practical than the African slave system.

In The Making of New World Slavery:  From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492-1800, Robin Blackburn argued that indentured servants were a better investment until the end of the 1600s for several reasons. The high mortality rate of new arrivals to the New World was a contributing factor. An indentured contract may have only called for three or four years of service, but if the person only lived three or four years, then investing in more servants and fewer slaves was more cost efficient. White indentures were more popular because their masters knew their language and their work habits. Credit for purchasing servants was more easily received when buying white indentured labor (Blackburn 241-242). By the end of the seventeenth century, these issues became irrelevant and slaves began replacing indentures.

Bacon’s Rebellion in 1675 was a major contributing factor to the demise of the indentured servant system. Former and current indentured servants supported Nathaniel Bacon in his uprising. Colonial elite no longer favored the indentured servants after their collaboration with Bacon. Still in need of inexpensive labor, the importation of slaves to the colonies increased.

Read the entire article by clicking here.

GIVEAWAY:  Leave a comment below for a chance to win a copy of Julian's book.

22 comments:

  1. Thanks, Julian, for allowing us to post this commentary by you. And thank you for all your efforts as historian at Shirley Plantation!!!

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    1. Yes, thank you for posting here! This was a good read. Thank you for doing te research an putting this article together!

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    2. Will pass this praise on to Julian! I believe he is super busy out at Shirley Plantation this time of year!

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  2. What a fascinating article! I didn't know much about this subject at all and really enjoyed learning more about it. Thank you so much, Julian!

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  3. Julian, So nice to meet you here and learn more about your history and Shirley Plantation. What a beautiful, remarkable place! I hope to visit someday and would love to meet you. Your book sounds wonderful!

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    1. Shirley Plantation does sound quite lovely! Mayhaps I will have to stop by and visit sometime.

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  4. Thank you so much for sharing. The whole slave/servant subject is so fascinating. Thank you for stopping by and sharing. Thank you also for the giveaway!

    ks4readin (at) yahoo (dot) com

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    1. They have letters from Robert Carter to his family expressing his beliefs but he did not free his slaves and left it to the next generation. It is so sad it took a war to free our country from slavery.

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  5. I enjoyed reading this post and learning more about Shirley Plantation. It's on my "places to see this year" list. Thank you, Julian, for sharing about this fascinating plantation.

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  6. Thank you so much for this Article, I read a lot about the time of Slavery in the US and I'm always so fascinated, Thank you for giving us a look at the Shirley Plantation, I would love to go visit sometimes.
    Blessings
    Ingrid

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    1. Shirley did not get destroyed during the Civil War partially because the ladies of the plantation assisted the union wounded who occupied their property. So you can get a good look at some truly remarkable buildings!

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  7. PS: ingrids62448(at)yahoo(dot)com :)

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  8. Thanks for sharing about the Shirley Plantation. I have been reading several book on slavery recently. The history of it all is heavy on my heart.

    Blessings to All,
    Patricia

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    1. PATRICIA, me, too! I started listening to Lynn Austin's audiobooks, one of which it turned out I had listened to before. Having read so much on indentured servants and the horrific situations many of them had, you can see this awful progression to enslavement. I think Julian just tries to report with an impartial historian's eye.

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  9. julian....thanks for sharing the Shirley Plantation w/ us...would love to visit :)

    karenk
    kmkuka at yahoo dot com

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    1. Karen, It is an amazing place with all the outbuildings and everything. And the staff are the nicest people I have met at any of the historical places I have been--just so helpful!

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  10. Julian Thanks for the great article. Thanks for the chance to win one of your books! :)

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  11. Years ago, I toured this wonderful plantation with my late husband and late great-aunt and uncle. I don't have a book on it, but have always wished I did. This would be a great read for me since I have been there. Thanks for offering this great give-away!
    susanlulu@yahoo.com

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    1. Congratulations Susanlulu! You have won the copy of Julians new release!

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    2. Congratulations Susanlulu! You have won the copy of Julians new release!

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Thanks for commenting, please check back for our replies!