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.
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