Here are a few things I have learned in the course of my research into the Chesapeake:
- Virginia began as a military enterprise. The English who colonized Virginia originally sought to emulate the Spanish in Mexico. They came as conquerors who believed they could establish their dominance over the local Indians and force them to mine gold and provide them with food.
- This is why Jamestown was such a clusterfuck in its earliest days. The English hadn’t come to settle Virginia as self-sufficient farmers. Originally, they didn’t even have settlers with that skill set. They had sought at first to be Cortez in Mexico or Pizarro in Peru.
- Virginia was quickly embroiled in racial conflict with the Powhatan Indians who twice attempted to wipe out the colony in 1622 and 1644 before they were finally defeated. These Indian wars went on for years. Interestingly enough, Maryland was notable for its lack of conflict with the Indians.
- Virginia was full of Englishmen rambling around the New World until the late 17th century. Unlike Massachusetts, it only became a predominantly creole society around 1690. New England became a settler society much earlier due to the superior climate.
- The first black slaves arrived in Virginia in 1619. Virginia and Maryland were still only around 10 percent black in 1700 though. White indentured servants formed the vast majority of the workforce in the 17th century. Virginia and Maryland only turned away from that model around 1675. This was primarily because the supply of indentured servants from England dried up after the Restoration and Pennsylvania was opened up to settlement to the north.
- We begin to see the first glimmers of what we would recognize as the legal codification of white supremacy in Virginia and Maryland in 1660-1661. The settlers began to articulate a growing sense of White identity due to proximity to blacks and Indians. It likely existed before this time, but Virginia and Maryland both passed the first anti-miscegenation laws.
- Just as I suspected, the spread of chattel slavery in the Chesapeake was highly influenced by the West Indies. Before the 1660s, the English weren’t heavily involved in the African slave trade and few slave ships had any reason to travel from the Caribbean to the Chesapeake. The first slaves who trickled into the Chesapeake were the result of the growth of commerce between Tidewater and the British West Indies.
- It started with the wealthiest Chesapeake planters who before 1650 had the capital to invest in slaves. The institution spreads as slaves became cheaper and more available after the Restoration.
- “Liberty” was thought to be something that inheres in English bodies. In other words, it is the English who are free. They have English rights and liberties.
- I’ve learned that “from the time of initial Chesapeake settlement English migrants regarded Africans as different and inferior to themselves.” Even before they sat down to codify their racial attitudes, the English in Virginia saw the Africans as a different and inferior people, which is not really surprising when you consider the English had long been the most xenophobic Europeans and looked down on everyone whether it was the Irish or the French.
What about racism? What about white supremacy? What about settler-colonialism? What about universal human rights? I can hear all the moral objections now to trying to understand history.
It really makes you think: why didn’t it occur to the English that the human rights of the Africans were being violated by slavery? Why didn’t it occur to anyone at the time to feel guilty over racism? Why didn’t anyone object to their project of settler-colonialism and white supremacy?
The answer is that no one at the time (the English, the Indians, the Africans) had any concept of universal human rights, no one believed that “racism” was immoral and settler-colonialism made sense under the mercantilism which was the dominant economic theory in those times. The 17th century and early 18th century was very different from the late 18th century, 19th century and the 20th century.
White supremacy was probably the least obvious development. The English had arrived in Virginia to challenge the Spanish claim to the New World. They were engaged in the conquest and planting of Ireland. They encountered various Indian tribes in Virginia and Maryland who were as distinct as rival European nations. Each Indian tribe had a different response to the European presence. White supremacy emerged as a pragmatic response by settlers to racial conflict with blacks and Indians.
The Puritans in New England had their Indian towns for a generation. They tried to incorporate the Indians into their “City on a Hill.” This made them better than the Spanish or so they thought. The highminded Puritan experiment in multiracialism ended in the disaster that was King Philip’s War when the Yankees were nearly wiped out in a genocide in New England.
Note: Yankees see themselves as progressives. They are moving “forward” in history. They have evolved beyond zero sum racial conflict. In contrast, Southerners are backwards. The truth is that Yankees have zero self-awareness and have forgotten their own history.