Host Gayle King had to correct Northam when he referred to slaves brought to Virginia in the 17th century as “indentured servants.”Sean Hannity used the same quote, and made the same point on Fox News. Why doesn't Democracy Now do their own homework rather than parrot the mainstream media when they think that's the cool thing to do?
Gov. Ralph Northam: “In 1619, the first indentured servants from Africa landed on our shores in Old Point Comfort, what we call now Fort Monroe. And while—
Gayle King: “Also known as slavery.”
Gov. Ralph Northam: “Yes.”
So, the points I made this morning in FACT CHECK! Gayle King: You are wrong, VA Gov Northam is right - 1st Africans in US were not slaves! are worth repeating.
Actually, the correct answer is a bit more complicated than either Northam's of King's answer. Some good scholarship has been done on this (See Sluiter & Thornton) that traces these 20 Africans back to the Angola region of Africa. Clearly, they were headed for slavery when they were taken on the high seas from a Portuguese slave ship. I'm not sure they should be considered slaves already just because they had been captured. Sluiter established that they weren't "seasoned" or had labored under slave conditions before they were taken by the Dutch raiders. In any case, they were sold in Virginia, which was an English colony. Slaves as a legal status was obsolete in England, and didn't exist in Virginia, as legal status until 1661, so they were treated as indentured servants, which was terrible for all subjected to that bondage. But it was still not the developed slave system as manifested in the 1705 Virginia Slave Codes.
It's important that we get this right. The "traditional" white supremacist version of our history is exactly what Gayle King said: That the first 20 Africans that landed in Fort Monroe, VA in 1619 where slaves. Wrong! This supports a narrative that blacks were always slaves in this country until the white man freed them. Wrong!
I won't repeat the history I related in that piece. Consider it incorporated here by reference. But I do want to take this opportunity to respond to the criticism that the claim that those first twenty Africans in Virginia were indentured servants and not slaves rests solely on the fact that the law didn't permit slaves in Virginia until 1661. Those critics are saying that while their legal status may have been that of "indentured servants," they were slaves in every other respect.
In the hopes that I can convince them that the true history is different than they imagine, I have transcribed to text this brief selection from The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675 by Bernard Bailyn:
"Negars,” “negors,” and Africans otherwise identiﬁed by color had begun appearing in very small numbers well before 1619, when John Rolfe noted the arrival in Virginia of “20. and odd Negroes.” They were Angolans hijacked from a shipment to Spanish America and sold by their Dutch captors “for victualles.” Their numbers rose very slowly, their arrivals random occurrences. The Virginia census of 1625 identiﬁed only twenty-three blacks, scattered thinly through the separate plantations. In 1640 Maryland recorded twenty blacks. But then the numbers began to rise as planters gradually, almost casually, began including them in their purchasing orders. 80 in 1638. Baltimore ordered his agent to buy for him—along with forty cattle, ten sows, and forty hens—“ten negroes to be transported to St. Mareys,” and in 1642 Leonard Calvert offered a passing ship captain three manors or 24,000 pounds of tobacco for fourteen “negroe men-slaves, of between 16 & 26 yeare old, able & sound of body and limbs.” By 1650 there were 300 blacks in Maryland; in 1660, 758; and in 1670, 1,190 (9 percent of the population), by which time Virginia’s black population had reached 2,000. But there was as yet no wholesale importation of slaves. The proposal of the Royal African Company in 1664 to send one to two hundred slaves a year to Maryland had to be refused, Charles Calvert reported, because there were not “men of estates good enough to undertake such a businesse,” despite the fact that “wee are naturally inclin’d to love neigros if our purses would endure it.” Most if not all of those who arrived in Maryland came not directly from Africa but from the Caribbean islands, Barbados in particular, from Spanish settlements on the mainland, and from Dutch islands via New Netherland, hence people who were to some extent “seasoned” and used to life in European colonies. And they came in various statuses. Some came as freemen and remained free, though often under particular disabilities. Others could show by oral or written testimony that their service was contractually limited to a speciﬁc term, after which, like indentured servants, they were to be released. And a very few, who came bound in service, through ceaseless labor and ﬁerce determination were able to buy their freedom and that of their families and establish themselves in the society at large. In 1668 nearly a third of the ﬁfty-nine blacks in Northampton County on Virginia’s lower Eastern Shore, all of whom had arrived bound in unlimited servitude, had acquired freedom; some had bought property which they were able to pass on to the next generation, established effective community ties among themselves, and participated broadly in the larger white society. All blacks before 1660, Edmund Morgan writes, “whether servant, slave, or free, enjoyed most of the same rights and duties of other Virginians. There is no evidence . . . that they were subjected to a more severe discipline than other servants.”I have made bold the section I want to draw your attention to. I don't know how important it is that we remember this early history correctly as we fight for racial equality today. There was a period in history of our country, however brief, before slavery was established. There was already a degree of social justice that first had to be overthrown to establish the slave system. It then required a bloody civil war some two hundred years latter to end that system, and put us, however tentatively, back on the road to social justice.
But the importance of the most remarkable achievers among the blacks can easily be exaggerated. Their numbers in fact were small, they are found only in one or two counties, they were subject to white harassment, and their claims to independence and full equality were tenuous, contestable, and not long sustained. The great majority of Africans, even in this most favorable period, were never viewed as fully equal to white servants. Lacking contracts, actual or implicit, and having been bought or seized in Africa or abroad, they were considered to be bound in servitude for life unless otherwise identiﬁed, a condition never imposed on whites but that seemed suitable in most Europeans’ eyes.
Virginia offered a bleak alternative to the workhouse or the gallows for the first English poor who were transported there.And James Baldwin wrote:
The Irish middle passage, for but one example, was as foul as my own, and as dishonorable on the part of those responsible for it. But the Irish became white when they got here and began rising in the world, whereas I became black and began sinking.Its important that attempts to bury Ralph Northam also not bury this history.