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The Chesapeake, Introduction of Slavery

new continent, slave society, House of Burgesses, sugar planters, indentures

White servants worked Chesapeake tobacco farms until the late 17th century. But earlier in the century, English tobacco and sugar planters in the Caribbean had adopted African slavery, long the chief labor system in Portuguese and Spanish sugar colonies in the Caribbean. By 1700 the English islands were characterized by large plantations and by populations that were overwhelmingly African. These African slaves were victims of a particularly brutal and unhealthy plantation system that killed most of them. It was not a coincidence that these islands produced more wealth for England than its other colonies.

Before the 1680s, Chesapeake planters purchased few African slaves, and the status of Africans in Virginia and Maryland was unclear. Some were slaves, some were servants, some were free, and no legal code defined their standing. The reasons for the slow growth of slavery in the Chesapeake were not moral but economic. First, slave traders received high prices for slaves in the Caribbean—higher than Virginians could afford, particularly when these expensive laborers were likely to die. White indentured servants cost less, and planters lost little when they died. But Chesapeake colonists—both English and African—grew healthier as they became “seasoned” on their new continent. At the same time, the English economic crisis that had supplied servants to the colonies diminished. These changes made African slaves a better long–term investment: The initial cost was higher, but the slaves lived and reproduced.

Beginning around 1675, Virginia and Maryland began importing large numbers of African slaves. By 1690 black slaves outnumbered white servants in those colonies. Virginia now gave white servants who survived their indentures 50 acres of land, thus making them a part of the white landholding class. At the same time, the House of Burgesses drew up legal codes that assumed a lifetime of bondage for blacks. In the early 18th century, the Chesapeake emerged as a society of planters and small farmers who grew tobacco with the labor of African slaves. There had been slaves in Virginia since 1619. But it was not until nearly 100 years later that Virginia became a slave society.

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