By Andy O’Brien
In 1619, the first enslaved people from Africa were brought to the colony of Virginia. Over 400 years later, the legacy of slavery is still with us in the form of racial oppression and white supremacy. But as the late scholar Theodore W. Allen wrote in his groundbreaking book The Invention of the White Race, the system of privileges based on the color of one’s skin did not exist when the first enslaved Africans were brought to the American colonies.
There was no mention in any colonial records about “white” people for several decades after the first enslaved Africans arrived, according to Allen. People were simply known by their nationalities, such as English or French. Race was used to describe different groups of people based on geography, language, and religion.
In the early 1600s, the Virginia Company claimed massive amounts of land to grow tobacco, which had become extremely valuable. But in order to make it profitable enough, planters needed free labor to pick and process the commodity crops. Colonial elites used chattel slavery and indentured servitude as a way to solve their labor problem.
Initially, white, Black and Indigenous laborers worked side by side in the tobacco fields, though the vast majority were white-skinned indentured servants. These predominantly English men and women were too poor to afford the cost to immigrate to the colonies, so they signed contracts with wealthy landowners to provide free labor for seven years in exchange for covering the cost of travel to America, as well as food and lodging. They were often abused and mistreated like chattel slaves, but there were also laws to protect them, and if they survived the hard labor, rampant diseases, and harsh living conditions for seven years, they would eventually gain their freedom. Robert P. Baird, writing in the Guardian in 2021, has explained that the primary reason European indentured servants were not enslaved for life was because they were Christians, and by law they could not be held in lifetime bondage unless they were criminals or prisoners of war.
“Africans enjoyed no such privilege,” Baird wrote. “They were understood to be infidels, and thus the ‘perpetual enemies’ of Christian nations, which made it legal to hold them as slaves. By 1640 or so, the rough treatment of indentured servants had started to diminish the supply of Europeans willing to work on the sugar and tobacco plantations, and so the colonists looked increasingly to slavery…to keep their fantastically profitable operations supplied with labour.”
Meanwhile, the wealthy planters lived in constant fear that their cruel treatment of their bonded workers would cause a revolt. These fears became a reality when Black and white workers united against Virginia’s colonial government during Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. In order to prevent similar revolts, the colonial ruling class enacted a series of laws granting legal privileges to the Christian European servants — including the right to own property, own guns, participate in juries, and serve on militias — to buy their allegiance. With these policies, the planter elite created a racial caste system where Africans were enslaved from birth if their mother was enslaved and deprived of the same rights as the European workers. Skin color gradually became the method to divide laboring people in the creation of a white supremacist social order.
Here in Maine, slavery existed for about 120 years, from the mid 1600s to the 1780s, when it was abolished. The slave trade to New England is believed to have begun in 1637 when Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop ordered a ship from Salem, Massachusetts to transport 17 captured indigenous people, including fifteen boys and two women, to be sold in the Caribbean. As Randolph Stakeman wrote in his book Slavery in Colonial Maine, the ship was to return with “cotton, tobacco and Negroes” to be sold in New England.
Winthrop’s brother-in-law Emmanuel Downing wrote, “I do not see how we can thrive until we get into a stock of slaves sufficient to do all our business… and you know very well how we can maintain 20 Moors [Africans] cheaper than one English servant.” Thomas Gorges, who served as the deputy provincial Governor of Maine from 1640 to 1643, believed that Africans could be a suitable labor force to build the colony, writing, “if their bodies could tolerate the cold of the country, they [Africans] would be excellent.”
In 1641, Massachusetts (which later took control of Maine), became the first colony to officially legalize slavery in the Body of Liberties — the first legal code established in New England. Next month I will discuss the lives of some of these enslaved people in Maine.