By 1680, you see the beginning of the changes. What had happened - and this is a complicated story - was that colonial leaders had to deal with Bacon and that rebellion. The British sent a fleet of three ships and by the time they got to Virginia, there were 8,000 poor men rebelling who had burned down Jamestown - blacks, whites, mulattos. And it was quite clear that this kind of unity and solidarity among the poor was dangerous.
After that, they began to pass laws, very gradually. They passed laws that gave Europeans privileges while they increasingly enslaved Africans. They passed a number of laws that prevented blacks, Indians, and mulattos from owning firearms, for example. Everybody had firearms. Everybody in Virginia still has firearms!
Then there was another change: There was a decline in the number of European servants coming to the New World. At the same time, there was an increase in the ships bringing Africans to the New World. By the 1690s or so, the English themselves had outfitted their ships to bring Africans back from the continent, and this is the first time that they had had direct connections.
But the Africans also had something else. They had skills which neither the Indians nor the Irish had. The Africans brought here were farmers. They knew how to farm semi-tropical crops. They knew how to build houses. They were brick makers, for example. They were carpenters and calabash carvers and rope makers and leather workers. They were metal workers. They were people who knew how to smelt ore and get iron out of it. They had so many skills that we don’t often recognize. But the colony leaders certainly recognized that. And they certainly gave high value to those slaves who had those skills.
After 1690 things begin to change. All of the Europeans become identified as “white.” And Africans take on a different kind of identity. They are not only heathens, but they are people who are perceived as vulnerable to being enslaved. And that’s a major point. Africans were vulnerable because it became part of the consciousness that they had no rights as Englishmen. Even the poorest Englishman knew that he had some rights. But once a planter owns a few Africans, the idea that the Africans had no rights that they had to recognize became very clear. And that’s why they were vulnerable to being enslaved, and kept in slavery. The laws that were passed after that all tended to diminish the rights of African people. But between 1690 and 1735, even those Africans who had been free and who had been there for many generations, had their rights taken away from them.
Once you magnify the difference between the slaves and the free, then it was possible to create a society in which the slaves were little better than animals. They were thought of as animals. And the more you think of slaves as animals, the more you justify keeping them as slaves.
After a while, slavery became identified with Africans. Blackness and slavery went together in the popular mind. And this is why we can say that race is a product of the popular mind, because it was this consciousness that blackness and slavery were bound together, that gave people the idea that Africans were a different kind of people.
Think of the early 17th century planter who wrote to the trustees of his company and he said, “Please don’t send us any more Irishmen. Send us some Africans, because the Africans are civilized and the Irish are not.” But 100 years later, the Africans become increasingly brutalized. They become increasingly homogenized into a category called “savages.” And all the attributes of savagery which the English had once given to the Irish, now they are giving to the Africans.
Why were Africans the slaves of choice?
Audrey Smedley is a professor of anthropology at Virginia Commonwealth University. She is author of Race in North America: Origins of a Worldview.
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