The history of African Americans in English North America began in August 1619, when the White Lion, an English privateer based in the Netherlands, traded “20 and Odd Negroes” captured off Mexico from a Portuguese slave ship for food. Because these first blacks were Christians, probably from Angola, it is possible that they were initially treated as indentured servants, the system of cheap labor the English exported to their colonies. However, The oldest city in North America, Florida’s St. Augustine was founded by Spanish Admiral Pedro Menendez de Avilés on September 8, 1565. His expedition included soldiers, their wives, and children, as well as Africans, most of whom were slaves. This is a perfect example of how our Anglo-Saxon view of American history distorts history.

During the 1600s, planters began to realize that permanent chattel (tangible personal property) slavery was far more profitable than hiring indentured servants, who had to be replaced at regular intervals. Slavery was not a new institution, but it took on new characteristics in the New World. Previously, slaves were mostly taken in battle. Our word slave comes from “Slav,” reflecting the fact that many slaves in former times came from Slavic countries. In time, all Africans came to be enslaved, although at first, some Africans owned slaves.

Slaves in America were “chattel” and were taxed as property just like oxen, horses, or pigs. In fact, “chattel” comes from the same root as “cattle.” Another aspect was that slave families had no standing at all and husbands, wives, and children were frequently sold off to planters in distant locations. Some spouses lived “abroad” – not at the same plantations. Slaves got one set of clothing a year and generally had shoes only in wintertime. After the international slave trade became illegal in 1808, some masters “bred” slaves, and female slaves were available at the desire of their masters. That’s how we have so many “mullatoes.” Thomas Jefferson had a concubine, Sally Hemmings, who was the stepsister of his deceased wife. Their four children were seven-eighths European!

Unless a master decided to “manumit” or free his slave, they remained the master’s property for life, or until a slave could purchase his freedom. American slavery was brutally enforced by whipping, mutilation, and mandatory slave patrols. A white man who killed a slave faced no consequences. Despite Planters’ efforts to perpetuate the myth that slaves were happy with their lot, this was total fantasy.

James J. McDonald, Life in Old Virginia: A Description of Virginia, More Particularly the Tidewater Section, Narrating Many Incidents Relating to the Manners and Customs of Old Virginia So Fast Disappearing as a Result of the War between the States, Together with Many Humorous Stories, Norfolk, Virginia: The Old Virginia Publishing Company, 1908.

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Gene Betit

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