Blog #4: The Creation of Chattel Slavery

For 40 years after the first Africans were forced to the British Colonies, black and white laborers socialized in difficult but rough equality.  Regardless of color, poor indentured servants suffered from long-hours, brutal punishment, harsh weather, and disease.  Minor offences could result in longer terms of service. But most laborers had some legal rights, at least, and could imagine one day being free.
Gradually, elites imposed legal distinctions between the races. After Massachusetts first legally recognized slavery in 1641, other colonial legislatures began transforming limited-term servitude into a more nefarious form: “chattel slavery.” The “chattel” system treated people as cattle. Workers, particularly Blacks, were considered property without rights normally associated with being human.
As more mixed-race children appeared, some white owners acted to hide and control evidence of sexual relations with Africans who worked for them.  In December of 1662, Virginia passed a law declaring that all children born in Virginia “shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother….”  Sadly and ironically, this “rewarded” whites who raped Black female laborers by increased their supply of laborers.
In 1664, the General Assembly of Maryland passed a bill whereby blacks already in the colonies, or imported later, and all new children of enslaved mothers, “shall serve durante vita,” which meant they would do “hard labor for life.”  Other colonies followed suit, and the door to eventual freedom was slammed shut.

The race line was drawn deeper when poorer colonists, of all races, began demanding fairer treatment and better access to land. Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676 accelerated the drift toward race-based chattel slavery.  After thousands of poor and middle class Virginias of all colors rampaged through the colony, burning the capital and chasing away the Governor, colonial authorities demanded a solution.

Many colonial legislatures responded by deepening the legal distinction between whites and blacks. Poor whites were empowered to discipline blacks, capture runaway slaves, and serve in militias protecting slaveholders.  Race-based bigotry was encouraged.  Free Blacks could no longer employ whites, own weapons, or travel without restriction.  Masters gained total control when Black indentured servants were treated as “property” and called “slaves.” Should the masters’ “corrective punishments” end up killing slaves, masters were not charged with murder because, many argued, no man would “purposefully” destroy their own property. 
In a powerful and intentional manner, the machinery of government, along with the myth of the innate racial inferiority of Africans, intensified and strengthened our particular horrific version of white supremacy.  

  • Lesson #8: There was a time when exploitation was mostly between economic classes independent of race – the American version of chattel slavery was a consciously constructed form of control.

  • Lesson #9: Cooperating rebellious poor people of all colors threatened the power of American elites, so the elites turned to racism to divide and conquer. (This dynamic still works.) 

  • Lesson #10: Defining “people” as “property” fosters exploitation and sadism.

Hugh Taft-Morales