The Virginia Slave Codes date all the way to early 1600s. During the 17th century, indentured servants, who decided to work for an affirmed amount of time in replace for their means of access to the “New World”, were a handy resource of manual labor for the American colonies. Both blacks and whites served under the system (Goldenburg 1).
White servants, after working out their time of agreement, often progressed to appreciated places in the society. On the other hand, their black correspondents, who totaled to about 2,000 in Virginia in 1670, were rarely given the same treatment. By the middle of the century, they were usually regarded as servants for life. In the late 1650s, laws referring to slaves started to manifest in the Virginia laws.(PBS 1)
For a brief period during the 16th century, Virginia was the only English colony in North America. The first settlement was established in 1587 on Roanoke Island, in what is now North Carolina.(Goldenburg 1) By the 1600s, the Virginia colony comprised the entire coast of North America, including the shoreline of Acadia, and a vast area of inland Canada.
In 1607, settlements were established at Jamestown and at the Popham colony, but only Jamestown survived. “By 1620, the portion of Virginia north of the 39th parallel became New England.” (PBS 1) Despite the materialization of other English colonies in North America, the Virginia colony was by far the most significant in the 17th and 18th centuries in defining the country’s public and civilizing disposition leading up to the Revolutionary War.
It was in Virginia that settlement governments first recognized slave codes, which became more wide-ranging and were later on accepted by other colonies. Slavery was lawfully acknowledged in Virginia with the passage of a 1661 fugitive slave law. The penalty of adding up time to a phase of service, which was frequently used for indentured servants, was not useful because the servitude of slaves was permanent.(PBS 1) The statute did decree, however, that if a white servant ran off with a slave, he would have to serve his penalty term plus that of the slave.
Harsh slave codes came out in Virginia subsequent to Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, when rich planters determined to put an end to indentured servitude and set up undying slavery for Africans, concerned that rank in society would weaken their tobacco plantation holdings (Goldenburg 2). They steadily put an end to the importation of indentured servants from England in support of imprisoned Africans.
“Though many of Virginia’s slave codes addressed specific conflicts—one law enacted in 1701 offered a bounty for killing a runaway named Billy, who was alleged to have robbed and destroyed crops—most were designed to aggressively curb the movements and activities of slaves.”(Goldenburg 2) Social and cultural division of blacks and whites began as Virginia planters started instituting laws found on the theory that Africans were a lesser race. The groups of blacks in Virginia were slowly misrepresented over the final half of the 17th century.
The hope for freedom in the black indentured servant was gradually being replaced with by the black slave.(Goldburg 2) “In 1705, the Virginia General Assembly removed any lingering uncertainty about this terrible transformation; it made a declaration that would seal the fate of African Americans for generations to come” (PBS 1). If one slave refused his master, the slave was to be killed and the master shall be free of all punishment, as if such accident never happened. Virginia codes served as a model for other colonies.
The law forced cruel corporeal punishments for slaves who did not obey with these codes, since enslaved persons who did not own property could not be obligated to pay fines. Even though these codes changed from state to state, generally the codes dealt with were the same for most African Americans.(PBS 1) The code, which would also function as an example for other colonies, went even further. The law forced harsh bodily punishments, since enslaved people who did not own possessions could not be obligated to pay fines.
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