Today we welcome a guest post from Paul Musselwhite, one of the editors of Virginia 1619: Slavery and Freedom in the Making of English America, just published by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, and UNC Press.
Virginia 1619 provides an opportunity to reflect on the origins of English colonialism around the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic world. As the essays here demonstrate, Anglo-Americans have been simultaneously experimenting with representative government and struggling with the corrosive legacy of racial thinking for more than four centuries. Virginia, contrary to popular stereotypes, was not the product of thoughtless, greedy, or impatient English colonists. Instead, the emergence of stable English Atlantic colonies reflected the deliberate efforts of an array of actors to establish new societies based on their ideas about commonwealth, commerce, and colonialism. Looking back from 2019, we can understand that what happened on the shores of the Chesapeake four hundred years ago was no accident.
Virginia 1619 is available now in both print and ebook editions.
1619 – The Origins of America’s Paradox
This summer, across Virginia, events will commemorate the 400th anniversary of 1619. In late July that year, a handful of elite male colonists constituted the General Assembly in Jamestown, the first representative government in English America. A few weeks later and a few miles downriver, an Anglo-Dutch privateer, the White Lion, came to anchor carrying “twenty and odd” Africans who had been captured from a Portuguese slaving vessel and who were traded away in the colony for supplies. The confluence of these events has long seemed a poignant and ironic coincidence. A hastily arranged gathering of colonists in Jamestown and the chance arrival of a stricken and wind-swept ship ostensibly operating under the Dutch flag appear to have overlapped purely by the chance of tides and timetabling.
Understanding 1619 as a coincidence, though, has profound consequences for how we tell the story of early Virginia and English America more generally. Historians have long recognized that there were many conscious decisions taken to predicate white freedom upon African slavery; but beginning that story with the coincidence of 1619 has all too often provided partial absolution by depicting bumbling colonists who struggled to survive and who simply piggy-backed on existing ideas about slavery and political rights in a desperate effort to make a quick buck. Many have even insisted that the “twenty and odd” Africans were not enslaved because colonists were too disorganized to draft a slave code.
But what if the events of 1619 were not really a coincidence, but rather a reflection of a profound debate about the future of English America? The 400th anniversary offers an opportunity to re-examine the specific events of 1619 and the political, cultural and economic ideas that lay behind them. The arrival of Africans in Virginia and the gathering of the General Assembly were two symptoms of a watershed in the development of English Virginia. They coincided because they were both manifestations of competing visions for the future of English colonialism in the Atlantic world; visions that were coming into increasingly stark conflict as the Virginia venture entered its second decade. Understanding the events of 1619 as responses to this debate makes them more than simply totemic “firsts” in long-running narratives of freedom and slavery. They helped to define America’s founding paradox of slavery and freedom.
By 1618, with tobacco cultivation booming and the demand for land and labor increasing, Virginia was at a crossroads. Who would labor to produce newly profitable commodities and how would these goods be marketed? How would colonists in this new economic world be governed, and how would land-hungry colonists relate to the Powhatan Empire? These questions began to roil the Virginia Company, prompting a contentious reorganization of its leadership. One group of investors, led by the prominent parliamentarian Sir Edwin Sandys, saw growing tobacco profits as an opportunity but also a threat to the colony’s stability. They seized control of the Company and dispatched Sir George Yeardley as Virginia’s new governor, instructing him to reorganize local governance and distribute land appropriated from the Powhatan to small farmers and tenants. An opposing group of investors, under the influence of the Earl of Warwick, saw tobacco profits from large estates as an efficient means of bankrolling attacks on the Spanish empire. At the same moment in 1618 they coordinated two ships to undertake a new privateering venture, intent on using Virginia as a base to raid the Spanish Caribbean and bring enslaved Africans to work on new world manorial estates in the tidewater and on the island of Bermuda. These two missions, which led directly to the gathering of the General Assembly and the arrival of the White Lion’s African prisoners in the Chesapeake, both found sympathizers in Virginia.
The events of 1619 were more controversial than our accounts have tended to suggest. Leaders in Virginia took pains to be circumspect about the arrival of the Africans. The famous yet evasive reference to “twenty and odd” men and women brought on the White Lion obscured the story of the arrivals, not to mention the fact that more Africans were almost certainly landed in Virginia a few days later by Warwick’s other ship the Treasurer without this ever being mentioned in the surviving correspondence. This evasiveness was prudent. When new governor Sandys got word of the landing, he quickly decried what he described as an effort to turn Virginia into another Algiers. At the same time, his opponents were gathering testimony accusing him of overt Republicanism over his plan for settler governance.
The events of the summer of 1619 reverberated. Leaders in London squabbled, traded insults, and even dueled. On the ground, officials argued over how to manage the influx of English laborers that Sandys sent to realize his grand vision of settlement. Seasoned colonists, meanwhile, appealed for supplies of more easily exploitable laborers as tobacco production skyrocketed. The colony’s diplomats also struggled over how to manage relations with the Powhatan in the midst of a dramatic increase in seizures of Indigenous lands. It is tempting to dismiss these struggles as disconnected petty rivalries, but taking a fresh look at 1619 reveals that these contests were all grounded in the competing visions of what English colonialism in America could and should be about.
All of this acrimony paralyzed and fatally undermined the Virginia Company, but it also came to define English America. The bitter divisions, combined with the devastating impact of the Powhatan’s 1622 counter-attack against English settlements, led James I to rescind the Virginia Company’s charter and take direct control of the colony. Another critical transformation occurred at the same time. Well-positioned colonists in the aftermath of the Powhatan assault consciously redefined their identity as both landholding, right-bearing Englishmen along the lines suggested by Sandys, but also as pioneering resource speculators abstractly trading in commodities and labor (both indentured and enslaved) reminiscent of Warwick’s vision. In doing so, colonists began to articulate the formula for English colonial expansion that made them landholding freemen, but predicated the viability of that freedom upon the absolute subjection of their laborers. They laid the foundation for a planter class. But they did not do so by accident—they crafted their vision of English America from the ideas and events surrounding 1619. Struggles over settler sovereignty, race, and labor exploitation persisted, especially as enslaved and Indigenous men and women resisted the categories into which they were forced for centuries to come. The ideas and rationales that would shape how these struggles played out were forged from the events of 1619.
There are many long-term legacies of 1619. This summer’s commemorations will highlight their place in the histories of African American culture, racism, representative democracy, capitalism, and Indigenous dispossession. It is important, though, to use the opportunity of the anniversary to re-examine the details of the events themselves, to recover the political and intellectual stakes involved, and thereby to challenge the narrative of coincidence that obscures the conscious culpability of early English colonists in the paradox of freedom and slavery. Centuries of American history in which the enslavement, expulsion, and exploitation of other races guaranteed the freedom of white male settlers began, by design, in the summer months of 1619.
Paul Musselwhite is assistant professor of history at Dartmouth College. His co-editors of Virginia 1619 are Peter C. Mancall, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities and professor of history and anthropology at the University of Southern California, and James Horn, president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation (Preservation Virginia) at Historic Jamestowne.
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