… Since labor was in short supply in British America, the earliest colonist enslaved first Indians and then Africans. Since unending bondage did no exist in English law, the first form was called “indenture” and lasted for about seven years. “Indentured servants” of any color could be mistreated while in service, have theri personal life regulated, and their time extended by scheming masters.
Since all three races were abused under this system, they often rebelled and escaped. Reward notices of the time tell of red*, black, and white men and women fleeting their masters- sometimes together.
The first Africans introduced into Jamestown’s economy in 1619 became indentured servants, not slaves. Upon their release, they became part of the Virginia colony. Some became landowners, and one, Anthony Johnson, ruled an African community of twelve homesteads and two hundred acres in Virginia’s Northhampton County.
In the 1630s the rules of indenture began to change. It became legal to hold Africans and Indians for more than the usual seven years, even for life. The change began on he English-ruled island of Barbados when the governor announced “that Negroes and Indians… should sever for life, unless a contract was made to the contrary.” And beginning in 1636, only whites received contracts of indenture.
British America had taken a large step in dividing labor by race and reserving the worse for dark people. More and more white laborers were pouring into the thirteen British colonies, and masters did not want them making common cause with African or Native Americans. Masters had probably concluded their profitable labor system would work only as long as whites did not see their condition and fate as identical with nonwhites.
In 1636 a Massachusetts Indian became the first North American to be legally enslaved, sentenced to work until he died. A decade later Governor John Winthrop though of the idea of seizing Narragansett Indians to exchange for Africans. Around the same time British commissioners meeting in New Haven also decided that it was fair to make slaves of Indians and exchange them for Africans.
By 1661 slavery had become legal in the British colonies. Africans were preferred because of being thousands of miles from home. Indian slaves were able to flee to their armed brothers and sisters- and then come roaring back seeking revenge.
This idea of keeping slaves distant from their homes and families was crucial to having them under strict control. British merchants took Indians enslaved on the mainland and shipped them out to the West Indies. This was the only safe way to enslave Native Americans, for bondage was only secure when its victims felt they had no one to turn to, no friends nearby.
Reward notices in colonial newspapers now told of African slaves who “ran off with his Indian wife” or “had kin among the Indians” or is “part-Indian and speaks their language good.”
In slave huts and beyond the British settlements along the coast, African and Native American women and men shared their sorrows and hopes, their luck and courage. They did not always know where to run to, bu they knew where to run from.
Judging reward notices, Africans picked up Indian languages soon as they reached a frontier region. Runaways in the woods always needed outside help.
The first full-scale battle between Native Americans and British colonist took place in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1622. Africans fared a lot better than their owners. According to historian James H. Johnstone “the Indians murdered every white but saved the Negroes.” This, noted Johnstone, became a common pattern during wars between colonist and Indians.
British colonial law not only lumped Native American and African people together, but handed both worse punishments than whites. A Virginia law set twenty-five lashes if he accused were a red* or black person. Virginia soon declared “Negro, Mulatto, and Indian slaves… to be real estate.”
Beginning slowly in 1670, rules of bondage began to change to permit Native Americans to leave. Virginia began matters that year by stating that Indians were enslaved for only twelve years, Africans for life.
This decision was based on a peculiar legal point that Africans were “imported into this colony by shipping” and Indians came “by land.” No mention was made of the fact that Indians did not come by land, but lived there before English settlers arrived, or that most Africans had been living in Virginia much longer than most British citizens.
Before Indians were erased out of the slave system, they had lived and married with African slaves, and produced in their offspring a new class of Americans held in chains. When the slave codes talked of “Indian slaves,” it probably meant those Black Indians. For example, although New York’s Assembly banned Indian bondage in 1679, in 1682 it forbad “Negro or Indian Slaves” from leaving their masters’ home or plantations without permission. The next year the Assembly denied “Negro or Indian Slaves” from meeting anywhere together in groups of four or more or being armed “with guns, Swords, Clubs, Staves or Any Other kind of weapon.”
Between 1619 and 1700 labor in North America had become divided by skin color. Liberty itself would remain divisible by sin color through the American Revolution and up to the Civil War and emancipation [and beyond].
This division kept working people in America from uniting against an unjust labor system. Masters deported Indian slaves to the West Indies so they could not flee to their homes and loved ones. They enlisted whites and local Indians to help them hunt their runaway African slaves. When local Native Americans refused this work, they reached out to Indians on distant islands who needed money or trade. Through this cleverness, slaveowners hoped to sleep soundly each night and awake each day to greater profits.