The conditions and treatment of Africans and their descendants in colonial Virginia between 1629 and 1705

The conditions and treatment of Africans and their descendants in colonial Virginia between 1629 and 1705

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Between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the legal opportunities for Africans in Virginia changed, making their lives more difficult. These laws were intended to dehumanize slaves and portray them as inferior to whites. The practice of keeping black servants for life began the legal process of converting people who had both rights and duties into people’s property. Africans brought to Virginia in the early 1600s were not all imprisoned indefinitely. Slavery in Virginia dates back to 1619, when the Virginia Company was established solely for the purpose of transporting indentured servants to work for the British settlers (Beverley, 72). In exchange for the number of indentured servants it brought, the company was given land. The vast majority of these indentured servants were Africans who had been sold into slavery in their own countries. Africans were forced to board the slave ship White Lion, which transported them to Virginia. Twenty Angolans were kidnapped and forced to travel to Virginia by the British Crew. Before being released into the free world, indentured servants worked for a set period of time. Indentured servants, on the other hand, were only allowed to work for a total of 20 years. Slaves indentured servantship differed from outright slavery in that they were forced to work indefinitely and were completely reliant on their master.

Indentured servants of Christian parentage were granted a pardon under Act I of the laws concerning servants and slaves. If they were over the age of nineteen, such servants would be indentured for five years. The minimum term of service for those under the age of nineteen was set at five years. as well, but they had to be Christians. Act II of this law mandated that indentured servants be brought before the courts within six months to determine their true age. It would be possible to set the age at which their indenture would end by determining their age. They were, however, expected to be Christians or to have Christian ancestors.

Virginia passed laws in 1661 allowing anyone who was free to own slaves. When the laws referred to "free people," they were referring to white men (Parent 106). Additional slavery-related laws were enacted in the seventeenth century, and they were codified in the Virginia slave code of 1705. (An Act Concerning Slaves, Chap XLIX, p. 447.) According to one of the slave laws passed in 1662, children born to slave mothers would become slaves when they reached the age of majority, regardless of who fathered them (Parent 107). The goal of this law was to keep as many slaves working for whites as possible. Furthermore, the law sought to discourage relationships between free and slave people. This meant that the children of female slaves could not be freed simply because they were conceived by white men who were not slaves.

A law was passed in 1662 that stated that baptism would not free one from slavery. Even if the slaves were Christians, the law stated that baptism would not be enough to free them (ACT III). There was concern that by making baptism the basis for emancipation, Virginia would run out of slaves who could have provided free and cheap labor. Enslavers were guaranteed by the law that baptism would not revoke their right to keep their slaves in servitude. Slaves brought to work on white farmers’ farms were not included, even when Christians taught that all people were equal before God. The vast majority of slaves originated in North Africa, where Islam was the predominant religion. Because Christians made up the majority of the population in America, those who converted to Christianity were expected to live free lives. This law, however, made it impossible for Christian slaves to gain their freedom.

According to the Report of a Committee from an Assembly Concerning the Freedom of Elizabeth Key, she was set free because she was fathered by a white man (1656). The committee was a special task force formed to address issues that arose as a result of white men seeking sexual favors from black women while knowing their children would be sold as slaves. The white men reasoned that enslaving their children would absolve them of responsibility for their actions. That is why, after a while, there was a feeling that the law should be changed so that innocent children born as a result of such cohabitation would not suffer needlessly. As a result, a child’s paternity began to play a role in determining whether or not a slave would continue to serve.

This incident happened before the 17th century, and it was the beginning of a series of harsh and oppressive legal actions that lasted from the 17th to the 18th centuries. Legal rulings and legislative actions explicitly stated that Blacks were inferior by the mid-seventeenth century. When Re Sweat, for example, slept with a Negro, the court sentenced him to public penance. This procedure demonstrates how the court system regarded blacks as inferior people unworthy of association with whites at the time. According to the legal ruling, Sweat defiled his body by sleeping with a lesser human.

A slave law was enacted in the 17th century, but it only represented one aspect of these traditions. Nonetheless, it includes equality, court ecclesiasticism, and another ceremonial law intended to govern other areas of England, such as the edge of England. Prior to the 17th century, Virginia’s legal system alternated between recognizing and condemning blacks.

Early Virginia laws were intended to close escape routes, denying freedom to already enslaved blacks. Due to the most compelling cultural and economic circumstances, this law was enacted in an unrestricted legal authority environment. There were no laws requiring Africans to be slaves at the time; instead, court cases were followed by a slew of legislation designed solely to make Africans slaves.

In the 17th century, Elizabeth presented a case in court that advanced the case of parentage impacts on slaves, as she was presented to the court for becoming pregnant for a black person. The case was heard by the Virginia legislature. This case occurred at a time when the race debate was at its peak. Following the case, Virginia adopted English and Spanish customs, allowing a free person to baptize Africans.

In 17th century Virginia, disagreements with masters could be brought before a court for resolution. A slave owner who wanted to break the most rebellious slaves could do so now, knowing that any punishment he received, including death, would be without repercussions.

Because Africans were now considered Christians, it was easier for them to interact with whites, which was especially important for blacks, who saw Christianity as a vital status.

This privilege also allowed African Christians who came to Virginia to be treated better than others. Other Africans, particularly those who converted to Christianity upon arrival, benefited from the privilege as well.

Unlike in the past, black Christians are now allowed to bring suits and even testify in court, allowing them to enjoy their freedom. Africans’ acceptance of Christianity and baptism, a symbol of whites in Virginia, enabled them to become civilized and rational. The use of this opportunity to convert by Africans resulted in a greater degree of personal freedom.


Many cases were heard in court, and if the black was Christian, he or she was granted freedom because they were not considered slaves and thus worked in the same way as other African servants. Slaveholders were encouraged to convert their slaves after learning about the status of Christianity among Africans, so that they would no longer risk losing property. In the first half of the 17th century, Africans were treated as free Christian servants. Those Africans who did not seize the opportunity to convert were doomed to remain slaves for the rest of their lives, as the customs accepted it. The slave law had been accepted and recognized by the law at the ending of the 1700s. The legal laws developed as a result of whites’ early decision to treat Africans as property, which was based on English racial precedents. As a result, the great opportunity of Christianity as a status for Africans greatly aided them in gaining their freedom because, unlike in the 16th century, they could not go to court and sue another person.


Parent, Anthony S. Foul Means: The Formation of a Slave Society in Virginia, 1660-1740. UNC Press Books, 2003.

Coyle, Betty Wade Wyatt. "The treatment of servants and slaves in colonial Virginia." (1974).

Hook, Francis Moore. "The Negro in Colonial Virginia 1619-1765." (1952).

Stanard, William Glover. "Major Robert Beverley and His Descendants." The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 2, no. 4 (1895): 405-413.

Parent, Anthony S. Foul Means: The Formation of a Slave Society in Virginia, 1660-1740. UNC Press Books, 2003.

Shih, Shannon. "The Rise of White Supremacy in 17th-Century Colonial America."