Correcting (my own) Normativity of Whiteness: 1. From the Arrival of the First African Slaves to “Partus Sequitur Ventrem”

Partus edit
GLC 5111.02.1051. Issac & Rosa. Photograph: Two young slave children, boy and girl arm in arm, n.d. (The Gilder Lehrman Collection, courtesy of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Not to be reproduced without written permission.)

[I do intend to return to my series, “What Is & Isn’t Being Said,” but have chosen to pause for some clarifications. Thus far, the clarifications have included, “Racism Isn’t the Problem, Sin is the Problem!” and “What Does ‘Jew & Gentile’ Have to do With ‘Black & White’?” The following is a further clarification, specifically of Post 2 in the series.]

Having previously discussed the invention of the so-called “Black Race,” cobbled together from various ethnicities, tribes, languages, and nations—for the very purpose of subjugation—I have since recognized a gaping hole in my analysis of the “color-line” as developed in Western history. Presumably due to my own sense of “White Normativity,” I had treated the so-called “White Race” as an historical given, rather than itself likewise a created hodge-podge of differing ethnicities, tribes, languages, and nations—but in this case, for the very purpose of supremacy. I intend to correct that in these clarification posts. I will focus mainly on the English colonies of Virginia and Barbados, each being important representatives of the development of Atlantic slavery and the resulting concept of “whiteness.”

What follows is a simple time-line approach, including primary sources, to the end that we might see clearly the transition from an original group of disparate national and ethnic colonial laborers to a protected white class, accorded all the eventual privileges of American society, intentionally separated from the class of disenfranchised laborers, viz., primarily brown and black Americans. To be sure, there was no such thing as “white people” prior to the 17th century. In fact, the “races,” as we know them, were constructed in the very process of creating, maintaining, and justifying the otherwise unjustifiable practice of race-based chattel slavery.

This first post will cover the arrival of the first African servants to Jamestown, continue through the establishment of Partus sequitur ventrem, and stop just short of Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. It is my hope in this first part to demonstrate how the legal category of “Christian,” or “from a Christian nation,” operated to distinguish the group that would later be called “white” from those not afforded the same legal protections, while also (Lord willing) making plain the reason for this transition.

1619 – First African indentured servants are purchased in Virginia

The first Africans purchased in the American colonies were put to work along side English, Irish, Slavic, and other European indentured servants. Life-long servitude was not considered allowable under English law (though this would be disputed) and was inconsistent with the most current theological reasoning from the Scripture (see, e.g., William Perkins’ Ordering of a Family). In fact, indentured servants had been, and continued to be for decades, the majority residents in Virgina. Most of these laborers were either servants by choice or by debt, contracted servitude having been a practical way for the poor to get a first start in the world and/or a start in The New World.

1640 – The Trial of John Punch

Twenty-one years after the arrival of the first African servants on Virginian soil, three indentured servants—one Scotsman, one Dutchman, and one African—attempted to escape their servitude, but were apprehended and brought to trial. This trial represents the first documented case wherein a clear legal distinction was made between servants of European (Christian) descent and servants of African descent. We read,

Whereas Hugh Gwyn [the master] hath by order from this Board Brought back from Maryland three servants formerly run away from the said Gwyn, the court doth therefore order that the said three servants shall receive the punishment of whipping and to have thirty stripes apiece one called Victor, a Dutchman, the other a Scotchman called James Gregory, shall first serve out their times with their master according to their Indentures, and one whole year apiece after the time of their service is Expired. By their said Indentures in recompense of his Loss sustained by their absence and after that service to their said master is Expired to serve the colony for three whole years apiece, and that the third being a negro named John Punch shall serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural Life here or elsewhere. (“General Court Responds to Runaway Servants and Slaves”)

Victor and James Gregory receive whipping and an additional four years of service added to their term; John Punch, the African, receives whipping and servitude “for the time of his natural life.” Not only was a distinction made between the punishment of Punch and his fellows, but Punch became the first recorded chattel slave on American soil.

1660 – “An Act for repealing an Act for Irish Servants”

As is well-known, the Irish were considered by the English to be dogs, among the lowest of humanity, and were already often indentured by Englishmen in Europe. Many Irish servants were shipped to the Colonies to supply needed labor; others came by their own decision but were required to work a term of years before becoming colonial freedmen. It is important to note in the following act that, as with the Punch case, a legal distinction is again enshrined among Colonial servants, granting those of “Christian” origin—even the Irish—special immunities and protections.

WHEREAS the act for Irish servants comeing in without indentures enjoyning them to serve six yeeres, carried with it both rigour and inconvenience, many by the length of time they have to serve being discouraged from comeing into the country, And by that meanes the peopling of the country retarded, And these inconveniences augmented by the addition of the last clause in that act, That all aliens should be included, Bee it therefore enacted and confirmed, That the whole act be repealed and made void and null, And that for the future no servant comeing into the country without indentures, of what christian nation soever, shall serve longer then those of our own country, of the like age: And it is further enacted, That what alien soever arrive here before that clause was inserted and that hath been by vertue of that last clause inforced to serve any time longer then the custom of the countrey did oblige them to shall be allowed competent wages by their severall masters for the time they have overserved….

Note, the act includes all “of what Christian nation soever” in its legal protection.

1660/1 – Barbados Slave Codes

The Barbados Slave Codes are considered the “[f]irst comprehensive slave codes in the English Americas” (Katharine Gerbner). These Codes make clear the English Colony’s intent to keep African servants as chattel, while excluding “Christians” from the same. The Codes include obvious legal distinctions between the “Negro” and the “Christian,” removing even basic protections from the former. For example,

If any Negro or slave whatsoever shall offer any violence to any Christian by striking or the like, such Negro or slave shall for his or her first offence be severely whipped by the Constable.

For his second offence of that nature he shall be severely whipped, his nose slit, and be burned in some part of his face with a hot iron. And being brutish slaves, [they] deserve not, for the baseness of their condition, to be tried by the legal trial of twelve men of their peers, as the subjects of England are.

And it is further enacted and ordained that if any Negro or other slave under punishment by his master unfortunately shall suffer in life or member, which seldom happens, no person whatsoever shall be liable to any fine therefore.

African slaves, quite frankly, could be murdered at will under such conditions; and more, “Christians” were untouchable by the shackled Africans.

1661 – “English running away with negroes”

This act of the Virginia Assembly, responding to the problem of “runaways,” is particularly interesting because, first, the legislature seemed intent on keeping distinction between English and “Negro” servants, and second, it appears from the Act that many African servants were already being held as permanent slaves:

BEE itt enacted That in case any English servant shall run away in company with any negroes who are incapable of makeing satisfaction by addition of time, Bee itt enacted that the English so running away in company with them shall serve for the time of the said negroes absence as they are to do for their owne by a former act.

1662 – “Against ffornication” and Partus sequitur ventrem

Following Elizabeth Keys’ successful suit for freedom in 1656, several laws were passed in Virginia (and elsewhere) to close this supposed loophole. Elizabeth was fathered by the white master of her mother. Her father had included in his will that Elizabeth should be freed upon his death. Further, Elizabeth was a baptized Christian. But, being under new “ownership” (a sickening word in this context) upon her father’s death, her new master refused to free her. After winning her suit for freedom, on grounds of having a free father and being a Christian, white masters everywhere feared loss of “property” and the “mulatto” question had to be answered. The act “Against ffornication” imposed penalties for such “mixed” intercourse, but in the end, while white masters were fined for such deeds, they were nevertheless generally protected; e.g., if the master refused to pay the fine, the servant would be whipped instead.

But the most important law passed in response to Keys’ freedom was the Assembly’s introduction of Partus sequitur ventrem, literally, “that which is brought forth follows the womb”; that is, if the mother was a slave, so is the child. This was contrary to English Common Law and ultimately allowed African slaves to be bread like cattle, increasing the wealth of fornicating slave masters. The law reads,

Whereas some doubts have arisen whether children got by any Englishman upon a Negro woman should be slave or free, be it therefore enacted and declared by this present Grand Assembly, that all children born in this country shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother….

Ibram X kendi goes a bit further, describing another effect of these and other fornication laws enacted in the same period: “they simultaneously passed laws stating that white women could not have biracial … relations with enslaved or even Native American men. So, it then gave white men the ability to basically have intercourse with everyone, but then white women and non-white men could not.” As such, the “Christian” man had a special status, not only in relation to labor, but also in relation to his sexual exploits.

1667 – “An act declaring that baptisme of slaves doth not exempt them from bondage”

The baptism Act of 1667 represents a crucial turning point in the construction of the “White Race” in America—as, if not more, important than the fall-out from Bacon’s Rebellion (which we will discuss next time). As Katharine Gerbner has noted,

As black men and women claimed Christianity for themselves, “whiteness” replaced Protestantism as the primary indicator for freedom in the Atlantic world. As newly-conceived “white” slaveholders, overseers, and missionaries presided over slave societies, family culture and gender order became increasingly politicized aspects of Christian theology and practice. (“Christian Slavery: Protestant Missions and Slave Conversion in the Atlantic World, 1660-1760”, p.5)

The question of whether converts to Christianity could be freed from their bonds had been disputed since the first arrival of African servants. As a result, many (most?) masters were reticent to evangelize their slaves. Likewise, “Christian” or “from a Christian nation” had been a perfectly workable point of demarcation between English, Irish, Slavic, German, French, Italians, etc., and the newly imported, ethnically disparate, group of people stolen from the African continent. But as those of African descent themselves became Christians, the social distinction made between (roughly) Europeans and Africans required further clarification; that is, the continuation of the social control system required for maintenance and increase of slave labor necessitated new categories to distinguish those who would receive legal protections—even freedom—and those who would not.

The 1667 Act, passed by the Virginia General Assembly, reads as follows:

WHEREAS some doubts have risen whether children that are slaves by birth, and by the charity and piety of their owners made pertakers of the blessed sacrament of baptisme, should be vertue of their baptisme be made ffree; It is enacted and declared by this grand assembly, and the authority thereof, that the conferring of baptisme doth not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage or ffreedome; that diverse masters, ffreed from this doubt, may more carefully endeavor the propagation of christianity by permitting children, though slaves, or those of greater growth if capable to be admitted to that sacrament.

Had English Common Law, or even 16th century Protestant theology, actually been applied, requiring eventual manumission for baptized servants, the social and legal distinction between “Christian” and African used to justify oppression of the latter, would have been completely demolished and replaced with a distinction between “Christian” and slave, with both categories occupied by peoples of all colors. Having now removed the “specter” of freedom for Christian slaves, the Colony would now be forced to draw new lines of demarcation—lines already intended by the previous “Christian” vs. African paradigm—in order to justify its exploitative practices of one people group and elevation of another. The elevated, previously just called “Christians,” would be consolidated into a privileged “race” called “white.”

1670 – “What tyme Indians serve”

The last act we will consider today concerns the question of whether “Indians,” i.e., Native Americans (including from Mexico and beyond), could be owned as chattel slaves or only employed for a term as indentured servants. The answer lends further evidence to our thesis.

WHEREAS some dispute have arisen whither Indians taken in warr by any other nation, and by that nation that taketh them sold to the English, are servants for life or terme of yeares, It is resolved and enacted that all servants not being Christians imported into this colony by shipping shalbe slaves for their lives; but what shall come by land shall serve, if boyes or girls, untill thirty yeares of age, if men or women twelve years and no longer.

So, what are the conditions that must be met, according to this law, to qualify for lifelong servitude—to be chattel, human property? “[A]ll servants not being Christians imported into this colony by shipping”; that is, Africans alone, excluding some rare exceptions.

Conclusion, 1619 – 1670

Thus, what began in 1619 as a motley of disparate people groups under indenture from distinct nations, tribes, and tongues, was by the 1670’s bifurcated into (1) a class of “Christians,” receiving legal protections and privileges as indentured Europeans, and (2) a class of formally disenfranchised black and brown servants and slaves. Though there were still questions at the time regarding who could and could not be held indefinitely, what was becoming abundantly clear was that those who would later be called “white”—whether English, Irish, or otherwise—would not be among them. And we will see that even these remaining questions would soon be definitively answered, following Bacon’s Rebellion, which we will turn to in the NEXT POST.

For more (much more!) on this topic, please see the following:

Stamped from the Beginning

Christian Slavery

The Invention of the White Race

The History of White People

Seeing White

All Virginia acts and court documents quoted above are available and

9 thoughts on “Correcting (my own) Normativity of Whiteness: 1. From the Arrival of the First African Slaves to “Partus Sequitur Ventrem”

  1. Persis L December 6, 2018 / 11:38 am

    I appreciate your research, Brad. The primary documents say it all.
    Have you watched the documentary – “Race: The Power of an Illusion”? It begins with race as a category unsupported by genetics but used to structure American society and how those structures exist today even though laws have changed.


  2. Guy Ferrante April 7, 2019 / 4:13 am

    Why do you so enjoy rationalizing and theorizing about events from 400+ years ago that have absolutely no bearing on thought today? Still looking for excuses?


    • Eric August 12, 2019 / 7:06 am

      Things built into institutions have bearing on today’s society. America has NOT gotten rid of the categories “white people” and “black people”, and laws are STILL made based on those arbitrary categories. There are also culturally a lot of myths and stereotypes attached to them. You know full well how average uninformed people can continue to believe old myths that have long been proven wrong. Just think about superstitions. Such myths still affect how we behave and our behavior affects other people.

      Liked by 1 person

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