Just as “Blackness” was cobbled together out of various nations, tribes, tongues, and shades of brown—beginning with Gomes De Zurara’s bogus descriptions of African peoples as a beastly lot, in order to justify Prince Henry’s enslaving prowess—so “Whiteness” was cobbled together out of various nations, tribes, tongues, and lighter shades of brown to form the “White Race.” There simply was no such thing as “White People,” the “White Race,” or “Whiteness” as a concept associated with people groups until the turn of the 18th century.
Prior to the development of colonial governments in North America and the West Indies, people groups were largely identified by nationality; there were Irishmen, Englishmen, Germans, Italians, Slavs, Senegalese, Ghanaians, Malians, etc. At the beginning of the 17th century, these men and women worked side by side in the construction of the New World, primarily as indentured servants subject to the term of 6 years under British common law.
[Please see the previous post, “Correcting (my own) Normativity of Whiteness: 1. From the Arrival of the First African Slaves to ‘Partus Sequitur Ventrem’,” for needed context.]
In what follows, we continue to consider the construction of the “white race” and “whiteness” as developed in Colonial American history. As noted before, there simply was no such thing as “white people” prior to the 17th century. We have already witnessed how, through legal changes, a disparate group of indentured servants from various European and African nations, working side by side at the beginning of the 17th century, were transformed into roughly two groups, (1) “Christians” and those from “Christian nations,” receiving legal protections, and (2) those imported from non-“Christian” nations, comprising (with few exceptions) those of African descent alone—and their children. The latter increasingly became subjects of life-long servitude, while the former were granted more and more legal protections and comparative privileges. But as we have also seen, once conversion to Christianity was legally clarified to not require manumission, new lines of demarcation and categorization were needed to maintain the social control system necessary for a slave-based economy, wherein a few wealthy land-holders employed with scraps and chains an overwhelmingly large labor class.
And possibly more than any other event, Bacon’s Rebellion made clear to Virginia’s leadership the necessity of new lines of demarcation among these laboring people groups. To this we will now turn.