Why did colonial Virginians replace servitude with slavery?

Essay by cheebaismUniversity, Bachelor's December 2008

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The question of why Virginians replaced servitude, the system of locking immigrants from the old world into long contracts of service to pay off their passage, with slavery is an important one to discuss as it gives us an insight into the type of processes that would allow such a morally apprehensible situation to occur and hopefully prevent a similar situation re-occurring in the future. I believe that the primary driver of this process was the development of the tobacco industry and the demographic changes in England of the 17th century. This subsequently caused labour supply problems in Virginia forcing planters to make a long term economic decision, namely to replace indentured servants with slaves. There was other factors such as theology, racism and skill sets but these affected the choice of peoples enslaved, namely West Africans, and worked in combination with the above, as Ira Berlin notes, to facilitate a transformation of Virginia from a society with slaves into a slave society by 1705.

After several years of disease, conflict and other hardships the Virginian colony and economy finally stabilised around the mid 1610's with the establishment of tobacco as its main cash crop (Woods 1997:71) . At first the settlers recognised that they had two problems to overcome; that of land and labour (1997:72). The first problem, that of land, was easy enough to overcome as they just took what they wanted (1997:72) especially after the 'Massacre of 1622' gave them the necessary justification to expand onto the land of the indigenous population (1997:72). With this out they way they could turn their attention to the second problem; satisfying the necessary labour requirements of working the tobacco fields.

Initially there was three solutions presented to solve this problem; Indians, Indentured servitude or West Africans (1997:74). First they tried...