Why Didn't Slavery Catch on in Early Virginia?

Essay by yousucktimes7 October 2006

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With the economic boom in Jamestown there was now an insatiable demand for labor. Indentured servants were being shipped over the Atlantic from England to help solve the problem. But there was another human resource that was being shipped from Africa, slaves. The first indication of slaves in Jamestown was John Rolfe's account in 1619 of a Dutch war ship coming and selling 20 Africans to Jamestown. But it is unclear as to what they were sold as, slaves or servants. According to the authors of this book there are several things that a society needs to adopt slavery. These things are: a feverish economic boom that causes a huge demand for labor and an appalling mortality rate that made a society insensitive to life and death. According to this it would seem that Virginia would be a prime candidate for slavery to develop in. But according to the official records slavery was not a legal institution in Jamestown until the 1660's, 40 years after the first Africans were brought to America and 30 years after the bottom dropped out of the tobacco market.

Why didn't the people of Jamestown use slaves when they were needed the most? According to theory they could of made many times more money if they had used this labor effectively. Records say that they used many more indentured servants. Once again, why? Well one theory is that indentured servants were just a better deal when it came to the situation in Jamestown. Indentured servants were much cheaper than slaves. But indentured servants were only at your service for 7 years. In a society where the mortality rate was still at about 80 percent until about the 1650's this was a better deal than paying several times more for a slave, which might die in the first few years.

Another theory is that in England slavery was not even considered an option though they had a wide spreading empire. It was considered morally wrong. Maybe like their London counter parts, the people of Jamestown felt that it was morally wrong to have slaves. But with their short and hard lives they soon forgot. I guess it just took them a couple of years.

An additional theory is that maybe the slaves that the citizens of Jamestown possibly wanted simply weren't available to them. The sugar cane business was booming in the West Indies. The sugar cane industry was to bring in huge sums of money and very rich people who could afford many slaves started it. This created a much larger demand for slaves in the West Indies and slave traders would much rather go to the tropical islands where they paid higher prices than go all the way up to Virginia where the demand was less and the prices were lower. This means that the Dutch war ship that brought the Africans might have been an extremely rare occurrence.

With the high mortality rate, morality issues, and the low availability of slaves to the Jamestown colony, slavery just didn't catch on in early Jamestown. It took 30 years after their economic boom to finally usher in the institution of slavery. Unfortunately it clung on to the south for many years after words and it took a bloody war to separate its hold.