Maybe Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia didn’t think he’d caused enough of a stink after the public found out about his use of blackface during medical school hijinks in 1984. Or maybe he was trying to smooth over the incident by talking to African-American interviewer Gayle King for CBS. If that’s what he was thinking (and perhaps “thinking” is too generous a word) it didn’t work. Almost right away he said, “We are now at the 400-year anniversary — just 90 miles from here in 1619. The first indentured servants from Africa landed on our shores in Old Point Comfort, what we call now Fort Monroe, and while …”

King interrupted him with, “Also known as slavery.”

“Yes,” he answered.

No kidding, governor.

My Ancestors Were Indentured

My mother’s family name was Duncan. Her ancestors and mine arrived in Virginia in 1750 from Glasgow in Scotland. George Duncan arrived with his father and two brothers. His mother Mary apparently died on the voyage over, and his father died soon after arriving in Virginia. George was indentured to a carpenter—an arrangement that appears to be more like an apprenticeship than indenture as a servant.

There were a number of different kinds of indentures. They were written agreements that were cut or torn in half, leaving indented edges that would fit together, showing they were part of the same document. The illustration with this post is an indenture. In the American colonies, they were often used for people to pay off debts for their passage over, or maybe for their debt to society: prisoners were often indentured as servants. The key word here, though, is “agreement.” While they may have been coerced into signing or making their mark on an indenture, at least the form was followed of an agreement between two human beings. Most indentures were for a term of four to seven years.

George Duncan Prospered

By the time George died in 1783, he had a plantation on the Fluvanna River in the central part of the state. His will names eight living children and fourteen slaves, plus his wife Ann, to whom he left, “the plantation whereon I live all the stock of Hogs, Cattle, Sheep, Horses, &c  thereon and four Negros, viz, Charles, Punch, Phillis and Nell with their increase during her natural life.” A couple of things to notice about this: he names the four “Negros” on the list along with livestock. They were, after all, his “property.”

There’s nothing unusual in this.

“And Their Increase Forever”

Nor is there anything unusual in the bequests he made to his children of other “Negros,” and “their increase forever.” Meaning that they, their children, and their children’s children would be considered the property of his descendants, or whoever his descendants sold them to.

The will does name all of the enslaved people, and I feel I should name them, too: besides Charles, Punch, Phillis, and Nell, there were Agg, Cealor, Sarah, Tener, Milford, Serpio, Step, Cloe, and Abby. I wonder what became of their descendants, if they served members of the Duncan family or other slaveholders, and where they are now.

It is significant that they are not called slaves or servants, but “Negros.”The color of their skin identified them as enslaved. That would continue to be true throughout American history, even though some people of color were indentured or freed before slavery legally ended. The effect of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1856 was to mark any person of visible African descent as a slave. We have continued with the stigma of skin color from the virtual slavery of prison labor through red-lining in real estate, all kinds of measures to ensure that some people are not allowed complete freedom and not allowed to accumulate wealth.

I’m Not Repudiating My Ancestor

I’m not saying that George Duncan prospered simply because he was white. He seems to have been a capable, energetic man of admirable character. George was captain of the Fluvanna militia in the American Revolution. He didn’t decide to resist an evil system. If he had, he would have been a social outcast and he would have had to sell up, move away, and keep his family in very reduced circumstances. That was the fate of the few landowners who decided to free their slaves in those days. It’s what happened to Dolley Madison’s family, and the reason she grew up in Philadelphia. I don’t know what choices George faced, and I don’t feel I can condemn him for the ones he made.

Soft-Pedaling Slavery

I understand that some schools in the old Confederacy try to put a genteel gloss on slavery—apparently Governor Northam’s did. I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, and received most of my education in Tennessee public schools, and I came out of there with the difference between slavery and indentured servitude very clear in my mind.

Still, Governor Northam’s education about the status of the Africans brought to Virginia in 1619 may have contained the same references as the South Carolina lesson plan for 8th graders, which I found online. They cite historian Robert Botsch, who wrote, “Most historians agree that the Africans of 1619 were not enslaved. They probably had the status of indentured servants. Indentured service was the norm of non-free labor most used by the English.” As far as I can see, Botsch is correct in that many historians (I won’t say most) agree on this point.

Not Really the Truth

I say they’re hiding behind a wisp of a technicality. Yes, indentured service was the norm, but only for people who were English. In fact, English adventurers were already selling into slavery Native Americans from New England. One of them, a Patuxet man named Tisquantum, captured by the English in 1614 and sold into slavery in Spain. He later returned to New England and is now known in popular history as Squanto, who helped the Pilgrims survive their first winters.

Back to the events of 1619. How did this group of Africans get to Jamestown? They were most likely captured in Angola. Portuguese slave traders bought them. Then English pirates, sailing a captured Dutch man of war, took the Africans as plunder. (Only technically the “Dutch ship” of your American history class.)  The pirates then took the Africans to Virginia and traded them for food.

How much of this sounds to you like the Africans were there voluntarily? Is it likely that they spoke enough English to enter into a meaningful agreement of indenture? How many choices do you think they had, and do you think anybody asked them what they wanted? I think any reasonable person would consider them enslaved.

The Lasting Legacy

Five years later, in 1624, Virginia took its first census, and noted the presence of a couple with a young son: “Antoney Negro and Isabell Negro.” The census did not identify them with surnames, or by occupation, but only the color of their skin. Their skin color would likely determine their fate and that of their descendants for centuries. That is another difference between slavery and indenture.

I don’t think the color of George Duncan’s skin was what brought him his wealth or his honored status. My part of the family certainly didn’t inherit his wealth, or any land in Virginia. But here’s the difference for my family: we did inherit his skin color. That means we have had for centuries many opportunities, many possibilities that his “Negros” and their descendants have not.

Further Reading

I know what further reading I’m going to do–explore my connections to people whose ancestors my ancestors held as slaves. If you think your ancestors were slaveholders, you might want to do that, too.

I blogged a while back about a book The Price of Their Pound of Flesh, by Daina Ramey Berry, about the price placed on human beings and the business of slavery.

I’ve also written about History as Fiction, the power of myth in our perception of history, and how history changes.