The Roots and Realities of Slavery

The past week I have learned so much that it’s difficult to synthesize in a single post. We camped at Chino and learned about the difficulties of foraging food as the Native Americans of the Chesapeake would have, then moved on to Jamestown and learned about European (specifically English) eradication of that Native culture. Discussing the tumultuous times that characterized the colony of Jamestown fascinated me in its own right. But even more interesting was the role this small colony played in setting off a domino effect that would eventually result not just in the slaughter of Native people, but also in African slavery. The establishment of colonial slavery dates back to the 17th century discovery that tobacco flourishes in Virginian soil. The consequential boom in tobacco production would ultimately lead to an influx of English people to the new world, many of them poor and in search of landownership and prosperity. According to Dr. Seidel’s lecture, a single pound of tobacco would sell for twice as much as a cottager would make in a year back in England.   Over the decades, tobacco production increased, and the economy and culture of the colonies became defined by cash crops. In the 18th century, wealthy (and some middle class) people in the Chesapeake region began to acquire more land, and decided to expand their cash crop production to corn in addition to tobacco (Carr, Menard, Walsh 70). In order to accommodate this production of corn, landowners needed an affordable way to increase labor without taking away from tobacco production. White indentured servitude was thus supplanted by African slavery—the cheapest, more efficient form of labor.

Slaves comprised over half of Colonial Williamsburg’s population on the eve of the revolutionary war. Somehow, however, CW failed to convey the reality of slavery or its significance in shaping/sustaining the region’s economy. After speaking with two employees of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Joe Beatty (the Manager of Historical Research and Training) and Lindsay Keiter (historian), I was expecting more. They expressed to us that their role in the organization was to obtain the best possible information about the 18th century, teach and inspire visitors, and depict the difficult elements of the history (such as slavery and the near eradication of Native Americans) with integrity. If history was being depicted with integrity, however, why were their no slaves represented on Great Hopes plantation? Why was the African American Baptist church tucked away and unattended? There were ways to find out about what life was like for slaves in Colonial Williamsburg, but you had to search for it. It would have been easy for someone who did not care to face the disturbing elements of this time period to have avoided confronting them completely. I don’t think that societally we have a real grasp of the consequences that come from rewriting history in order to protect white people’s comfort.

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