Blakley on Musselwhite and Mancall and Horn, 'Virginia 1619: Slavery and Freedom in the Making of English America'

Paul Musselwhite, Peter C. Mancall, James P. P. Horn, eds.
Chris Blakley

Paul Musselwhite, Peter C. Mancall, James P. P. Horn, eds. Virginia 1619: Slavery and Freedom in the Making of English America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019. 336 pp. $25.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4696-5179-8.

Reviewed by Chris Blakley (UCLA) Published on H-Slavery (November, 2019) Commissioned by Andrew J. Kettler (University of California, Los Angeles)

Printable Version:

Vibrant discussion has arisen over how to reckon with the 400th anniversary of the arrival of captive Africans to Virginia among journalists, scholars, and public intellectuals. This reckoning is especially apparent within the New York Times 1619 Project. The question of how to place slavery within foundational narratives of American history is an urgent one. Collectively, the essays produced by the 1619 Project range from the origins of slavery in English North America beginning with the first twenty “and odd” captives seized by English privateers aboard the White Lion from a Portuguese slaver to the afterlives of slavery in the present evidenced through mass incarceration, health inequality, cultural appropriation, redlining, black impoverishment and white wealth accumulation, educational disparities, and systemic racial injustice within the United States. Politically speaking, reflecting on the anniversary of 1619 also raises the issue of reparations in the United States, and historians and other scholars continue to add to this important conversation.

Current reflections on 1619 attest to the central importance of understanding how chattel slavery shaped every facet of American society, law, economy, politics, and culture from the colonial era through the Revolutionary period to the Civil War. Grappling with the legacy of 1619, then, necessarily involves engaging with how the nation’s foundational origins in slavery continue to shape racial inequalities in the present. The essays appearing in Virginia, 1619: Slavery and Freedom in the Making of English America, edited by Paul Musselwhite, Peter Mancall, and James Horn, join this ongoing discussion and provide further historical context for ongoing public discourse over the legacy of 1619 and place slavery in colonial Virginia within an increasingly global narrative. This collection is a timely, fresh, and engaging addition to the wider 1619 anniversary conversation that connects historical scholarship to a much-needed public conversation.

Within their introduction, the editors set out their claim that slavery, indigenous dispossession, and gendered hierarchies emerged from an “interweaving of ideology, pragmatic experience, and international rivalries” that made Virginia the “prototype for colonization” in the English Atlantic world (p. 12). Mancall observes in his essay that slavery–either centered around Atlantic Africa or within Native America–was not an anticipated or original objective of imperial-minded Elizabethan colonial projectors like Richard Hakluyt and others writing in the late sixteenth century. Yet, after 1619 the expansion of England’s involvement in the Atlantic slave trade, and the labor and knowledge of Africans in the diaspora, certainly defined the future of the colony. 

Though the book’s subtitle indicates slavery is of prime import, several chapters in the collection deal more directly with the subject than others. This is not to discount the wealth of interpretation and analysis in these chapters, which are valuable contributions to diverse fields within early American and Atlantic history. Essays by Lauren Working and James Rice approach the social and political relations between the English and indigenous societies, especially the groups that made up Tsenacommacah–including the Powhatans, Chickahominies, Pamunkeys, Patawomecks, and many others. Rice also explores societies the Virginia Company negotiated with beyond the Powhatan confederacy, like the Accomacs based on the lower Eastern Shore. Nicholas Canny’s chapter on Ulster, Ireland, adds to a richer discussion of settler colonies and racial exclusion within England’s burgeoning empire during the early seventeenth century. Contributions from Musselwhite, Alexander Haskell, and Andrew Fitzmaurice provide excellent analyses of the changing contestations surrounding political economy and political philosophy in England and on the ground in Virginia. Finally, Melissa Morris’s essay contrasts the aims of the Virginia Company and its colony with the efforts of the Amazon Company in Guiana between the Orinoco and Amazon Rivers. Morris identifies key similarities between the Amazon and Virginia Companies’ interest in cultivating tobacco, and contrasts how settlers in both colonies negotiated their reliance upon indigenous interpreters, allies, and go-betweens. These chapters are valuable for placing Virginia more fully in an Atlantic world context. However, given this network’s focus on slavery, the remainder of this review will concentrate on the chapters most dedicated to examining slaving, slavery, and the lives of enslaved people who experienced displacement and laid the foundations of the African diaspora in the Americas. The chapters on slavery appear between these other essays and are not cordoned off to a single section of the collection, and it is commendable that the editors integrated the chapters through this organization.

Philip Morgan’s essay, “Virginia Slavery in Atlantic Context, 1550 to 1650,” places the well-known twenty captives taken from Luanda who arrived at Point Comfort in August 1619 within a much longer and far-reaching story than is popularly understood. These men and women, including Andolo and Maria, and their children, Doll and Denise, came as part of what scholars term the “Angolan wave” of captives who arrived in the Americas during the early seventeenth century, when nine out of ten enslaved people originated from West Central Africa. Morgan’s narrative of the twenty captives raises several difficult questions related to the legal, cultural, and social foundations of slavery. Through considering the European origins of Atlantic slaving, Morgan asks why Europeans revived slavery, a practice that “largely died out in northwestern Europe” by the early sixteenth century (p. 88). Slavery, he underscores, was associated with a profound “loss of humanity, a descent into bestiality” that English people generally rebuffed (pp. 88-89). The legal and social condition of slavery in the early modern period defined the very idea of the human itself. In 1638, as Morgan notes for example, Samuel Maverick of Massachusetts attempted to order an enslaved person to rape another slave to “breed” more captives for his personal use (p. 94).

In his essay, Morgan draws attention to the fact that there were “far more white slaves in the Old World” than enslaved people of African descent in the Americas by the time the twenty captives arrived in Virginia (p. 91). The causal forces that propelled Europeans to turn away from enslaving other Europeans—including Baltic, Mediterranean, Muscovite, and Venetian slaves—and in turn constrain Africans within the legal and social boundaries of chattel slavery are unclear. Yet, racial slavery involving African captives, and to a lesser extent indigenous Americans in early Virginia, was widespread well before 1619 in Spain’s American colonies. In 1513, Iberian slavers transported African slaves to Puerto Rico. Guy Cameron and Stephen Vermette, among others, have pointed out that captive Africans arrived as part of the San Miguel de Gualdape colony located in present-day South Carolina in 1526.[1] As scholars such as David Wheat have also argued, early Americanists would do well to acknowledge that the “Africanization” of the Americas dates to well before this “red- letter year.”[2] Such a long history of Africanization and African cultural mixing is apparent in the material culture record. Tobacco pipes found on Chesapeake plantations using African aesthetics and Native materials, which existed within wider European commodity networks, are evidence of the fundamental creativity of the descendants of the twenty captives in Virginia. The year 1619, as Morgan concludes, “hardly seems pivotal” from this longer chronological and Atlantic perspective (p. 106). In this sense, Morgan’s essay, and others in this volume, adds to scholarly work by April Lee Hatfield and Audrey Horning that emphasizes Virginia’s position in a broader intercolonial and circum-Atlantic geography.[3]

Michael Jarvis’s following essay locates the origins of black Anglo-America on the island colony of Bermuda, Virginia’s “sister” colonial endeavor. Bermuda is especially significant given that English captors removed one African and one indigenous man, both likely taken from Margarita Island, to the archipelago in 1616, three years before the arrival of captives in Virginia. The men arrived after Daniel Tucker, the colonial governor, sent the pinnace Edwin to the Spanish Caribbean to trade for cattle, agricultural commodities, and “negroes to dive for pearles” (p. 114). We learn that these men were later followed by others, including Francisco, an enslaved man known for his “judgment in the cureing of tobackoe,” a skill that put his value at a remarkable £100, and another named James, known for his abilities at cultivating diverse “west endy plants” (p. 117). African knowledge and the legal frameworks that derived from slavery defined the contours of the colony. Jarvis lays out how the colonial government legally restricted black Bermudians’ mobility and autonomy through the 1623 Act to Restrayne the Insolencies of the Negroes, a law that he characterizes as the “first racially discriminatory law” in English America (p. 128). Ultimately, Jarvis argues persuasively for Bermuda’s crucial place in American history as the site where English and people of African descent first lived together, and how slavery shaped everyday relations of power on the island. More than any other author in this volume, Jarvis stresses the Africanization of the physical landscape through his detailed case of the cultivation of tobacco on Bermuda.

Contrasting chattel slavery and bound labor, Misha Ewen’s subsequent chapter centers the complementary trend of forced transportation of prisoners convicted of vagrancy and the poor from Britain to Virginia. Ewen brings to light how policymakers and institutional authorities, such as local overseers of the poor and institutions like the Bridewell house of correction in the City of London, encouraged the removal of hundreds of prisoners to the Chesapeake during the first decades of the seventeenth century. Bound laborers, unlike chattel slaves, contracted with settlers through servant indentures that limited the terms of their service and set terms on their eventual redemption. Like the cases of Francisco and James mentioned by Jarvis, Ewen stresses that bound laborers were skilled workers who supplied the colony with important knowledge for ironwork, making pitch and tar, carpentry, agriculture, and other trades. Bound labor also fit within a paternalistic ideology of Christian redemption through work that buttressed the moral pretensions of the colony. In her conclusion, Ewen identifies the English state as the engine for providing bound labor and chattel slaves within the growing demands for labor throughout the empire. As she concludes, “The government-chartered Royal African Company’s trade in chattel slavery as well as the continued forced transportation of prisoners and, after 1718, penal servitude met the demand” (p. 149).

Paul Halliday’s close analysis of a 1626 court case involving an African man named Brase brings fresh insight into the origins of slavery in English America. English sailors arrested Brase after capturing a Spanish ship, though the sailors claimed he was “desirous to goe alonge wth them” (p. 236). If Brase believed his chances for securing his freedom lay in English rather than in Spanish America, as Halliday suspects, his hopes were dashed when the judges of the General Court in Virginia sentenced him to “remaine wth the La[dy] Yardley till further order,” an order that makes Brase’s case “the earliest surviving evidence of an English colonial court disposing of an African’s labor for nonpunitive reasons” (p. 237). It was the ill-defined authority and juridical audacity of the judges, Halliday demonstrates, that transformed the “pervasively negative cultural norms” surrounding blackness and the legality of chattel slavery from convention “into a rule of decision, a rule then unique among English dominions to the nascent customary law of Virginia” (p. 239). While, as Morgan demonstrates in his essay, Africans in Virginia in this period were all functionally treated by settlers as chattel slaves, Brase’s case legally codified their status. Halliday places Brase’s case within a longer legal history of the combined racist and legal erasure of African personhood in Virginia. Unnamed people, persons whose names were simply never recognized by English authorities, including most of the “20. and odd” captives of 1619, did not have legal personhood in Virginia, which made them extremely vulnerable to the condition of chattel slavery. Even named people like Brase could, and were, legally sentenced to a perpetual state of enslavement. Halliday’s essay makes a compelling case for how judges decided and shaped the “law of slavery” across Britain’s empire from this seminal moment (p. 255). Halliday, among others in this collection, further makes a case for complicating established narratives surrounding the timing of English adoption and investment in chattel slavery involving Africans, especially Edmund Morgan’s classic on the subject, American Slavery, American Freedom (1975).[4]

In a wide-reaching conclusion, Jack Greene argues for understanding Virginia as the model settler colony of the British Empire that emerged in the early seventeenth-century Atlantic world. Slavery, of course, was central to that model, as much as Native American dispossession and patriarchal hierarchy. Returning to the 1619 Project, it cannot be overstated how important understanding slavery is for appreciating longer trajectories of American history. The labor of enslaved people undergirded the colonial economy of the British Empire in the Atlantic world, and the later United States. People of African descent, as Jarvis and others show, dramatically transformed the environmental conditions and physical landscape of the Americas not through unskilled labor but highly specialized, and highly valuable, forms of knowledge that remain to be more deeply studied.

These essays are deeply researched and analytically insightful. The authors lay out their cases clearly and effectively; however, other possible research directions could have been pursued in some instances. First, while many of the authors, including Greene, characterize slavery as fundamentally “dehumanizing,” the multifaceted legal, social, and cultural definitions of the human itself as a category is not fully dealt with by any of the authors. One could imagine a more sustained theoretical conversation between early American, postcolonial, and black feminist scholars—especially following the work of Aimé Cesaire, Franz Fanon, and Sylvia Wynter, among others—that takes up the historical origins of this important, if not fully understood category and its opposite. Further, while the scholars focusing on slavery in this volume draw on the concept of race in their essays, a working definition of race itself is somewhat elusive for readers, leading to some confusion over the already and admittedly confusing origins of race and chattel slavery in English America. 

The essays involving slavery here highlight an ongoing need to center Africans and the Africanization of the Americas within more nuanced historical narratives. Opportunities for more fully integrating early Atlantic African history with subfields such as environmental history and history of technology are apparent from this scholarship. For instance, Jarvis notes that black Bermudians’ “ability to cure Spanish tobacco was paramount, but numerous other innovations—ranging from detoxifying cassava and keeping caught fish alive in ‘crawls’ (artificial fishponds) to weaving palmetto hats and baskets and sleeping in hammocks—improved the daily lives of English newcomers unfamiliar with the subtropical environment on the island they now called home” (p. 131). To what extent are these techniques instances of a purely “African” form of knowledge, or, to borrow from Ralph Bauer and Marcy Norton, are these perhaps “entangled” knowledges that reflect the mixture of African and indigenous traditions that deserve further attention?[5] Jarvis’s essay, and others in this volume, offers a fruitful foundation for continuing such research. Finally, there are opportunities present in taking stock of 1619 for reflecting on the fragmentary nature of slavery’s archive, especially around individuals like Angela/Angelo whose lives are rarely incorporated within wider narratives of American history.

Overall, the essays involving slavery in Virginia, 1619 will be valuable for scholars of the legal, environmental, technical, and transimperial origins of slavery in North America and the African diaspora in the Atlantic world. Virginia, 1619 also helpfully locates the origins of chattel slavery as an economic and cultural system quite early in English American history, a move that further helps us understand and contextualize later events, in particular Bacon’s Rebellion during 1676-77. All of the essays would be valuable reading for a survey course or an upper-division course in early American and Atlantic history. Each chapter is lucid and compelling, reflecting the careful analysis of diverse and difficult archival materials.


[1]. Guy Cameron and Stephen Vermette, “The Role of Extreme Cold in the Failure of the San Miguel de Gualdape Colony,” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 96, no. 3 (2012): 291-307.

[2]. David Wheat, Atlantic Africa and the Spanish Caribbean, 1570-1640 (Williamsburg, VA, and Chapel Hill: The Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

[3]. April Lee Hatfield, Atlantic Virginia: Intercolonial Relations in the Seventeenth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007); Audrey Horning, Ireland in the Virginian Sea: Colonialism in the British Atlantic (Williamsburg, VA, and Chapel Hill: The Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and University of North Carolina Press, 2013).

[4]. Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York: W. W. Norton, 1975).

[5]. Ralph Bauer and Marcy Norton, “Introduction: Entangled Trajectories: Indigenous and European Histories,” Colonial Latin American Review 26, no. 1 (2017): 1-17.

Citation: Chris Blakley. Review of Musselwhite, Paul; Mancall, Peter C.; Horn, James P. P., eds., Virginia 1619: Slavery and Freedom in the Making of English America. H-Slavery, H-Net Reviews. November, 2019. URL:

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