Although slavery existed in Virginia from 1619, when the first Africans were brought to Jamestown, the outlines of the system took shape very slowly. Race-based slavery and racial prejudice seem to have evolved concurrently, in a chicken-and-egg relationship; neither was a factor at the beginning of Virginia’s slave system. In the earliest days, many “slaves” were white indentured servants, and as many as one-third of the black population was free.
The earliest African slaves had been baptized by the Spanish, and bore Christian names; the Jamestown colonists certainly put them to work, yet were reluctant to enslave these fellow Christians for life. Many of the early blacks therefore became “Christian servants” only for a limited period of time, or were set free for having accepted Christianity.
Eventually the Virginia Assembly began cracking down on this rampant application of Christian piety. In 1667 it ruled that the conferring of baptism had no bearing on whether someone was enslaved or free, and in 1682 it passed a law that any “negroes, moors, mulattoes, or Indians” imported to Virginia would automatically be considered slaves.
Many whites and blacks continued to resist these laws; masters persisted in freeing slaves. Moreover, whites and blacks persisted in marrying each other. After all, in seventeenth-century Virginia white indentured servants greatly outnumbered black slaves; these two disadvantaged groups naturally came into close contact with one another.
So in 1691 the Assembly passed a law that any master who freed a slave must pay to transport that freed slave out of the colony; in the same session it forbade white people to marry blacks, on pain of banishment.
One reason Virginia had so many white indentured servants was the British government’s policy of exporting surplus indigent, unemployed, and incarcerated Englishmen to America. This changed around 1700, when England began to require more cheap labor at home. As the supply of white laborers dwindled, Virginia had to make up the difference with slaves.
More and more Africans were imported to the colony, and laws regarding slavery became more and more strict. Low-caste white people became anxious to distinguish themselves socially from the rank of slaves, and began to disdain manual labor. By the mid-eighteenth century, Virginia society had changed to the extent that labor could no longer be hired; it needed to be purchased. By that time, it had become impossible to operate a plantation without the use of African slaves.