Growing up in Williamsburg, Virginia, I pretty much took nearby Jamestown Island, the 1607 site of the first successful English settlement in North America, for granted. Yet sadly, I still meet people who know very little about Jamestown, and its historical importance. So, it is very exciting to remember Jamestown on this day, when many of the world’s eyes are upon this island.
On July 30, 1619, a very hot day indeed, the very first democratic English assembly was held, in the “New World,” known as the House of Burgesses, the forerunner to today’s Virginia General Assembly.
1619 was a big year in Jamestown for other reasons. The small colony established at Jamestown was starting to stabilize, but with very few women around, a lot of the men wanted to leave (for understandable reasons). In response, the Virginia Company of London ordered that “…a fit hundredth might be sent of women, maids young and uncorrupt, to make wives to the inhabitants and by that means to make the men there more settled and less movable….” By 1620-1621, women started to show up at Jamestown.
It was a tough sell to get women to come live in an area, centered in a mosquito-infested, swampy island. Some women were secretly kidnapped to bring them to Virginia, but a more voluntary arrangement was needed for the colony to survive. What effectively was a “mail-order” bride system, to provide incentives for impoverished English women to make the journey across the Atlantic, saved the day for the young Virginia colony.
Barely a month after the first House of Burgesses meeting, in July, 1619, the first Africans arrived at Jamestown. What is particularly notable was that among this first boatload of Africans, were actually prisoners taken from a Portuguese slave ship. These Africans were originally treated as indentured servants. In principle, these Africans could purchase their freedom.
But over the following decades, the rules gradually changed. What started out as customs, here and there, eventually became Virgina colony law, as the indentured servanthood status of dark-skinned persons was transformed to make them slaves for life.
There was some resistance to these legal changes. For example, it was not considered proper for a Christian to enslave a fellow Christian. So, if an African person was baptized, they could claim a right to their freedom. Yet as regretted now, in our day, even that exemption was eventually eradicated. Even racial intermarriage was outlawed in 1691.
I wonder what would have happened if those slavery laws were never passed in the Virginia colony. I wonder what it might have been like, if Christians in Virginia would have studied their Bibles a bit more closely, to learn that racism has no actual basis in the Scriptures. Perhaps they might have rethought the whole slavery business, and the inherent racism that undergirded it.
It is worth thinking about… and remembering.
Other posts about Jamestown: (a) Musings about the parallels between Jamestown’s Captain John Smith and the ancient Jewish historian, Josephus, (b) Jamestown and the first Thanksgiving, and (c) Veracity co-blogger, John Paine, takes us on a YouTube video trip to Jamestown, to help us learn some lessons about the historicity of Jesus.