Southern History Series: The Virginia Model

The following excerpt is from Jean B. Russo and J. Elliot Russo’s book Planting an Empire: The Early Chesapeake in British North America:

“In Virginia and Maryland, the common goal of establishing tobacco plantations created another point of similarity, an early and persistent reliance on exploitative labor practices. Influenced by the Spanish model of conquest, the men who established the Virginia colony initially expected to commandeer Native American labor. When that plan proved untenable, settlers adopted two systems of bound labor: indentured servitude and chattel slavery. The lure of tobacco profits provided motivation for individual planters to buy laborers to work their fields if they could save or borrow capital to invest in bound workers. In the early years, most workers, male and female, were immigrants from the British Isles who agreed to labor as servants to repay the costs of their passage. A shift from indentured servants to enslaved Africans (and then African-Americans) began early in the colonial period. Well before the middle of the seventeenth century, wealthier planters started acquired enslaved workers, first from slave traders in the West Indies, somewhat later from occasional ships bringing cargoes from Africa. By the end of the seventeenth century, when access to enslaved Africans substantially increased, Chesapeake colonists shared a deepening commitment to enslaved labor to increase their economic well-being, enhance their claims to political power, and secure their social position …”

Let’s take a closer look at Tidewater.

There is an excellent series of these books that explore the origins of America’s regional cultures: Hubs of Empire: The Southeastern Lowcountry and British Caribbean (Greater Caribbean), Planting an Empire: The Early Chesapeake in British North America (Tidewater), At the Edge of Empire: The Backcountry in British North America (Greater Appalachia), Saints and Strangers: New England in British North America (New England), The Upper Country: French Enterprise in the Colonial Great Lakes (French North America) and Crossroads of Empire: The Middle Colonies in British North America (Middle Colonies). I’ve acquired all the books excepts the ones on Québec and the Middle Colonies.

The Chesapeake strikes me as being very similar to the Greater Caribbean. It was settled by the same people from the west and south of England. It is also commercial in orientation. The colonists arrived in Virginia to search for gold and were motivated primarily by the quest for riches. The major difference is that tobacco became the Chesapeake’s agricultural staple while in the Deep South and Caribbean it became rice and sugar. The result was a much less intensive style of plantation slavery.

What about human rights? What about liberty and equality? What about racism, settler-colonialism and white supremacy? Once again, what you find in the Chesapeake is the same mindset that you find in the Greater Caribbean colonies. The settlers were motivated by the three Ps: Protestantism, patriotism and privateering. Their primary motivation was to simply to get rich in the New World, but they were also planted there in the early 17th century for geopolitical reasons to thwart the Spanish. The public purpose of the colonies was to enrich England and extend English power.

As Virginia evolved in the 17th and 18th centuries, the tobacco planters set out to create an English country gentleman’s paradise with their newfound wealth. They strove to emulate the English gentry which ruled the Mother Country after King William III in the 18th century. “Liberty” was something that belonged to them. It was felt to be meaningful because the planters were surrounded by African slaves. It was meaningful because English liberty was central to their sense of identity. It is thought to be a hallmark of their own culture (the English have representative assemblies) that distinguished them from the French and Spanish Empires. Everyone knew at the time that the English were superior to the French and the Spanish papists because they were a free Protestant nation.

We’re so used to thinking ideologically that we have forgotten that our ancestors weren’t ideological. Instead, they had an identity and were pursuing their interests. It was only much later in the game in the context of the Enlightenment that this older sense of “liberty” which was central to the English sense of identity in the Early Modern Era began to be treated as an abstract universal principle similar to Newton’s physics. Virginia wasn’t founded as an experiment in universal human rights!

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