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First Years of the First Colony

ISSUE:  Spring 1929

The Story of Virginia’s First Century. By Mary Newton Stariard. Philadelphia and London: J. B. Lippincott and Company. $5.00.

Mrs. Stanard, before the publication of the volume under review, had contributed two books of importance to the subject of Virginia’s colonial history. The first was the biography, of Nathaniel Bacon. This book exhibited an unusual talent for historical research; and also a discriminating eye for picturesque detail. The second, namely, “Colonial Virginia, Its People and Its Customs,” was more ambitious in scope; and also contained a larger fund of new information, especially about the social characteristics of Virginia in that age. Much of this fresh knowledge was obtained from the old surviving records of the counties. This fact gave the book an original value to a remarkable degree. There are, indeed, few more illuminating pictures of the social side of those romantic times than the ones to be found in this second work. It was not a history of events; it was simply a history of conditions. The style was so easy that a personal flavor was imparted to the treatment that increased its interest; and this was further enhanced by a series of beautiful illustrations of the original objects and portraits.

Mrs. Stanard’s third colonial work, “The Story of Virginia’s First Century,” is substantially different from the one immediately preceding it. In the first place, it is limited in time to the seventeenth century. In the second, it is restricted almost exclusively, to a narrative of political events. The references to general conditions are incidental only. The tone of the book is graver, and the outlook broader. Its importance consists, not in its being a contribution of new facts to our knowledge of that period — for it is this only to a small degree—but rather in its offering the reader a compact, comprehensive, and just interpretation of the history of Virginia down to the end of the seventeenth century.

There is much that is provocative of comment in Mrs. Stanard’s elaborate description of that early period. First, the forces behind the settlement of the Powhatan and Rappahannock valleys are shown in her pages to have been on a scale unprecedented at that time in the annals of the English race. Indeed, there has been no other movement of population of modern record—not even the advance through the western regions of the American continent—which has quite equaled it in significance, if not in magnitude. The purposes which the London Company had before it were such as to raise that body to a position of extraordinary greatness in its own age. These purposes were not simply commercial, or religious, or political. They were all these combined. Infused into that combination was the ambition to spread the power of England to the remotest divisions of the earth. A new phase of this ambition arose only a few years after the foundation of Jamestown, when the Colony’s administration had passed under the control of Sir Edwin Sandys and his equally enlightened associates. The determination then sprang up to develop the new country, into a more liberal and tolerant community than was to be found in England under the oppressive sway of the Stuart dynasty. A spirit of freedom was to be cultivated there to a degree which, in our age, is only to be observed in the history of the United States. How far this spirit had been successfully nourished by the London Company is plainly revealed by its enemies’ denunciation of the colony as a “seminary of sedition,” which really meant that it was a seminary of liberty.

The admirable system of government instituted by the Company for Virginia in its infancy; the scale on which the extension of the community there was carried out from the start; the protracted sacrifices which were made in its support; the absolute certainty of its continued prosperity, should its progress not be blocked by the crown; the noble political principles which were planted in that new soil, and which only needed more time to grow and flourish—all these outstanding facts invest the London Company, as it appears in Mrs. Stanard’s pages, with an imposing dignity, in comparison with which the claims of the Mayflower voyagers, seeking personal and limited ends alone, make but a small impression. The process of colonizing Virginia was not under the direction of religious fanatics, with no deep affection to bind them to their mother country. It was in the hands of broad-visioned English statesmen and patriots, who looked beyond creeds and pecuniary profits to the political benefits which were confidently expected to accrue in the future to a vast population, through their possession and enjoyment of a degree of freedom previously unknown to their race. Sir Edwin Sandys, meditating on the advance of a mighty, colonial empire oversea in all the blessings of liberty, was a nobler figure than the leader of a small body of obscure and discontented sectaries congratulating themselves on having found an asylum far from their native land.

A second feature of the Virginian community during the seventeenth century, which Mrs. Stanard has brought out very plainly, is the virile quality of the men who played the chief part there during that period. Some of these may be mentioned. There were Powhatan, crafty, treacherous, and imposing; Pocahontas, the gentle heroine of the most beautiful of all woodland idylls; John Smith, brave, sturdy, and far-visioned; Dale, stern and unyielding, but always just and upright; Yeardley, the veteran soldier and wise administrator; Berkeley, accomplished and courageous, but impulsive and passionate; Bacon, the young colonial Bonaparte; the older Byrd, astute, acquisitive and prudent; Beverley, alternately the enemy and the friend of popular liberty; and finally Philip Ludwell, the political petrel of those stormy times.

None of these remarkable men, so vividly presented by Mrs. Stanard, can be fully understood except in the light of a conspicuous fact in the history of Virginia during the first century of its existence; namely, that the Colony, during that memorable period, was more essentially the offspring of England than it was during the century that followed. With hardly an exception, the most influential persons in every walk of its life, in the course of that interval, were Englishmen by birth and education. They had carried oversea the moral principles and points of view which they had acquired under the parental roof in the mother country, or in its ancient public schools and universities. Their religious dogmas had been learned in boyhood in the nearest English parish church; their political opinions had been inculcated by their English fathers, and their social ideals had been formed in their native English communities. Was it surprising that their influence, after they arrived in Virginia, was used to confirm and strengthen the social and political spirit which they found was already prevailing there through the initiative of preceding emigrants like themselves?

Mrs. Stanard points out very clearly the reasons for the introduction of slave labor into Virginia. The Colony’s most urgent need at the beginning, as well as afterward, was the acquisition of the most effective means of removing the enormous growth of primaeval forest from the surface of the land. For this task the negro slave was better fitted than the white indentured servant, because, as a native of tropical Africa, he was more thoroughly equipped to endure successfully the heat and malaria of the Virginian climate; because he was more indifferent to fatigue in the tobacco field; because he was more docile and tractable; and finally, because he remained in his master’s possession, not for a brief term of years, like the white laborer, but for the entire space of his life.

Mrs. Stanard advances the interesting opinion that the first Africans imported into Virginia, and those who soon followed them, took at once, not the status of slaves, but the status of white indentured servants. Is this unusual view correct? Apparently not. While slavery as a local institution did not exist in England in 1619, and later, it was perfectly known to all Englishmen that it did exist permanently in the Spanish possessions south of Virginia. Even in England in the seventeenth century, long before Lord Mansfield’s epochal decision was announced in the eighteenth, the presence of a slave from an English colony was tolerated, provided that his master agreed to carry him out of the Kingdom within a reasonable time. Nothing in the public sentiment or laws of the mother country, in 1619 or afterward, condemned the sale of negroes at Jamestown as slaves for life. John Smith specifically asserts that twenty individuals of that race actually were “sold” there in the course of the year which we have just mentioned. How had these negroes been obtained by the Dutch man-of-war which brought them in? As booty of war from the Spaniards. Like all booty of war, they, were the absolute property of their captor. In other words, they were slaves. Was it likely that the Dutch shipmaster would dispose of them as servants for a short term of years, when they would bring more than double that price if marketed as slaves, which they were even by the admission of the people of Jamestown? Governor Yeardley purchased this living cargo and placed them on one of his estates for the cultivation of tobacco. When he came to draft his last testament he instructed his executor to “sell” these African laborers. Had they been made simply servants for life, in 1619, their terms would have already expired, which would have ended Yeardley’s control over them, or his right to dispose of them by will. Before Yeardley’s death, Captain Gray had captured a cargo of African slaves off the coast of Africa, had brought them into Virginia, and exchanged them for eighty-five hogsheads of tobacco. Was it probable that Gray any more than the Dutch privateersman would have been willing to sell these slaves as mere servants for a term of years? To do so would have been to reduce the profits of his voyage more than one-half. It should not be forgotten that the reasons which made a slave for life more valuable than a servant for a term of years were just as operative in 1619 as in 1650, when the right to hold Africans in bondage in Virginia was not a question open to dispute, even had it been so in 1619.

But there was a very practical objection to granting freedom to imported negroes after they had served a definite period of time. “Africans brought into Virginia,” said Governor Nicholson, “are remarkable for the gross bestiality and rudeness of their manners, the variety and strangeness of their languages, and the weakness and shallowness of their minds. It is impossible in a measure to make any progress with their conversion.” The negroes who were handled in Virginia in 1619, or within a few years thereafter—years during which, according to Mrs. Stanard, they occupied, not the status of slaves, but that of indentured servants—were just as bestial, rude, and shallow as those imported in the time of Nicholson. Is it probable that these gross savages of 1619 were at first placed on the same footing as the civilized white servants of English birth? What would have happened had the Africans, brought in during the first decades, been released at the end of a few years passed under indenture and left to wander about the country at will? Only the restraint of slavery could have protected the different communities of the Colony from depredations and murders at their barbarous and ferocious hands. The law of self-preservation required that these restraints should be imposed in the form of slavery, and why should that law not have been obeyed by the people of the colony as early as 1619 as it certainly was in 1650?


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