Forum: Transformations of Virginia:
Tobacco, Slavery, and Empire
Two of the major transformations that took place in Virginia during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries were the adoption of slave labor to produce a staple commodity (tobacco) and the emergence of a gentry class that built its wealth, power, and social influence on both slavery and export of this crop. The reasons and timing of the transition to slavery and the nature of the planters’ consolidation of power within the British Empire have long been subjects of keen interest and debate. In this Forum these two major transformations are given close scrutiny by John C. Coombs and Douglas Bradburn. Coombs challenges the generally accepted notion that the use of enslaved labor spread only gradually during the first sixty years of the colony’s history before increasing rapidly in the last quarter of the seventeenth century. Bradburn examines the critical role played by the English state in intervening in the tobacco trade, part of a new system that transformed Atlantic commerce, allowed a small group of Virginia elites to consolidate their power, and sowed the seeds of future misunderstanding between Britain and the colonies. Six commentators address the two essays’ interpretive arguments and the larger historiographical issues they raise: Lorena S. Walsh, Paul G. E. Clemens, Peter A. Coclanis, April Lee Hatfield, William A. Pettigrew, and Alexander B. Haskell. Bradburn and Coombs conclude the Forum with their response to the commentary.
The Phases of Conversion:
A New Chronology for the Rise of Slavery in Early Virginia
By John C. Coombs
For nearly forty years, historians have described the shift from white to black labor in Virginia as a relatively widespread movement that proceeded gradually before undergoing a rapid acceleration in the last quarter of the seventeenth century. This consensus vision posits that slaves remained demographically and economically insignificant until the mid-1670s, when, prompted by the tumultuous upheaval of Bacon’s Rebellion, a steep decline in the availability of white bondspeople, or some combination of the two, Virginians began earnestly investing in slaves for the first time. The growth of slavery progressed rapidly thereafter, with slaves numerically surpassing servants in the colony’s bound workforce in the late 1680s and comprising the overwhelming majority of plantation laborers by the early eighteenth century. Interweaving evidence derived from a systematic examination of surviving Virginia county court records with an analysis of the colony’s changing access to transatlantic, intercolonial, and even intracontinental sources of slaves, this essay contends that, far from being broadly based and temporally compressed, the conversion was instead a complex process with multiple overlapping phases and significant subregional diversity, in which the timing and extent of investments in slave labor varied widely according to wealth, location, and economic need.
The Visible Fist:
The Chesapeake Tobacco Trade in War and the Purpose of Empire, 1690–1715
By Douglas Bradburn
From 1690 to 1715, more than eighty-five British ships of war and sixteen thousand sailors served in the Chesapeake. Their presence had been orchestrated, with the support of the crown and the Admiralty, by a combination of Virginia planters and London tobacco merchants to protect and regulate the trade in tobacco during King William’s and Queen Anne’s Wars. This system of regulation—the convoy and embargo regime—required coordinated embargoes and stiff restrictions on the timing and character of the trade, which ultimately limited access to only those merchants and planters with the political connections to secure a place in the convoy fleet. The restrictions on the trade limited the size of the sweet-scented crop that reached England in these years, increased the price available in London, and created the possibility for extremely high net returns to those privileged planters and merchants. These coercive trading conditions transformed the character of the London tobacco trade and allowed “the first families of Virginia” to separate and dominate the colony’s political and economic landscape. But the benefits of the London merchant–Virginia planter alliance would only last as long as wartime conditions persisted, and peace would reveal the two groups’ different interests. In addition to greatly affecting the development of the Chesapeake, the creation and management of the convoy and embargo regime during this period of warfare helps reveal a major aspect of state formation and governance in the emerging British imperial state.
Spain and the Founding of Jamestown
By William S. Goldman
The site of the 1607 English settlement of Jamestown, the first successful colony of a Protestant power in the New World, was chosen, and a fort was built, to protect against an attack from Spain—an attack that never came. Why not? Spain had long claimed possession of the entirety of the New World, and the English colony posed a threat to Spain’s hegemony in the Americas. An examination of the fraught debates within the Spanish Council of State demonstrates that Jamestown’s survival was dictated to some degree by decisions made in Madrid. The divided Council of State pitted adherents of new forms of political thought, including reason of state, against advocates of Spain’s traditional aggressive foreign policy based on the defense of Catholicism. Spaniards sent several expeditions to Virginia, and attacks were planned but never carried out. Instead, a new, pacific policy in Spain spared Jamestown and set the stage for a new alignment of European powers in the New World, a world that soon became a crucial battleground in the ongoing struggles between European empires.
The “Bad Business” of Obeah:
Power, Authority, and the Politics of Slave Culture in the British Caribbean
By Randy M. Browne
Evidence from early-nineteenth-century Berbice (in present-day Guyana) uncovers the practice and politics of obeah, an Afro-Caribbean complex of spiritual healing, harming, and divination. A close reading of records generated during the 1819 and 1821–22 criminal prosecutions of two obeah practitioners—including testimony from more than a dozen enslaved witnesses—reveals obeah from the bottom up. A specific healing ritual, the Minje Mama or Water Mama dance, led to the death of an enslaved woman, and the case shows how obeah practitioners achieved and maintained authority, how they used physical violence and intimidation to convince enslaved people to participate in the rituals they conducted, and how they dealt with opposition from other slaves and colonial authorities. In addition to obeah’s well-recognized connections to healing, preventing misfortune, and facilitating rebellion, it could also be a physically violent, dangerous, and socially divisive practice within enslaved communities. Exploring the complicated politics of obeah helps to highlight the multiple types of authority that operated in the plantation world and provides a more nuanced view of power relations among enslaved people.
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