Colonial Williamsburg Research Division Web Site

New Findings about the Virginia Slave Trade

New Findings about the Virginia Slave Trade

by Lorena S. Walsh

To what extent were enslaved Africans brought to the Americas able to retain or to re-create elements of the cultures of their homelands? If there is one issue about which scholars currently disagree, this is it. Until recently, the consensus has been that this great forced migration led to a random mixing of disparate peoples drawn from many different parts of West Africa. They had roots in widely divergent cultures and were seldom able to communicate with one another except in the language of their captors. Thus, it has been widely believed that most Africans who survived initial enslavement and the subsequent horrors of the Middle Passage faced such formidable obstacles that they could at best re-create or creatively adapt only a few selected elements of their by then irretrievably “mangled pasts.”1

Now, new evidence from the W.E.B. Du Bois slave trade project is uncovering strongly patterned rather than random distributions of Africans in many receiving colonies. A few scholars have argued that peoples from only one or two African nations predominated in most places in the New World and that many slaves formed identifiable communities in the Americas based primarily on their prior ethnic or national pasts. Others continue to emphasize that even in places where most slaves were drawn from only one or two West African regions, significant cultural mixing still occurred between differing transplanted cultural groups, between Africans and creoles, and between these groups and Native Americans and Europeans. Furthermore, the asymmetry of power between the enslaved and the enslaving precluded any simple synthesis of African and European cultural forms.2

The new information on forced migration patterns requires serious questioning of previously accepted conclusions. Better evidence about the origins of forced migrants affords no more than a beginning, but even this is a significant advance. It can at least help to redress the overwhelming advantage that has privileged all parallel studies of European cultural continuities and transformations: the simple fact of knowing in advance the geographic origins of most migrants. Virginia district naval office records give reasonably solid answers about the slave trade for most parts of the colony throughout the eighteenth century.3 The evidence for the Lower and Upper James tends to support the older arguments for random mixing, while that for most of the older Tidewater tends to support arguments for much more homogeneity among forced migrants than has previously been supposed.


“Door of No Return” at a fortress on Goree’ Island, Senegal.
Photo by Mike Lord

In general, the regional trade in slaves within Virginia more often concentrated rather than dispersed ethnic groups. London and Bristol traders favored the York River, while Liverpool and outport shippers were more active along the Rappahannock and South Potomac. Given that London, Bristol, and Liverpool slavers concentrated their trades on differing sources of supply within Africa, this alone would result in different ethnic mixes among slaves arriving in the various naval districts.4 Moreover, Bristol’s widespread Virginia trade was itself far from random. Bristol ships delivered primarily Gambian and Windward and Gold Coast slaves to the Rappahannock River, while marketing most of their Biafran cargos on the York. (See Table 1)


TABLE 1.
NUMBER OF SHIPS AND SLAVES BY NAVAL DISTRICT AND PORT OF ORIGIN

Port of Origin
NAVAL DISTRICT
Total
York
Rappahannock
South Potomac
Upper James
Lower James
District Unknown
No. Ships
No. Slaves
No. Ships
No. Slaves
No. Ships
No. Slaves
No. Ships
No. Slaves
No. Ships
No. Slaves
No. Ships
No. Slaves
No. Ships
No. Slaves
1698-1703
London
11
1,350
1
12
0
0
2
?
2
?
0
0
16
1362+
Bristol
2
131
4
10 +
2
4 +
0
0
0
0
0
0
8
145+
Liverpool
0
0
1
1
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
1
1
Other Britain
0
0
3
8 +
1
9
0
0
0
0
0
0
4
17+
Virginia
0
0
0
0
0
0
5
2 +
1
?
0
0
6
2+
Other Plantations
0
0
2
4
1
2
2
13+
1
?
0
0
6
19+
West Indies
1
?
1
16
0
0
2
?
0
0
0
0
4
16+
Total
14
1,481 +
12
51 +
4
15 +
11
15 +
4
0 +
0
0
45
1562+
1704-1718
London
21
2,450
2
164
2
85
2
51
2
23
22
4,294
51
7,067
Bristol
12
1,306
9
507
0
0
0
0
3
190
4
598
28
2,601
Liverpool
5
247
4
111
0
0
0
0
2
42
0
0
11
400
Other Britain
1
1
2
2
3
37
0
0
4
13
0
0
10
53
Virginia
3
4
3
9
2
35
4
54
25
173
0
0
37
275
Other Plantation
3
75
0
0
1
1
5
22
17
112
0
0
26
210
West Indies
5
147
2
3
0
0
4
39
10
183
0
0
21
372
Unknown
1
1
0
0
7
16
0
0
1
7
3
390
12
414+
Total
51
4,231
22
796
15
174
15
166
64
743
29
5,282
196
1,1392+
1719-1730
London 17 2,616 1 466 0 0 1 8 1 94 0 0 20 3,184
Bristol 47 7,677 11 1,709 0 0 0 0 0 0 3 300 61 9,686+
Liverpool 2 13 5 594 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 7 607
Other Britain 1 2 1 4 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 6
Virginia 8 743 0 0 0 0 0 0 6 31 0 0 14 774
Other Plantations 1 1 1 12 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 13
West Indies 3 66 0 0 0 0 0 0 3 58 0 0 6 124
Total 79 1,1118 19 2,785 0 0 1 8 10 183 3 300 112 1,4394+
1731-1745
London
6
1,211
1
273
0
0
5
654
5
168
0
0
17
2,306
Bristol
42
9,490
8
1,771
1
150
6
847
2
359
1
140
60
1,2757
Liverpool
6
1,225
8
1,004
8
1,019
6
850
2
41
0
0
30
4,139
Other Britain
0
0
5
26
0
0
0
0
6
140
0
0
11
166
Virginia
15
104
2
9
0
0
8
35
139
914
0
0
164
1,062
Other Plantation
5
153
1
20
0
0
7
14
35
362
0
0
48
549
West Indies
5
30
0
0
0
0
12
57
85
712
0
0
102
799
Total
79
1,2213
25
3,103
9
1,169
44
2,457
274
2,696
1
140
432
2,1778
1746-1760
London
2
213
0
0
1
80
1
2
5
211
0
0
9
506
Bristol
9
1,831+
1
223
0
0
17
4,634
2
22
4
968
33
7,678+
Liverpool
8
1,360+
4
492
0
0
2
433
3
97
5
703
22
3,085+
Other Britain
1
203
3
269
2
46
1
70
1
2
1
?
9
590+
Virginia
8
69
3
93
1
197
1
11
47
755
0
0
60
1,125
Other Plantation
0
0
1
2
1
50
1
202
5
115
0
0
8
369
West Indies
5
218
0
0
7
107
2
6
19
92
0
0
33
423
Total
33
3,894+
12
1,079
12
480
25
5,358
82
1,294
10
1,671+
174
1,3776+
1761-1774
London
1
37
2
174
0
0
0
0
1
5
1
?
5
216+
Bristol
0
0
0
0
0
0
8
2,700
1
400
0
0
9
3,100
Liverpool
1
154
11
1,754
1
30
6
1,219
4
174
2
410
25
3,741
Other Britain
0
0
0
0
0
0
1
?
0
0
1
40
2
40+
Virginia
2
9
2
8
4
121
2
122
56
736
0
0
66
996
Other Plantation
2
65
3
171
2
21
11
472
3
40
2
142
23
911
West Indies
1
16
0
0
1
42
0
0
28
323
0
0
30
381
Unknown
0
0
0
0
0
0
12
1,630
1
5
0
0
13
1,635
Total
7
281
18
2,107
8
214
40
6,143+
94
1,683
6
592+
173
1,1020+

Notes:
1. Lower James includes Accomac
2. Other Plantation includes ships with unknown port of origin


In contrast to the relatively abundant information about the contemporary tobacco trade, surviving documentary evidence about the mechanics of the Virginia slave trade is frustratingly tenuous. Some combination of planter preferences and local trade networks likely produced these outcomes. Established slave owners probably preferred to purchase additional new hands from ethnic groups with whose ways they were already vaguely familiar over ones coming from totally unfamiliar ethnic groups. Chance choices of naval district that shippers made at the turn of the eighteenth century may have served to establish long-term trading patterns. The powerful Carter family’s stated preference for Gambia or Gold Coast slaves, for example, coupled with their bad experience with one shipment of sickly and unfamiliar Angolans and subsequent refusal to accept further consignments from that region, may have been sufficient to influence the overall composition of the Rappahannock trade.5

With the exception of the York district, to which large planters throughout the colony went at times to buy new workers, the numbers of slaves imported annually into the Rappahannock, South Potomac, and Lower and Upper James were small enough to be absorbed mostly by purchasers living along these rivers and in their immediate hinterlands. Moreover, since sales usually commenced within a week after a ship arrived, it was surely primarily local buyers who had sufficient advance notice to travel to the sale or arrange for an agent to attend it. The majority of slaves sent to the smaller naval districts likely remained within the hinterlands of the rivers on which they disembarked.

The slave trade of the Lower James (and of the lower Delmarva peninsula, which this district also served) differed from that of all the other naval districts. Few soils in these places were suitable for tobacco, and, by about 1700, most planters had dropped the staple entirely, turning instead to the production of naval stores, timber, cider, small grains, corn, and livestock, as well as to subsistence farming.6 The proportion of householders owning slaves was low compared to better endowed areas. Moreover, both plantation and labor force sizes were comparatively small. Fewer than 1,000 slaves disembarked in this district between 1698 and 1730. These newcomers were incorporated into an existing black population that included Africans earlier transshipped from the West Indies and the descendants of slaves, primarily from West Central Africa, imported by Dutch traders prior to 1660. After 1730, when the local economy experienced better times, the number of human imports increased. The 5,673 slaves who arrived in the Lower James between 1731 and 1774 likely ended up in the port towns of Norfolk and Hampton and on new farms on the North Carolina border; some were probably eventually sent further west to expanding Southside tobacco farms.

Most slaves arrived in the Lower James in small lots as ancillary cargo on small ships plying the West Indian trade. (See Table 2) During the eighteenth century, the mean number of slaves per ship was only twelve. Virginians were most prominent in this island trade, closely followed by West Indian shippers. The origins of most of the slaves are obscure, since nearly three quarters are recorded as coming from Barbados, Jamaica, Bermuda, Antigua, Nevis, St. Kitts, and other West Indian locations. The majority were probably recently transshipped Africans for whom no ready market appeared in the islands. The Lower James probably also received a disproportionate number of more seasoned, chronic troublemakers sold out of the islands as punishment. Fewer than 2,000 arrived directly from Africa; the half of these whose origins were specified came, with one exception, either from Senegambia or the Windward and Gold Coasts. Consequently the slave population in the Lower James region was likely the most ethnically diverse of any in Virginia. (See Table 3) In addition, conditions in the Lower James were the least favorable for maintaining specific African cultural practices. Specific factors include small absolute numbers of slaves, their low proportion in the total population, their widely mixed African origins, and their arrival in small lots from a variety of interim landings in the West Indies. Once in the region they were further dispersed to small estates whose owners then frequently hired them out by the year to yet other masters.7


TABLE 2.
COASTAL ORIGINS OF AFRICANS IMPORTED INTO VIRGINA BY NAVAL DISTRICT

AFRICAN REGION OF ORIGIN
YEARS
TOTAL AFRICAN SLAVES
Unspecified
Senegambia
Sierra Leone
Windward & Gold Coasts
Bight of Benin
Bight of Biafra
West-central Africa
Madagascar
 
York
1698-1703
1,481
1,332
0
0
0
0
57
92
0
1704-1718
3,045
1,544
0
0
398
0
1,103
0
0
1719-1730
10,956
2,665
311
0
1,468
0
5,067
436
1,009
1731-1745
12,037
5,301
703
0
279
0
3,135
2,619
0
1746-1760
3,509
654
331
0
486
0
1,107
931
0
1761-1774
255
218
37
0
0
0
0
0
0
Total
31,283
11,714
1,382
0
2,631
0
10,469
4,078
1,009
 
Rappahannock
1704-1718
682
76
606
0
0
0
0
0
0
1719-1730
2,743
1,165
108
0
145
0
859
0
466
1731-1745
3,048
1,647
1,271
0
0
0
130
0
0
1746-1760
957
260
160
0
200
0
0
337
0
1761-1774
2,098
1,747
81
0
90
180
0
0
0
Total
9,528
4,895
2,226
0
435
180
989
337
466
 
South Potomac
1704-1718
105
105
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
1719-1730
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
1731-1745
1,169
823
346
0
0
0
0
0
0
1746-1760
277
0
80
0
0
0
197
0
0
1761-1774
143
0
143
0
0
0
0
0
0
Total
1,694
928
569
0
0
0
197
0
0
 
Upper James
1704-1718
42
0
0
42
0
0
0
0
0
1719-1730
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
1731-1745
2,253
1,756
102
0
0
0
395
0
0
1746-1760
5,339
449
278
427
350
0
3,195
640
0
1761-1774
5,994
946
604
0
1,369
0
1,052
2,023
0
Total
13,628
3,151
984
469
1,719
0
4,642
2,663
0
 
Lower James
1704-1718
157
157
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
1719-1730
94
94
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
1731-1745
705
70
276
0
199
0
160
0
0
1746-1760
328
130
181
0
0
0
17
0
0
1761-1774
583
400
123
0
60
0
0
0
0
Total
1,867
851
580
0
259
0
177
0
0

Notes:
African ports of embarkation are grouped into regions as defined in the W.E.B. Du Bois dataset.
Windward and Gold Coast are combined, since the two were often coupled in the sources.


South Potomac was the least important and most poorly documented Virginia destination. Only 2,052 slaves are recorded as disembarking there, and in many years, no ships carrying slaves arrived. The total surely understates the actual numbers imported into the area, since local Virginia planters sometimes evaded the higher duties Virginia assessed on imported slaves by clandestinely buying new hands on the Maryland side of the river.8 With the exception of 1734-1741, when Liverpool tobacco merchants made a concerted effort to ship slaves to this district, most of the consignments consisted of refuse slaves transshipped from Barbados. Of those imported directly from Africa, origins of only 45 percent are known. Most of these came from Senegambia.


TABLE 3. GEOGRAPHIC ORIGINS OF AFRICAN SLAVES
(AS PERCENTAGE OF THOSE FOR WHOM ORIGIN IS KNOWN)

 
AFRICAN REGION OF ORIGIN
YEARS
Senegambia
Sierra Leone
Windward & Gold Coasts
Bight of Benin
Bight of Biafra
West-central Africa
Madagascar
Percentage with Known Origin
 
York
1698-1703
0
0
0
0
38
62
0
10
1704-1718
0
0
27
0
73
0
0
49
1719-1730
4
0
18
0
61
5
12
76
1731-1745
10
0
4
0
47
39
0
56
1746-1760
12
0
17
0
39
32
0
81
1761-1774
100
0
0
0
0
0
0
15
Overall Percentage
7
0
13
0
53
21
5
69
 
Rappahannock
1704-1718
100
0
0
0
0
0
0
89
1719-1730
7
0
9
0
54
0
30
58
1731-1745
91
0
0
0
9
0
0
46
1746-1760
23
0
29
0
0
48
0
73
1761-1774
23
0
26
51
0
0
0
17
Overall Percentage
48
0
9
4
21
7
10
49
 
South Potomac
1731-1745
100
0
0
0
0
0
0
12
1746-1760
29
0
0
0
71
0
0
100
1761-1774
100
0
0
0
0
0
0
100
Overall
Percentage
74
0
0
0
26
0
0
45
 
Upper James
1704-1718
0
100
0
0
0
0
0
100
1731-1745
21
0
0
0
79
0
0
22
1746-1760
6
9
7
0
66
13
0
91
1761-1774
12
0
27
0
21
40
0
84
Overall Percentage
9
4
16
0
44
25
0
77
 
Lower James
1731-1745
43
0
31
0
25
0
0
90
1746-1760
91
0
0
0
9
0
0
60
1761-1774
67
0
33
0
0
0
0
31
Overall Percentage
57
0
25
0
17
0
0
54

Notes:
African ports of embarkation are grouped into regions as defined in the W.E.B. Du Bois dataset.
Windward and Gold Coast are combined, since the two were often coupled in the sources.


Potomac River soils were capable of growing only inferior oronoco tobacco, and most local planters lacked both the wealth and mercantile connections that better situated planters could command. The basin’s enslaved labor force was probably relatively diverse. Larger planters such as the Washingtons and Masons built up their workforces from varying combinations of refuse slaves imported from the West Indies, of newly arrived Africans purchased in South Potomac or across the river in Maryland, and from a mix of more seasoned Africans and creoles acquired through marriage or inheritance from relatives living in other parts of Virginia and in Maryland. Africans from Senegambia and the Windward and Gold Coasts predominated in Maryland as well.

The Upper James district was the last area in Virginia to which substantial numbers of Africans were transported. Just over 200 slaves entered that district before 1731, and large direct shipments from Africa became common only after 1735. Ten years later the Upper James emerged as the leading slave entrepot in the colony. By the 1760s, this district received nearly two thirds of all incoming Africans, by then transported almost exclusively by Bristol and Liverpool traders. More than 40 percent came from the Bight of Biafra, another quarter from West Central Africa, and lesser numbers also taken from the Windward and Gold Coasts, Senegambia, and Sierra Leone. The evidence for widely mixed origins is persuasive, since port of embarkation is specified for two-thirds of imported Africans.

These newcomers were dispersed throughout the Southside and the central Piedmont, where they joined a combination of native-born and African slaves forced to move west from throughout the Tidewater. Improving prices for upland tobacco encouraged planters to expand labor forces rapidly in the interior. Although new arrivals were initially further dispersed among small, far-flung quarters, both plantation size and the proportion of blacks in the local population increased rapidly. Moreover, sex ratios, both among Africans and transplanted creoles, were more evenly balanced than had been the case in the Tidewater earlier in the century. Finally, during the period of initial settlement, many slaves enjoyed greater autonomy than in the Tidewater, living on quarters with no resident master and sometimes no white overseer. Conditions for family formation were thus quite favorable.9 Whether these same conditions fostered the continuation of specific languages and customs or the development of specific ethnic identities is less clear. The concentration or mixing of groups likely differed considerably from one estate and one locality to another. In some Piedmont neighborhoods, large communities of slaves were transferred virtually intact from earlier Tidewater neighborhoods. 10 Syncretism appears the more likely outcome of this rapid mixing of Africans of diverse origins and of numerous creoles over a wide geographic area. The development of African-American cultures in the Piedmont clearly requires further investigation.

Until mid-century, however, more than 80 percent of imported Africans were disembarked in the York and Rappahannock Rivers. There, planter wealth and political power was most concentrated, and transatlantic mercantile connections most developed. The source of these fortunes and connections was the more valuable strain of sweet-scented tobacco, which could be raised only on pockets of rich, alluvial soils on the Lower and Middle peninsulas. Moreover, growers of sweetscented enjoyed a spate of high prosperity in the early 1700s when oronoco tobacco prices were sorely depressed. It was primarily these planters who had either sufficient resources or, more commonly, could command sufficient credit from English tobacco merchants to finance the purchase of large numbers of new African slaves.11 Moreover, as a result of peculiar trading patterns, it was on the Lower and Middle peninsulas and in their immediate hinterlands that large numbers of Africans from three specific West African regions were most concentrated.

In the first half of the eighteenth century, the Rappahannock trade ranked second to that of York. The years of greatest importation were between 1720 and 1745. More than 90 percent of the nearly 10,000 slaves sent there arrived directly from Africa on Bristol- or Liverpool-owned ships carrying a hundred or more captives each. This district received the fewest transshipments from the West Indies of any of the Virginia naval districts. Of the 49 percent of the Africans whose port of embarkation is known, more than half came from Senegambia and the Windward and Gold Coasts. The primary buyers were wealthier planters who owned Tidewater plantations along the major rivers where slaves raised the more valuable sweet scented tobaccos, as well as newer upland quarters in the Rappahannock hinterland. These slaves may have joined older migrants from the same areas, for in the first decade of the eighteenth century, Rappahannock planters were the primary buyers of shipments sent by the Royal African Company, most of them arriving from Gambia or the Windward and Gold Coasts.12 After 1745, most Rappahannock basin planters could meet needs for additional laborers from natural increase, and new imports trailed off quickly.

The York naval district was the primary destination of about two-thirds of the nearly 50,000 Africans transported to Virginia by 1745. Except for the years 1710 to 1718, when more than 1,000 slaves were transshipped from the West Indies, most arrived directly from Africa. Most of these, in turn, likely lived out their lives on the Lower Peninsula and in its hinterlands. An unknown proportion, however, were bought by big planters living in the Lower and Upper James and on the Rappahannock when their labor needs could not be satisfied from the shipments going to those districts.

London slavers predominated in the York District at the turn of the century, but then were quickly supplanted by Bristol shippers. Port of embarkation is known for two thirds of the direct African shipments arriving by 1745. Just over 9,000, or 56 percent, came from the Bight of Biafra, just under 20 percent each from West Central Africa and the Windward or Gold Coasts, and two additional twentieths from Senegambia and Madagascar. Caution is in order in making further inferences about the geographic origins of all; the information for Bristol shippers is comparatively rich, but the areas in which the London slavers were trading is seldom identified, and may well have differed.

Studies of some of the careers of individual Lower Peninsula planters demonstrate that a significant proportion of the new Africans purchased in the 1720s and early 1730s remained on Lower Peninsula estates. Through the mid 1730s, larger planters still had to buy new African hands of working age in order to staff recently established ancillary Tidewater farms, as well as to open new ones farther west. This need ended quite abruptly in the 1740s, when enough creole children were coming of age to replace dying and aging Africans in the work force, and slave imports into the York basin rapidly diminished.13

Evidence about the patterns by which larger York and Rappahannock planters assembled enslaved work forces in the first third of the eighteenth century further bolsters arguments for the likely concentration, on individual Tidewater estates, of slaves drawn largely from a single national group. Elite planters coming of age at the turn of the century almost invariably inherited ample land and some slaves as gifts or bequests from their parents as well as from the dowries their wives brought to their marriages. The inherited and dower slaves were almost never enough to fully exploit the inherited Tidewater lands, much less additional undeveloped acres farther west. However, the planters’ substantial starting assets provided collateral, against which British tobacco merchants readily extended credit for purchasing additional slaves. Although most bought only one, two, and seldom more than four slaves from individual ships, they nonetheless acquired their adult labor forces within a span of no more than ten to fifteen years, either through design or because their adult careers ended in an early death. Occasionally there were sufficient assets in the estate to permit the purchase of additional new slaves for underage heirs. More usually, however, there were no further augmentations, aside from natural increase, until the next planter generation came of age. Temporarily concentrated local purchases in themselves increased the probability that many of the new Africans on a given estate would originate from the same geographic area, and this probability was further enhanced by temporal concentrations in the African trading regions of London, Bristol, or Liverpool suppliers. Furthermore, if a number of well-endowed young planters living in particular neighborhoods came of age at roughly the same time, a likely outcome of sequential European settlement in the Chesapeake, their individual estate-building strategies could unwittingly result in larger concentrations in these neighborhoods of new Africans from one or two West African areas. Then, even isolated, recently arrived Africans were likely to find members of their own nation on adjacent plantations if not on their home quarters.14

This seems indeed to be what happened on the lower peninsula in the first third of the eighteenth century. The possibility, evoked by William Byrd 11 in 1736, of the region evolving into a colonial “New Guinea,” was a result of individual actions that collectively produced a patchwork of localized concentrations of just one or two national groups on larger estates. On the peninsula south of Williamsburg and on other plantations just across the York and James Rivers, for example, around 1750, there were perhaps 200 Africans, who had arrived in the 1710s, 1720s, and early 1730s, living on five separate estates and numerous ancillary quarters owned by the Burwell family. Many of these newcomers shared both common geographic origins in the Bight of Biafra and more recently developed connections with longer established African and Virginia-born Burwell family slaves, as well as similar origins with other new Africans arriving at about the same time on adjoining plantations. However on the nearby Custis plantations, whose owner commenced buying new Africans a few years later than the Burwells, Angolans predominated.15


Am I not a Man and a Brother

Local conditions, including unbalanced adult sex ratios, occasional severe plantation discipline, an unhealthy environment, and possible conflicts between recently arrived African and more privileged creole slaves did not favor sustained family formation until the 1740s. On the other hand, local circumstances did permit the continued or reconstituted use of African languages and other African customs, as well as the transmission to later generations of significant parts of their African history.16

Initial concentrations of Africans of particular ethnicities were further unwittingly perpetuated on large central Tidewater Virginia estates up to the American Revolution by the practice of entail. Most Chesapeake slave owners thought of slaves as personal property, along with other moveable goods such as livestock, tools, and household furnishings. Ordinary parents commonly divided their personal property relatively equally among their children, both male and female, whatever the consequences for the slaves. And when an owner died without making a will, the courts apportioned the family slaves equally among all the heirs. However, in Virginia, the eldest son, who automatically inherited all the land when there was no will, had the right to keep all the slaves if he paid other family members their appraised value.

The idea of treating human beings as real property for purposes of inheritance was a novel legal practice that elite Virginians apparently borrowed from Barbados. In 1668, the Barbados assembly had classified blacks as real estate instead of chattels so that slaves could be legally tied to particular plantations, thus preventing executors or creditors from dismantling viable working units in probate settlements. The Virginia assembly passed a law allowing planters to entail slaves as well as land in 1705. And, in 1727, another act made provision for attaching slaves to particular tracts of land, so that both plantation and workers would be passed on to a single heir. The lawmakers wanted to ensure that the son who inherited land also received the laborers needed to make the land profitable. In practice the “annexing” of specifically named slaves and their descendants to a particular parcel of land meant that the entailed slaves could not be sold, but instead had to be transferred to the male heir who inherited the land. They could however be removed to other tracts their current master owned. Typically, not all family slaves were entailed, and these might be freely sold or bequeathed. Once some were entailed, however, affected gentry planters came to think of all, like their similarly entailed land, as family property to be passed on, largely intact, in the male line. Although a father might give one or two slave children whom he owned outright to a daughter or grandchild, he usually willed almost all the slaves, entailed or not, to one or more of his sons. Until the practice was abolished after the American Revolution, elite gentry inheritance strategies, especially common in the York and Rappahannock districts, unintentionally afforded the largest and most ethnically concentrated enslaved communities more settled places of residence and more generational continuity, than was the lot of most Chesapeake slaves.17

Although Virginia planters seldom specified the ethnic or geographic origins of their slaves, documentary evidence is often sufficient for tracing when and by what means the labor forces living on particular plantations were assembled. Purchases of new Africans cannot often be linked to particular ships, but one can often establish approximately when and in what river new Africans were bought. This evidence can then be compared with the information about the trades of particular naval districts to identify probable origins. Caution is surely in order when making inferences from probabilities rather than certainties, but probabilities are preferable to no information at all.

It is still too early to accept uncritically arguments that the slave culture or cultures of portions of any one North American colony developed primarily from one or two West African sources. Collective knowledge of early modern West African history, both in general and for particular regions, remains too scanty to sustain widely shared consensus. But growing evidence for a trade whose geographic and temporal complexities can be unraveled for both sending and receiving localities certainly encourages careful attention to more particular transatlantic ethnic continuities than has heretofore appeared either possible or probable.

The materials in this article were presented in a paper at the Conference on Transatlantic Slaving and the African Diaspora: Using the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute Dataset of Slaving Voyages, Williamsburg, Va., September 1998.

Endnotes

1Sidney W. Mintz, “Foreword,” in Norman E. Whitten, Jr., and John F. Szwed, eds., Afro-American Anthropology: Contemporary Perspectives (New York, 1970), p. 9. The classic formulation of this position is Sidney W. Mintz and Richard Price, The Birth of African-American Culture: An Anthropological Perspective (Boston, 1992).

2Recent works arguing for a central role for ethnicity include John Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1680 (Cambridge, Eng., 1992); Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century (Baton Rouge, La., 1992); Douglas Brent Chambers, “He Gwine Sing He Country”: Africans, AfroVirginians, and the Development of Slave Culture in Virginia, 1690-1810 (Ph.D. diss., University of Virginia, 1996); and Michael A. Gomez, Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1998). Arguments for cultural mixing are summarized in Philip D. Morgan, “The Cultural Implications of the Atlantic Slave Trade: African Regional Origins, American Destinations and New World Developments,” in David Eltis and David Richardson, eds., Routes to Slavery: Direction, Ethnicity and Mortality in the Atlantic Slave Trade (London, 1997), pp. 122-45.

3The data is published in Walter Minchinton, Celia King, and Peter Waite, eds., Virginia Slave-Trade Statistics, 1698-1775 (Richmond, Va., 1984). David Richardson, ed., Bristol, Africa, and the Eighteenth-Century Slave Trade to America, 3 vols. (Bristol, 1986) contains additional information on African ports of embarkation for some of the ships. Chambers was the first scholar to uncover marked differences in the geographic origins of slaves disembarked in the various Virginia naval office districts. (“He Gwine Sing He Country,” chaps. 4 and 5).

4For the Bristol slave trade, see W.E. Minchinton, “The slave trade of Bristol with the British mainland colonies in North America 1699-1770,” in Roger Anstey and P.E.H. Hair, eds., Liverpool, the African Slave Trade, and Abolition (Liverpool, 1976), pp. 39-59; and the introductions to each of the three volumes of Richardson, ed., Bristol, Africa, and the Eighteenth-Century Slave Trade. Additional information from the Du Bois dataset will appear in David Eltis, David Richardson, and Stephen D. Behrendt, “The Structure of the Trans-atlantic Slave Trade, 1595-1867,” in Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Carl Pederson, and Maria Diedrich, eds., Transatlantic Passages(forthcoming).

5Chambers, “He Gwine Sing He Country,” p. 255.

6Lorena S. Walsh, “Summing the Parts: Implications for Estimating Chesapeake Output and Income Subregionally,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d Ser., 56 (1999): 53-94.

7Sarah S. Hughes, “Slaves for Hire: The Allocation of Black Labor in Elizabeth City County, Virginia, 1782 to 1810,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d Ser., 35 (1978): 260-286; Michael L. Nicholls, “Aspects of the African American Experience in Eighteenth-Century Williamsburg and Norfolk” (typescript, Department of Training and Historical Research, Colonial Williamsburg). T.H. Breen and Stephen Innes, “Myne Owne Ground”: Race and Freedom on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, 1640-1676 (New York, 1980), pp. 17, 70-72, 130n., documents the early Angolan connection.

8Donald M. Sweig, “The Importation of African Slaves to the Potomac River, 1732-1772,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d. Ser., 42 (1985): 507-524.

9Philip D. Morgan and Michael L. Nicholls, “Slaves in Piedmont Virginia, 1720-1796,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d Ser., 46 (1989): 211-251.

10Lorena S. Walsh, From Calabar to Carter’s Grove: The History of a Virginia Slave Community (Charlottesville, Va., 1997), chap. 7.

11Walsh, “Summing the Parts.”

12Charles L. Killinger III, “The Royal African Company Slave Trade to Virginia, 1689-1713,” M.A. Thesis, College of William and Mary, 1969, pp. 63-70, 137-146.

13Walsh, From Calabar to Carter’s Grove, chap. 1.

14Ibid.

15Ibid.; William Byrd II to the Earl of Egmont, 12 July 1736, in Marion Timing, ed., The Correspondence of the Three William Byrds of Westover, Virginia, 1684-1776, 3 vols. (Charlottesville, Va., 1977), 2:487.

16Walsh, From Calabar to Carter’s Grove, chaps. 1 and 3.

17Ibid., pp. 44-45, 148, 224.

18Ibid., pp. 67-68.


“Plan of an African Ship’s lower Deck.”
Ink on paper engraving Matthew Carey Philadelphia, 1797