H105, American History I

Reading Guide for Week 3

Last week we covered the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, an era of exploration, encounter, trade, and conquest — an era which challenged European people’s grasp of human difference as well as their sense of themselves.  We saw, for instance, how hard Europeans had to work to justify their actions, when those actions were met with resistance, criticism, dissent, and perhaps even guilt.  And we saw that resistance to invasion could take multiple forms:  flight, diplomacy, violence, collaboration.  There were no single stories on either side, but there was brutal and catastrophic devastation of indigenous communities in the Central and South America and the Caribbean.

This week we will shift our attention from Spanish conquest to English colonization in Virginia and the Chesapeake region.  Colonization was somewhat different from conquest in that it entailed larger numbers of Europeans willing to transport themselves to live permanently in a “new world” thousands of miles from home, while displacing and dispossessing indigenous inhabitants of land and territory.  Above all, new colonial settlements required labor:  for the production of export commodities that might sustain fragile new economies, communities, and livelihoods.  To recruit laborers, Virginia like Barbados and other places in the expanding English empire initially relied on the recruitment of white indentured servants, mainly young men who agreed to work in the “new world” as a desperate way to escape poverty in England.  To render these young new colonies more permanent would eventually involve the recruitment of women for marriage and reproduction.  And to render these colonies more profitable would ultimately involve transformation of the labor system, starting in 1619 and escalating in the latter part of the seventeenth century, from white indentured servants to enslaved black Africans.  The outcome was to transform miscellaneous practices of slavery in the early modern world into a concerted and developed slavery system in the Americas, so that places like Brazil and the Chesapeake became slave societies fundamentally reliant on the slave trade and slave labor.  While inflicting unspeakable harm, damage, and trauma upon generations of people, these new forms of “racial capitalism” transformed the entire Atlantic world:  Africa, Europe, and the Americas.


Richard Frethorne, letter to his parents (1623):  Frethorne was an indentured servant who emigrated to escape poverty in England, only to experience even more hardship in the early years of the Virginia colony.  What kinds of people did Frethorne encounter in his social world?  Did he feel superior to Native Americans?  Did he mention the leaders of the colony?  Why was he seemingly so passive in the face of such hardship?  What constrained him?


Virginia laws of servitude and slavery (1643-1691):  These laws sought to set boundaries between different categories of people in Virginia.  As with all laws, there was a gap between legal vision and social reality.  What kinds of “in-between” social relations were there in the “real world” which the laws tried to regulate, and to eliminate?  What kinds of social boundaries were the laws trying to enforce?  What categories of people were involved?  Note especially when the category of a “white” person was invented.  What did this category “white” eventually evolve from?  Why?

Robert Beverley, The History and Present State of Virginia (1705):  A member of Virginia’s planter elite, Beverley described Virginia at a time of increasing social stabilization and elite dominance.  In his mind, what was supposed to be the difference between “white” women and “Negro” women?  What was the symbolic function of women for the relative masculinity of different categories of men?  Which kinds of men were deemed properly manly, and which weren’t?  Why?