Benjamin Speller 

Most of the English colonists arrived here as indentured servants, hiring themselves out as laborers for a fixed period to pay for their passage. In the early years, the line between indentured servants and African slaves, or laborers, was fluid. Some Africans were allowed to earn their freedom before slavery became a lifelong status.

As the flow of indentured laborers from England to the colonies decreased with improving economic conditions in Great Britain, more slaves were imported and restrictions on slavery were increased. The colonies’ economic growth and prosperity were based on slave labor. Their economic priority was devoted first to the production of tobacco.

The increase in slaves resulted in a new fear of security among the planters, especially in the Chesapeake, Virginia, area. The wealthy planters put in place new legislation to promote racial solidarity by all whites across class lines.

The result was a shared identity in the psychology of race that held that every white man was superior to every black man. Dark skin became synonymous with slavery and whiteness was equated with freedom. As skin color became the key marker in identity, race obscured the persistent power of class distinction between the common planters and the great planters.

Now obsessed with racial difference, Chesapeake whites felt more equal despite the growing inequality of their economic circumstances. The new sense of racial solidarity rendered whites in the Chesapeake indifferent to the continuing concentration of property and real power in the hands of the planter elite.

Carolina’s Lords Proprietors set the stage for slavery. In 1663, after his restoration to the English throne, Charles II granted the eight Lords Proprietors a huge tract of land south of Virginia which is present-day North Carolina.

Four of the proprietors were members of the slave-trading company, the Royal African Company. The Lords Proprietors sought easy profits. They recognized that a slave colony in Carolina held the greatest financial promise. In 1663, the proprietors encouraged slavery by promising settlers that they would be given land for every slave brought to the colony.

Many of the first slaves in Virginia and what is now North Carolina were brought to the colonies from the West Indies, especially Barbados, or other surrounding colonies. But a significant number were brought from Africa.

Colonial laws were enacted to allow whites to control their slaves. Because English law provided no precedents for managing a system of racial slavery, the Barbadians developed their own slave code in 1661. The Barbadian slave code became the model for those adopted in Carolina in 1696. The first of these was the North Carolina Slave Code of 1715.

Under these laws, whenever slaves left the plantation, they were required to carry a ticket from their master, which stated their destination and the reason for their travel. The 1715 code also prevented slaves from gathering in groups for any reason, including religious worship, and required whites to help capture runaway slaves.

Benjamin Speller is retired professor and dean of North Carolina Central University’s School of Library and Information Sciences. He is a member and secretary of the Edenton Historical Commission where he is also chairman of the History and Legends Committee. He is also a former president of Friends of the Museum of the Albemarle.