In 1620 a Dutch trading vessel entered Virginia’s James River with twenty Negroes aboard, and sold them to the settlers as laborers. But it was not in Virginia that a legal basis for slave ownership was first created, as Massachusett’s “Body of Liberties” promulgated in 1641, held that “There shall never be any bond slavery, villeinage, nor captivity among us, unless it be lawful captives taken in just wars, and such strangers as willingly sell themselves, or are sold, unto us.” And from this came New England’s domination of the transatlantic slave trade.
Bringing Down the Vengeance of Heaven
“Taking a hint apparently from the Mahommetans, the clergy had denounced it as a scandalous and outrageous thing for one Christian to hold another in slavery; and their preaching on this point had been so successful, that about the time of the discovery of America it had come to be considered a settled matter, not in England only, but throughout Western Europe, that no Christian ought to be, or lawfully could be, held as a slave.
But with the customary narrowness of that age, this immunity from slavery was not thought to extend to infidels and pagans. While the emancipation of serfs was going on, black slaves, brought by the Portuguese from the coast of Guinea, became common in the south of Europe, and a few found their way to England.
The first Englishman to be engaged in this business was Sir John Hawkins, who, during the reign of Elizabeth, made several voyages to the coast of Guinea for Negroes, whom he disposed of to the Spaniards of the West Indies.
The Queen granted several patents to encourage this traffic; yet she is said to have expressed to Hawkins her hope that the Negroes went voluntarily from Africa, declaring that if any force were used to enslave them, she doubted not it would bring down the vengeance of Heaven upon those guilty of such wickedness.
The newly discovered coasts of America were also visited by kidnappers. Few, if any, of the early voyagers scrupled to seize the natives, and to carry them home as slaves. Sir Ferdinando Gorges, so active and so conspicuous in the early settlement of New England, had a number of these captured natives, whom he claimed as his property, kept under restraint, and employed as guides and pilots. The practice of the early English settlers in America, and their ideas of the English law on the subject, corresponded exactly with . . . Jewish provisions, indeed it would seem to have been regulated by them.
Thus they took with them, or caused to be brought out, a large number of indented Christian servants, whose period of bondage was limited to seven years, and who, till after the Revolution, constituted a distinct class in the community. Indeed, of the white immigrants to America preceding that era, the larger portion would seem to have arrived there under this servile character.
But while the servitude of Christians was thus limited, the colonists supposed themselves justified in holding Negroes and Indians as slaves for life.”
(Despotism in America: An Inquiry into the Nature, Results and Legal Basis of the Slave-Holding System in the United States, Richard Hildreth, John P. Jewett and Company, 1854, excerpts pp. 178-180)