The English did not immediately enslave the Native Americans when they arrived at Jamestown, nor did they bring slaves from Africa in the first years. Various forms of slavery were familiar to the English and other Europeans, as well as to Africans and Native Americans, but in the 1600's nearly all labor in England consisted of free workers.
A 1772 legal decision in England officially blocked the export of anyone from England as a slave, an 1807 act of Parliament blocked English participation in the slave trade from Africa, and all slaves still held in bondage in England were finally freed in 1828.1
John Smith had been a slave himself, after being captured by the Turks. He claimed that a beautiful woman helped him escape, a story that parallels his later tale of rescue by Pocahontas.2
For years a Dutch ship was credited with bringing the first slaves to Virginia in 1619 or 1620. Latest scholarship indicates that two English pirate ships intercepted a Portuguese ship in the Gulf of Mexico, then transported slaves to Jamestown. The Portuguese ship had acquired a cargo of slaves in Angola, and was planning to sell them to Spanish settlers in Mexico.
The Portuguese were the first European country to sail south and explore the African coast, and ultimately to get around the Cape of Good Hope and travel by water to India. Portuguese ship captains had been importing slaves from Africa for over a century.
The Spanish had enslaved the Indians in Central and South America to work the mines and to grow crops, but needed even more workers. For almost a century, Caribbean islands and New Spain had provided a reliable market for someone willing to acquire a cargo of human beings in Africa and sail across the Atlantic Ocean.
In 1619, the English colony in Virginia was too small and too poor to justify sailing to it as a destination. Ship captains did not expect the settlers there to have sufficient gold or silver to buy slaves.
The first documentation of the arrival of enslaved people starts with the Portuguese ship São João Bautista loading a cargo of 350 people off the coast of Angola. His intended destination was Vera Cruz, but near there he was intercepted by two pirates. The English captain of the two ships claimed to be privateers, authorized to seize Spanish and Portuguese vessels under letters of marque.
At the time, Phillip III of Spain ruled Portugal, under the Iberian Union which lasted from 1580-1640. The letters of marque had been issued by two European leaders at war with Spain, the Dutch Prince of Orange and the Duke of Savoy (a small territory near modern Switzerland). Because periods of war and peace changed intermittently, the two ship captains were at risk of losing the legal right to attack Spanish and Portuguese ships if those two leaders chose to make peace with Phillip III. Technically, they would become pirates rather than authorized privateers during times of peace, so long as the captains were aware of a peace agreement.
The White Lion and the Treasurer had sailed from a Dutch port in 1619. That summer they captured the São João Bautista and seized 50 men and women, perhaps all the two ships had room to transport. The pirates/privateers immediately sailed to Point Comfort. Virginia was a familiar destination for the Treasurer. Deputy governor Samuel Argall was a part owner, and the Treasurer had transported Pocahontas to England in 1616.
John Rolfe reported to the Virginia Company later that the White Lion arrived first, near the end of August, with about half of the people stolen from the Portuguese ship. The ship captain needed to make a sale in Virginia; taking his stolen cargo to a Spanish settlement was not an easy alternative, and there was no market for a shipload of Africans in England.
The Virginia Company needed more workers in its colony. The company's new management team in London had altered the terms of settlement in 1618, issuing a "Great Charter" to attract more immigrants from England. As part of the new policies, Virginia's first General Assembly had been held earlier that summer.
The arrival of the White Lion loaded with non-English workers was unexpected. Ultimtely the governor George Yeardley and the cape merchant (essentially the quartermaster for the colony) Abraham Peirsey traded supplies for the Angolans. The Treasurer arrived a few days later, but found it harder to sell its half of the stolen cargo. The letter of marque issued by the Duke of Savoy was not valid because he had made peace with Phillip III, so the Treasurer could be defined as a pirate. Any English colonist trading with a pirate could end up in legal difficulty.
The White Lion unloaded 28-30 people, which John Rolfe reported as "20 and odd" people. The Treasurer unloaded only 2-3 before sailing away to Bermuda. The acting governor on the island there was less concerned about the status of the letter of marque and purchased the remainder of the cargo. Apparently all 32 Africans documented in a March 1620 census of the colony's population arrived on the two ships.3
The status of the first Angolans is confusing. Their skin color clearly made them different, but the Virginia colony lacked a legal framework for slavery until 40 years after the 1619 delivery.
The great increase in the slave population did not start until 1700. Tobacco was a labor-intensive crop. Each slave or indentured servant working on a tobacco plantation may have processed 10,000 plants a year. That would require bending over 10,000 times to plant seeds, 10,000 times to dig seedlings from the early planting bed, 10,000 times to plant seedlings in a field...
As plantation agriculture spread up the Potomac River, the demand for field workers exceeded the supply of people in the colonies and England willing to do such work. The economic solution was to obtain laborers from another source - slaves from Africa, imported through the Caribbean islands as well as directly from that continent. In the 1660's, the demand for labor in Virginia exceeded the supply of indentured servants from England after the end of the civil war there.
slavery was developed in Virginia so planters could acquire a cheap labor force to grow tobacco
Source: Library of Congress, Tyler, His Family and His Allegiance to the South
The Virginia colony revised its laws in that decade to establish that blacks could be kept in slavery permanently, generation after generation. An influx of slaves was spurred at the same time by a drop in the value of sugar grown on Caribbean islands, causing the planters there to sell their "property" to the tobacco farmers in Virginia.4
There is a continuing debate regarding whether racism against blacks preceded the adoption of a legal system upporting lifetime slavery in Virginia, or whether the practice of slavery triggered the colonists' racist attitudes. Blacks were not automatically slaves in the early colonial days. Some held property, married, and raised families outside the institution of slavery.
In the 1660's, however, the government of the colony (not the officials in London...) established the legal framework for perpetual servitude based on color. "Every year between 1667 and 1672 the General assembly enacted legislation which increasingly defined a Virginian's status by skin color. Similar laws followed in 1680, 1682, and 1686. By the final decade of the seventeenth century, those characteristics most associated with the plantation society of the eighteenth century were already evident."5
The slave trade lasted almost 200 years, until the importation of slaves was officially prohibited in 1808 by Article I, Section 9 of the US Constitution:
Most Virginia slaves were apparently imported from the Caribbean islands, rather than shipped directly Africa. According to the acting governor in Virginia in 1680, "what negoes were brought to Virginia were imported generally from Barbados for it was very rare to have a negro ship come to this Country directly from Africa."6
Virginia was a center of the slave trade after the import of slaves was banned in 1808, and shipped Virginia-born slaves to fast-growing states along the Gulf Coast
Source: Library of Congress, Slave Auction
by 1860, slaves were the majority of the population in a substantial portion of Tidewater and Piedmont Virginia
Source: Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States, Slaves, 1860 (Plate 68b), digitized by University of Richmond