The concept of slavery was not a new one to the English. The Portuguese had been importing slaves from Africa for over a century, and the Spanish had enslaved the Indians in Central and South America to work the mines and to grow crops. John Smith had been a slave himself, after being captured by the Turks.1 (He claims that a beautiful woman helped him escape, a story that parallels his tale of Pocahontas.) However, the colony lacked a legal framework for slavery until 40 years after that date, and 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. 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.2
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."3
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." 4