When the crop of Tobacco rescued Jamestown from economic disaster, most of the first workers who worked in the fields were indentured servants. Indentured servants were unfortunate Europeans who agreed to work for a master for a given time (usually four to five years) in exchange for a voyage to the New World. Some indentured servants were criminals released from English jails on the condition that they go to the colonies and some were Englishman who had a turn in their fate as well upright English citizens. This was rarely a good deal for the servants.
Many died of diseases before they became free. If they survived, it was a way to improve their social status by becoming landowners. Besides land, indentured servants were meant to receive other benefits as tools and clothing after they completed their time of service to their masters. The out come for many of the indentured servants did not work out the way it was planned.
Most finished their service with no equipment or supplies at all, which made it impossible to make a living on their own. Some indentured servants in Virginia did win their independence and moved to country areas away from the ocean. These poor men who finally had a chance to own their own land rapidly become a burden to the influential and wealthy tobacco planters who were the ruling class in Virginia. In 1675 and 1676 a group of former indentured servants under the guidance of Nathaniel Bacon killed a number of Indians who were blocking the way of their westward settlements. Nathaniel Bacon and his faction then processed to Jamestown to seize power from the prosperous tobacco planters. When the governor of Virginia tried to stop the looting and murdering, Nathaniel Bacon and his group burned Virginia’s capital to the ground.
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Bacon’s Rebellion soon buckled but there were still other problems with the indentured servitude system. Not all indentured servants became profitable farmers, trades people and craftsmen’s. And in the 1670’s the flow of indentured servants declined substantially. All of this taught tobacco planters that relying on white indentured servants was dangerous and was a dying labor system.
The Tobacco crop both saved and cursed Virginia. Plantation owners became rich because of the high European request for New World tobacco. With the decline of indentured servants and the high labor requirements to grow tobacco it led plantation owners to look for laborers elsewhere. That is when they turned to the slave trade of Africa It was not clear at first on the class of black slaves in the New World compared to the white indentured servants.
At first it was difficult for colonists and Africans to maintain strictly separate positions. White labor and black labor lived and worked together for a period of time on conditions of virtual sameness. Some black labors were cared for like indentured servants and sometimes were freed after a set period of servitude. Some Blacks became landowners and some owned slaves also.
This all changed in the early eighteenth century. Black slaves were not set free from their masters after there fixed term of servitude. All blacks would remain in service eternally and the children born to the slaves would become the possession of the landowners. Then the colonial legislative body passed slave codes limiting the rights of blacks in law and by doing this it gave total power to the white masters. Congress finally outlawed the American slave trade in 1808.