The First American Slave and the First American Slaveholder, Virginia Colony, 1654.
In 1654 a man of African descent named John Casor became the first official slave in Virginia Colony and his owner, a man named Anthony Johnson became the first official slaveholder. However there is an ironic twist in history that may be very surprising to non-historians. The first American slaveholder was also a man of African descent who was stolen from his home in Africa.
Anthony Johnson was born in what is now modern day Angola sometime in the early 1600’s. In 1619 he was captured by a rival tribe and sold to slave traders, then sent by ship to Virginia Colony. Incredibly in Virginia there was no slavery at the time nor did they have a clear concept of slavery. However the Spanish and Portuguese, who held large territories in Latin America and Africa, had no qualms about taking human beings as slaves, and thus started the slave trade. When slavers began dropping off their human cargo in the English colonies, the English had little concept of slavery, and wondered what role these new African residents would have in society. Most of the Africans shipped to America has been baptized by the Spanish and under English Law Christians could not be taken as slaves. In the end it was decided that African slaves would become a part of Virginia Colony’s 1,000 English indentured servants.
Indentured servitude was a form of labor common in the colonies. Many English settlers could not afford to make the crossing to the New World, so they entered into a contract with a patron to become indentured servants. The patron would pay all the travel fees for the settler, but the settler would pledge a certain number years of labor in return (usually 5-7) years. In the meantime the patron would have to feed, clothe, shelter, and look after the health of his servant. When the indentured servant’s period of labor ended, by law the patron would have to provide the means for which the servant could make a start as a newly freed person. This included one years worth of food, a cash payment, clothing, tools, a gun, and a plot of land.
Anthony Johnson became a indentured servant and after serving four years was given his startup goods and a 50 acre plot of land. Johnson became a tobacco farmer, the main export cash crop of Virginia that was worth its weight in silver among wealthy Europeans. By the 1650’s Johnson was one of the most successful planters in Virginia, with a 600 acre plantation and 5 indentured servants of his own. When the term of service of one servant, John Casor, was completed Johnson filed suit with the colonial government claiming Casor as a servant in perpetuity. In other words, Johnson was claiming Casor as a real, full-time slave. Incredibly, the Virginia Court upheld his claim, making John Casor the first official slave in America and Anthony Johnson the first American slaveholder.
The precedent set by the case would stand English Common Law on its head. Immediately owners of indentured servants used the law to make their own servants full fledged slaves. The law itself also started to change. African immigrants lost their English citizenship but were instead legally treated the same as foreigners. As a result of this law, Anthony Johnson’s land and estate was seized in 1670 by the Government of Virginia, as Johnson lost his citizenship and became a foreigner. In 1662 Virginia Colony passed a law stating that the children of an enslaved woman would also become slaves, creating an inescapable caste system for African Americans. In 1698 Parliament passed a law permitting all British subjects to trade slaves. Then in 1705 Virginia passed a law nullifying the baptisms Africans, thus removing any qualms about owning slaves who where baptized as Christians. A floodgate of slave trading would spew forth from the new laws, creating a huge demand for slaves. In the English colonies alone over 600,000 thousand people were abducted from their homes in Africa and forced to toil as slaves in a foreign land. Millions more lived their entire lives as slaves because they were born to slave families. Slavery became an institution, located primarily in the south, an institution that would take a bloody Civil War to end. Worse yet was the attitude of racism and prejudice that developed among whites that would pervade American culture, a problem that we are still dealing with today. The decision of Virginia Colony to make John Casor a slave to Anthony Johnson would open a very dark chapter in American history that has yet to be closed.