Why Did Virginia’s Rulers Invent a Color Line?

Essays on the Color Line and the One-Drop Rule
by Frank W Sweet
November 1, 2005


bout 3,750 years ago, speakers of Indo-European languages who called themselves Aryans migrated into India from the northwest, displacing the speakers of Dravidian languages who had inhabited the subcontinent since the Neolithic revolution.1 The written history of the Aryan newcomers, the Rig-Veda, describes this replacement as the military conquest of savage tribes by civilized people. But this image is not supported by archaeology. Instead, the Dravidian Indus Valley civilization was a highly developed urban culture with labor specialization and literature. Mohenjo-daro and Harappa were the society’s most advanced and well-excavated cities. Nevertheless, the Indo-Aryans were more advanced militarily. Despite the high level of Dravidian civilization, their culture collapsed and they were conquered by the Aryans, who occupied and ruled India thenceforth.2 Only the Aryan records of this conquest survive, since Dravidian script is still undecipherable whereas Aryan writing (Sanskrit) is easily read, being the ancestor of English (and German, Latin, Greek, Russian, etc.).

The Dravidians were not exterminated. They were enslaved. They were forced to labor for their conquerors, and their mixed descendants were allowed only limited opportunities to rise in Aryan society. In order to keep their forced laborers under control, elite Aryans introduced Hinduism and its caste system.

The Hindu caste system delineates four endogamous groups (varna). These are: priests (Brahmana), warriors (Ksatriya), farmers and merchants (Vaisya), and menial laborers (Sudra). Priests as well as rulers enforced the three endogamous barriers separating the four groups. The top three castes were reserved for Aryans and for the children of those few male Aryans who were socially powerful enough to defy the system and sire children upon Dravidian females. Unmixed Dravidians were consigned to the lowest caste, along with the despised children of lower-caste fathers and higher-caste mothers. Centuries later, Hindu society added a fifth group, the outcasts or untouchables (Achuta or Harijana), relegated to the most unclean tasks (burying the dead, unclogging latrines, slaughtering animals).3

Thousands of years ago, the Hindu endogamous barriers were erected to stabilize a stratified society and to prevent alliances that might overthrow rulers. The system has endured for nearly four millennia without being toppled. On paper, the modern nation of India repealed the caste system decades ago. Nevertheless, the four castes remain as endogamous as ever, and their associated civil liabilities remain as strong as ever.4

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As explained in the previous essay, a successful endogamous barrier between those of African descent and those of European descent appeared only once in history—in the Chesapeake around the turn of the eighteenth century. It had never arisen before, anywhere else on earth. And, although it gradually spread through British North America over the next half-century, an endogamous color line has never arisen since.

Two questions are irresistible. Why was the endogamous color line invented in the Chesapeake and nowhere else? Why was it invented at the turn of the eighteenth century and not before nor after? This essay presents several theories. It Was a “Divide and Conquer” Tactic suggests that it was a deliberately calculated solution to a unique problem of: too few yeomen, too many European laborers, and too little time. Other Voices presents a collection of alternative theories including: fair-skinned people have an instinctive loathing for those with dark skin tone, people of certain religions or cultures were taught to reject Africans, and it was related to the numbers of European women.

It was a “Divide and Conquer” Tactic

For decades, forced laborers had fled the Chesapeake. The first person known to have his servitude extended for trying to escape was English bound laborer John Joyce, in August 1623. He was also whipped with thirty strokes of the lash.5 Thousands fled into the forests, some singly, some in small multiracial bands of two to ten. During 1676, the watershed year of Bacon’s rebellion, between 880 and 890 laborers of every ancestry fled Virginia in large groups.6 Most were soon recaptured by Native Americans and returned in chains. But others succeeded in getting away. They created the maroon communities of the Cumberland Plateau which have survived to this day.7

Others committed suicide rather than endure the unendurable. In October 1656, Thomas, an Irishman owned by John Custis slashed his own throat and threw himself down a well. Another coerced worker “willfully Cast himself away” in a creek near his owner’s Westmoreland County plantation during a period when tobacco prices were low and laborers were being left to die of famine (the seventeenth-century version of downsizing). That same year, Cork County servant Walter Catford “for want of Grace tooke a Grind stone and a Roape and tyed it around his Middle and Crosse his thighs and most barbarously went and drowned himselfe contrary to the Laws of the King and this Country.”8

Others turned their despair into attacks on their owners. In 1658, English servant Huntington Ayres killed his owner and the owner’s wife with a “lathing hammer” as they slept. In 1671, three Elke River workers (two English and one African) axed their owner, John Hawkins, to death. They were hanged, as were those whose attacks had less success. Englishman Charles Rogers took a hoe to his Norfolk County owner in August 1666, as did Lancaster County African William Page in 1671. The latter had previously warned, “God damn him. If [the owner] strock him again he would beat out his braynes.” In 1672, Northampton County Portuguese laborer Nicolas Silvio attacked his owner John Savage. In 1687, African John Parris set fire to the plantation before running away. 9

To the landlords, the most threatening form of defiance was armed revolt. Virginia planters knew that in 1634 Barbados, 800 forced laborers revolted and were quelled only after pitched battles against English troops. In 1648, it was reported that, “many hundreds of Rebell negro slaves were in the woods.” Among four major revolt plots that shook the island between 1675 and 1701, African and European workers launched a failed 1686 rebellion, and a biracial conspiracy tried to seize the fortress at Bridgetown in 1692. Rebellion was also a permanent feature of Jamaica. When the Spanish left in 1655, about 1,500 forced laborers escaped to the mountains. They became the Jamaica maroons, who fought the British, on and off, until 1796.10 According to Richard Price, “for more than four centuries, the communities formed by… [self-liberated laborers] dotted the fringes of plantation America, from Brazil to the southeastern United States, from Peru to the American Southwest.” They “struck directly at the foundation of the plantation system, presenting military and economic threats that often taxed the colonists to their very limits.”11 A maroon community led by Yanga, an African of reputed royal rank, was founded in the mountains near Vera Cruz and successfully negotiated its right to exist in 1580 after defeating the Spanish military force sent to destroy it. Another supposedly African king, Domingo Biolto, similarly founded San Basilio, Colombia, and won its freedom in 1619. The maroon settlement of Palmares in Bahia fought off Brazilian troops for 122 years (1575-1694) before succumbing to overwhelming military force after a six-week siege.12 Meanwhile, back in Virginia, the Lawnes Creek Mutiny was put down in 1673. It served notice that full-scale revolt was imminent.13

Three years later, the Virginia planters’ nightmare came to life. Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676 began as a war of Amerind extermination, but soon became a massive uprising of coerced laborers. In its last nine months, thousands of African, European, and mixed forced laborers captured weapons and crushed the gentry’s small militia. A half-century earlier, in 1624, Captain John Smith had predicted that basing his colony on forced labor was bound to “bring… [Virginia] to misery.”14 His prophesy seemed to be coming true. The siege of Jamestown lasted until British regulars arrived from Europe and rescued Governor Berkeley. The landowners promised amnesty if no more blood was shed, then (to the king’s disgust) promptly hanged 23 rebel leaders when they surrendered.15

Virginia was not unique in being under the threat of rebellion by forced laborers. All New World colonies ran the risk of servile insurrection. All needed to have sufficient yeomen (landowning subsistence farmers available to take up arms) to deter or quickly crush a slave uprising. Many home governments had promised to send regular army troops if an insurrection ever got out of hand. But this still meant that the landlords and their loyal yeomen would have to hold out under siege for the weeks that it would take military rescuers to cross the Atlantic.16 Furthermore, every early New World colony seemed to be run by profit-hungry landlords who regularly drove their forced laborers to starvation. In short, they were tinderboxes of servile revolt. By the middle of the seventeenth century, it was clear to all colonial masters that risk of insurrection had to be taken seriously. Not only was it necessary to deter runaways by making examples of those caught, but it was also vital to deter revolts by keeping on hand a traditionally large buffer class of armed yeomen.

The challenge faced by colonial rulers was that the buffer class had to be roughly as numerous as the colony’s forced labor population, and the forced laborers themselves were its only possible source. Like it or not, every New World colony lacking sufficient yeomen had to transform at least half of its forced laborers into landed yeomen if it was to survive. Each colony adopted a solution that suited its own particular situation. How they went about it reveals something important. Each strategy was carefully crafted by men who found a way to maximize profit, given their colony’s peculiar circumstance.

For several reasons, few of the forced laborers in Iberian New World colonies were of European ancestry. Portuguese colonies used Africans. Spanish colonies used Africans plus comparable numbers of Amerinds (where they did not simply exterminate the latter, as in the Caribbean). But Iberians had a centuries-long tradition of accepting Africans into mainstream society (the Almoravid Empire had stretched from Senegambia to Barcelona). They thus created the continuum societies of Latin America, three-class societies that, to this day, are of Afro-European genetic admixture from top to bottom, small copies of sixteenth-century Spain and Portugal.

Planters in the British and French West Indies also had been unable to periodically repopulate their European workers as often as they could acquire new Africans. Their proportion of European forced laborers was larger than that of the Iberian colonies. Nevertheless, most of their laborers were also Africans. But neither Holland, France, nor England had any tradition of accepting Africans into mainstream society. Rulers were unsure of the future loyalty of African yeomen. So planters and the few yeomen were ordered or encouraged to beget children upon servant or slave women, expand the already growing biracial population, and select their own children as new yeomen. They thus created the three-caste societies common to most colonial empires—White rulers, Coloured yeomen, and Black laborers.

Virginia was unique in its demographic mix. Virginia alone had too many European forced laborers to adopt such solutions. Jamestown had been a dumping ground for British (including Scots and Irish) poor, landless, homeless, and criminals. Unlike Massachusetts, Chesapeake plantations were too lucrative to be abandoned to subsistence farmers, and yet over half of their forced laborers were of European descent. They had waited too long to adopt the British West Indies solution of creating a biracial yeoman class in the next generation. With too many European workers to take the Spanish approach, Virginia alone found it useful to adopt a divide-and-rule strategy.

At the turn of the eighteenth century, Virginia’s rulers faced a problem that no other New World colony had ever faced before, nor ever would again. They had about 15,000 adult colonists. Of these, roughly 9,000 were involuntary laborers. About 7,000 of the 9,000 Virginians held in bondage were of European descent and 2,000 were of Native American and/or African ancestry.17 In order to suppress rebellion, Virginia had to create a free yeoman class virtually overnight. They did not have enough time to grow one. They did not even have time to train one. Somehow, they had to split about 5,000 instantly recognizable yeomen from the total forced-labor population, so as to wind up with just as many Virginians with a stake in suppressing servile insurrection as there were in fomenting it. Again, what was unique was that 7,000 of the 9,000 Virginians held in bondage were Europeans.18

The Virginia Assembly’s solution was to drive a wedge vertically through the three existing social ranks: planters, yeomen, and forced laborers. Once separated, the Whites (a newly coined term for people of mainly European ancestry) would become the new upper endogamous group, keeping Blacks (the newly invented lower endogamous group) permanently in check. The gentry foresaw that all members of the White group would eventually rise socially to become free Englishmen. All members of the Black group would eventually descend to become slaves.19

At first, human nature threatened to make a mockery of the plan. Ordinary Virginians did not yet perceive those few physical features that differ between Europeans and Africans as indicating “otherness.”20 How could the rulers successfully split African from European when the population was quickly becoming mixed Afro-European through intermarriage?21 The legislative solution passed in 1691 was to criminalize intermarriage.22

Not everyone in government thought an endogamous color line a good idea. Virginia’s Attorney General Richard West wrote to his superiors in London, the Lords of Trade and Plantations. He expressed misgivings about interfering with the Christian tradition that marriage was a sacrament between a pledged couple and their God. For his part, Governor General William Gooch advocated criminalizing marriage between servants of European and African ancestry.23 Gooch feared the eruption of another bloody servile insurrection, a replay of Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676.

As Gooch explained in his own 1723 letter to the Lords of Trade and Plantation, the new endogamous color line depended on colonists’ being “sensible that a distinction ought to be made between [Black] offspring and the descendants of an Englishman.” Gooch spelled out that Virginia’s necessary, but still weak color line was in jeopardy from biracial colonists, who were “descended from a white Father or Mother.” And so, he wrote, making intermarriage illegal was contrived “as a way of discouraging that kind of copulation.”24

In short, this theory says that the endogamous color line was designed to avert servile insurrection at a unique time and place. It was the only time and place with more forced laborers of European descent than of African descent. Virginia was the only New World colony where such a method of permanently splitting potential insurrectionist allies could have worked. No other colony would have benefited from splitting Europeans from Africans by an endogamous barrier. This is because no other colony, whether British, French, Dutch, Spanish, or Portuguese, had such a high fraction (more than half) of European forced laborers. None could benefit by preventing mixing between Europeans and Africans, and so none had to criminalize intermarriage.Consequently, none ever needed to invent or enforce an endogamous color line.25

The strength of this theory is that it starts from the two pivotal facts that we know unambiguously. First, the endogamous color line was (and remains) unique to British North America. Second, Virginia’s rulers implemented it deliberately via 1691 legislation, followed by ruthless enforcement lasting generations. To explain why they did it, this theory accepts the words of the decision-makers themselves. They claimed that they did it in order to prevent a servile insurrection by an alliance of European and African forced laborers. Among scholars who support this explanation are: Allen, Bennett, Breen, Harris, Morgan, Morner, and Smedley.26

Other Voices

The “divide and conquer” theory is said to have six weaknesses. It skips the fact that Virginia’s military governors used a well-known tactic. It skips the role of the church. It fails to explain why Spaniards did not need a yeoman class. It does not connect attitudes to numbers of European women. It does not explain why the endogamous color line was so easily accepted by North American colonies (like Massachusetts, for example) that had no risk of servile insurrection. Finally, it traces horrific results to a trivial cause.

It skips the fact that Virginia’s military governors used a well-known tactic. This somehow suggests that they invented “divide and conquer” on their own. In fact, neither Attoney-General Richard West, Governor-General William Gooch, nor Governor-General William Berkeley—the governor who had come close to being hanged when Bacon’s Rebellion almost transformed Virginia into a maroon colony—originated the idea of an enforced endogamous barrier as a way of preventing an insurrection alliance of subjugated groups. The tactic was well-known and of ancient usage among military governors. The British later used the technique in their treaty with the Jamaica Maroons whose 1,500 ancestors had fled slavery nearly a century before. The treaty guaranteed the Maroons their lands and freedom in return for their promise to crush any future slave uprisings without British army help. Indeed, a militarily enforced endogamous barrier between Protestants and Catholics had been applied earlier in mid 17-century Ireland by some of the very same men who applied it later in the Chesapeake. They merely adopted it from their predecessors as a way of discouraging rebellious alliances.

Their immediate predecessors were the Roundheads in Ireland. They copied the idea from Oliver Cromwell’s successful crushing of Irish resistance. The English in Ireland had to quell a new rebellion every few generations. Conquering landlords married conquered women, who then raised their sons in the Irish culture. The Irish descendants of English invaders—Catholics and Protestants alike—would ultimately rebel against English rule in their turn. Ireland suffered under ever-repeating cycles of conquest, intermarriage, and revolt. Cromwell’s men found a permanent solution. They made intermarriage between Protestant English landlords and Catholic Irish serfs a crime.27

And yet when you come down to it, Cromwell’s officers did not invent enforced endogamy to suppress insurrection alliance either. Just thirty years before Cromwell’s 1649 invasion of Ireland, the first East India Company ships returned from Surat, Gujarat—from the court of the Mughal Emperor, Jahangir.28 They docked in London bringing wondrous tales of a Hindu caste system, invented 3,400 years before to accomplish that very same goal—avoiding joint insurrection by averting the birth of people with dual heritage (Aryans and Dravidians in the Hindu case).29 In fact, one could probably find cases of “divide and conquer” stretching back into the mists of time. It is why the phrase rings a bell, after all.

It skips the role of the church. An alliance between the Catholic Church and the Spanish Crown fought and won a centuries-long struggle against local elites to defend and maintain the humanity of both Amerinds and Africans against inhumane treatment. They were inspired by Las Casas’s writings in favor of Indian rights. In the same manner, independent, London-appointed clergymen in Barbados undermined planter goals by surreptitiously flouting laws forbidding them to baptize African slaves.30 Other colonies had similar experiences. Churches throughout the New World resisted the ostracism of any group of God’s children. Church resistance thereby defeated or softened planter-imposed systems of segregation in Jamaica, Trinidad, Montserrat, St. Kitts, and Nevis. Ethical religious leaders of many denominations foresaw the destructive legacy that such a society-sundering tactic would leave behind.

Virginia’s church, in contrast, supported the color line. This was the result of a chain of events that involved the dissolution of the Virginia Company in 1624, the deaths of local bishops, and the financial poverty of the Anglican Church consequent to the English Civil War. The church in England lacked the funds to appoint new bishops and ship them to the colonies. Consequently, Virginia gentry seized the authority to appoint or fire ministers, and no independent religious organization was ever allowed to form in the seventeenth-century Chesapeake.31 In the end, Virginia was the only British colony where planters controlled who was allowed to preach. And Virginia was also the only British colony where the clergy, whose jobs were at stake, followed planter orders and preached against intermarriage and in support of a forcibly endogamous color line.32

Some have taken a different approach to analyzing the impact of religion on the color line. They suggest that, since the endogamous color line was devised by Protestant Englishmen rather than by Catholic Spaniards, it must have had something to do with the Reformation. The problem here is that Catholic Marylanders joined with Protestant Virginians in enforcing the endogamous barrier, while Protestant colonists in the British West Indies intermarried as consistently as Catholic colonists in the Spanish and French West Indies. Indeed, the flaw in all theories that seek explanations by contrasting Englishmen with Spaniards is that the world is much vaster than either. Neither pre-reformation Europeans, Muslims, the people of the Indian Ocean, nor Englishmen outside North America ever felt the need for an endogamous barrier between Europeans and Africans.

It fails to explain why Spaniards did not need a yeoman class. Where Virginia’s governors decreed a forcibly endogamous color line, the Spanish crown explicitly allowed colonists to intermarry. On October 9, 1514, Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor Charles V decreed a Spanish law that explicitly permitted intermarriage between Spaniards and Indians. The law was reenacted in 1515 and 1556. No mention was made regarding intermarriage with Africans, since intermarriage between free Christian Iberians and free Muslim Africans had been common for many centuries.33 On May 11, 1527, a Spanish royal decree ruled that marriages between African slaves were of equal validity as between free Africans and Spaniards, and encouraged them.34

Spanish colonists did not need to create a yeoman class because they took over existing stratified imperial civilizations. British colonists in Virginia brought civilization to a land populated by pre-literate hunter-gatherers and early agriculturalists. They had to create a three-tier society (planter, yeoman, forced laborer) from scratch, and so they had to establish the social controls necessary to stabilizing and preserving such a structure. The Spanish hidalgos, in contrast, insinuated themselves into two geographically huge, militarily powerful, and organizationally advanced (though technologically retarded) empires. The hidalgos exterminated the indigenous aristocracies of the Aztecs and Incas, and took their places, leaving their social structures untouched. They married females of the indigenous nobility in order to legitimize their rule.

The crown explicitly authorized intermixing in the New World in order to merge the nobilities of Spain with those of the native civilizations. That they succeeded in merging these nobilities through intermarriage is clear in the following statement by one of Cortez’s soldiers:

Before I go any further, I wish to say about the Cacica the daughter of Xicotenga, who was named Doña Luisa and was given to Pedro de Alvarado, that when they gave her to him all the greater part of Tlaxcala paid reverence to her, and gave her presents, and looked on her as their mistress, and Pedro de Alvarado, who was then a bachelor, had a son by her named Don Pedro and a daughter named Doña Leonor, who is now the wife of Don Francisco de la Cueva, a nobleman, and a cousin of the Duke of Albuquerque, who had by her four or five sons, very good gentlemen.35

It does not connect attitudes to numbers of European women. That America’s uniqueness had something to do with the presence or absence of women is a misunderstanding. Some suggest that Virginia’s rulers forbade Afro-European intermarriage because they had so many English women that they did not need to marry Africans.36 Others say that Virginia’s rulers forbade intermarriage because they had so few English women, that they wanted to keep those few to themselves.37 Some writers claim both, writing on one page that Virginia had fewer White women than did other New World colonies, and on another page that it had more. In fact, detailed studies show that Virginia had about the same proportion of English women as the other British colonies in the West Indies, who intermarried freely. Until 1620, White women were generally unavailable either in Virginia or in the British West Indies, and English males often “took recourse” to Indian or African women.38 Furthermore, even the earliest Spanish conquerors brought their wives on their military campaigns, and subsequent shiploads of immigrants from Spain to the New World (amounting to 200,000-300,000 souls during the sixteenth century alone) carried roughly equal numbers of males and females.39 The explanation for Virginia’s uniqueness must rest on something other than too many or too few European women.

It does not explain why the endogamous color line was so easily accepted by North American British colonies that had no risk of servile insurrection. As mentioned earlier, within a few decades after 1691 Virginia, other colonies also decreed forcibly endogamous color lines: Massachusetts in 1705, North Carolina in 1715, Delaware in 1721, Pennsylvania in 1725.40 With this in mind, some scholars suggest that British North American colonists were “primed” somehow by instinct to de-humanize Africans and see them as the “other.”41

Winthrop Jordan, one of the most influential historians of U.S. racialism, says that Negroes are an “incipient sub-species,”42 and claims that horror of intermarriage and passing arises from within the White psyche as an instinctive dislike of people with dark skin tone.43 Social intolerance, he suggests, is like word usage. Englishmen, according to Jordan, could not help harboring an instinctive loathing of Blacks because:

No other color except white conveyed so much emotional impact. As described in the Oxford English Dictionary, the meaning of black before the sixteenth century included, “Deeply stained with dirt; soiled, dirty, foul…. Having dark or deadly purposes, malignant; pertaining to or involving death; baneful, disastrous, sinister…. Foul, iniquitous, atrocious, horrible, wicked…. Indicating disgrace, censure, liability to punishment, etc.” Black was an emotionally partisan color, the handmaid and symbol of baseness and evil, a sign of danger and repulsion.44

Jordan further explains “inchoate” British disgust at dark skin tone by comparing it to Englishmen’s reaction to apes, nudity, lust, debauchery, and Shakespeare’s Othello. Jordan presents the past as a conflict between Evil (enslavement and degradation of poor benighted beasts) and Good (compassion for helpless, less advanced creatures). These two elemental forces wrestle for control of the Anglo-Saxon psyche. In the end, Jordan assures us that hope still arises that the White man can “turn to stare at the animal within him” and “recognize that what had happened and was still happening with himself and the Negro in America,… [and so] he might set foot on a better road.”45 Many other scholars, like Jordan, have found evidence of “race” consciousness among Europeans earlier than 1691. Among them are: Kathleen Brown, David Eltis, Oscar and Mary Handlin, and Richard Williams.46

The two drawbacks of these explanations are complementary. First, no evidence exists of a pre-1691 endogamous color line. Second, in order to collect evidence, one must broaden the meaning of “racism” to include virtually any inter-ethnic disdain. The notion that the endogamous color line came about because the terms “white” and “black” had previous connotations misses the fact that those terms were not applied to Europeans and Africans (Christians and heathens, in seventeenth-century phrasing) until after the color line was invented. The suggestion that when Europeans first saw Black people during Elizabethan times, they were doomed to instinctive revulsion, founders on the ubiquity of prior Afro-European contact. Africans had been steadily imported across the Mediterranean since ancient times. At least one Roman emperor—Pescennius Niger—was very dark indeed.47 Fifteenth-century Flemish paintings of busy street scenes depict as many Blacks as in today’s Brussels.48 And upper-class ancient Egyptian portraits reveal a skin-tone range as great as in downtown Cairo today.49

Regarding pre-1691 evidence of “race” consciousness, opposing groups have dehumanized each other since the dawn of history. According to the Aryan Rig-veda, their god Indra blew “away with supernatural might from earth and from the heavens the black skin which Indra hates.” They wrote how Indra “slew the flat-nosed barbarians” and decreed that the foe was to be “flayed of his black skin.”50 Han Dynasty Chinese historians in the third century B.C. told of a yellow-haired, green-eyed people in a distant province “who greatly resemble the monkeys from whom they descend.” From 1350 B.C., Egyptian paintings depict lower Nile peoples with red bodies, those from the east (Semites, Hittites) as being yellow, those from upper Egypt as white, and Nubians as black. When lighter Egyptians were in power, they referred to the subordinate group as “the evil dark-skinned race of Ish.” When darker Egyptians dominated, they called the conquered “the pale, degraded race of Arvad.”51 Even the biblical prophet Jeremiah asked, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the Leopard his spots?”52 Medieval Europeans invented the idea that the biblical Ham was African. Elizabethans fretted over interracial marriage. Some Virginians taxed some Africans by 1645. Slaveowners morally justified lifelong hereditary forced labor by the inferiority of their victims as early as in 1662. Ronald Takaki, traces “racism” to the age of European conquest, colonization, and exploitation and asserts that European colonization itself was a manifestation of capitalism, and so a “racist” project by its very nature.53

Nevertheless, this essay is neither about “racism” nor “racial consciousness.” It is about people deprived of their lives, their liberty, or their property as society’s punishment for their marrying someone of the same nationality, class, religion, and language, but across an endogamous barrier separating those of African ancestry from those of European ancestry. This phenomenon was and is unique to British North America, and it emerged in 1691.54 This study excludes as explanatory, those factors (ethnocentrism, slavery, exploitation, capitalism) that are ubiquitous. This study seeks to explain a phenomenon found only in the land that became the United States, and so it focuses upon precursor phenomena found only in the land that became the United States.

Finally, it traces horrific results to a trivial cause. The origin of the U.S. endogamous color line seems strange because we expect great results to emerge from great acts and trivial results from trivial acts. And yet here was an act that was done in an apparently off-hand manner, without serious forethought, just to keep some forced laborers under control. A few people, like Attorney-General West, worried about the long-term consequences. But the consensus was that an endogamous barrier was necessary to the colony’s survival. The long-term consequences have been dreadful for the United States, of course. Worse yet, after three centuries of this bizarre social pathology, Americans are still coming up with fresh new rationalizations as to why it must be preserved for their grandchildren. Many scholars who research this tale feel the same way about it. It was a terrible decision by a few shortsighted men. It would somehow seem more satisfying if the U.S. endogamous color line had begun in some cataclysmic occurrence, a plague, or a war that slew millions, but there you have it. Trivial events sometimes have horrific consequences.

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This essay suggested: (1) That the endogamous color line was a consequence of planter-controlled governments outlawing intermarriage and brutally punishing offenders in the circa-1700 Chesapeake. (2) That the laws were passed in order to split potential servile insurrectionists. (3) That “race” consciousness, colonialism, capitalism, sexism, racism, and even slavery were incidental or peripheral to the main point because they appeared everywhere that Africans were carried, whereas the U.S. endogamous color line remains unique to this day. This means that the color-line-forming laws were not passed in order to consolidate power or dominance by one group over another beyond the obvious desire of the landed gentry to control their involuntary labor force. It means that Virginia ministers preached obedience to the law and revulsion towards Africans in demeaning terms, not because Virginia’s ministers were wickeder than those in Cuba, Jamaica, Brazil, or Barbados, but because (in contrast to the latter groups) Virginia’s preachers could be replaced by the local gentry. It means that U.S. popular culture originally adopted color-line endogamy (and its “black” and “white” terminology) in response to enforced laws, not as their cause.

Click here for an animated YouTube version of this topic.

1 Originally meaning “plowman,” the term Aryan later came to denote “noble” in Sanskrit. Unfortunately for the historian, the Nazis’ co-opting of a pseudo-history of India by Houston Stewart Chamberlain (1855-1927) to devise a mythology of an Aryan super-race, gave the term Aryan a bad smell and has thereby tainted subsequent discussions of these events.

2 “History of the Indian Subcontinent” in University of Chicago, ed. The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15 ed. (Chicago, 1974), 9:334-46; “Dravidian Local Race” in Britannica, 15 ed. (1974), iii:658; “Human Populations” in Britannica, 15 ed. (1974), 14:846; Britannica, 15 ed. (1974), 15:361.

3 “Hinduism” in Britannica, 15 ed. (1974), 8:903.

4 Tom O’Neill, “Untouchables,” National Geographic, June 2003, 2-31.

5 Theodore Allen, The Invention of the White Race, 2 vols. (London, 1994), 2:108.

6 Ibid., 2:153.

7 For an overview, see “The Maroon Escape Hatch” in the essay, The Rate of Black-to-White “Passing.”

8 Allen (1994), 2:149-51.

9 The quotes are taken from the summary of coerced labor resistance in Allen (1994), 2:149-51. For additional accounts, see Lerone Bennett Jr., The Shaping of Black America (Chicago, 1975), 39-57 and Edmund Sears Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York, 1975), 235-49.

10 Allen (1994) 2:224-26.

11 Richard Price, Maroon Societies: Rebel Slave Communities in the Americas, [1st ] ed. (Garden City NY, 1973), 2, 3.

12 Allen (1994), 2:149, 261-62.

13 Ibid., 2:160.

14 As quoted in Allen (1994), 2:203.

15 R. Ernest Dupuy and Trevor N. Dupuy, The Harper Encyclopedia of Military History, 4 ed. (New York, 1993), 660; Allen (1994), 203-22; Edmund Sears Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York, 1975), 268.

16 Allen (1994), 2:97-116; Audrey Smedley, Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview, 2nd ed. (Boulder, 1999), 104.

17 Allen (1994) 2:218; Edmund Sears Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York, 1975) 395-432; Joel Williamson, New People: Miscegenation and Mulattoes in the United States (New York, 1980), 7.

18 Idem.

19 Morgan (1975), 328; Allen (1994), 2:240; T. H. Breen and Stephen Innes, “Myne Owne Ground”: Race and Freedom on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, 1640-1676 (New York, 1980).

20 Kathleen M. Brown, Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia (Chapel Hill, 1996), 215.

21 Ibid., 206.

22 Paul Finkelman, “The Crime of Color,” Tulane Law Review, 67 (no. 6, 1992), 2063-112, 2086.

23 Allen (1994), 2:248.

24 As quoted in Allen (1994), 2:241-42; also see Audrey Smedley, Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview, 2nd ed. (Boulder, 1999), 145.

25 George M. Fredrickson, White Supremacy: A Comparative Study in American and South African History (New York, 1981b), Chapter 11.

26 Allen (1994); Bennett (1975); Breen (1980); Marvin Harris, Patterns of Race in the Americas (Westport CT, 1964); Morgan (1975); Magnus Morner, Race Mixture in the History of Latin America (Boston, 1967); Smedley (1999).

27 Allen (1994), volume 1.

28 University of Chicago, ed. The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15 ed. (Chicago, 1974), iii:762, ix: 687.

29 Ibid., 9:334-46,

30 Lila E. Salazar, Love Child: A Genealogist’s Guide to the Social History of Barbados (St. Michael, Barbados, 2000), 38-40.

31 An excellent account of the overwhelming power of the Catholic Church in Iberian colonies as well as of the chain of events that handed clerical power to the landed gentry in Virginia can be found in Herbert S. Klein, “Anglicanism, Catholicism, and the Negro Slave,” in Slavery in the New World: A Reader in Comparative History, ed. Laura Foner and Eugene D. Genovese (Englewood Cliffs NJ, 1969b), 138-66.

32 Bennett (1975), 71; Allen (1994), 1:21.

33 Werner Sollors, Neither Black Nor White Yet Both (Cambridge, 1997), 395. It should be noted that, two centuries later, during the Bourbon period, Spanish imperial law changed to require permission for intermarriage. Also, the extent to which Spanish imperial laws were obeyed varied dramatically over time and place.

34 Idem. Again, Spanish laws changed two centuries later and were often ignored.

35 Bernal Diaz del Castillo and J. M. Cohen, The Conquest of New Spain (Baltimore, 1963), 156.

36 Smedley (1999) 140.

37 Morgan (1975) 336.

38 Gary B. Nash, Red, White, and Black: The Peoples of Early America, 2nd ed. (Englewood Cliffs NJ, 1982) 276.

39 For accounts of the wives of Cortez’s officers, see Bernal Diaz del Castillo and J. M. Cohen, The Conquest of New Spain (Baltimore, 1963), 320. For numbers of Spanish colonists, see Murdo J. MacLeod, “Spain and America: The Atlantic Trade 1492-1720,” in The Cambridge History of Latin America: Colonial Latin America, ed. Leslie Bethell (Cambridge UK, 1984), 341-88, 356. For ratio of female to male Spanish colonists, see Analola Borges “La mujer pobladora en los origenes americanos,” Anuario de Estudios Americanos, 29 (1972) 389-444 or Peter Boyd-Bowman, “Patterns of Spanish Emigration to the Indies until 1600,” Hispanic American Historical Review, 56 (no. 4/November, 1976), 580-604.

40 Sollors (1997), 396-97.

41 See “The Instinctive Need to See ‘Otherness’” in the essay, The Perception of “Racial” Traits.

42 Winthrop D. Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (Chapel Hill, 1968) 584.

43 Jordan (1968) 582-84.

44 Ibid., 7.

45 Ibid., 582.

46 Kathleen M. Brown, Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia (Chapel Hill, 1996); David Eltis, The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas (Cambridge UK, 2000); Oscar Handlin and Mary F. Handlin, “Origins of the Southern Labor System,” William and Mary Quarterly, 7 (no. 2, April 1950), 199-222; Richard Williams, Hierarchical Structures and Social Value: The Creation of Black and Irish Identities in the United States (Cambridge UK, 1990).

47 J.A. Rogers, Sex and Race, 3 vols. (St. Petersburg, Fla., 1944), 1:86.

48 See the 1504 Hieronymus Bosch triptych “The Garden of Earthly Delight”

49 See, for instance, the Old Kingdom, early Fourth Dynasty statues depicting Prince Rahotep and his Consort Nefret. He is dark brown. She is light pink P.P. Kahane, Ancient and Classical Art, ed. Hans L. C. Jaffe, 6 vols., vol. 1 (New York, 1967), 1:47.

50 Thomas F. Gossett, Race: The History of an Idea in America, New ed. (New York, 1997) 3-4.

51 Ibid., 4-16.

52 Jeremiah, 13:23.

53 Ronald T. Takaki, Iron Cages: Race and Culture in Nineteenth-Century America, Revised ed. (New York, 2000), 11-12.

54 Gossett (1997), 3.

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Frank W. Sweet is the author of Legal History of the Color Line (ISBN 9780939479238), an analysis of the nearly 300 appealed cases that determined Americans’ “racial” identity over the centuries. It is the most thorough study of the legal history of this topic yet published. He was accepted to Ph.D. candidacy in history with a minor in molecular anthropology at the University of Florida in 2003 and has completed all but his dissertation defense. He earned an M.A. in History from American Military University in 2001. He is also the author of several state park historical booklets and published historical essays. He was a member of the editorial board of the magazine Interracial Voice, and is a regular lecturer and panelist at historical and genealogical conferences. To send email, click here.

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