Buried Truth: Indentured or enslaved?

The Fort at Jamestown courtesy of the National Park Service website

The first Africans to land on Virginia soil: Were they indentured or enslaved? The more I read, study and discuss with others with expansive knowledge of the subject, the muddier the waters become. The opinions are quite divided, and I confess that my leanings are with those who believe they were indentured. That is what I wish to believe, and I must be cautious of allowing my wishes to taint my conclusions. The answer for me is to keep pursuing the debate.

For the sake of objectivity, it is necessary to take personal opinion, bias, and preconception off the table. Study what is known, what the sources are and familiarize your working vocabulary with at least a layperson’s pragmatic understanding of terminology. That is the very path I am on and hope you will come along with me.

There are three commonly used terms regarding the study of history that are distinctly different and good to think about. History, historiography, and historicity. I keep wanting to add histrionics; though it may be a by-product of truthful historic findings, it is not a tool to be beneficial in the study.

 A comparison of the three terms explains them as follows: history is the study of the past; historiography is the study of the sources and assumptions used by those who have or currently convey the history; and historicity is the process of extricating fact from legend, revealing more accurately how the past unfolded.

Hridith Sudev, the founder of Project GreenWorld International, explains them this way: “History is the taste you retain from a delicious meal. Historiography is the recipe historians used to create history. Historicity is you trying to recreate how exactly that dish must have tasted even after the recipe book is burned.”

In my own work, I find the process of historicity to be the most challenging and I find historiography to be the most valuable tool to get us to the truth. Does it beg the question: What is the truth? Not to belabor a query that is worthy of more ink than we have here. However, it is critical to acknowledge that truth can wear many outfits depending on the perspective of the viewer.

It is to that point, as we seek and disseminate public history- versus a personal quandary – that we hold fast to a duty to present the facts as we find them and if we must speculate, then we must also be prepared to defend the speculation with known facts.

Fact-finding in the process of legal deliberation requires substantive evidence and credible witnesses as well as a charge to the court or jury to lay aside circumstantial material (if that is all there is) and conclude beyond a reasonable doubt.

Granted historiography and jurisprudence are not always going to be “apples to apples,” yet I find that many of the principles utilized in the presentation of a solid case in court apply well to supporting a more accurate coverage of historic events. Feel free to consider it as mere food for thought.

In closing today, there are a few other terms cited below that are worthy of review and understanding as we continue to delve into the question of indentured or enslaved in respect to those first Africans.

Law, legal laws, de facto laws, codified laws, customs, indentured servants, and slaves.

To round out my own examinations, I am in consult with two legal minds and a few historians. In the quest for truth and in support of good debate, I welcome readers’ thoughts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *