Buried Truth: Who knew?

The graphic depicts a set of laws known as Dale’s Laws that governed the Colony of Virginia (Jamestown) from 1610 to 1619. 

A few terms to ponder over as we attempt to sift through the interpretation of sparse facts to arrive at a reasonable conclusion as to the status of the first Africans to arrive on Virginia soil: law, legal laws, de facto laws, codified laws, customs, indentured servants, and slaves.

The definitions below are pulled from various dictionaries and are by no means meant to be a full semester’s lecture on the basics of the law, but simply a leg up in understanding the nuanced differences.

Law and legal law are commonly used interchangeably and refer to a system of rules that are created and enforced through social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. However, the legal law carries an additional descriptor as one that is enforced by a controlling authority and when violated is subject to criminal punishment or civil liability. That would be versus “dad’s law” which, when broken, means the perpetrator is grounded for a month without the car.

 De facto laws exist based on the reality rather than specific authority. An example might be that on the playground of an elementary school the children are segregated by gender, not because the teacher or the school regulated the separation, but because the children seemed to naturally prefer it that way.

Codified laws are those laws that have been assembled and written down in the process of stating clearly the system of laws governing a particular jurisdiction. The Virginia Code is the bible of Virginia law—both civil and criminal.

Common law, an English tradition, is law based on a judicial decision or previous example of case law and not on a written statute. The understanding of the common law is that there is precedence for the case at hand.

Custom is a traditional or widely accepted set of behaviors specific to a particular society, place or time.

Indenture is to bind, employ or contract an individual as in early deeds for real estate were termed indentures. An indentured servant, whether a volunteer or forced, is one who is bound to another for a period of years, usually for labor.

A slave is a person bound in a legal system that applies the legal principles of property to people enabling individuals to own, buy and sell other individuals. The questions of hereditary slavery, the issue of enslavement for life and a multitude of other laws pertaining to slaves vary depending on the ruling government.

These terms by no means bring us to a point of illumination on the discussion of the status of those first Africans. Yet, to debate the probabilities one must have some knowledge of the language being bantered about.

A noted historian pointed out to me the fact that the Jamestown settlement was a private enterprise funded by the Virginia Company and therefore not under the rule of what we think of as the House of Burgesses, General Assembly or other such legislative bodies. The implication is that it was the commercial body that set the rules and regulations and presumably had more latitude to determine who was indentured and who was enslaved. This factoid fascinated me and merited additional investigation.

After choosing the site at Jamestown in 1607, a local authority was established per the instructions of the Virginia Company with a president and six council members, including Christopher Newport and John Smith. I will have to dig more deeply to learn how far their authority extended.

Jumping ahead and bypassing the “Starving Time” and the revolving door of governors, by 1610 or thereabouts they were designating the head man as governor. On July 30, 1619, newly appointed Governor Yeardley called for the first representative legislative assembly. The first “20 and odd” Africans arrived the following month.


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