Slavery in Virginia and the 1705 Virginia Slave Act

Prior to 1705, there were many African American indentured servants in the state of Virginia. For a set number of years, a person would work without pay and then be freed from his bond once the allotted time had passed. In the year 1705, the Virginia General Assembly passed a law which transformed black indentured servants into slaves: the Virginia Slave Act of 1705 condemned many men, women, and children to a lifetime of slavery, even if they were only days away from being freed of their indentured status.

Before the Slave Act of 1705 was enacted, indentured servants over the age of 19 had to work for five years before achieving freedom (indentured servants under the age of 19 had to work until they reached the age of 24). The Slave Act codified slavery and allowed white Christians to beat, torture, and kill slaves with impunity. This act glorified an accident of birth (being white) and religion (Christianity), placing all others at an inferior status. According to the law, being white was more important than becoming Christian, as Christian slaves were still slaves, and could be murdered or tortured without any legal recourse.

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Called “An Act Concerning Servants and Slaves,” the 1705 law consisted of many laws, all designed to enslave any human being who was not a white Christian. The Slave Act of 1705 was a culmination of years of ever-changing (and worsening) laws regarding black indentured servants and slaves in the state of Virginia. Earlier laws imposed these oppressive conditions:

1662: A child was declared free or enslaved dependent on the status of his or her mother at the time of birth. A child of a slave was automatically declared a slave, and a child of a freed woman was considered free.

1667: Slaves who converted to Christianity and were baptized were not freed from slavery.

1669: Killing a slave was no longer considered a felony.

1670: Non-white, free African Americans and Indians could not purchase a white, Christian indentured servant.

1680: Slaves had to have a pass to leave their master’s property, and were not allowed to carry weapons of any kind.

1682: A slave visiting another plantation was not allowed to remain for longer than four hours without permission from his or her owner.

1691: Intermarriage of a white man or woman with an African American or Indian person was cause for banishment from the state of Virginia.

The 1705 Slave Act consisted of many parts, including the following laws:

Part IV of the slave act turned indentured servants into slaves, even if they were just days from the end of their contracted term.

All servants brought from non-Christian lands became slaves. A subsequent conversion to Christianity had no effect on the person’s status: all servants were now considered slaves. The only exceptions were Turks, Moors, and servants from Christian countries (like England) who had proof that they had been free in their former country of residence.

Part XI of the Slave Act included the following requirements:

Non-white people were not allowed to purchase any white Christian for indentured servitude. African Americans and Indians could not have an indentured servant, even if they were Christian, and people described as “infidels” (Jews, Moors, Muslims) were prohibited from having any white Christian servants. Servants “of the same complexion” or Indian and African-American slaves were allowed, however, for Jewish and Islamic freemen.

This section of the law also freed any white Christian servant who was purchased by an “infidel,” and also freed any white Christian who had a white master that married an “infidel.”

Part XXIII of the 1705 Slave Act was written to encourage other white free people to hunt down and capture escaped slaves.

A reward system involving tobacco was set up for people who caught runaway slaves. Increasing amounts of tobacco were awarded to the capturer, according to the distance the slave had travelled.

Slaves who were found more than 10 miles away from their residence brought a reward of 200 pounds of tobacco to the capturer, and another 200 pounds of tobacco to the county where the slave was found. Slaves found from five to ten miles away from their residence brought a reward of 100 pounds of tobacco to both the capturer and the county where the slave was found. This was considered an “encouragement” for people to actively hunt down and return slaves to their owners. The owner of the slaves was required to pay the reward, and the justice of the peace who presided over all cases must note the name and location of the “taker-up,” the name of the slave, and the name and location of the owner. Careful record keeping ensured the owner of the slave paid the levy in the event a slave was captured.

With high rewards, a new occupation was born: the slave dealer made a living off of capturing both runaway slaves and freedmen, selling the latter back into slavery. Clayton Holbert is one such story: his owners died, willing the slaves their freedom rather than deeding them to another landowner. Clayton’s mother and grandmother were freed upon the death of their owners, but slave dealers kidnapped the women and sold them back into slavery. Clayton’s mother was sold to the Holbert family in Tennessee, and his grandmother was sold to a plantation in Texas. The two women never saw each other again. Clayton was born while his mother was a slave on the Holbert plantation, and so he also became a slave.

Part XXVI of the Slave Act required any slave captured across the Chesapeake (that is, across the Mason-Dixon line to the North) to be handed over to the Sherriff. The Sherriff would send the slave back across the Bay into the hands of a southern constable. The southern constable was then rewarded with 500 pounds of tobacco from public stores, which would be reimbursed by the slave owner.

Part XXXII of this slave code prevented any plantation owner from granting safe harbor to another person’s slave. No land owner could allow a slave to stay on his or her land for more than four hours, without the express written permission of the slave’s owner. A violation of this law resulted in a fine of 150 pounds of tobacco.

If a slave owner killed or maimed a slave, it would be considered as if “the accident had never happened.” This part of the law allowed white slave owners impunity for their actions: no matter how horrendously they treated, tortured, or killed their slaves, the law would ignore the actions.

This part of the law also required 30 lashes for any non-white who raised a hand against a Christian. If the Christian was also non-white, however, the law did not apply: only white Christians were considered worthy of protection from violence according to this law.

Richard Toler describes his life on a Virginia plantation in the early 1800’s:

“We had very bad eatin’. Bread, meat, water. And they fed it to us in a trough, jes’ like the hogs. And ah went in my shirt till I was 16, never had no clothes. And the floor in our cabin was dirt, and at night we’d jes’ take a blanket and lay down on the floor. The dog was superior to us; they would take him in the house.”

Richard’s master had four girls and four boys, and the boys belonged to the Ku Klux Klan. Toler’s boys would strip young African American girls naked, whip them until the blood flowed, and then rub salt in the wounds. Henry Toler’s sons did these horrendous acts with impunity; the Virigina Slave Act of 1705 allowed their brutality and inhumanity.

Richard’s experiences are taken from The American Slave, Vol. 16: 97-101.

Baptism and conversion to Christianity would not alter the status of slavery for non-white people. Children were considered slaves or free according to the status of their mothers – no other circumstance mattered.

Other portions of the 1705 Slave Act set punishments for servants, who owned no property and could not pay a fine as punishment for any action deemed “criminal.” The Slave Act declared 20 lashes by whipping to be the equivalent of a fine of 500 pounds of tobacco or 50 shillings.

Any white man or woman who married a person of African or Indian descent would be committed to jail for a period of six months, without bail, and would have to pay 10 pounds (sterling) as a fine.