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“No Basis for Claims John Punch was ‘Indentured’
and Two Servants Were ‘White’”

August 3, 2012

Tags: Barack Obama, John Punch, New York Times, History News Network, Jeffrey B. Perry

In "Obama's slavery roots on mom's side" the "History News Network" (1 August 2012) repeats inaccuracies from Sheryl Gay Stolberg's (30 July 2012) "New York Times" article "Obama Has Ties to Slavery Not By His Father but His Mother, Research Suggests." HNN and Stolberg write “ In 1640, Mr. [John] Punch then an indentured servant, escaped from Virginia and went to Maryland. He was captured there and, along with two white servants who had also escaped, was put on trial.”

There is no basis for the claims that John Punch was "indentured" and that the other two servants were "white."

Ancestry.com (in the article Stolberg discusses) cites the following paragraph from the Journal of the Executive Council of Colonial Virginia dated 9 July 1640 as “the only one surviving account that certainly pertains to John Punch’s life”:


"Whereas Hugh Gwyn hath by order from this Board brought back from Maryland three servants formerly run away from the said Gwyn, the court doth therefore order that the said three servants shall receive the punishment of whipping and to have thirty stripes apiece one called Victor, a [D]utchman, the other a Scotchman called James Gregory, shall first serve out their times with their master according to their Indentures and one whole year apiece after the time of their service is Expired ... the third being a Negro named John Punch shall serve his said master and his assigns for the time of his natural Life here or elsewhere."

There is no indication in the 1640 document that John Punch was “indentured.” While the document specifically indicates that the other two “servants” James Gregory and Victor did have “Indentures” it does not say this about Punch. There is no documentation that Punch signed an indenture (particularly not for transportation to Virginia) and it is extremely unlikely that he did. What is likely is that he was previously subjected to limited-term chattel bond-servitude (the passage makes reference to John Punch serving “his said master and his assigns”).


Theodore W. Allen in his seminal two-volume study "The Invention of the White Race," in Volume II on "The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America," shows that in Virginia chattelization was imposed on free laborers, tenants, and bond-servants increasingly after 1622, that it was imposed on both European and African descended laborers, that it was a qualitative break from English labor law, and that the chattelization of plantation labor constituted an essential precondition of the emergence of the subsequent lifetime chattel bond-servitude imposed on African-American laborers in continental Anglo-America under the system of racial slavery and racial oppression.

The other two servants captured with John Punch were not “white” and were not described as such. The 1640 record says only they were “Victor, a [D]utchman” and “a Scotchman called James Gregory.” In Volume I of "The Invention of the White Race," subtitled "Racial Oppression and Social Control," Allen emphasizes there were no “white” people in Virginia at that time and he explains that after examination of 885 county-years of pattern-setting Virginia’s colonial records, he found no instance of the official use of the word “white” as a token of social status prior to 1691. This was not merely a matter of semantics; he also found that the “white race” as we know it was not, and could not have been, functioning in early Virginia.

It is important to understand that through much of the seventeenth century there was a commonality of experience between European and African descended laboring people in Virginia who fought together, ran away together, made love together, and, in general, resisted their oppression together. When economic hard times worsened after 1660 there were numerous examples of militant labor solidarity culminating in the later, civil war stages of Bacon’s Rebellion (1676-77) in which European and African descended chattel bond-laborers fought together demanding their freedom from bondage.

Allen insightfully explains how in the wake of Bacon’s Rebellion the “white race” was invented as a ruling class social control formation in response to such labor solidarity; how a system of racial privileges was deliberately instituted as a conscious ruling-class policy in order to define and establish the “white race”; how a system of “racial slavery” was imposed that was also marked by severe racial proscriptions against free people of African descent; and how the consequence was not only ruinous to the interests of the African-American workers and other direct victims of racial oppression, it was also disastrous for “white” workers.

As people organize to protest the growing hard times today it is most important to accurately learn our seventeenth-century history and whose class interests are served by white supremacist appeals.

Jeffrey B. Perry

Comments

  1. August 3, 2012 1:45 PM EDT
    Interesting. So if not on skin color, what was the basis of differential treatment for Bunch visavis the other two escapees?
    - nomad
  2. August 5, 2012 1:19 PM EDT
    Hi, Nomad -- An excellent question!

    In Vol. 2 of “The Invention of the White Race,” sub-titled “The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America,” Theodore W. Allen addresses the question of the differential treatment of John Punch at some length and with many footnotes from original sources. I strongly recommend that volume. Many of the key points he makes can be found online in Theodore W. Allen, “Summary of the Argument of the Invention of the White Race” available Here .
    Drawing from Allen, I offer the following brief comments:
    Status of African-Americans
    Allen argues that the relative social status of African-descended and European-descended people in a very “Volatile” Virginia society up through Bacon’s Rebellion (1676-77) “can be determined to have been indeterminate.” It was indeterminate because “it was being fought out . . .in the context of the great social stresses of high mortality, the monocultural [tobacco] economy, impoverishment, an extremely high sex ratio - all based on or deriving from the abnormal system of chattel bond-servitude.” He argues that Bacon’s Rebellion was the critical moment of that social struggle and “posed the question of who should rule.” The answer, “contrived over the next several decades, would not only determine the status of African-Americans, but would install the monorail of Anglo-American historical development, white supremacy.”
    Allen argues that the General Court’s order relating to John Punch [see below] “is equally proof that he was not a lifetime bond-laborer when he ran away” and, by that act, “he was demonstrating his unwillingness to submit to even limited-term bond-servitude.” Thus, “The John Punch case . . . epitomized the status of African-Americans in seventeenth-century Virginia. On the one hand, it showed a readiness of at least some of the plantation elite to equate ‘being a negro’ with being a lifetime bond-laborer. On the other hand, development of social policy along this line was obstructed by several factors.” [italics mine]
    Among those factors cited by Allen were the “institutional inertia presented by English common law, . . .and by . . . principles of Christian fellowship”; the many examples of “normal social standing and mobility for African-Americans”; and the “opposition of African-Americans, both bond-laborers and non-bond-laborers, with the general support - certainly without the concerted opposition - of European-American bond-laborers, and other free but poor laboring people, determined by a sense of common class interest.” Allen discusses all of these factors, along with the insubstantiality of an intermediate buffer social control stratum, at great length.
    Some Background
    By 1640 the Virginia General Court was receiving daily complaints about “servants that run away from their masters” and, writes Allen, the problem “had reached such proportions that the Colony Council made the recapture of runaway bond-laborers a public concern, and ordered that the expense of recovering fugitives be borne, not by the owner, but by the public treasury of the respective counties.” This was the situation in June 1640 when three Virginia bond-laborers, “Victor, a Dutchman . . . a Scotchman called James Gregory. . . . [and] a negro named John Punch,” escaped together to Maryland. After they were caught they were brought back to face the Virginia General Court.” Also in June 1640, the Virginia Colony Council and General Court commissioned a Charles City County posse to pursue “certain runaway negroes.” The cost was to be shared by all the counties from which they had run away and Allen says that this suggests “that the phenomenon was extensive.”

    Limited and Lifetime Servitude
    Allen explains “the reduction of the almost totally English labor force from tenants and wage-laborers to chattel bond-servitude in the 1620s was a negation of previously existing laws.” Regarding imposing two distinct categories of servitude -- limited term and lifetime servitude – Allen emphasizes that “the death-rate was so high for several decades, that there would have been no practical advantage for employers in seeking to institute such a distinction.”
    Just such a distinction was anticipated, however, “when the Virginia General Court . . .imposed lifetime bond-servitude on John Punch.” The question is fairly asked, writes Allen, “why did the appetite for profit not lead the Court to sentence John Punch’s European-American comrades to lifetime servitude also?”
    Why the disparate treatment?
    If the court “was motivated by ‘white’ supremacist thinking,” comments Allen, it “is not a fact of the record.” He mentions other possibilities. “Under English common law Christians could not be enslaved by Christians; presumably, Scots and Dutchmen were Christians; but Africans were not.” Since “England’s relations with Scotland and Holland were critical to English interests,” there “might well have been a reluctance to offend those countries” while “no such complication was likely to arise from imposing lifetime bondage on an African, or African-American.” The “Court members in all probability were aware of the project then under way to establish an English plantation colony on Providence Island, using African lifetime bond-laborers” and “they surely knew that some Africans were already being exploited elsewhere in the Americas on the same terms.” [italics mine] They “might have been influenced by such examples to pursue the same purpose in Virginia.” They were also aware that “the African-American bond-laborers arriving in Virginia from the West Indies (or Brazil via Dutch colonies to the north of Maryland) did not come with English-style, term-limiting indentures” and “the members of General Court may thus have felt encouraged to impose the ultimate term, lifetime, in such cases.”
    Whatever the reasoning, “citing John Punch’s ‘being a negro’ in justification of his life sentence, was resorting to mere bench law, devoid of reference to English or Virginia precedent.” Allen then emphasizes, what the record does show in this case is “a disposition on the part of some, at least, of the plantation bourgeoisie to reduce African-Americans to lifetime servitude.” [italics mine]
    Lengthened Service
    As the proportion of bond-laborers who were surviving their terms increased, “some employers began to see an appeal in extending the bond-laborers’ terms generally. The ‘custom of the country’ for English bond-laborers in Virginia, which had been set at four years in 1658, was increased to five in 1662.” Also, with “the flourishing of the Irish slave trade” after Cromwell’s conquest, “laws were enacted to make Irish bond-laborers, and, after 1658, ‘all aliens’ in that status, serve six years.”
    A 1660 law “equalized at five years the length of ‘the custom of the country,’ without distinction of ‘aliens,’ but that same law for the first time restricted term-limiting to those ‘of what christian nation soever.’” [Ireland now qualified as a “christian country.”] Since “the only ‘christian nations’ were in Europe, this clause was most particularly, though not exclusively, aimed at persons of African origin or descent.”
    Allen concludes that this exclusion of African-Americans from the limitation on the length of servitude imposed on bond-laborers, “reflected and was intended to further the efforts made by some elements of the plantation bourgeoisie to reduce African-American bond-laborers to lifetime servitude.” This, he adds, was “a form of class oppression of bond-laborers by owners, somewhat like the slavery of Scots miners and salt-pan workers from the end of sixteenth century to the eve of the nineteenth century.”
    Not yet a system of racial oppression
    This was, Allen emphasizes, “a long way from the establishment of a system of racial oppression.” Although “its implicit denial to African-Americans of even the lowest range of social mobility, from bond-labor to freedom, contained a seed of a system racial oppression,” that “seed could not be fully developed without a strong intermediate social control stratum.” And that did not exist in the period up to Bacon’s Rebellion.
    The Plantation Bourgeoisie
    Allen explains that the “English bourgeoisie finally secured direct access to African labor at the end of the Second Dutch War, concluded at the Treaty of Breda in 1667” and five years later, with the establishment of the Royal African Company, England embarked on a career that within less than forty years made English merchants the preeminent suppliers of African bond-labor to the Western Hemisphere.” Now, “finally the plantation bourgeoisie was brought within reach of the realization of the vision foreshadowed in a number of laws already enacted” that aimed at “enrichment through the imposition of lifetime, hereditary bond-servitude of Africans and African-Americans.”
    The “anticipated reduction in labor costs would have been desirable for the employing class at any time, but as the end of the seventeenth century neared, it appeared to offer the bourgeoisie both a way of evading the unresolvable contradictions between [tobacco] monoculture and diversity, and a significant easing of the contention between English and continental branches of the business with respect to profits from low-priced tobacco.”
    Allen comments that it was “a conscious decision, not an unthinking one” by Virginia’s plantation bourgeoisie to opt for [tobacco] monoculture and chattel bond-servitude.” However, “a lack of capacity to command’ had made it impossible for the plantation bourgeoisie to impose the necessary social discipline on free and middle-rank tobacco farmers.”
    The Invention of the "White" Race
    Allen concludes: “Given the English superstructural obstacles and the already marked resistance of African-Americans to lifetime hereditary bondage, a rapid and large addition of African bond-laborers to the population in the 1670s, would certainly tend to reduce the effectiveness of the already weak social control stratum.” In that situation, writes Allen, the “white race” was “invented” as a ruling class social control formation “whose distinguishing characteristic was not the participation of the slaveholding class, nor even of other elements of the propertied classes; . . . [but] the participation of the European-American laboring classes: non-slaveholders, self-employed smallholders, tenants, and laborers.”
    He calls attention to the fact that “Whatever might have been the case with . . . members of the ruling class, the record indicates that laboring-class European-Americans in the continental plantation colonies showed little interest in ‘white identity’ before the institution of the system of ‘race’ privileges at the end of the seventeenth century.” He then emphasizes that “this white race social control system begun in Virginia and Maryland, would serve as the model of social order to each succeeding plantation region of settlement.”
    Addendum Ancestry.com cites the following paragraph from the Journal of the Executive Council [of Colonial Virginia] dated 9 July 1640 as “the only one surviving account that certainly pertains to John Punch’s life”:
    Whereas Hugh Gwyn hath by order from this Board brought back from Maryland three servants formerly run away from the said Gwyn, the court doth therefore order that the said three servants shall receive the punishment of whipping and to have thirty stripes apiece one called Victor, a [D]utchman, the other a Scotchman called James Gregory, shall first serve out their times with their master according to their Indentures and one whole year apiece after the time of their service is Expired ... the third being a Negro named John Punch shall serve his said master and his assigns for the time of his natural Life here or elsewhere.
    - Jeffrey B. Perry

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