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Jeffrey B. Perry Blog

"THERE WERE NO WHITE PEOPLE THERE" -- 1619

September 29, 2012

Tags: There Were No White People There, The Invention of the White Race, Theodore W. Allen, first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619, John Punch, Dutchman, Scotsman, Thomas Grantham, Bacon's Rebellion

"THERE WERE NO WHITE PEOPLE THERE" -- 1619

“When the first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619"

On the back cover of the 1994 first edition of The Invention of the White Race Vol. I: Racial Oppression and Social Control, author Theodore W. Allen writes, “When the first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619, there were no ‘white’ people there; nor according to the colonial records, would there be for another sixty years.” He based this statement on the fact that, after twenty-plus years of meticulous research and 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.

As he subsequently explained, “Others living in the colony at that time were English; they had been English when they left England, and naturally they and their Virginia-born children were English, they were not ‘white.’” “White” identity had to be carefully taught, and it would be another sixty years before the word “would appear as a synonym for European-American.”

"THERE WERE NO WHITE PEOPLE THERE" -- 1640

The men who ran away with John Punch (Barack Obama's) ancestor in 1640
were "Victor, a [D]utchman" and "a Scotchman called James Gregory"

The Journal of the Executive Council of Colonial Virginia dated 9 July 1640 discusses the case of John Punch, President Barack Obama's ancestor. It is the only known account of the case and it reads as follows:

"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."

In this 1640 document the two servants captured with John Punch are described as "a [D]utchman” and “a Scotchman." They were not described as "white." The “white race” was not functioning in early Virginia.

"THERE WERE NO WHITE PEOPLE THERE" -- 1676-77

From Captain Thomas Grantham's Account


During Bacon's Rebellion (1676-77) Captain Thomas Grantham played a decisive role in bringing about the final defeat of the rebels. He procured the treachery of a new rebel general to help him in securing the surrender of the West Point (Virginia) garrison of three hundred men in arms. Then Grantham tackled the main stronghold of the rebels, which was three miles up country. In Grantham's own words:

"I there met about four hundred English and Negroes in Arms who were much dissatisfied at the Surrender of the Point, saying I had betrayed them, and thereupon some were for shooting me and others were for cutting me in peeces: I told them I would willingly surrender myselfe to them, till they were satisfied from His Majestie, and did engage to the Negroes and Servants, that they were all pardoned and freed from their Slavery: And with faire promises and Rundletts of Brandy, I pacified them, giving them severall Noates under my hand that what I did was by the order of his Majestie and the Governor....Most of them I persuaded to goe to their Homes, which accordingnly they did, except about eighty Negroes and twenty English which would not deliver their Armes."

Grantham tricked these one hundred men on board a sloop with the promise of taking them to a rebel fort a few miles down York River. Instead, however, he towed them behind his own sloop, brought them under the guns of another ship, and forced their surrender. In his account of the incident he wrote that the rebels "yeilded with a great deal of discontent, saying had they known my purpose they would have destroyed me."


The Invention of the “White" Race
and Fixing “a perpetual Brand upon Free Negros & Mulattos”


In discussing the post-Bacon’s Rebellion period, The Invention of the White Race describes how Virginia’s plantation elite contrived a new social status, a “‘white’ identity,” designed to set European-Americans at a distance from African Americans and “to enlist European-Americans of every class as . . . supporters of capitalist agriculture based on chattel bond-labor” of African-Americans.

They did this not by fostering social mobility, but by re-issung “long-established common law rights, ‘incident to every free man,’ . . . in the form of ‘white’ privileges.” These included “the presumption of liberty, the right to get married, the right to carry a gun, the right to read and write, the right to testify in legal proceedings, the right of self-directed physical mobility, and the enjoyment of male prerogatives over women.”
“[T]he 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.”

Invention makes the extremely important points that the successful function of this new “white” status required that all African Americans “be excluded from it” and that this decision was a conscious ruling-class policy.

“[W]hen African-Americans were deprived of their long-held right to vote in Virginia . . .Governor William Gooch explained in 1735 that the Virginia Assembly had decided upon this curtailment of the franchise in order ‘to fix a perpetual Brand upon Free Negros & Mulattos.” This was clearly not an ‘unthinking decision’! Rather, it was a deliberate act by the plantation bourgeoisie” that repealed “an electoral principle that had existed in Virginia for more than a century.”

Not only was the invention of the "white" race ruinous to the interests of African-Americans, it was also ruinous to the interests of European-American poor and working people. As the author of The Invention of the White Race, Theodore W. Allen, points out -- “ . . . their (the poor “whites”) own position, vis–a-vis the rich and powerful . . . was not improved, but weakened, by the white-skin privilege system.”

Comments

  1. September 30, 2012 12:10 PM EDT
    Wonderful piece, Jeffrey. If it is alright, I'd like to use this at an upcoming talk I am giving on the history of race and class in the US, with due credit given to yourself, of course.
    - Brian Hohmann
  2. September 30, 2012 1:57 PM EDT
    Hi Brian -- Thanks so much for helping to spread the word! Please do use it.
    You may want to let people know about the November 20 publication date for the new edition of Theodore W. Allen's "The Invention of the White Race." The new addition will have new introductions to both volumes, biographical and bibliographical back matter, internal study guides (for both volumes), and expanded indexes (for both volumes).
    People may also want to look at other Allen writings Click Here.
    Finally, you may want to look at my article "The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights from Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen on the Centrality of the Struggle Against White Supremacy." It is available in pdf format at the top left of my homepage Click Here
    - Jeffrey B. Perry

Hubert Harrison:
The Voice of
Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918

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