Legacy of Jamestown
By John Alan
Recently the Queen of England came to the U.S. to celebrate, with President Bush, the 400th anniversary of the 1607 founding of Jamestown in Virginia, the first permanent English settlement on the North American continent. This historic event has often been portrayed as bringing civilization to a backward people.
The permanent presence of the English over 400 years does not capture the essence of this historic anniversary. A deeper truth is that Jamestown was founded by the Virginia Company of London, a joint stock company interested in trade, at first in looking for gold but, soon after, the production of new commodities like tobacco sold in England and in the English American colonies.
BEGINNING OF SLAVERY IN U.S.
In the process of providing tobacco, the Virginia Company discovered that it needed a reliable source of labor. They turned to Black labor power, supplied at first by Dutch traders who brought Africans. In August 1619 a Dutch Man of War sailed into Jamestown and sold the colony 20 Negroes. They were at first indentured servants who could work off the cost of their passage to America. This practice of trade in Negroes persisted and grew. However, Negroes were treated as a distinct class, strictly thought of as a source of labor power for the colony. It became a practice to change their status as indentured servants into permanent slaves. Slavery, the perpetual ownership of other human beings and their descendants, became formally legalized in 1660.
CAPITALISM BUILT ON SLAVE TRADE
Capitalism, as Marx pointed out, grew up as a world system on the basis of the slave trade, which originated from a distinction between white and Black servants. Only recently have four states--Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and Alabama--formally apologized for their role perpetuating slavery. That is easy for them now that the racist character of capitalism has taken much subtler forms. This is what we should be reexamining on the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown.
In the Civil Rights Movement Blacks won formal political freedom, but racism persists in the economic depravation of Blacks as capitalism continually restructured its manufacturing sector where Blacks did make some economic progress. Now Blacks are forced into much lower paying jobs through so-called welfare reform even as educational opportunities for the poor are dramatically reduced. Blacks disproportionately make up U.S. capitalism's reserve surplus population, which often ends up in American prisons. The ongoing challenge, as I put it in DIALECTICS OF BLACK FREEDOM STRUGGLES, is to deepen the freedom idea beyond civil rights to totally challenge capitalism.
Published by News and Letters Committees