Myne Own Ground
The 17th century was an important time period as the New World continued to develop into a society run by English settlers. The book, Myne Owne Ground, by Timothy Breen, focuses on the colonial history of the 1600’s.
However, what is discussed in the book does not detail what was accomplished in this time period. Rather, Breen pinpoints the classes of people such as slaves, indentured servants, and free blacks; how they came to become part of those groups and when racism first started. For decades, not all blacks were slaves and servants. Some blacks were free men in the New World.
That would only become a short memory, though, as the idea of being non-white turned into the biggest embarrassment in American history; slavery. Historians make everything interesting. One would think that racism started when the first black people came to Virginia. And from then on, all English setters in the New World automatically loathed blacks because they were ‘different.’ But of course, a historian comes in and makes us all look dumb.
Myne Owne Ground particularly focuses on one free black man named Anthony Johnson, also known when he came to America as ‘Antonio a negro.’ His story reshaped what historians originally thought about early colonial history. Anthony arrived in Virginia in 1621 and was stationed to work in the Bennett plantation to work in the tobacco fields as a slave.
After a year of this new life, the Indians (you know, the people who are still mad about this whole colonial settlement going on) decided to attack and kill over 350 colonists, 52 of those people being part of the Bennett plantation. Anthony was one of the rare survivors. Breen notes that from 1625-1650, Anthony’s life becomes somewhat of a mystery because of lost or unrecorded events. Historians do not know how he became Anthony Johnson (back then, blacks were not even given surnames).
However, the puzzle of those missing 25 years can start to be solved in 1625 when Anthony met his future wife and bearer of 4 children, Mary. It is unknown when this new family moved to Northampton, Virginia, but what is known (and respected) was the amount of hard work Anthony and his family put into being successful. Hard work in the fields led to the growth and production of tobacco, a very popular crop in the colonial time period.
Throughout the next couple decades, Anthony gained the respect of all of Northampton, including his neighbors and even the court system. He took advantage of being a free man. In a new world where the death rate was at an unprecedented number due to illnesses, diseases, starvation, changing climates, and Indian attacks, Anthony not only survived the fun game of life in the 17th century, but he also put his family in a position to be successful in a white man’s world.
Because Anthony was successful, free, and respected by his peers, it is believed that racism didn’t start immediately, but gradually grew over time. To support my point, it is important to note the 1640 act regarding the gun law different people were restricted to. The act stated and urged masters of families to do right with their weapons and distribute it for the betterment of their families, with the exception of negros.
The act did not say that a free man like Anthony had to give up his weapons. This tells us that in 1640, nearly 20 years after Anthony’s arrival, racism hadn’t hit its peak in Virginia. The act was more about the taxation of weapons; however, this law did discriminate against some blacks, (servants and slaves) a starting point for what was to come. Servants were white or black people from different countries that came to the New World seeking for new beginnings.
Being tricked and brainwashed that the New World was all peaches and cream, the servants were bought by masters and had to serve for 5-7 years before they could be free individuals. Slaves, on the other hand, had minimal chance for light at the end of the tunnel. Both at the time, however, were not characterized as people, rather property. More historical studies show that 1640 marked a turning point year for the unfair treatment of blacks.
Two white servants and one black servant attempted to flee, but failed. The white servants received 30 lashes and years of extra service. The black servant received 30 lashes and was ordered to serve the rest of his life, ultimately becoming a slave. Breen emphasizes multiple more instances like the example above of black mistreatment ranging all the way to the 1670’s. Free blacks were still there until the early 1980’s, after Bacon’s Rebellion.
It is a mystery to historians, but free black families no longer appeared in the records. One idea is that there were black slaves coming into America by the thousands and because of this, whites were being overwhelmed with the ratio between races. Therefore, whites stripped blacks of any power that they had. Another speculation was that blacks, coming from different cultures, didn’t understand the technological advantage in the growing New World, and eventually hit extreme poverty and did not survive.
No matter what the cause, 1688 marked the year free blacks were taxed as slaves. A 1699 act told newly freed blacks to leave the colony within 6 months time. And finally, in 1723, it wasn’t only the colony the free blacks had to flee from; it was the country.
Out casting and slavery to all blacks was the end result by the early 18th Century, nearly 100 years from the time Anthony Johnson first came. Northampton’s free blacks did not survive. Their surprisingly dramatic rise in the New World did not continue for the generations they expected. By the time 1723 rolled around, everything they accomplished was only a memory. For the average black person, what was once a hopeful dream turned into a haunting reality.