Anthony Johnson, the doyen of North America’s black slaveholders

As we saw a few days ago in the article about John Punch, Barack Obama’s ancestor, there was a time in North America, in the early days of the first colonies, when whites and blacks enjoyed a certain legal equality, at least on paper.

It is not that slavery did not exist, but rather that it had not yet adopted the character of the economic pillar of those territories and, as a legal figure, it coexisted with another labor category such as that of servant (servant, a kind of slavery Lighttemporary and by contract).

One of those servants How frequent were they in Virginia it was Anthony Johnsona black native of Africa, presumably born around the year 1600 and captured in what is now Angola by an enemy tribe who, as usual, sold him to Arab slavers who, in turn, transferred him to traffickers slavers of the Virginia Company.

The Virginia Company was the common name used to refer to the two companies (the Virginia Company of London and the Virginia Company of Plymouth) licensed by King James I to operate. found settlements on the east coast of North America on the condition that they operate a minimum of one hundred miles apart.

The one in Plymouth settled in Cheasepeake Bay, in the current state of Maine, and after creating the Popham colony, it ceased its activities. The other did it further south, in what is now Virginia, raising a population that was given the name of jamestown.

Seal of the Virginia Company of London/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Johnson arrived there in 1621 aboard the ship James. His real name is unknown because he was registered in the census simply with the qualification of “to black” (literally, in Spanish), although it was later baptized as Antony.

In reality there were more Antonios and it is not clear that this was the same one who later became famous as Anthony, but that is what the tradition tells. The fact is that he was sold to a certain Bennet, a white planter who had a tobacco plantation.

It is interesting to note that the African was not exactly sold as a slave but as a servant, which implied a legal employment contract and the manumission at the end of it, normally after a period between four and seven years, as long as he promised to stay in the place. Meanwhile, his working conditions, although harsh, were better than those of the slaves, with a more relaxed treatment and a certain margin of freedom in his movements.

The majority of the blacks of the British colonies of that initial period subscribed to that modality, not to slavery; in fact, not only blacks since there were also servants whites from other countries (mainly Scotland and Ireland, often convicts who redeemed their sentences through this system).

Except for those who had a lifetime commitment, who de facto turned them into authentic slaves, by fulfilling the contract the others obtained the freedom along with land to work. Some who prospered even bought servants in turn, as we will see.

On March 22, 1622, Good Friday, the Indians attacked Jamestown to avenge the death of one of their own at the hands of a white man. The city was warned in time and was able to defend itself, but not the thirty haciendas that were distributed around the surrounding area, resulting in a tremendous slaughter which wiped out about four hundred settlers, a third of the population.

One of the raided plantations was Bennett’s, where the Indians killed almost everyone: only five people out of fifty-seven were saved, but Anthony was one of them.. He had just been born again, so to speak, and he endorsed it the following year when he married an African woman named Mary which was incorporated into the hacienda.

Both went released around 1635 and it was then when Antonio happened to adopt the name of Anthony Johnsonmore in keeping with their new situation and the British character of the colony.

According to headrighta legal figure designed to promote colonization by granting parcels in exchange for the commitment to work them and assume the costs of transfer, training and maintenance of servantswith freedom they received a land lot which they later expanded to become owners of a hundred hectares in Naswattock (Northampton, Virginia), back in 1651. Johnson appears in the official registry for certain transactions, such as the purchase of cattle and the hiring of five servantsfour of them white and the fifth black.

However, his life was not easy -it was not easy for anyone at that time and in that place- and although there were some joys, such as the birth of several childrenthey also encountered adversity, in the case of a fire that almost destroyed everything they had in 1652.

To deal with it, they requested through the courts a tax exemption that was granted to them by the mother and the two daughters -then it was paid by members of the family, not by the properties-, which in practice made the Johnsons equal to white women, who were also free of taxes. According to the words of the judges, it was a working family and esteemed in the community.

This did not prevent that a year later there was a new matter in the courts, after john casorthe servant black, to sue Johnson on the grounds that his contract had expired seven years ago. The case, somewhat confused, became more tangled when a neighbor named Robert Parker meddled by hiring the plaintiff.

Johnson felt cheated and sued parker demanding that his servant be restored to him. Following an adverse judgment and a corresponding appeal, in the spring of 1655 the Northampton court ignored the testimony of two white farmers who corroborated Casor’s story and ordered that he be returned to johnsonremaining the property of the latter forever.

It was the first sentence in the history of the Thirteen Colonies that sentenced someone to life servitude without having committed any crime. Or put another way, the first one that made a slave in practice someone; John Punch, whom we mentioned at the beginning, had preceded him in 1640 but as a consequence of a punishment for his escape attempt, not because of a civil lawsuit and therein lay the nuance.

The times in which the law was above the race began to change before the evidence of the convenience of the slavery as the basis of the economy and the facility for it, since most blacks were illiterate and many barely spoke English, so even fewer knew how to interpret their contracts.

Anthony Johnson himself is a perfect example. Despite the fact that he could not read or write, in 1657 a neighbor of his, Edmund Scarboroughpresented before the court an alleged letter of his in which he admitted a debt with the. Johnson did not sue, and the judges ordered forty acres to be seized to compensate the plaintiff.

Seeing the panorama, aggravated by the growing racism in Virginia and finished off with the approval in 1665 of the Partus sequitur ventremwhich changed the law in force in England to grant the maternal route instead of the paternal the legal consideration of the child (so that the children of slaves were born slaves), the Johnsons opted for move to maryland.

There, in Somerset County, he leased one hundred and twenty acres for a period of ninety-nine years to grow tobacco. The plantation was called Tories Vineyards and in it Anthony and Mary lived, prospering financially, until his death in 1670; she followed two years later.

In 1677 one of his grandsons expanded the properties by buying another farm which he baptized as Angola, in homage to the native land of his family. This one stopped appearing in the official documentation in the second quarter of the 18th century and its trace was lost, merged with other surnames.

Anthony Johnson is considered the dean of the Africans who achieved their freedom and became owners. Until a few years before the Civil War there were almost four thousand black slave ownerswhich in some states such as South Carolina was equivalent to forty-three percent of free blacks.

In that same state, without going any further, the largest slaveholder of the first half of the 19th century was not white but a freed black ex-slave named William Ellison -name taken from his former master- who achieved more wealth than most of the white settlers.

Not all of them were rich landowners, of course, but there were also small businessmen and artisans, but in total they collected more than twelve thousand seven hundred slaves. Business is business and does not discriminate between races.


The Historical Encyclopedia of World Slavery (Junius P. Rodriguez)/Slavery And Public History. The Tough Stuff of American Memory (James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton)/Slavery in the United States. A Social, Political, and Historical Encyclopedia (Junius P. Rodriguez)/Generations of Captivity. A History of African-American Slaves (Ira Berlin)/The American Past. A Survey of American History (Joseph R. Conlin)