In the summer of 1619, the colony of Virginia witnessed two landmark events in the history of the English Atlantic world. During the first few days of August 1619, the first elected lawmaking body in English America gathered at Jamestown, Virginia, and laid out new rules for private landownership and labor management that would tie commerce to American settlement. Just a few weeks later and a few miles away, a cargo of “twenty and odd negroes” was bartered away by passing Dutch sailors. These were the first documented people of African descent to arrive in English America. Within a few short weeks, the paradox of slavery and freedom that has framed so much of the American political and social experience had been inaugurated.
In 2019 the 400th anniversaries of these watershed moments will be commemorated across Virginia and the United States. As individual events, the first African arrivals and the first General Assembly were crucial chapters in the shaping of modern America with profound legacies that have framed history over four centuries. This commemoration, though, also offers the opportunity to reconsider the intersection of these two key events, and reassess the way they combined as part of a broader transformation in English colonization in the Americas at the end of the 1610s. In 1619 Virginia, as England’s first permanent North American colony, was entering its adolescence, and its labor force, economy, legal and political structure, and relations with the region’s indigenous peoples were all in the midst of rapid evolution. By bringing together scholars of race and slavery, intercultural relations, political thought, and political economy, this conference seeks to shape a new cohesive understanding of the connections between these trajectories of evolution, and the ways that the decisions and ideas that emerged from Virginia in 1619 would inform the development of the English empire in the Americas over the next century.
Funding for this conference was provided by the Dartmouth Conferences fund, created by a gift from Fannie and Alan Leslie.