Image Credit: 

above: blood cells affected by sickle-cell disease, a genetic blood disorder characterized by red blood cells that assume an abnormal, rigid, sickle shape (Dr Graham Beards/Wikimedia Commons)

Sins of Omission

Slavery's Ironic Twist of Fate

The historical ignorance of The New York Times’ 1619 Project is difficult to accept. Is the newspaper truly that ignorant or is it disinformation in a propaganda campaign to destroy our country? What I know for certain is most colleges no longer require the U.S. History and Western Civilization courses once considered essential, and that leftist professors teach cultural Marxism and not history.

That white supremacy motivated the Colonists to conceive slavery as a founding principle is the claim making news most recently. A look at the historical record, however, would suggest slavery actually developed as a consequence of malaria, a disease that came to the Americas from Africa. The vector of the disease, the Anopheles mosquito, also came from Africa. The heat and standing water of the tidewater regions of the southern Colonies made for an ideal habitat for the invasive insect.

Blacks from equatorial West Africa had, over thousands of years, developed an immunity to this disease in the form of the sickle blood cell. Today we only hear about the cell in connection with sickle cell anemia, which results from too many sickle cells in the blood stream. However, for most blacks coming from Africa there were enough sickle cells in their blood to prevent malaria, but not enough to cause anemia. This meant blacks would normally not become debilitated or die from malaria in the Tidewater South while whites, lacking the sickle cell, would.

The first permanent English settlement in the Colonies was Jamestown, founded on a marshy island in Tidewater Virginia in 1607. Disease took a fantastic toll on the early settlers. In May 1607, 105 settlers arrived and by the end of summer half were dead. By 1624, some 7,500 settlers had arrived and only 1,300 remained alive. How big a role malaria played in these deaths is hard to determine because dysentery, typhoid, and scurvy were also prevalent. 

Some of the Jamestown settlers carried with them from England the relatively mild vivax strain of malaria. It was usually not deadly. However, the malnourished Jamestown colonists intermittently experienced “starving times,” which compromised their immune systems, leaving them vulnerable to even mild forms of disease.

In 1619, the first African slaves arrived in Jamestown—which is one of the few facts the 1619 Project got right. However, the slaves arrived by accident. They were brought to Virginia by an English privateer sailing under Dutch authority, which had captured a Portuguese slave ship in the Caribbean en route from Africa to Mexico. The privateer captain knew better than to attempt to sell the stolen slaves at an island port in the Caribbean and instead sailed north to try his luck at the new English colony of Jamestown. The Africans were sold as indentured servants, an established form of bondage legally recognized in England and in Jamestown. The Africans were unique only by their race—white indentured servants were common in the colony.

The 1619 sale of the Africans had none of the significance the 1619 Project imputes to it. The sale didn’t start a trend, because there were thousands of potential white colonists, including those willing to indenture themselves, in the British Isles ready to be shipped to the New World. In the following years Africans only trickled into Virginia. 

What is most significant about the arrival of those first blacks is the virulent falciparum strain of malaria they carried. Mosquitoes bit them and then bit whites. Before long, malaria was taking a frightful toll, mostly among whites. As the years went by it became clear that blacks had a significant degree of immunity to malaria.

It took many years for slavery to be established in America, and that varied colony by colony. In the meantime, the cost of shipping Africans to the colonies only to serve an indenture of 4-7 years didn’t make economic sense, when the much shorter voyage from the British Isles brought cheaper, white indentured servants to the shores of America.

Instrumental in establishing slavery in Virginia was an African slave, later known as Anthony Johnson, who was sold in Jamestown as an indentured servant in 1621 to a tobacco farmer with the surname of Bennet. By that time, tobacco had become the highly profitable cash crop of the colony and tobacco farms had begun filling up the hinterland of Jamestown.  Johnson was one of the few on the Bennet farm who survived the Massacre of 1622, a surprise Indian attack on the farms surrounding Jamestown that left 347 colonists dead and mutilated. Johnson’s luck held, because the next year the Bennet farm had its first female indentured servant, an African called Mary, whom he married.

By the 1630s, Johnson was free of his indenture and, as was customary, received 50 acres of farmland from the colonial government. Soon he was selling crops of tobacco and importing indentured servants himself. For every servant he brought to Virginia he received 50 acres of land. By 1651, Johnson farmed 250 acres of land and had five indentured servants, four of them white and one black, a man named John Casor.

Claiming Johnson had kept him in servitude long beyond any term of indenture, Casor went to work for a neighboring farmer, Robert Parker. With Parker championing Casor’s cause the dispute went into the courts in 1654. Johnson argued that Casor had been sold in Africa as a slave and Johnson had bought him without Casor having signed a contract of indenture. Therefore, said Johnson, Casor was simply his property.

At first, the court rejected Johnson’s precedent-setting argument but, after an appeal in 1655 declared in Johnson’s favor, Casor was Johnson’s property and would remain so until Johnson sold him or freed him. There had been an indentured servant in Virginia sentenced to lifetime servitude as a punishment for a crime in 1641, but it was the Casor case that formally established the legal precedent for slavery. It is one of the ironies of history that a black African, Anthony Johnson, could be called the Father of American Slavery.  

In 1661, the Virginia House of Burgesses, recognizing the Casor decision, enacted a statute that said any free person—white, black, or Indian—could own servants for life. This didn’t mean much to Indians who had practiced slavery for centuries anyway, but it did mean that the Indian tribes of the southeast would eventually own thousands of black slaves.

By the 1680s, slavery was generally established in the colonies and the importation of slaves to the malarial areas of the Southern colonies began in earnest. The high cost of importing labor from faraway Africa was worth it because, unlike an indentured servant, a planter had a slave’s labor for a good portion of his lifetime and the African slave would not fall victim to malaria. What had ensured blacks would survive malaria in equatorial West Africa, now ensured they would become slaves in the American colonies.

Numbers tell the story. In 1680 there were only 3,000 black slaves in a Virginia population of 45,000, which included 15,000 white indentured servants. In 1700 there 6,000 black slaves in a population of 60,000; and in 1750 100,000 black slaves in a population of 230,000. In the malarial areas of Tidewater Virginia, blacks were in the majority. Their numbers and percentage of the population were far lower in Piedmont Virginia, and negligible in the mountains.

The same was true for the other southern Colonies. Especially striking was South Carolina, where in the swampy and malarial rice-growing coastal region blacks outnumbered whites 10-to-1. After some time on the malarial coast, a French traveler remarked, “Rice can only be cultivated by negroes.” In the mountains of western South Carolina black slaves were rarely found. Because of South Carolina’s coastal region though, 40,000 of the colony’s population of 65,000 were black by 1750.

Throughout the colonial era, malaria ravaged the coastal South and ensured that black slavery became an entrenched institution. There were regular reminders of what malaria could do to white populations. During the American Revolution, a British army invaded South Carolina and easily captured Charleston in June 1780. However, as the British marched inland to engage an American army, hundreds of their troops began to drop from malaria. Johann David Schoepf, the chief surgeon for a Hessian regiment in the British army, wrote, “Carolina was in the spring a paradise, in the summer a hell, and in the autumn a hospital.”

By contrast, Pennsylvania, also blessed with rich agricultural lands that included a tobacco-growing region, suffered little from malaria and saw only very limited black slavery. There were only very small numbers of blacks in Pennsylvania by the 1650s. By the time William Penn established his colony in 1680 they only numbered in the hundreds. Most of them were indentured servants. Penn himself owned several. Their status was generally the same as white indentured servants, who outnumbered them manyfold.

Slavery was not codified in law in Pennsylvania until 1700. At that time there were some 1,000 black slaves in a total population of 20,000. By 1750, their number had increased to some 6,000 and the total population to 120,000. Although the percentage of black slaves varied decade by decade depending on the flow of white indentured servants from the British Isles and Germany, it remained at about 5 percent of the total population. During the same period, slaves in nearby Virginia increased from 10 percent of the population to more than 40 percent.

Far from being a white supremacist conspiracy to create a slavocracy in the American colonies, the establishment of slavery in the colonies clearly had more to do with an ironic twist of epidemiological fate: Equatorial West Africans were genetically immune to the worst effects of malaria, while whites dropped like flies. 

Roger D. McGrath

Roger D. McGrath

Corresponding editor Roger D. McGrath is the author of Gunfighters, Highwaymen, and Vigilantes.  A U.S. Marine and former history professor at UCLA, Dr. McGrath has appeared on numerous documentaries, including Big History, Cowboys & Outlaws, Jesse James: Legend, Outlaw, Terrorist, and Wild West Tech.

Add a Comment


Join the conversation...

You are currently using the BETA version of our article comments feature. You may notice some bugs in submission and user experience. Significant improvements are coming soon!


Ray Caruso
"They were brought to Virginia by an English privateer sailing under Dutch authority, which had captured a Portuguese slave ship in the Caribbean en route from Africa to Mexico. The privateer captain knew better than to attempt to sell the stolen slaves at an island port in the Caribbean and instead sailed north to try his luck at the new English colony of Jamestown. " This fellow should have been given exceptional punishment, say by reviving the ancient Persian practice called "the boats", which would have been somewhat fitting for a rogue sailor. As for the Africans, they should have been shipped right back home.