There are no legal rulings regarding slavery in the early history of America prior to 1644, when a group of 11 actual slaves (they were brought via the Dutch Slave Trade to New Amsterdam, in what is modern-day New York from Holland), successfully petitioned the local government in what was the first group manumission in a North American colony.  There are, similarly, no laws in early 17th Century Virginia, which even defined the rights, or lack of rights, of blacks; a testimonial to the flexibility of the courts in the early decades of the Virginia Colony. [2, 2i, 2ii] Even by 1640, when the Virginia Governor’s Council sentenced a black servant to remain in service to a master for the rest of his life (as punishment for running away to Maryland), no legal reference to slavery was made, as it could not have been supported by law or legislation. (It was a punitive sentencing, not the enforcement of existing law.)
The case involved three servants, who had been working for a farmer named Hugh Gwyn. Two were white; one was black. They were captured in Maryland and returned to Jamestown, where the Council sentenced all three to thirty lashes – a severe punishment, even by the standards of 17th Century Virginia. The two white men were sentenced to an additional four years of servitude – one more year for Gwyn followed by three more for the Colony. But, in addition to the whipping, the black man, John Punch, whom Ancestry.com alleges was President Obama’s maternal 11th great-grandfather, was ordered to serve for the duration of his natural life.  (It is an important distinction argued by experts that Punch was sentenced, like the two other servants, into servitude, specifically for the stated “time of his natural life,” and not into slavery, which presumes the same term without qualification.)
“The Council,” itself, was the upper house of the colonial legislature in the Colony from 1607 until the American Revolution in 1776. It consisted of 12 men who, after the 1630s were appointed by the British Sovereign, served as an advisory body to the Virginia Royal Governour and as the highest judicial body in the Colony. The grounds for the harsh sentence placed upon Punch presumably lay in the facts of law that he was non-Christian during a time when Christianity served as an early stand-in for racial identification. [4, 5]
In 1661, an actual reference to slavery entered into Virginia law. The following year, the Colony went one step further by stating that children born would be bonded or free according to the status of the mother.
Only one event is attributed with having established the legal precedent believed necessary for the legislation resulting in Virginia’s “Slave Codes of 1705,” and it was not the John Punch ruling.
It is an interesting side note that the first legal reference to “Negroes” in the New World pertained to the requirement of gun ownership:
Virginia, 1639: Act XI. All persons except Negroes are to be provided with arms and ammunitions or be fined at the pleasure of the governor and council.
1. In what year did the single “catalytic” event, referenced above, occur?
2. What is the chosen name of the wealthy Virginia landowner who sued his neighbor and made history when he won (in Provincial Court) the legal right to own a runaway black servant for life?
A. Richard Anthony
B. Edward Bennett
C. Stephen Horsey
D. Anthony Johnson
E. Robert Parker
3. To what race were references written into the first true slave (v. “indentured labor”) laws in the Colony of Virginia intended to apply?
4. In a landmark case of a landowner seeking a legal ruling specifically on the matter, what race was the first legal owner of a black servant granted the service of a runaway servant for life in the nation’s First Colony? [To distinguish this case from that of Hugh Gwynn and John Punch 25 years earlier, the matter before the Council at that time was one of sentencing runaways brought back solely on the Council’s order; not a ruling sought by a plaintiff seeking ownership; Gwynn is recorded as having expressed no regard as to whether or not the runaways were ever returned.]
5. What role, if any (See “Note” at bottom of article.), did Arabs play in the August 1619 arrival at Point Comfort of “20. and odd Negroes,” the first Africans in Virginia, who were bartered for food at Jamestown?
(Extra Credit) With a prominent Portuguese presence along its coast, Angola’s 17th Century citizens were considered to be what race by America’s British colonials? [Further your understanding of the status quo sentiments of the time in the American colonies by researching what religion these Angolans were likely to have practiced.]
This watercolor was one of a series made by Father Giovanni Antonio Cavazzi da Montecuccolo, an Italian priest who served as a Capuchin missionary from 1654 to 1667 in an area of Africa that is now northern Angola; he returned to the region from 1672 to 1677, spending much of his time in the kingdom of Kongo. The priest’s eyewitness drawings are among the earliest representations of African life by a European.
Additional Reading: Anthony Johnson (colonist) and Antonio a Slave: A Story of Diminishing Progress from Father to Son
[N.B. Antonio, as he was known, was not ever documented as a slave.]
[NOTE: Some historians believe the first africans in america arrived from angola aboard the dutch man-of-war, “James;” others believe that, While aboard the “São João Bautista” bound for Mexico, they were stolen by the “White Lion” and another English ship, the “Treasurer,” and Once in Virginia, they were dispersed throughout the colony.]