Virginia Slave Rebellion Of 1663

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In the 1660s, the Virginia Colony was a booming colony due to its large production and trading of tobacco products. Its flourishment can be credited to the many tobacco plantations and all of the slaves and indentured servants who worked the land. To understand the culture of the Virginia colony that ultimately led to and bred the slave rebellion, we must first look to Europe during this time period.

From the years 1649 to 1660 also known as the English interregnum, England no longer had a king. This absence of the monarchy followed the second English Civil War, the event of importance being the death of Charles I in 1649. In the year 1660, Charles II was appointed to the throne marking The Restoration or the restoration of the monarchy. During his reign, Charles II approved the 1660 Navigation Act, a reinforcement of the 1651 Navigation Ordinance, which stated that only English ships could carry products between England, Ireland and the Colonies of North America. This created more wealth for trade empire and put a heavier demand on the colonies to make and deliver goods. Following this, the Staple Act of 1663 was enacted, and Ireland was excluded from this deal which required that Ireland receive their sugar and tobacco from English ports exclusively. These acts approved by Charles II, put a large demand on tobacco products, requiring a heavy dependence on the making and distributing of tobacco from the Virginia colonies. The dependence and demand for tobacco meant that Virginia plantation owners had the incentive to produce as many goods as possible, at the expense of the indentured servants and slaves. It is of importance to note that tobacco is a crop that requires heavy labor, and thus the Virginia colonies were dependent on indentured servants and rebellions. Life in Virginia proved to be plentiful and beneficial, however, this was only a reality for the white elite. To be an indentured servant or slave in Virginia meant you worked from dawn to dusk, often receiving beatings that resulted in major injury, ownership of only a few articles of clothing, and scraps of bread barely enough to keep someone sustained. In addition to terrible living standards, mortality rates were high due to disease, and lack of good treatment. Due to their severe mistreatment and living standards, Virginia faced a large issue of slaves and servants running away. Its solution to this was the placement of the 1657 Act. This act addressed the fugitive issue and provided an opportunity for servants to take their mistreatments to court.

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The 1657 Act however, proved to be inefficient as the 1663 Virginia Slave Rebellion was the first recognizable rebellion in the colony. In Cooks Quarter of Gloucester County during September of 1663, nine indentured servants met in secret, and planned to march to the Virginia governor William Berkley’s home (elected in 1661) and demand their freedom. They planned to gather and steal as many firearms and drums as possible to prove and reinforce their demand to be released from their contracts. These servants appointed William Bell and John Gunter as their leaders. It is also stated that the followers of the main nine conspirators included local Virginia slaves, servants, criminals, and supporters of Oliver Cromwell who had rebel forces in the English Civil War. Their rebellion proved to be unsuccessful as one of the servants by the name of Birkenhead betrayed the group and told the governor of the plans at hand. Following this betrayal, the General Assembly attempted to arrest all of the participants for treason and it was recorded that four men were hanged. Every servant, slave, and follower arrested were forced to give testimony to the crimes committed in court. This day was pronounced a holiday by the General Assembly and Birkenhead was granted his freedom as well as 5000 pounds of tobacco for his cooperation and loyalty to the governor and assembly.


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