Pulitzer-prize winning author and journalist Isabel Wilkerson traces the origins of America’s hidden caste system
It was in late August 1619, a year before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, that a Dutch man-of-war set anchor at the mouth of the James River, at Point Comfort, in the wilderness of what is now known as Virginia. We know this only because of a haphazard line in a letter written by the early settler John Rolfe. This is the oldest surviving reference to Africans in the English colonies in America, people who looked different from the colonists and who would ultimately be assigned by law to the bottom of an emerging caste system. Rolfe mentions them as merchandise and not necessarily the merchandise the English settlers had been expecting. The ship “brought not anything but 20 and odd Negroes,” Rolfe wrote, “which the Governor and Cape Marchant bought for victualles.”
These Africans had been captured from a slave ship bound for the Spanish colonies but were sold farther north to the British. Historians do not agree on what their status was, if they were bound in the short term for indentured servitude or relegated immediately to the status of lifetime enslavement, the condition that would befall most every human who looked like them arriving on these shores or born here for the next quarter millennium.
The few surviving records from the time of their arrival show they “held at the outset a singularly debased status in the eyes of white Virginians,” wrote the historian Alden T. Vaughan. If not yet consigned formally to permanent enslavement, “black Virginians were at least well on their way to such a condition.”
In the decades to follow, colonial laws herded European workers and African workers into separate and unequal queues and set in motion the caste system that would become the cornerstone of the social, political, and economic system in America. This caste system would trigger the deadliest war on U.S. soil, lead to the ritual killings of thousands of subordinate-caste people in lynchings, and become the source of inequalities that becloud and destabilize the country to this day.
With the first rough attempts at a colonial census, conducted in Virginia in 1630, a hierarchy began to form. Few Africans were seen as significant enough to be listed in the census by name, as would be the case for the generations to follow, in contrast to the majority of European inhabitants, indentured or not. The Africans were not cited by age or arrival date as were the Europeans, information vital to setting the terms and time frame of indenture for Europeans, or for Africans, had they been in the same category, been seen as equal, or seen as needing to be accurately accounted for.
Thus, before there was a United States of America, there was the caste system, born in colonial Virginia. At first, religion, not race as we now know it, defined the status of people in the colonies. Christianity, as a proxy for Europeans, generally exempted European workers from lifetime enslavement. This initial distinction is what condemned, first, indigenous people, and, then, Africans, most of whom were not Christian upon arrival, to the lowest rung of an emerging hierarchy before the concept of race had congealed to justify their eventual and total debasement.
The creation of a caste system was a process of testing the bounds of human categories and not the result of a single edict. It was a decades-long sharpening of lines whenever the colonists had a decision to make.
Extracted from Caste: The Lies that Divide Us by Isabel Wilkerson (Allen Lane). Buy a copy here.