Decades after the initial disasters of colonial Virginia were over, trouble still lurked on the horizon. In the mid seventeenth century, Puritans were just beginning to their role in the lucrative business of transatlantic trade. Yet at the same time, Virginians had long since discovered that their wealth in the sale of tobacco. The initial success of some, but not all, tobacco planters created social cleavages and eventually led to the division of Chesapeake society into discrete social classes. This division was often accompanied by localized threats of violence, some of which propelled the colony towards the brink of civil war. Had cohesion and communication not existed among the lower strata of seventeenth century Chesapeake society, the transition from a labor force of indentured servants to one of slavery would have been much smoother. Yet, during the second half of the seventeenth century, a labor force had been redefined and race relations were changed forever.
In his article “A Changing Labor Force and Race Relations in Virginia”, T.H. Breen argues that a changing composition of the Virginian labor force in the last half of the seventeenth century propelled Virginia from chronic disorder to economic stability. This transition coincided with the changing of the labor force that, according to Breen, began with the outstripping of basic human rights. No one in Virginia could have foreshadowed the multitude of problems that arrive with subjugating people into slavery. Yet one should not find it surprising that, shortly after Virginian gentry pitted blacks against whites, as opposed poor versus rich, the transition within the labor force brought more money for copious imports from across the Atlantic. This was seemingly what exactly what every large tobacco planter desired. Breen buttresses his claim by pointing to a labor force that had been heavily exploited to the point where a change was inevitable.
Prior to 1650, planters shuttled indentured servants from England across the Atlantic in droves after they signed a multi-year contract of servitude in the mother country. Upon arrival, planters complained of apathetic workers, many of whom were sick and psychologically unfit to be in an alien land. As mortality rates decreased, the number of freed servants began to rise. According to Breen, due to the extreme working conditions servants faced, the few servants that lived through their indenture often became depressed, feeling bitter towards their former employers. The discontent among newly freed servants diffused into the servant population. As tobacco markets fluctuated and the restlessness swelled, freeman began looking for others to dissent with, and networks were established between the free and those still serving.
The tobacco gentry also found laborers for tedious tobacco harvesting came in the form of what few Negros had found their way to Virginia from the West Indies. Nearly all slaves at this time were black and...