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Atlantic Virginia: Intercolonial Relations in the Seventeenth Century

Author(s):Hatfield, April Lee
Reviewer(s):Walsh, Lorena S.

Published by EH.NET (September 2004)

April Lee Hatfield, Atlantic Virginia: Intercolonial Relations in the Seventeenth Century. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. v + 320 pp. $39.95 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-8122-3757-9.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Lorena S. Walsh, Department of Historical Research, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

In Atlantic Virginia April Hatfield maintains that “the intercolonial, international, and transatlantic connections that constituted the Atlantic world had a more significant impact on the development of individual colonies such as Virginia in the seventeenth century than in the eighteenth” (p. 1). She challenges the widespread tendency to frame colonial history largely within political boundaries, which has resulted in “the unspoken assumption that each colony operated as a largely self-contained entity that interacted with other colonies only indirectly, through England.” She emphasizes instead “the impact of boundary permeability on the spread of ideas and information [and peoples] that affected Virginia’s political, social, cultural and economic development” (p. 3).

Hatfield begins by examining the intersection of Indian and English geographies. The English succeeded in overcoming and overrunning the resident Powhatans, but the boundaries of the by mid-century defunct Powhatan polity, rather than Virginia’s official boundaries, remained the colony’s “functional borders until the end of the century,” bounds that affected “colonists’ sense of their relationship to other regions and people” (pp. 10, 18). Indian enemies of the defeated Powhatans continued to restrict European settlement to areas east of the fall line, while the establishment of the Maryland colony to the north limited Virginians’ interactions with Indians north of the Potomac River. Precontact patterns of interaction with interior peoples continued to determine where Virginians could and could not travel, as well as the peoples with whom they could trade, as they remained dependent on Powhatan guides, interpreters, paths, and contacts. These pre-established networks shifted Virginians’ fur trading interest to the southwest, as Powhatan rivalries and lack of information and trading relationships to the west limited Virginians’ expansion in that direction. “They continued for much of the century to interact with other colonies as though Virginia were an island of appropriated Powhatan lands surrounded by a sea of Indian territory” (p. 38).

Meanwhile, patterns of Atlantic maritime trade equally determined Virginians’ “social and cultural connections with other inhabitants of the Atlantic world.” In the tobacco-growing regions of Virginia, direct contact with mariners connected settlers largely to Europe. The long time required to collect a cargo (up to 210 days for tobacco) made ship captains and mariners a real presence with whom most colonists, so long as they were contained to the east of the fall line, regularly interacted. On the other hand, in the more marginal tobacco areas, the lower Eastern Shore and the counties south of the James, intercolonial trade in corn, livestock, and naval stores established a different set of trading networks with New England, New Netherland (after 1664 New York) and Barbados. Since passengers had to follow colonial trade routes, travelers carried news and information on cultural practices and ideas prevailing in those colonies enmeshed in particular trading networks. In the marginal areas Dutch connections were instrumental for forging and maintaining trade with other English colonies. Traders’ reliance on colonial courts reinforced ties linking the English and Dutch Atlantic.

Intercolonial migrants’ knowledge “proved especially important to aspects of colonial life that lacked clear English precedent,” such as unique colonial labor systems (p. 87). Hatfield traces the development of intercolonial trading networks based on family members, friends, and among Puritans, Quakers, and Dutch Reformed coreligionists. She describes the movement of Barbadian planters and slaves to Virginia, who, due to prevailing subregional patterns of trade between the Chesapeake and the West Indies, were concentrated in the marginal tobacco counties of the Eastern Shore and the lower James River. Intercolonial religious and economic networks meant that the Church of England was strongest in the prime tobacco counties while nonconformists were concentrated in more marginal areas. Anglican officials in Virginia supported exchange networks but opposed the strengthening of nonconformist intercolonial communities that spanned the English Atlantic. Puritan connections followed shipping routes, while Quaker connections were based to a greater extent on intercolonial land routes.

The chapter that will be of most interest to economic historians is that on Chesapeake slavery in an Atlantic context. Hatfield maintains that “English American slavery developed within a context of intercolonial conversations — spoken and implicit — regarding the parameters of the institution and the choices available to individuals living within it” (p. 137). The evolution of slavery in Virginia was deeply influenced by information on Spanish practices and most crucially on practices in the Dutch colonies and in Barbados. Those planters who acquired slaves and created laws to define their status and govern them were “members of a highly mobile group of English Atlantic elites” (p.139). Those with connections to New Netherland or to Barbados had an advantage over others in acquiring slaves prior to the late 1670s when large direct shipments from Africa began to be marketed in the prime tobacco areas. However at mid-century men engaged in intercolonial trade rather than in tobacco planting and who cultivated strong Dutch connections owned more than a fourth of all the slaves in Virginia. This unexpected finding “indicates the importance of such connections (and the minimal role of tobacco) in Virginia’s early slave economy” (p. 168). After Virginia legislators enacted that colony’s first comprehensive slave code in 1705, internal rather than outside influences predominated.

Those aspects of slavery that built on indentured servitude reflect early intercolonial communication between Barbados and Maryland. These colonies followed Virginia’s lead in using indentured servants. Later some elite Barbardians migrated to Virginia, serving as county and provincial officers who helped shape local slave codes and who also helped other prominent Virginia planters to make connections in the islands for acquiring slaves. Hatfield notes that Virginia slave codes reveal less borrowing from Barbados than do those of Carolina, Jamaica, and Antigua, but Virginia codes do “contain one near identity and enough similarities [especially defining slaves as real instead of personal property for purposes of inheritance] to reveal broad reciprocal influences between Barbados and Virginia” (p.155). The timing of legislative steps to define racial slavery and to establish harsh measures for controlling slaves was similar in both the Caribbean and the mainland, leading Hatfield to argue that “hardening of racial divisions in the English Atlantic … depended on information spread by intercolonial migrants and by travelers” (p. 160). Hatfield further argues that “evidence that legal definitions of race and slavery and regulation of slaves developed as part of an intercolonial exchange raises questions about the explanatory weight historians have given to local events such as Bacon’s Rebellion in the evolution of slavery and race in Virginia” (p. 154). In addition, enslaved Africans who were transported to Virginia with their owners or brought there for sale from Barbados would have interpreted their new situation in the Chesapeake in light of their experiences in the Caribbean.

The final chapters return to issues of overland travel and to the effects of attempts by colonial officials to control movement of certain classes of people across colonial boundaries. The flight of criminals, debtors, servants, and slaves across political borders required intercolonial cooperation of courts, sheriffs, and colonists, and helped to build a shared legal culture. Provincial officials who enjoyed mobility across borders and who participated in intercolonial networks were sometimes coming to see their problems as shared and their interests as linked. As more colonies were established, Virginia’s existing trading activities became intercolonial and required renegotiation. Officials’ service in multiple colonies and travel on diplomatic missions enabled them to bring a more broadly Atlantic view to Virginia. “By endeavoring to establish control over Atlantic world travel, Crown and colonial officials strengthened their own communication networks” (p. 189).

Especially critical was the issue of attempting to control Indians’ movements. Bacon’s Rebellion marked an appropriation of the Powhatans’ external trade routes. The fact that precontact trade routes crossed colonial borders created intercolonial conflict. Indians, not Europeans continued to dominate these inland trade routes, and by the 1690s overland Indian travel influenced Virginia’s relations with England and other mainland colonies. In the final quarter of the century, colonial officials gained enough power over Eastern Indians that they could contemplate trying to control seasonal long-distance Indian travel, including that of the Iroquois, to whose incursions Virginia colonists became more exposed following the defeat of the coastal Algonquians. Intercolonial efforts to control Indian movement, along with an increasing English population and the establishment of additional colonies on the mainland “encouraged the English to think of their colonies as part of a larger English colonial world in which the strategic interests of separate colonies intertwined in ways that required ongoing diplomatic cooperation” (p. 208). This new English view of the Atlantic differed from earlier constructions in that the North American mainland and the Caribbean came for the first time to be seen as distinct and different, and the east coast of North America viewed as entirely English.

Atlantic Virginia advances a number of big ideas within the compass of a relatively brief book based largely on selected published primary sources and numerous secondary studies. Consequently many of Hatfield’s arguments will appear to specialists as more suggestive than definitive. One of Hatfield’s strengths (despite a title suggesting a primarily oceanic focus) is her dual examination of the changing meanings of Virginia’s landed as well as water boundaries, both to Virginians’ perception of their place in the colonial world and to a broader evolving sense among colonial elites of an English North American mainland.

Some findings, for example those on intercolonial trade networks based on family and religious connections, revisit relatively familiar material. Others, especially the arguments about the import of intercolonial communication in the development of Chesapeake slavery, are more original. It seems likely to this reader that Hatfield overstates both the numbers of Barbarian immigrants to Virginia (based on an estimate combining migration to Virginia and to Surinam in which the latter likely predominated) and their posited influence on the development of Virginia slave law. Cultural and economic developments in marginal tobacco subregions seem to have had limited impact on the prime tobacco subregions, and burgesses and councillors from marginal counties had limited power compared to wealthier elites in prime tobacco growing areas, given these elites’ crucial economic and political connections to the English mercantile community and to the imperial bureaucracy. One still needs to know the communication networks — with Barbados and other English islands and with Africa — that informed the actions of the likes of Robert “King” Carter and his offspring, and of the Bacons, Burwells, Beveleys, Coles, Harrisons, Ludwells, Randolphs, and others of their ilk. That said, Hatfield’s arguments about Caribbean and mainland congruencies, read in conjunction with John C. Coomb’s path-breaking dissertation “Building the Machine: The Development of Slavery and Slave Society in Early Colonial Virginia” (Ph. D. dissertation, College of William and Mary, 2003) suggests that a reevaluation of the development of Chesapeake slavery in an Atlantic rather than in a provincial context is well overdue.

Lorena S. Walsh is the author of “The Differential Cultural Impact of Free and Coerced Migration to Colonial America,” in Coerced and Free Migration: Global Perspectives, David Eltis, editor (Stanford University Press, 2002), pp. 117-75; and “Mercantile Strategies, Credit Networks, and Labor Supply in the Colonial Chesapeake in Trans-Atlantic Perspective,” in Slavery in the Development of the Americas, David Eltis, Frank D. Lewis, and Kenneth L. Sokoloff, editors (Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 89-119.

Subject(s):Servitude and Slavery
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):17th Century