Slavery in Maryland

The Arrival of African descended people

When Mathias de Sousa arrived at the tip of southern Maryland in the 1630s, he joined a mixed-race group of twenty-five that included white indentured servants and Jesuit Andrew White, SJ. A Catholic priest and ally of Lord Baltimore, White helped plan and publicize the colonial venture in Maryland with the goal of planting a mission among the local Native communities. De Sousa is sometimes identified as the first person of African descent in colonial Maryland. Though there is some minor debate about the presence of African descended peoples in the area in 1633, de Sousa was the first among the settlers of the royally established venture.

The documentation of de Sousa's presence among the initial mission group is more clear. Based on the conditions for settlement, individuals who migrated and brought other settlers with them were eligible to claim plots of land from Lord Baltimore. In 1637, Thomas Copley, SJ, White's colleague, put together the documentation for the Jesuit missionaries to claim their land, including a list of the individuals who Andrew White brought to the settlement. de Sousa was on that list. Land claims required a multi-step process, and in 1639 Ferdinand Pulton, SJ, assumed responsibility for the Jesuit paperwork to secure a warrant to have the land surveyed. Pulton listed de Sousa as "a Molato" and included him among the original group of migrants.1

While de Sousa's place among the original twenty-five migrants is fairly well established, his origins and status are less clear. Researchers have speculated that de Sousa's surname suggests that the European portion of his ancestry was Portuguese, where the name was common. But, de Sousa was also prevalent among Spanish families and Spanish Jewish communities. There is equal speculation about de Sousa's home before the Maryland settlement. Historians have offered a range of stories about how and when de Sousa joined White's group, with some arguing that he joined the group when it made a stop in Barbados to refuel and resupply (though there appears to be no documentary evidence to support that speculation).2 Others suggest that he sailed the whole way from England on the Ark. And, though he was not on the original manifest for the Ark when they left London in 1633, the ship stopped at the Isle of Wight to pick up a number of Catholic migrants who wanted to join the voyage without having to pledge an oath of loyalty to the Anglican Church. Though none of the Jesuit annual letters mentions de Sousa, he could have also joined the journey there.3

Regardless of his point of union with the Jesuit-led settlers, he established himself in Maryland and legal testimony suggests that he was indentured rather than enslaved. By 1639, de Sousa had incurred a publicly noted debt of 12 pounds of tobacco, which suggests that he was by then a free man. Then in 1642, he offered a deposition about a 1641 wage dispute for another employee related to Jesuit trading activities with the local native communities. At that point, he was skippering boats for Jesuit fur trading expeditions among the Susquehannock Indians. Also, he was listed as present at the 1641 General Assembly, which would have been his right and responsibility as a free person. But, by 1642 de Sousa was again in debt in a significant enough way that he rejoined the leagues of indentured servants, selling his time to John Lewger, a term he was judged to be required to work off before he could work to repay his debt to John Hollis. Thus, the legal records of colonial Maryland show de Sousa as a man who participated in civic life, testified in court, worked a job of significant responsibility for the Jesuits, and incurred his own debt and the consequences that accompanied it. None of these options would have been available to an enslaved person.4

Slave Codes and Legal Establishment

Though de Sousa experienced his life in Maryland among the Adventurers and Settlers as both an indentured servant and as a free man, within three decades of the initial establishment of the colony the white colonists codified their apprehension and anxiety around the emerging presence of slavery. The Maryland General Assembly moved swiftly to define enslavement as perpetual and race-based. In September 1664, the Assembly passed legislation governing "Negroes & other Slaves":

Bee itt Enacted by the Right Honble the Lord Proprietary by the advice and Consent of the upper and lower house of this present Generall Assembly That all Negroes or other slaves already within the Province And all Negroes and other slaves to bee hereafter imported into the Province shall serve Durante Vita And all Children born of any Negro or other slave shall be Slaves as their ffathers were for the terme of their lives And forasmuch as divers freeborne English women forgettfull of their free Condicon and to the disgrace of our Nation doe intermarry with Negro Slaves by which alsoe divers suites may arise touching the Issue of such woemen and a great damage doth befall the Masters of such Negros for prevention whereof for deterring such freeborne women from such shamefull Matches Bee itt further Enacted by the Authority advice and Consent aforesaid That whatsoever free borne woman shall inter marry with any slave from and after the Last day of this present Assembly shall Serve the master of such slave dureing the life of her husband And that all the Issue of such freeborne woemen soe marryed shall be Slaves as their fathers were And Bee itt further Enacted that all the Issues of English or other freeborne woemen that have already marryed Negroes shall serve the Masters of their Parents till they be Thirty yeares of age and noe longer.5

The statute laid the groundwork to establish the dominance of white male property holders across the colony. It began to define slavery racially by singling out "negroes" and sentencing enslaved people to a term of perpetual servitude. Furthermore, it established the hereditary nature of that perpetual servitude, sentencing the children of the enslaved to life-long bondage. Thus, in two clauses, the Assembly guaranteed that an investment in slavery would be one that could continue to grow for an enslaver, creating multiplying assets. The next set of clauses served to set off and enforce both white supremacy and male domination by erecting significant punishments for freeborn English (white) women who entered into sexual relationships with enslaved men. Not only would they themselves be bound in service to the enslaver for the life of their enslaved husband, but their children would be swept up into the system of perpetual slavery. These systems guaranteed the enslaver both to his right to forced labor and to discipline white women from entering into mixed-race relationships.

The Making of a Slave Society

With the mechanisms for perpetual race-based slavery in place, it was only a matter of time before demographics and economic circumstances would shift the conditions in Maryland making dependence on forced labor the preferable option for white landowners. Nonetheless, the process and the timing of that transition have been the subject of a significant amount of historical work. The transition from the use of indentured servant labor to the dominance of enslaved labor in Maryland was one that took decades and happened unevenly across class lines within the Chesapeake and within the areas where the Jesuits owned farmed their land. Since the 1960s historians have debated about whether planter preference or indentured labor supply was responsible for the transition to slave labor in the Eighteenth Century. Scholars generally have settled on the idea that landowners in Virginia and Maryland committed to the idea that slavery would be more profitable before the supply of indentured servants began to drop off. However, the transition from being a society that included some use of slave labor to one that was dominated by slavery happened at different rates in different communities. In the Maryland Chesapeake, the firm establishment of a "popular" slave society did not occur until the middle of the century. So, while Maryland elites in this area committed to slavery early, its widespread adoption took longer, and the transition was fueled by the emergence of a native-born generation of enslaved people, the ongoing importation of significant numbers of enslaved Africans, and relative stability in pricing.6

Work on St. Mary's, Charles, Calvert, and Prince George's Counties shows that in the 1660s enslaved people made up just 3 percent of the population, but by 1710 that percentage had grown to 24 percent. Over the next several decades the population increased dramatically. There were a number of possible reasons for this pattern of the shift in the enslaved population. The African-born generation of enslaved people did not have children at rates that would allow for the community grow, perhaps due to high rates of disease and disaffection, child mortality, and to traditional African nursing and childrearing practices that would have resulted in fewer births. By the 1720s, life expectancy for enslaved people had improved, and the small population of African-descended women who had been born in the colonies began to have children who also had a longer life expectancy. Also, these women started having children at an earlier age than indentured women, thus expending the reproductive years.7

As this Maryland-born generation began to have children, the number of large plantations with large communities of enslaved people also began to increase. This concentration of people helped to transform a number of aspects of enslaved life. Working and living with many others on large estates offered the chance for enslaved people to develop labor specialties and to acquire new skills could offer shifts in circumstances and conditions. Individuals had many more people around them with whom to form bonds of friendship and intimacy. The growth of the native-born generation also created the opportunity for the growth of a new, specifically African American culture.8

By 1774, the enslaved population in St. Mary's County had increased to nearly 40 percent. And, the reasons for the dramatic increase in enslaved people across the Chesapeake were not restricted to reproductive increase. More important was the import of roughly 100,000 individuals to the region during the first three quarters of the 18th Century, most of whom came directly from Africa.9 While scholars for many years argued that the early generations of enslaved people who arrived in the Chesapeake were seasoned workers who came from the West Indies, more recent work has rejected that notion. In particular, Lorena Walsh makes a compelling argument that the West Indies served as the source for fewer than 10 percent of the migrants, with the bulk of them hailing from Africa. Her findings are based on the fact that three-fourths of the ships bringing enslaved people were English, whereas the ships bringing people from the West Indies were New England or West Indian owned. Given that London-owned ship did the majority of the transportation, she surmised that most of the captives came from Upper Guinea or the Gold Cost.10

With this infusion of enslaved people and relative stability of prices through the middle of the century, many more middling white farmers were able to purchase enslaved people to increase their farming capacity. Thus, by 1760, Russell Menard argues that St. Mary's County had transitioned from being just an elite slave society to being a "popular" slave society.11 And, with an elite Catholic minority, Maryland was marked by both slavery and Catholicism.


  1. Bogen, David S. "Mathias de Sousa: Maryland's First Colonist of African Descent" Maryland Historical Magazine (Spring 2001) 68-71.
  2. Curran, Papist Devils, 83.
  3. Bogen, 71-73.
  4. Bogen, 73-80
  5. Browne, William Hand. "An Act Concerning Negroes & Other Slaves (September 6, 1664)." Proceedings and Acts of the General Assembly January 1637/8-September 1664. Vol. 1. Archives of Maryland, 1883. 533-534:
  6. Menard, Russell R. "Making a ‘Popular Slave Society’ in Colonial British America." Journal of Interdisciplinary History 43, no. 3 (November 16, 2012): 379-381. See Also, Walsh and Coombs.
  7. Menard, Russell R. "The Maryland Slave Population, 1658 to 1730: A Demographic Profile of Blacks in Four Counties." The William and Mary Quarterly 32, no. 1 (1975): 30, 41-45.
  8. Menard (1975) 50-54.
  9. Menard (2012) 384-386
  10. Walsh, Lorena S. "The Chesapeake Slave Trade: Regional Patterns, African Origins, and Some Implications." The William and Mary Quarterly 58, no. 1 (2001): 139–70.
  11. Menard (2012) 388-395.
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