By Request: The True History of Americas First Africans?
A woman from Georgia sent me an email asking if I would clear up the differing "history" of slavery in America. The following is a cut/paste of her email: I have edited two things, I removed her last name, and changed her location to just Georgia for her protection.
My name is Tonya ___________, and I live in __________ Georgia. I was wondering if you might be able to clear something up for me. I am an African American woman, so what I know about the history of how slavery in America started, is what I was told by other African American people growing up. Recently I heard some information that challenges what I was always told to be the truth about how slavery started in America. I tried to find more information but everything on the web seems to support what I have always thought to be true. The idea that what I have always believed to be true about slavery could be false really bugs me, because if it is then I have based a lot of my beliefs on wrong information. I have read many websites on this and they all say mostly the same thing, but I want to see some kind of records or documents, and none of them have that. Do you think your project could find actual records that show the truth about how slavery really started in America?
Thank you, Tonya ___________
The first thing I did after receiving this email was to reply and ask her how specific she wanted me to get with this research project, because you know me, I can get very specific, which results in posts that look and read more like a college thesis than an article. Her reply was short and sweet. "I want the truth, all of it".
Thank you for the email Tonya and I hope the information I can provide to you here will help clear things up. Keep in mind though, that getting a hold of actual records from around 300 years ago is just a tad difficult. Most did not survive, and as African slaves were simply considered property, records concerning them were not considered historically relevant at the time. This means records were either not kept at all, or discarded. I have done my best to form a time line based on verifiable research available from historians on this version of events.
Lets get started.
The common history, (meaning the version I found the most) of the first African slaves in America starts with the 1619 arrival in Jamestown Virginia, of an "English or Dutch slave ship" called the "White Lion". 20 odd "captured" African slaves where sold to the colony for provisions and repairs to the ship. ( remember Tonya, you told me to be specific )
The first inconsistency I found here is the reference to the ship "White Lion" as an English or Dutch slave ship. When searching http://slavevoyages.org/voyage/search, a data base that lists all active slave ships by year, the name of the ships captain, and primary area of operation, neither the "White Lion" or its owner and captain, Rev. John Colyn Jope appear on the list. I spanned five years just to be sure.
Secondly, On September 30, 1619 John Rolfe, who was the Secretary of the Virginia Company, wrote a letter back to England which states.
( Click for full document, scroll down to page 243)
(This letter is pretty much the only actual document that I could find concerning this event)
Point Comfort is within the district of Hampton, placing the "White Lions" arrival about 35 miles South East of Jamestown, the recognized arrival point.
During my research I realized that to truly understand how these people ended up in America, to become the first African slaves here, you have to look further back than the "White Lion" arriving in Virginia. Because these African peoples journey here is actually a tale of three ships, beginning with the "Sao Joao Bautista", but first a little more background on the people themselves.
This is the version of events I was able to find the most historical references to, leading up to the August,1619 landing of the "White Lion" at Point Comfort VA.
Between 1618 and 1620, King Alvaro III of Congo (2) was at war with his own uncles. Portuguese leader Endes de Vascondes along with the Imbangala, a group of mercenary soldiers were also at war against the Kingdom of Ndongo. This resulted in thousands of Africans being enslaved. ( by other Africans) The Portuguese rulers saw an opportunity to make a lot of money from these Africans enslaved due to these wars. They quickly established a lucrative slave trade in Angola, and that connects us to the beginning of Americas first Africans journey.
Many of the Africans enslaved during this time period through Jesuit missionaries, had already converted to Christianity. (Catholicism) and had been baptized with new Christian names, such as Antonio, Maria, and Isabella. (remember these names) This is relevant because the ones who made it to America, seem to have come from this group since they are listed as having Cristian names by the colonists.
(This reasoning seems sound, because records show that the Portuguese required all slaves to be branded, and baptized before they were shipped off and sold in the slave market in the early seventeenth century (1600's). This was made a requirement by King Philip III of Spain (II of Portugal) in 1607, so that also supports this deduction." )
This means that most likely Americas first Africans originated from the Kingdom of Ndongo, or of the Mbundu, or Kimbundu, the people who inhabited this region of Angola.
This deduction is made due to the Mbundu people being considered the most advanced people of the region at the time, and therefore the most likely to have already converted to Christianity. This also connects us with the first of our three ships, the "Sao Joao Bautista".
In may of 1619 in the port city and capitol of Angola, Luanda, the "Sao Joao Bautista" captained by Manuel Mendes da Cunha, loaded 350 African slaves into its hold from the Ndongo region of Angola. The ships destination was listed as Vera Cruz, New Spain ( modern day Mexico). 200 of those 350 are listed as "under license" or Asiento, to be sold there by Investors from Seville Spain.
(It is important to note here for historical relevance, that according to Spanish records, the "Sao Joao Bautista" was the only one of six Portuguese ships operating in the middle passage at this time, to report being attacked by two "pirate" ships. Specifically named by the captain as the "Treasurer", and the "White Lion" This account was further verified by one of the African slaves taken to Bermuda and sold by the "Treasurer" named Antonio, or Antony, Anthony.)
Around the same time, two other ships left port on a very different mission. One was the "White Lion", a ship designated as a Man of War, or "ship of the Line" with a burden of 160 tons recently purchased by the Reverend John Colyn Jope who also acted as the ships captain. This was an English ship bearing Dutch letters of Marque sailing out of Holland. (Probably the reason John Rolfe called it a Dutch ship in his letter) The letters of marque mean that this was a "privateer ship",
At about the same time, the governor of Jamestown Virginia, Samuel Argall, or Sir George Yeardley (There seems to be some contention as to who actually ordered this ship into action since Argall was dismissed as Governor of Virginia in May of 1619, being replaced by Yeardley. The same month as the "Treasurer" set sail.) commissioned and ordered the privateer ship the "Treasurer" captained by Daniel Elfrith to seek out and plunder Spanish and Portuguese ships, as listed on the letters of marque. The event is not pin point able but at some point these two captains ( who were childhood friends) appear to have formed a treaty in which they would work together in their mutual missions, as well as minimizing the risk to both ships. The fact that both ships worked in concert to disable the "Sao Joao Bautista" gives credence to this assumed treaty between the two ships. Both ships then headed to what is now the Gulf of Mexico.
These three ships collided off the coast of Campeche in modern day Mexico where the "Sao Joao Bautista" was battered into submission by the two English privateers. Expecting to plunder the ships cargo of goods, all they found in the hold were African slaves. The two captains took around fifty of the Africans, and split them up between the two ships setting sail for Virginia, where they hoped to sell them. The "Treasurer" was seriously damaged in the battle and most likely taking on water which slowed it down. This means that the "White Lion" arrived in Point Comfort first with its "20 and odd" Africans listed in the letter sent by John Rolfe who are considered to be the first Africans in America. This for the most part concludes the involvement of the "White Lion", and the "Sao Joao Bautista" in the delivery of these people to our fledgling country. The "Treasurer" and its captured Africans story however, continues for awhile longer.
Arriving in Point Comfort VA around four or five days after the "White Lion", the "Treasurer" was not allowed to dock and offload its cargo of slaves. Due to the ousting of Gov. Argall, the colonists were unwilling to accept these Africans from a ship, and captain that had a known reputation as a pirate. The letters of marque Elfrith carried from the duke of Savoy, Vittorio Amedeo, also came into question as to their validity, since the duke had by then made peace with Spain. Hearing that an English delegation was on its way to discuss the matter with him, he (allegedly) sold several of the slaves (number unknown) illegally to plantation owners he knew, and fled to Bermuda. There, records show captain Elfrith sold fourteen African slaves. (I could find no records of what actually happened to the other eleven, so that could be the number (allegedly) sold illegally in Virginia, or some may have died during the trip). So, if we use the number fourteen (assuming none died in transit, and since there are no records of captain Elfrith stopping and selling any Africans along the way) that would bring the actual number of African slaves delivered to Virginia to thirty six. The illegal sales would of course not be documented giving us the number twenty five as the established amount of Africans brought to Virginia on that fateful day.
So there you have it. This is the most verifiable version of events that I could piece together from the available records, and documentation of historians, and researchers. So this seems to be the true story of how Americas first Africans came to be delivered to Virginia in 1619.
Or is it?
I have a tendency to overthink things, it comes from being a writer. So I decided to look further back than the 1619 arrival in Point Comfort Virginia. I felt that I had an obligation to verify that these twenty five (or thirty six) people were indeed the first Africans to be brought to what would become the United States some 157 years later. Here is what I found.
In my digging I found references to a 1525 African slave revolt in what would now be along the Carolina coast. This led me to look into the European slave trade as a whole prior to 1619, where I found records of an expedition by Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon to start a settlement in the new world. Time Line
(note: 1502 is the first reference to an African slave being brought to the "New World". Juan de Córdoba of Seville, sent an African slave to Hispaniola, modern day Haiti/Dominican Republic.)
Lucas Ayllon established the mission San Miguel de Gualdape on the coast of modern day South Carolina on October 8, 1525. (the actual location of the settlement is in dispute by historians) He brought with him some 600 settlers. Records show that he used African slaves to build the ill fated colony which only lasted a few months of the winter before a high death toll including Ayllon himself forced the remaining settlers to abandon the colony. During this time, the African slaves revolted and escaped. If they survived, it is believed they were assimilated into the native American tribes of the region.
It is also important to note that on April, 2 1513: Juan Ponce de Leon a Spanish explorer landed in modern day Florida, and in 1521 returned to establish a colony with 200 settlers. History has shown that as a rule, the Spanish used African slaves in the building of their colony's in the "New World" so it is fairly certain that they were present during the establishment of this one.
In an account written by Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, one of four survivors of a failed expedition to Florida in 1528 by Pánfilo de Narvaez, he mentions an African slave named Esteban (or Estevanico) being among the four. These four people spent eight years crossing the continent to Mexico. Incredible story.
I found many more references to African slaves being brought to what is now the United States prior to August of 1619. This stands to reason since Spanish explorers carried African (and other) slaves pretty much every where they went, and they went every where. Estimates range into the hundreds of Africans being brought to our shores following Christopher Columbus's 1492 arrival here.
Though the events of August 1619 in Point Comfort Virginia are factual, the question of were these people the first Africans in America remains. The answer is no, they were not. The number of Africans brought to this country prior to that date could range into the thousands since as mentioned above many Spanish explorers took them everywhere they went.
You see history is a very complicated tapestry to unravel. It was written by those who held power at the time, so it was very biased towards their own ends, and therefore inaccurate in many cases. Much of the history we know was written and re-written many years after the actual events took place based on questionable story telling. It is certainly not perfect but what we researchers do is piece together time lines based on what information we can substantiate the most through these historical records. That is what I have done here.
Given this information the results are going to come down to perspective. The 1700's were the time period of the most Africans being brought to America as slaves, so that would be considered the peak and slowly declined until slavery was abolished in the 1800's. Africans were recorded as being in this country since the 1500's at least, so where exactly does that place our "twenty and odd" from 1619 Virginia?
Unfortunately that is a question I can not research and answer, I can only give my opinion.
For me the fact that some of these "twenty and odd" are mentioned in future records and census puts things into perspective. Two of the Africans, named Isabella and Antonio appear to have stayed in Hampton and became servants in the household of William Tucker, the Commander at Point Comfort. They are believed to have become indentured servants serving a term of 7 years or more. On January 3, 1624 their son William Tucker was baptized. He was the first documented child of African descent born in America. There are two other Africans of note during this time period named Anthony and Mary Johnson who came to Virginia via Bermuda, and Europe. These are two of the captured slaves from the "Treasurer" who were sold in Bermuda.
So in my way of thinking the Africans that came here prior to 1619 were mainly here and gone, either shipped off again or died while here, some may even have escaped and faded into obscurity. (many Native American people have African DNA in their sequence) The "twenty and odd" seem to be the first Africans that actually established themselves here and started the current African blood line in our future America. Therefore I find their arrival to be the most significant in our history.
These people would in my mind be the start of the African people, heritage and culture that we see in our country today, so in that point of reference I would certainly call them the first Africans to establish a long term presence in America. Being established is after all the benchmark for any society or cultures development.
I hope I have cleared up at least some of your questions, and thank you again for the email. I found this research project very interesting in that I learned quite a few things I did not know before. I would ignore the small inconsistencies within the primary versions of this event if I were you, let the historians argue that out. This is an incredible story, embrace it, because for the most part is factual and verifiable. You will have to decide for yourself the importance of the inconsistencies. I can give you the facts, what you do with them is your decision.
Books and papers:
Breen, T. H., and Stephen Innes. "Myne Owne Grounde": Race and Freedom on Virginia's Eastern Shore, 1640–1676. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.
Heywood, Linda M. and John K. Thornton. Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles, and the Foundation of the Americas, 1585–1660. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Mariners' Museum. Captive Passage: The Transatlantic Slave Trade and the
McCartney, Martha W. Virginia Immigrants and Adventurers, 1607–1635. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2007.
Jamestown Island and at Green Spring, 1619–1803. Williamsburg, Virginia: Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1998.
Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and National Park Service, 2003.
Sluiter, Engel. "New Light on the '20 and Odd Negroes' Arriving in Virginia." William and Mary Quarterly, 3d. ser., 54 (1997): 395.
Thornton, John K. Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World,
1McCartney, Martha W., et al. A Study of the Africans and African Americans on400–1800. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Walsh, Lorena S. Motives of Honor, Pleasure and Profit: Plantation Management in the Colonial Chesapeake, 1607–1763. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2