It Has Been 400 Years Since The Beginning Of American Slavery

In 1619, the first Africans brutally taken as human cargo arrived in Virginia. Read about their harrowing transport 400 years ago and how American slavery began.

In late August of 1619, a ship landed in Point Comfort, Virginia, with what was recorded as “20 and odd Negars” on board. In the language of the era, the word "negar" meant black, and these men, women and children from West Central Africa had dark skin, burnished by the sun.

Even before the vessel arrived in this new land, long inhabited by Native Americans, the captives had experienced a harrowing journey.

Robert Trent Vinson, Ph.D., a professor of History and Africana Studies at William & Mary, has spoken about the horrors of the Middle Passage.

“And then imagine.…being in the holds of these slave ships. And perhaps being raped, women, children and sometimes men, raped. Imagine being chained to the holds where there is nowhere to go to the bathroom,” the historian said during a Library of Congress lecture series. “Imagine for the first time being on an ocean. …And dealing with the seasickness that comes with that and having to wallow in your excrement and your vomit. And in the age of wind and sail, when you had to rely on the winds and the currents to make it across the ocean, that journey could take months.”

In fact, even before the Africans bound for Virginia boarded a ship, there was trauma both emotionally, physically.   

“They were likely captured in a series of wars the Portuguese were waging against the kingdoms of Kongo and Ndongo--current day Angola--and other urban states,” said Mark Summers of Jamestown Rediscovery. The public historian notes that not only European forces, but the Imbangala, marauding African warriors, were among those who played roles in the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

Painting depicting the early colonists and enslaved Africans. (Photo: National Park Service/Keith Rocco)

Photo: National Park Service/Keith Rocco

Painting depicting the early colonists and enslaved Africans. (Photo: National Park Service/Keith Rocco)

“The captives had to march hundreds of miles to the coast to Luanda,” Summers adds, referring to the major slave-trade port. Then, about 350 Africans were put on board the "San Juan Bautista," a Spanish slave ship built by the Japanese and originally used for diplomatic missions.

Bound for Vera Cruz, along the coast of Mexico, the "San Juan Bautista" stopped in Jamaica, selling dozens of children. As the vessel moved on and neared its destination, it was attacked in the Gulf of Mexico by two English ships, the "White Lion" (carrying a Dutch license) and the "Treasurer." Expecting gold and such, the captains and crew instead discovered human cargo, and decided to steal about 60 of the Africans.

The vessels then set sail for Virginia, with the "White Lion" arriving first, around August 20 or possibly August 25 in present-day Hampton, Virginia. The waters in which they dropped anchor surround what’s now Fort Monroe National Monument.

The "Treasurer" arrived a few days later, but remained only briefly, setting sail for the English colony of Bermuda. Prior to leaving port, however, historians say it’s possible that as many as nine other Africans were sold.

The site where the Africans landed was near the settlement of Jamestown. Founded in 1607, England’s first permanent colony in North America, was where the fledgling United States of America began to take root.

“You have the meeting of the House of Burgesses, which is the first Democratic, representative government,” says Mary Elliott, the Curator of American Slavery at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. “At the time that the House of Burgesses met, that same year, the Africans come in.”

Documents show that when those early representatives convened, they sought to “establish one equal and uniform government over all Virginia” and provide “just laws for the happy guiding and governing of the people there inhabiting.”

But the arrival of the first Africans brought to English North America hardly made for “happy” lives for those dehumanized and torn from all they knew and loved.

Indeed, that crime against humanity 400 years ago, would dramatically alter and shape the course of history—then and now.

“The landing of the first recorded Africans at Point Comfort in 1619 marked the moment African culture became an integral part of American culture and an indelible influence on the development of our nation,” said Cassandra Newby-Alexander, Ph.D., Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Norfolk State University and co-chair of the 2019 Commemoration First Africans Committee.  “The early relationship between the unfree Africans and English in the Virginia colony is complicated, yet their forced arrival set into motion an important African imprint on every aspect of American society and culture.”

Virginia Colony secretary John Rolfe, a prominent merchant and planter who’d married the Native princess Pocahontas, reported that the Africans were “bought for victuals” — traded in exchange for food and supplies.

While Virginia had no clear-cut laws in 1619 around slavery, records suggest the majority of the early Africans were acquired by wealthy English planters and colonial officials, including the colony’s governor.

“Some of the Angolans married whites or Native Americans and a few gained their freedom and acquired land, but most were enslaved,” said Summers.

While the system of race-based bondage developed over many decades, beginning with customs versus laws, slavery was recognized in the statutory law of the colony in 1662; by 1705, slave laws were codified.

One-cent token used to advertise a slave auction house in South Carolina, 1846. (Photo: Angelo Scarlato)
One-cent token used to advertise a slave auction house in South Carolina, 1846. (Photo: Angelo Scarlato)

Hampton native Calvin Pearson is founder of the non-profit Project 1619, Inc. For more than 20 years, its members have worked to educate the public about the early Africans. In 2008, the organization created the first "African Landing Day" in the city of Hampton. 

“The first Africans did not arrive at Ellis Island, Plymouth Rock, or Jamestown, but arrived as captured human cargo on the high seas during the transatlantic slave trade,” he said.    

Historical records and documents show that from 1501 to 1867, nearly 13 million Africans were captured, sold, and transported to the Americas. While Portugal and Spain were the first European countries engaged in the slave trade, France, England and most of the European powers became involved, lured by the lucrative profits to be made from selling human beings.

“They were deeply traumatized by the circumstances of their enslavement, their forced separation from family and friends and the stripping of their societal identities,” said Vinson. “Imagine, all of who you are, connected to all the people that you love, no longer matters. That you are reduced, dehumanized, to be a unit of labor.” 

Africans became crucial to the survival of English settlers, eventually becoming the foundation of Virginia’s agricultural system and crops such as tobacco.“In many ways, 1619 speaks to whose country is it?,” said Vinson. “The economic wealth of this nation and capitalism was based on the labor of African Americans. We are central to the American story, but were excluded from the riches. These are essential questions to be asked about our democracy, which has always been fragile, as we move forward.”

Pearson, whose organization is raising funds to erect a national monument at Fort Monroe to honor the early Africans, says the nation and world should never forget their sacrifices. 

“The Transatlantic slave trade, just like the systematic elimination of the Native American Indian in the United States, and the Holocaust in Germany, are human tragedies that changed the world. We cannot change history or the impact that it had on past generations; but we should always recognize and learn from the perils and transgressions of mankind’s inhumanity against one another.”

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