The Jamestown legacy: 401 years ago the first slaves arrived in a city that has now replaced notoriety with hope

The first Africans, some '20 and odd' Angolans, kidnapped by the Portuguese, arrived in Jamestown, England's colony in Virginia on August 20, 1619


                            The Jamestown legacy: 401 years ago the first slaves arrived in a city that has now replaced notoriety with hope
(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

For three and a half centuries, between 1501 and 1867, more than 12.5 million Africans were captured, sold, and transported to the Americas.  It was a profitable business, but a brutal one at that. The first Africans, some "20 and odd" Angolans were kidnapped by the Portuguese and arrived in Jamestown, England's colony in Virginia on August 20, 1619.

They had arrived in the New World because of the transatlantic slave trade. Portugal and Spain were the first European countries to engage in the trade of African slaves, with most getting involved eventually. The arrival of enslaved Africans marked the beginning of the 246 years of slavery in North America. Although they were the first slaves to step foot on American soil, they weren't the first Africans to do so.

The enslaved Africans were originally captured during a series of wars that were waged by the Portuguese against the Kongo and Ndongo kingdoms, and other African states. The captives were later forced to march 100 to 200 miles to the coast of Luanda, which housed the major slave trade port.

Some 350 captive Africans were put aboard the San Juan Bautista, which was bound for Vera Cruz, the colony of New Spain in the Mexican coast, in the summer of 1619. Nearly 150 of the captives aboard the ship died during the crossing, which was not out of the ordinary for the time. As she approached her destination, however, the slave ship was attacked by two English privateers, in the Gulf of Mexico, that robbed her of 50 to 60 Africans on board. 

1950s authentic reproductions of the English privateers that disembarked slaves in Jamestown (Getty Images)

Founded in 1607, Jamestown beame home to about 700 colonist dwellers within the next decade. The two privateers, the White Lion and the Treasurer, set sail to Virginia and the former docked at Point Comfort (present-day Hampton Roads) in Jamestown, where the crew traded several prisoners for food. John Rolfe, a renowned planter and merchant in the town, also the former husband of Pocahontas, reported: "...a Dutchman of Warr of the burden of a 160 tunnes arrived at Point Comfort, the Commandors name Capt. Jope. He brought not any thing but 20. And odd N****, w[hich] the Governo[r] and Cape Merchant bought for victuals."

A majority of the Angolans were obtained by the wealthy and well-connected English planters in town, including Governor Sir George Yeardley and the head, Abraham Piersey. The Africans were sold into bondage, despite there not being any definitive laws sanctioning slavery in Virginia.

The White Lion quickly set sail for the English colony of Bermuda after disembarking 7 or 9 slaves, but most of their names and the real number has been lost to history. Scholars who have studied the history of enslaved Africans say that the newly arrived slaves were technically sold as indentured servants. An indentured servant agreed, or in many instances was forced, to work with no pay for a set amount of hours.

They often bound themselves to the contract to pay off debt, and could legally expect to be released once the conditions were met and they had served the specified time. By March 1620, 32 Africans were recorded to be living in Virginia but by 1925 the number had dwindled down to 23. They were scattered throughout homes and farms of the James River Valley and became the first of the thousands of Africans that were forced to endure slavery in colonial America. Their labor and that of their descendants would later become crucial to the economic development of the British colonies and then, the United States.

Landing of enslaved Africans at Jamestown from a Dutch Man-of-war, 1619 (Getty Images)

Court records circa 1624 show the testimony of John Phillips, while census documents list an Anthony and Isabella as living in Elizabeth City, and Angelo (Angela) at Jamestown. Angela had been living in the household of Captain William Pierce, while Antonio, and Isabella, became the servants of Captain William Tucker, the commander of Point Comfort.

They had a son, William, who is the first known African child to have been born in America, and as a freeman, under the laws of the time. That gradually changed as slavery became codified in the later decades. Indentured servants were sometimes forced to continue working even after their contract had ended. In this scenario, a rebellious servant named John Punch had been sentenced to a lifetime of slavery by a Virginia court in 1640. 

The indentured servants arriving in England were seldom white, which led to the development of a racial caste system, and enslaved Africans would be bound to a life of servitude. In 1662, a Virginia court declared that children born to enslaved mothers were the property of the mother's owner. With America fostering a growing market of cash crops like tobacco, cotton, and sugar for the colonial economy, slavery became the engine that powered it.

The slave trade was outlawed in 1807, but with chattel slavery and the plantation economy, it thrived in the South. According to an 1860 census, 3,953,760 enslaved people in the US, comprising nearly 13 percent of the total population. The outbreak of the Civil War was primarily spurred on by frequent conflicts between the abolitionists of slavery and those that wanted to preserve and spread it. 

Aerial view of Jamestown, Virginia, Painting, 17th century (Getty Images)

The colony at Jamestown grew to become the birthplace of our nation. Amid the poor communication, environmental challenges, disputes over land, and the conflicting cultural traditions and religious beliefs, of the Africans, the Powhatans, and the English, they each played an important role in the colony's survival. Jamestown's legacy of slavery laid the foundation for the system of free enterprise that we enjoy today, as colonists enjoyed profits and a developing market economy thanks to the cash crops they grew with enslaved labor.

Another legacy of Jamestown is that it gave individuals the right to own property, following the Virginia Company granting colonists the right in 1618.  It offered opportunities for upward economic and social mobility and allowed free Africans to possess their own land.

In 1619, a council meeting at a church became the first step towards a representative government in America, which would later become the political character of the colony and also inspire people and nations around the world. The interactions and co-existence between the Powhatans, English, and Africans in Jamestown laid the foundation for an American society built by people of diverse cultures, traditions, and beliefs. Without the exchange of knowledge and skillsets between the three groups of people, the colony would not have survived. 

Slaves aboard a slave ship being shackled before being put in the hold. Illustration by Swain (Getty Images)

In the New World, slavery flourished and transformed with the passage of time, becoming somewhat perpetual and hereditary. The enslaved people were barely subject to civil rights, usually sold at their owners' discretion and the social construct of race was linked to legal status. With the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln managed to free the enslaved people in the South. However, it wasn't until the enforcement of the 13th Amendment in 1865 that slavery was completely abolished in the US. In the end, the two and half centuries of slavery had significant ramifications on American society. 

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