More than 400 years ago, in 1619, two British ships — the White Lion and the Treasurer — landed on the shores of Virginia in what was then a British colony. John Rolfe, the plantation owner and official overseeing the colony, noted that the English ship, White Lion, “brought not anything but 20 and odd Negroes”.
Arriving at Point Comfort on the James River on August 20, 1619, this marked the beginning of slavery in the American colonies. The Treasurer arrived in Virginia four days after the White Lion with some Africans that had been captured on a Portuguese slave ship.
Historical accounts had previously believed that these first Africans came from the Caribbean, but later details showed that they came from the kingdom of Ndongo, in present-day Angola. According to the Hampton History Museum, they were captured there by Portuguese colonists and sent to the port of Luanda on board the slave ship São João Baptista.
The ship, in all, carried about 350 enslaved people and was on its way to Veracruz, in present-day Mexico when it was intercepted by the English ships the White Lion and the Treasurer.
“The British crew robbed part of the Portuguese cargo, including a few dozen African captives – among those who had survived the brutal journey thus far,” according to a report by France 24. The African captives taken by the British crew were mostly young men and women. Angela was among them.
“To survive a journey like that, my own sense is she was young and possibly very young. Where there is no evidence, it is fair to speculate,” historian James Horn told The Washington Post.
The White Lion arrived at Point Comfort, near Hampton, Virginia, weeks later and the African captives on the ship were sold in exchange for food and provisions while the rest were transported to Jamestown and sold into slavery. Days later when the Treasurer arrived, it left some three African captives and one of those three was Angela, who ended up in the household of William Pierce, a wealthy merchant. The majority of the Angolans were acquired by wealthy and well-connected English planters, according to Jamestown Rediscovery.
Angela arrived during the beginnings of democracy and chattel slavery in the New World. During this period, the meeting of the first General Assembly in Jamestown was held. The Washington Post writes that “the legislative body was made up of the governor, his four councilors and 22 burgesses elected by every free white male settler in the colony. Its work from July 30 to Aug. 4, 1619, represented the nation’s first experiment with democracy.”
In 1619 when Angela arrived, the transatlantic slave trade was also already more than 100 years old, with the Portuguese controlling almost everything, transporting scores of Africans taken from what is now Angola. Angela is listed in the 1624 and 1625 census as living in the household of Pierce, first as “Angelo a Negar” and then as “Angela Negro woman in by Treasurer”, according to The Washington Post.
During this time, the outlet reports that she had survived a Powhatan attack that killed hundreds of colonists, and famine (the Starving Time).
Historians say that the Starving Time was when about three-quarters of the English colonists in Virginia died of starvation or starvation related diseases. Food shortages, weakened leadership, and a siege by Powhatan Indian warriors claimed the lives of colonists. Angela survived what has been described as the “Second Starving Time.”
“Many people died during the Second Starving Time. There isn’t enough corn to support” the large numbers of arriving settlers, Horn told The Washington Post. “You have a period where food prices, particularly for Indian corn, are astronomical. A lot of poor servants and white indentured servants perished or died of disease. It is a grim period.”
Some Africans died but Angela survived possibly because she lived and worked on the plantation of a wealthy person, Pierce. By 1626, Angela, the first African woman documented in Virginia who became a symbol of slavery and survival, vanishes from the census records. No one knows what became of her after.
Archaeologists hope to find her remains to know more about her including how old she was, her original name, whether she had children, and how she died. Knowing more about her can help reclaim her humanity for history, historians say.
Essentially, in 1624 and 1625, there were other early Africans in Virginia who were “living at “Warwick Squeake” (Warraskoyak, near present-day Smithfield), Flowerdew Hundred (near present-day Hopewell), and in a cluster of settlements at or near Jamestown.” Names like Peter, Anthony (who became Anthony Johnson, a prosperous landowner), Francis, and Margrett were also recorded.
In the U.S. today, these Africans have become the ancestors of the majority of the over 40 million African Americans who have thrived over the years in the face of hurdles such as access to capital to fund and operate businesses due to years of racial and economic discrimination.