Four hundred and one years ago, in 1619, a British ship 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”.
Some of the 20 African captives, right after landing on the shores of the colony, were sold in exchange for food and provisions while the rest were transported to Jamestown and sold into slavery.
Historical accounts had previously believed that these 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 ship, the White Lion.
“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. A few days later, it was at Point Comfort that the British vessel finally landed, in the hopes of trading the enslaved Africans for food and supplies,” according to a report by France 24.
Having arrived at Point Comfort on the James River on August 20, 1619, an account says this marked the beginning of slavery in the American colonies with the 20 African captives on board being described as “the first Africans to set foot on the North American continent.”
However, this is not correct, as research shows that 1619 was not the first time people of African descent could be found on land that would later be part of the United States. In other words, American Black history did not start in Virginia in 1619. Here’s why.
As early as 1513, Juan Garrido, born in the Kingdom of Kongo, present-day northern Angola and the Republic of the Congo, came to be the first free African to enter what would become the United States. He had then joined a group of freed Black men who traveled to the Americas as part of the Spanish expeditionary force.
Through the path of his expeditions with Ponce De Leon in search of the Fountain of Youth in 1513, Garrido and De Leon ended up in present-day Florida, around St. Augustine.
In terms of slavery, the 20 African captives who arrived in 1619 were not the first enslaved Africans to have arrived in the British Colony of Virginia. According to the report by France 24, Spanish conquistadors had already, as early as 1502, brought African slaves to the Caribbean island of Hispaniola.
In 1526, a Spanish expedition also brought African captives to present-day South Carolina, but the following year, the settlement was abandoned after the Africans protested.
Then in 1565, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, a Spanish conquistador, arrived in present-day Florida with enslaved Africans and named the colonial settlement St. Augustine.
That said, why all the confusion? Why do some groups mention Virginia, 1619 as the beginning of American Black history and others say St. Augustine, Florida?
Some historians say that those who are all for 1619 clearly do not want to bring into account the Spanish and indigenous sides of American history.
“People don’t tend to want to think about early U.S. history as being anything but English and English-speaking,” Michael Guasco, a historian at Davidson College and author of Slaves and Englishmen: Human Bondage in the Early Modern Atlantic World, was quoted by Time.
“There is a Hispanic heritage that predates the U.S, and there’s a tendency for people to willingly forget or omit the early history of Florida, Texas and California, particularly as the politics of today want to push back against Spanish language and immigration from Latin America,” he said.
In effect, at least 12 million Africans were taken to the Americas as slaves between the 1500s and 1832, with about a third of them being in British ships.
Through their harrowing experiences on the ships, many of the enslaved Africans even died before reaching their new homes. For the many who survived, it was the beginning of sleepless nights, several hours of work on plantations on empty stomachs and the constant reminder that in their new lives they were nothing but a commodity to their owners.
In the U.S. today, these enslaved 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.