The first African slaves in North America arrived in Virginia on this day in 1619

August 20, 2019 at 12:39 pm | History

Mildred Europa Taylor

Mildred Europa Taylor | Associate Editor

August 20, 2019 at 12:39 pm | History

A representation of the first enslaved Africans to have arrived in the British Colony of Virginia in 1619. Pic credit: History.com

Four hundred years ago today, 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”.

Having arrived at Point Comfort on the James River on August 20, 1619, this would mark the beginning of slavery in the American colonies. That fateful day would set in motion what would become about 246 years of chattel slavery in the United States that analysts say haunts the country till now.

Becoming the first enslaved Africans to have arrived in the British Colony of Virginia, 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 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 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.

It is significant to note that although Virginia was the first British colony to legally define slavery in mid-17th century North America, a forced labour regime was already present in the rest of the Americas at the time.

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.

In effect, the year 1619 is marked as the precise beginning of North American slavery. By the 1680s, African slave labour had become the dominant system on Virginia farms and the slave population continued to grow as slave labour was used to help fuel the growing tobacco and cotton industries in the southern states. 

The 20 enslaved Africans on the White Lion would become the first of the estimated 388,000 Africans captured from their homelands, forced onto ships and sold into enslavement in the United States.

The arrival at Point Comfort also marked a new chapter in the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which uprooted roughly 12 million Africans, depositing roughly 5 million in Brazil and over 3 million in the Caribbean, according to History.com.

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.

It’s been 400 years since their forefathers arrived on the shores of Virginia, and to commemorate this, a series of events, including ceremonies, conferences, and concerts, have been scheduled throughout the month of August.

The New York Times has launched The 1619 Project to highlight slavery and the contributions of black people in America’s founding.

“It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are,” said the NYT.

The project spotlights a collection of essays, criticism and art about how the America known today didn’t start in 1776, but in August 1619, when the ship carrying the enslaved Africans landed in Virginia, it added.

A dedicated page displaying captivating photographs of black struggles and compelling phrases and headlines linked to quotes, poems and essays of black Americans published on the portal takes readers through thought-provoking topics and memories.

Some of the essays touched on how black Americans made the country a democracy; the brutal nature of American capitalism linked to the plantation; race being the reason America doesn’t have universal health care; black music being the sound of freedom and the barbaric history of sugar among other subjects.

Meanwhile, as part of activities to mark the 400-year event, scores of African Americans have been returning to the continent to commemorate the date and have a sense of connection with their forebears in Africa.

In Ghana, The Year of Return programme has already seen hundreds of African Americans visit Ghana to experience the history, culture and tradition upfront.

It is an initiative by the government of Ghana aimed at marking 400 years since the first black slaves landed in Jamestown, Virginia.

This initiative has seen an array of celebrities across the globe make their way into Ghana to explore, learn and appreciate their roots, as well as, unite with Africans on the continent.

Steve Harvey, Nicole Ari Parker, Diggy Simmons, and Micheal Jai White, and Bozoma Saint John have been among a host of celebrities to have spent a significant part of their month in Ghana.

Ghana has been home to Pan-Africanists like George Padmore, Maya Angelou, W. E. B. Du Bois, Pauli Murray among others who emigrated after the country’s independence in 1957 after establishing a friendship with the first president Kwame Nkrumah who himself had studied in the United States.

“When it comes to the history of slavery, we have the image of poor people broken in boats who were dehumanised and without culture.

“However, the people shipped over in boats from African nations and the Caribbean had lives before working as slaves on plantations … they brought skills and knowledge that made them valuable labourers,” said Michael Thomas, assistant professor of philosophy at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania. 

“It’s not only important that we remember these dates…It’s essential that we pay attention to how we remember these dates because they tell us valuable things about the nation and the people in it that we often obscure.”

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