Four hundred years ago this summer, a few weeks and 35 miles apart, two epochal events occurred. One was the inaugural meeting of the General Assembly of the Virginia colony – the first elective representative body of its kind in North America.
The other was the first recorded arrival of enslaved Africans in mainland English America.
Slavery alongside democracy; oppression amidst freedom. The contradiction would shape the nation that emerged from the Virginia colony.
How and why slavery, America’s original sin, came to these shores and took hold is a story of accident and coincidence. It didn’t have to happen the way it did.
Not if a 17th-century Portuguese king hadn’t dreamed of a trans-African empire; if an obscure African kingdom had been more stable; if two pirate ships looking for gold hadn’t, in the vastness of the Gulf of Mexico, stumbled instead on a slave ship; if the pirates hadn’t sold the enslaved to settlers in a colony desperately short of labor.
And the story of where the enslaved people came from is one that most Americans have never heard and that historians in recent decades have had to radically alter.
Once, scholars believed the first blacks to arrive in the Jamestown settlement probably came from the West Indies. Where they had originally come from in Africa was anyone’s guess.
But two decades ago, a researcher found a shipping document in the Spanish national archives that told of a raid by two pirate ships in July 1619 on a slave ship, the San Juan Bautista, en route to Mexico. The pirates absconded with about 60 enslaved Africans.
The timing coincided with the arrival in Virginia a month later of two ships, the White Lion and the Treasurer, carrying the enslaved whom the pirates sold to several leading settlers.
The shipping document’s biggest revelation was the San Juan Bautista’s port of departure: what is today Angola.
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Seven thousand miles from Jamestown, on a rise overlooking the Atlantic just south of Angola’s capital city, Luanda, sits an old two-story white building. With a cross on its pediment and a sand-colored baptismal bowl inside, it might seem that its function, centuries ago, was sacred.
But this was a slave-trading hall. Tens of thousands of people were forcibly baptized, marched out the door and eventually put on ships headed west toward what Europeans called the Americas and Angolans called “the land of the dead.’’
In 1619, many of these enslaved Africans had been taken prisoner in Portugal’s war against the Kingdom of Ndongo, whose capital was about 150 miles inland.
It was part of a fight that the Portuguese king hoped would open a corridor to his colonies in East Africa. To this end, his governor forged an alliance with a group of fearsome nomadic African mercenaries who practiced cannibalism and infanticide.
Weakened by decades of internal strife and battles with rival kingdoms, Ndongo succumbed. The mercenaries sacked the capital and took thousands of captives.
The prisoners were marched to the coast. Adults were yoked together with forked tree branches; children too small to keep up were carried in bags. About a fifth of the captives died en route.
Those who reached Luanda were branded and jammed into pens until there was room for them on one of 36 slave ships that left in 1619 for the New World, carrying a total of about 15,000 enslaved people. “Never in the history of the Atlantic slave trade would so many Africans from so small an area be taken in so short a time,’’ Tim Hashaw writes in his book “The Birth of Black America.”
In May, about 350 Angolans were loaded onto the San Juan Bautista, chained head to foot below deck. They were headed for Mexico, and a life – probably short – of forced labor in mines.
Though treated savagely, they were not savages. Ndongo had a long tradition of self-rule, with a sophisticated royal court and administrative bureaucracy. The population of Kabasa, the capital, approached 50,000. Many residents had been exposed to Europeans, and some knew Portuguese.
The Atlantic crossing of the San Juan Bautista was troubled even by the harsh standards of the Middle Passage; nearly half of the enslaved died by the time the ship reached the Gulf of Mexico.
Then it was attacked by two English privateers – pirate ships licensed under a foreign flag of convenience – who were searching for gold and silver.
The pirates found prisoners instead and took about 60 of the Africans and headed north toward Virginia, the closest port.
According to a letter by tobacco planter John Rolfe (widower of Pocahontas), in late August a ship (the White Lion) landed in the 12-year-old Jamestown settlement. It “brought not anything but 20, and odd, Negroes, which the Governor and the Cape Merchant bought for victuals’’ – provisions.
Some of the Africans were first identified by name in a 1624 census. They included an Anthony and an Isabella – names forced on them by the Europeans – who were part of the household of Captain William Tucker, a military commander and settler.
The following year the two appear again in a census, this time along with “William theire Child Baptised’’ – the first identified child born of Africans parents on the mainland of English America.
USA TODAY’s commitment: Why we went to Angola to tell the story of 1619
Although the colony had no law permitting or banning slavery, the Africans became slaves in fact, if not law. But slavery was not part of the original plan for the colony. The men who founded the Virginia Company of London had dueling visions – a community of planters versus a commercial and trading center, with a subspecialty in raiding Spanish shipping. Neither envisioned slavery as its linchpin.
Indeed, piracy was virtually the only way the Africans could have come to Virginia; the Portuguese and Spanish monopolized the Atlantic slave trade and had already transported about 500,000 enslaved to the Caribbean and Latin America.
In 1619, with King James of England trying to improve relations with Spain, such raids were out of official favor. But the colony was too poor and laborers were too needed. Jamestown was on the verge of collapse; winter was known as “the starving time.’’ English colonies had disappeared before, and there was every indication this one could, too.
Some of the new arrivals were skilled at farming, herding or ironworking. And they arrived just as a new, sweeter strain of tobacco was becoming a profitable crop for export to England. As the governor of Bermuda wrote, slaves were “the most proper and cheap instruments’’ for raising tobacco.
That still did not guarantee that Virginia would become dependent on slavery. In fact, the number of enslaved people declined over the next few years, probably because of disease, hunger or an Indian war. White servants comprised the bulk of the colony’s labor force into the 1670s.
But for all the random contingencies of slavery’s arrival in Virginia, it took root with a vengeance because of broad underlying forces – an abundance of cheap land; the rise of cash crops; and a shortage of labor to harvest them. By the end of the century, the supply of white English subjects willing to work as indentured servants – contract workers – had collapsed.
As tobacco, rice and finally cotton exports boomed, the forced labor of the first Africans and their descendants helped fuel the Industrial Revolution. It also, as the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates points out, created the economic foundation for America’s ‘’great experiment in democracy.’’
And it all started in 1619, in Angola. Today, the old slave-trading hall outside the capital is a museum with whips and manacles and other artifacts of human bondage. You can stand in the same door through which the captives were marched off toward slavery in the New World.
Relatively few Americans visit. But when the writer Christopher Hitchens did in the mid-1980s, he noticed outside the museum some pieces of tree bark with inscriptions in Spanish. They’d been left by black Cuban soldiers who’d come to fight in Angola’s civil war.
Several bore the same inscription, as apt now as it was then: “We have come home.”
Contributing: Deborah Barfield Berry
Were Wanda Tucker’s ancestors America’s first slaves? A difficult search for answers in far-away Angola
The founding family you’ve never heard of: The black Tuckers of Hampton, Virginia
Slavery’s explosive growth, in charts: How ’20 and odd’ became millions
Slavery in America: Behind USA TODAY’s 1619 series on black history
Black history 1619 project: Call our Google number, share your story