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Cinnamon Carter

What We Don’t Understand about the Roots of Slavery

What We Dont Understand about the Roots of Slavery

This year is the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Angolans in 1619.  It has long been considered the starting point of African-American history and perhaps racism itself.  However, by overemphasizing 1619, it makes us forget that racism was started by human beings and can be unmade by them as well.  Why does 1619 stand out so broadly in our historical memory? Because 1619 is the first year that historians have definitive records of Africans coming to an English colony in North America.  In actuality, enslaved Africans took part in a Spanish expedition in what is now South Carolina in 1526.  They rebelled, preventing the Spanish from establishing a colony.  But let’s start in 1619 and follow the events that took place.

Sir George Yeardley, the governor of the colony of Virginia bought twenty-something “Negroes” from an English pirate named John Jope.  Jope had attacked a Portuguese slave ship on its way to Mexico. He technically was a ‘privateer,’ a government sponsored pirate, who found 350 enslaved Angolans chained inside a putrid, overcrowded ship.  Jope took as many Angolans as he could and made his way to Hampton, Virginia.  Yeardley bought several of them, and in dire need of labor, put the enslaved Africans to work alongside the colony’s many indentured servants. 

Using the date of 1619 because it is the first year of definitive records pushes aside the birth of slavery and white dominance and the story of how Africans, both on the continent and in the Americas, successfully resisted Europeans from the start.  It also gives the impression that anti-black prejudice always existed when in fact racism developed over time; both a consequence of slavery as much as the cause of it.  Similarly, placing the origins of slavery in the South only minimizes how far racism reached making it seem as though the South had a monopoly on slavery and its justification, racism as well as devaluing the importance of Africa and the African Diaspora to black history.

The experiences and lives of the Angolans were markedly different from the lives of enslaved Black Americans in the centuries to come.  The English had no experience with plantation slavery and the ambiguities of slavery’s legality allowed several of the enslaved Africans the ability to negotiate for their freedom within a few years.  White indentured servants vastly outnumbered the enslaved Africans.  It was not until the turn of the 18th century that Virginia became the kind of slave society we remember today. 

It is also misleading to start the story of racial slavery in British North America.   By the time the British established their first successful colony in Virginia, half a million enslaved Africans had already been forced to work on Brazilian sugar plantations or in the silver mines of Peru and Mexico.  The following points speak for themselves:

  • The first 20 Angolans were taken from a Portuguese slave ship destined for Mexico
  • The pioneers of racial slavery were the Portuguese and Spanish, who seized Africans from West Central Africa in the mid-1400s and established successful plantations, worked by enslaved Africans in the Canary Islands, Madeira, and Sao Tome.
  • Beginning the story of black America in 1619 promotes the myth of black powerlessness.  African leaders willingly sold slaves to Europeans without being passive victims or ruthless tyrants.  Most African leaders refused to sell slaves from their own kingdoms; demanded high prices and elaborate diplomacy.  Obviously, the African perspective has traditionally been left out of the 1619 story.

Many of the first Angolans probably came from the province of Ndongo.  The Portuguese launched an invasive war, killing, raping, and pillaging, enslaving thousands of free Ndongo residents, a fraction of whom unexpectedly arrived in Virginia.  But resistance was not futile.  In 1624, Queen Njinga waged a successful counterattack and for a quarter century held off the Portuguese and prevented the sale of her people to trader.  The English originally had little interest in the African slave trade.  The British colonization of what remained of the Caribbean and North America was in hope to replicate the silver mining success of the Spanish or the fur trade of the French.  In Virginia, neither plan worked out.  The British took the knowledge Native Americans gave them to cultivate tobacco.  In the 1620s they lured hundreds of poor Englishman desperate enough to sell themselves into seven-year contracts (‘indentures”), hoping that at the end of their service they would be given land. 

Throughout the 15th and 16th centuries the English experience slavery primarily as slaves, not enslavers.  English mariners were captured and enslaved by Catholic and Islamic slave-raiders roaming the Mediterranean Sea.  Early modern Englishmen had no desire to establish a system at home when they became victims of it abroad.  But establishing slavery in the New World was a whole different matter.  Adopting the system of the Portuguese and Spanish, the English enslaved thousands of Native Americans.  Over time, Native American slavery and white indentured servitude were phased out.  White people were prohibited from being slaves.  By the 18th century, slavery was exclusively black and the legal loopholes the early Angolans used were closed.  Virginia’s 1705 slave codes included:

  • Giving slave owners the authority to kill their slaves without any punishment
  • Slaves could no longer appear in court
  • Slaves needed written permission to leave their plantations
  • Free blacks could not own guns or employ white people
  • Whites who married blacks were sentenced to prison

In the 19th century, black historians used the date of 1619 as a strategy to highlight the extreme violence African Americans in the South were facing after Reconstruction and to highlight the fact that blacks had been here from the very start of the nation. Since then, the date has been embraced as a starting point to tell the story of black America. 

The task we face is to revise the significance and how we think about the date of 1619.  It was one small moment when early English colonists had a choice to make – what to do with these fellow human beings?  Daily decisions, often dismissed as meaningless, become momentous choices because the consequences are not known or immediately understood.  Which only begs the question, how would things have been different?


Source: Eric Herschthal, Washington Post, March 2019

Cinnamon Carter

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