The First Africans

The first Africans brought to an English colony in North America were forcibly landed in Virginia in late August 1619. Tobacco grower John Rolfe wrote that the “20 and odd” Africans came from a Dutch warship, but modern research has shown a more complicated story.

Portuguese traders captured Angolans in West Central Africa on expeditions in 1618-19. The majority of captives were probably Kimbundu-speaking peoples from the kingdom of Ndongo, specifically from a heavily-populated region between the Lukala and Lutete Rivers that included the royal capital, Kabasa. Many of the captives would have come from urban backgrounds and after capture could have received the basics of Christianity because Portuguese law required all slaves to be baptized Catholics before arriving in the Americas. Following a march of some 200 miles to the port of Luanda, about 350 slaves were put on the Sao Joao Bautista, bound for Vera Cruz in the summer of 1619.

En route, the ship was attacked in the Gulf of Campeche, off the coast of Mexico, by two privateers and robbed of some of their human cargo. One raider was an English warship, White Lion, sailing with a letters of marque issued to the English Captain Jope by the Protestant Dutch Prince Maurice, son of William of Orange. A letter of marque legally permitted the White Lion to sail as a privateer attacking any Spanish or Portuguese ships it encountered. The other ship, the Treasurer, was an English ship owned by the Earl of Warwick and commanded by Daniel Elfrith. Rolfe’s report that the White Lion was Dutch was a way to transfer blame away from the English for piracy.

The two privateers sailed to the West Indies and then to Virginia’s post at Old Point Comfort (now Hampton, VA). Some of the Angolans were traded there, including a Christian woman named “Angelo” who was purchased by Lieutenant William Pierce of Jamestown. Some of the Angolans became the property of the governor. Others may have been treated as indentured servants and earned their freedom after years spent laboring at the hoe on tobacco plantations (because the English colony did not have a legal system of lifetime slavery until decades later). But for most, a change of masters did not allow them to escape the practical reality of enslaved work. There were 32 Africans in the colony in 1620, but then a 1625 census recorded 23 Africans in Virginia. In 1649 there were only about 300. A significant spike in enslaved African labor did not occur until after 1700.

A ship “brought not any thing but 20 and odd Negroes” to Virginia in late August 1619 after capturing them from a Portuguese ship bound for Spanish colonies