The First Africans

The first Africans arrived in Virginia because of the transatlantic slave trade. Across three and a half centuries—from 1501 to 1867—more than 12.5 million Africans were captured, sold, and transported to the Americas. While Portugal and Spain were the first European powers engaged in this trade, eventually most of the European powers would get involved. It was as profitable as it was brutal.

West Africa MapThe Africans who came to Virginia in 1619 had been taken from Angola in West Central Africa. They were captured in a series of wars that was part of much broader Portuguese hostilities against the Kongo and Ndongo kingdoms, and other states. These captives were then forced to march 100-200 miles to the coast to the major slave-trade port of Luanda. They were put on board the San Juan Bautista, which carried 350 captives bound for Vera Cruz, on the coast of Mexico, in the summer of 1619.

Nearing her destination, the slave ship was attacked by two English privateers, the White Lion and the Treasurer, in the Gulf of Mexico and robbed of 50-60 Africans. The two privateers then sailed to Virginia where the White Lion arrived at Point Comfort, or present day Hampton, Virginia, toward the end of August. John Rolfe, a prominent planter and merchant (and formerly the husband of Pocahontas), reported that “20. and odd Negroes” were “bought for victuals,” (italics added). The majority of the Angolans were acquired by wealthy and well-connected English planters including Governor Sir George Yeardley and the cape, or head, merchant, Abraham Piersey. The Africans were sold into bondage despite Virginia having no clear-cut laws sanctioning slavery.

The Treasurer arrived at Point Comfort a few days after the White Lion but did not stay long, quickly setting sail for the English colony of Bermuda. Prior to leaving port, however, it is possible that 7 to 9 Africans were sold, including a woman named “Angelo” (Angela) who was taken to Lieutenant William Pierce’s Jamestown property, which is currently being excavated. By March 1620, 32 Africans were recorded in a muster as living in Virginia but by 1625 only 23 were recorded. These Africans, scattered throughout homes and farms of the James River Valley, were the first of hundreds of thousands of Africans forced to endure slavery in colonial British America.