1619-2019: 400 years later



One stormy day in August of 1619 a Dutch manof-war with about 20 Africans on board entered port at the English colony of Jamestown, Virginia. Little is known of these newly arrived people: the first Africans to set foot on the North American continent. At this time the slave trade between Africa and the English colonies had not yet been established, and it is unlikely that the 20 or so newcomers became slaves upon their arrival. They were perhaps considered indentured servants, who worked under contract for a certain period of time (usually seven years) before they were granted freedom and the rights accorded to other settlers. Their historic arrival, however, marked the beginning of an atrocious trend in colonial America, in which the people of Africa were taken unwillingly from their motherland and consigned to lifelong slavery. The robust economic growth of the English colonies was caused largely by this exploitative institution.

Many scholars agree that the captain and crew of the Dutch ship stole their valuable human cargo from the San Juan Bautista, a Portuguese merchant-slaver that had been making its way from the West African port town of Luanda, Angola to Vera Cruz. The raid of the Portuguese ship took place on the high seas and when the Dutch adventurers arrived in Virginia they traded the Africans to Jamestown settlers in exchange for food. If these Africans indeed hailed from Luanda, which was then the newly established capital of the Portuguese colony of Angola, it is likely that they had been trading with Europeans for years, that they spoke a language in common with these Europeans, and that they were Christians. It is possible that these characteristics enabled them to escape a life of slavery, which was to become the fate of the more ethnically and linguistically diverse groups of Africans that arrived in North America in later years.

The social status of the first Africans in Jamestown was confusing, and perhaps deliberately ambiguous. Records from 1623 and 1624 list the black inhabitants of the colony as servants, not slaves. In these same records, however, white indentured servants are listed along with the year in which they were to attain freedom; no such year accompanies the names of black servants. Freedom was the birthright of William Tucker, the first African born in the colonies. Yet court records show that at least one African had been declared a slave by 1640, the year that slavery was officially instituted in Jamestown. After the legalization of slavery by the Virginia colony, the African population began to rise slowly and steadily. The number of blacks increased from 23 in 1625 to approximately three hundred in 1650.

Economic interests propelled the rise of slavery throughout the seventeenth century in colonial Virginia, where tobacco was the cash crop that held the promise of wealth. At first settlers in the colonies looked to England for workers. Arriving from overseas English laborers cleared the fields for the planting and harvesting of tobacco, which sold for a high price in the 1620s and 1630s. The influx of a British workforce, however, did not last; in the 1660s the price of tobacco plummeted, and the Great Plague diminished England’s population. After a fire devastated London, the reconstruction of the city created jobs for laborers, who preferred to remain at home. When these events led the colonial settlers to look elsewhere for field workers, they resorted to the slave trade, which had been active in Europe since the Portuguese first explored the African coast in the fifteenth century.

Tobacco, coffee, sugar, and rice were the colonies’ chief exports, and the production of these cash crops required a hearty and dependable workforce. Meanwhile the contracts of indentured servants were expiring, depleting the plantations of laborers. Attempts were made to enslave Native Americans, but these were largely unsuccessful. The settlers found it difficult to subdue the Native American people, who knew the land and who lived in unified communities that had the means of self-defense. The European slave trade provided New World settlers with culturally disparate African captives who had been forcibly uprooted from their homeland and stripped of their ability to defend themselves. Although many Africans rebelled and resisted enslavement, most found themselves unable to escape the bondage that was to be their tragic fate.

Less than one hundred years after the arrival of the first Africans in Virginia the institution of slavery was firmly in place. By the turn of the eighteenth century more than a thousand Africans were arriving each year via merchant-slave ships. Sea routes were established: Sailors voyaged from England to Africa, where they offered goods in exchange for slaves, then departed for the New World colonies where settlers purchased the slaves and put them to work. While colonial America profited from the Africans’ labor, the slave trade became a tremendously lucrative business in itself. At the expense of a people held captive, colonial America’s plantation economy and the slave trade industry flourished for many years to come.

Topic overview

Whatever the status of these first Africans to arrive at Jamestown, it is clear that by 1640, at least one African had been declared a slave. This African was ordered by the court “to serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural life here or elsewhere.”

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