400 years ago, enslaved Africans first arrived in Virginia

Stolen by Portuguese slave traders, kidnapped by English pirates, and taken far from home, African arrivals to colonial Virginia in 1619 marked the origins of U.S. slavery.

Photograph by Bridgeman/ACI
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Traditions Endure
Painted in the late 1700s, “The Old Plantation” reveals that enslaved communities maintained practices from their ancestral African cultures, such as the musical instruments and stick dancing depicted in this artwork. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, Williamsburg, Virginia.
Photograph by Bridgeman/ACI

In late August 1619, “20 and odd” captive Africans first touched the soil at Point Comfort (now Fort Monroe National Monument), part of England’s new colony in Virginia. These men and women had been stolen from their homes in Africa, forced to board a ship, and sailed for months into the unknown. The first Africans in an English colony, their arrival is considered by many historians to be the beginning of a 400-year story filled with tragedy, endurance, survival, and a legacy of resilience, inequality, and oppression.

These first Africans in Virginia were not the first Africans in North America, but they were a significant part of the ever changing Atlantic world during the colonial era. Their travels and experiences represent those of more than 12.5 million other captives, who were taken from Africa to be sold in the Americas during the five centuries of the transatlantic slave trade. Their story marks an important historical transition, as the North American colonies began to turn away from indentured servitude and instead rely on chattel slavery. (See also: It was America's first colony. Then it was gone.)

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Mapping the Colony Point Comfort is one of the many features indicated on the extremely detailed map of the Virginia region that Captain John Smith created for England in the early 1600s.

Slavery in Africa

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Sculptors in the Kongo created Nkisi, power figures like this one from the 19th century, that were believed to possess mystical forces.

On the west coast of central Africa in the 1600s, the Portuguese were in the midst of a war with Ndongo, a powerful west African kingdom located between the Lukala and Kwanza rivers, in present-day Angola. The people of Ndongo lived in developed cities and towns surrounding their capital city, Kabasa. The capital was where royalty lived, along with approximately 50,000 citizens. In 1618, Portuguese forces aligned with Ndongo’s adversaries, neighboring Imbangala mercenaries, to invade the kingdom. They captured thousands of prisoners to sell into slavery.

These political relationships were spawned 135 years earlier. In 1483, the Portuguese first forged a relationship with the Kingdom of Kongo. Portuguese explorers aimed to spread Catholicism in Africa, colonize both people and land, and grow rich. Upon developing a trade deal with the Portuguese, the Kongo King Nkuwu converted to Catholicism. After his death, his son and heir, King Nzinga Mbemba, took the name King Afonso I and declared the kingdom a Catholic state, firmly bonding the two nations.

In 1512, Afonso I negotiated an agreement with the Portuguese giving them rights to land and direct access to Kongo’s prisoners of war, who would be sold into the transatlantic slave trade. This arrangement provided a model that other European nations and western and central African kingdoms would follow for centuries afterward. (See also: Tracing slaves to their African homelands.)

The first people sold were mostly prisoners of war. African kingdoms were often in conflict, at times absorbing smaller nations or kinship groups into themselves. The vast ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversity in these kingdoms allowed for easily identifiable differences among groups, making it easier for kingdoms to sell their enemies in exchange for weapons and goods to expand and protect their territories. Grand empires, such as the Kongo, Dahomey, Yoruba, Benin, and Asante, were vying for wealth and power in their regions, and Europeans were in need of laborers to build their colonies. It was the ideal circumstance to bring about the largest forced migration in human history.

In just two years, 1618 and 1619, the Portuguese-Imbangala alliance resulted in the capture and enslavement of thousands of Ndongo people, filling at least 36 ships with human cargo. These captives would be sent to the Spanish and Portuguese colonies in Central and South America to work as laborers. It was through this arrangement that slavery would spread to British North America in 1619, when chaos intervened and the destiny of those “20 and odd” Africans was redirected to a place called the Colony of Virginia on the Atlantic coast.

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Prison Walls First built in 1583, the Massangano fortress in Angola, Africa, was once used as a base for Portuguese slave- capturing operations. Captured Africans were held here, forcibly baptized, and then sent to Luanda, where they were forced aboard ships to the Americas.

They entered the Middle Passage, a phrase used to describe both the trip itself and the shipping of people from the coasts of Africa to the European colonies in the Americas. Conditions aboard the ships were dreadful; a lack of food and water, physical abuse, and severe overcrowding led to the death of approximately 30 percent of the captives on any given ship. To survive the Middle Passage was a feat in itself: Hundreds of ships sank, small-and large-scale revolts broke out, and disease and starvation were widespread. The San Juan Bautista was no exception, as sickness took hold aboard the vessel. Of the 350 captured and enslaved African men, women, and children, roughly 150 died on the journey west.

In addition to the trauma of widespread death on the San Juan Bautista, the crew was also concerned about English privateers, who were assigned to take any goods aboard Spanish and Portuguese ships. By this period, both Spain and Portugal had colonized much of the Americas, and the British were in fierce competition for both land and power in the so-called New World. In previous decades, Englishmen such as Sirs Humphrey Gilbert, Richard Grenville, John Hawkins, Walter Raleigh, and Francis Drake were sent by Queen Elizabeth I to the Atlantic and Caribbean, where they attacked and seized goods from Spanish ships and colonies.

It was because of this complex political climate that the Africans aboard the San Juan Bautista found themselves in an unexpected turn of events. In late July or early August 1619, just weeks before the Ndongo captives would have been sold through the port of Veracruz, the ship was attacked by pirates searching for Spanish gold.

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Bermuda Is.

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The White Lion, commanded by Cornish man John Jope, and the Treasurer, owned by Sir Robert Rich, the Earl of Warwick, and led by Captain Daniel Elfrith, were assigned the duty of intercepting and seizing Spanish goods in the Atlantic. The English wanted these privateers to slow down Spanish settlement and empowered them to attack Spanish ships. This particular encounter, in the bay of Campeche, left all three ships damaged, and the English pirates stole approximately 50 Africans as part of their overall booty.

After the battle, the San Juan Bautista continued to Veracruz, where 147 surviving enslaved Africans would be sold. The Treasurer and White Lion left the battle and sailed toward the eastern Caribbean. The 50 Angolans on board the two ships had lived through the Middle Passage from Luanda to the Gulf of Mexico. They had witnessed death and endured despair and violence, and had survived it all—including an attack by pirates.

Arrival in Virginia

The English pirates split the captive Africans into two groups between their ships. Both vessels sailed toward the British Colony of Virginia, which was established in 1607. The White Lion arrived first, landing at Point Comfort, in present-day Hampton, Virginia. English colonist John Rolfe recorded the event:

...a Dutchman of Warr of the burden of a 160 tunnes arrived at Point Comfort, the Commandors name Capt. Jope. He brought not any thing but 20. And odd Negroes, w[hich] the Governo[r] and Cape Merchant bought for victuals.

His clinical summation is the only documentation of the event and falls short of capturing any details of that day in late August 1619 as “20 and odd” Africans placed their feet on the soil of new continent. As they stood together as the first Africans in British North America, no one recorded their reactions or opinions about leaving their homes in Angola. Their perspective was lost in time.

The second ship, the Treasurer, arrived a few days later for a quick trade at nearby Kicotan (now Hampton), Virginia, but quickly departed for Bermuda. They traded their remaining goods and sold the rest of the Africans upon their arrival. The English colonies were expanding and the captives supplied them with an instant and distinguishable work force. The Spanish and Portuguese capture and enslavement of Africans as laborers in the Atlantic world was common practice by the time Jamestown was established, and the British followed suit. By the end of the 17th century, the colonies’ reliance on indentured servants had shifted toward that of enslaved African people. (See also: Jamestown colonists resorted to cannibalism.)

By March 1620, 32 Africans were documented living in Virginia; 15 men and 17 women. The first American-born African likely was either at Flowerdew Hundred Plantation or at Kicotan, both nearby settlements on the James River. In 1624, this small African population had shrunk to only 21, most likely from death due to illness, the 1622 Powhatan uprising, or because some were sold back into the Atlantic trade.

There is no record stating the official legal status of these first Africans in Virginia. There was already an established racial caste in the Portuguese and Spanish colonies, and it is fair to presume the English followed this custom. They most likely saw these Africans as something other than indentured servants, a status common for their poor white counterparts.

Early Virginia census records show that many Africans were never listed by name, just their “race,” and cited their appearance as starkly different from that of the colonists. This distinction marks the beginnings of a racial caste, formalized into Virginia law by the early 1650s, the enslaved status of African women was written into Virginia law as their children automatically inherited their status and were enslaved at birth, regardless of the father’s identity. This set up slavery as a permanent, hereditary condition. A series of laws, called slave codes, followed, each one cementing racism firmly in the DNA of the United States.

Culture clues

Historians know few details about the first “20 and odd” Africans in Virginia. It is assumed that they spoke forms of the Bantu language, either Kikongo, from the Kongo Kingdom, or Kimbundu, from the Ngongo empire. Their documented names are of Spanish origin and most likely were assigned to them during their time on the San Juan Bautista. A few of them, and some of those who followed shortly after in the early 1620s, left clues to their lives in Virginia’s courts and records. In 1624, court records show the testimony of “John Phillips” and the census lists “Anthony” and “Isabella” as living in Elizabeth City, and “Angelo (Angela)” at Jamestown. It is this brevity that keeps the details of their lives absent from most written records and hinders current understanding of their experiences.

Some of the English colonists might have failed to see the ethnic and religious diversity among their captives. But many slavers sought out particular ethnic groups for their skills. In addition to farming, these kingdoms were known for their iron work, masonry, glassmaking, weaving, and mining—all skills needed in the development of the colonies. The Kongo were well-known metal workers and brought with them unmatched skill sets.

Angola was home to the Kongo Kingdom, which converted to Catholicism in the 15th century, but inhabitants still retained many of their own religious practices. Traditional rituals and beliefs, such as ancestor worship, were intermixed with Catholic rites. Archaeologists working at colonial sites have found traces of it in the material culture; the Kongo cosmogram, a cross-like mark, often with a circle encompassing it, can be found carved into objects such as pipes and bowls and into walls and metal throughout the African diaspora. This symbol, often mistaken for a cross, had a double meaning; it could pass as Christian while also performing essential ritual purposes. This symbol was used to pray to and conjure the African ancestors for protection.

It is through the markings carved into pipes and other material objects, mostly found through archaeological investigations, that historians are given a glimpse into the Africans’ personal lives. Their religion, ethnicity, and culture survived the Middle Passage and took hold in the colonies. The first Africans in Virginia were followed by more than 400,000 people captured and brought directly from West and central African to the North American slave ports, from New England to New Orleans. Written records are mostly limited to names, sex, and monetary value, and occasionally occupation; more detailed descriptions typically are found only in advertisements about runaway slaves. This leaves historians with a limited amount of information, and as such, a heavy reliance on archaeological data and oral tradition. (See also: Last American slave ship is discovered in Alabama.)

Dark legacy

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A 1790 engraving showing the cramped, inhuman stowage arrangements on the British slave ship Brookes.

While slavery existed for millennia in other cultures around the world before 1619, it transformed significantly in the Americas. Traditional African slavery was vastly different from what developed in the colonies. In African kingdoms, slavery was not permanent nor was it inherited. Children of slaves were not automatically enslaved, and they could be socially and politically mobile. (See also: Nat Turner, an American rebel's complicated legacy.)

In the “New World,” slavery transformed. It was permanent and hereditary. The enslaved had few or no civil rights. They could be bought and sold at their owners’ discretion. The social construct of race became tightly tethered to legal status, causing problems that ripple down to the present day.

As the 400th anniversary of the 1619 arrival approached, more people actively tried to trace their roots back to their African ancestors’ arrival in the colonies. Some are fortunate, like members of the William Tucker 1624 Society. Many members can trace their lineage back to William Tucker, believed to be the first African American child born in Virginia. Their surname was recorded centuries ago, and they have remained connected to this distinct family line.

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By 1624, two of the 1619 arrivals, “Anthony” and “Isabella,” were parents of “William,” the first documented African-American born in Virginia. Their son took the last name Tucker, as was commonplace, from his enslaver. Many of their descendants remained in the Tidewater region of Virginia. Some are buried in the family cemetery in Hampton, Virginia, which is cared for by the William Tucker 1624 Society.

Unfortunately, the Tuckers are the exception, as most African Americans can only trace their ancestors back to the late 19th century, following emancipation, when African Americans were free to record their own full legal names. Scientific advances in genetics have also given people new tools to find their ancestors via DNA, but creating a full family tree remains unlikely. Few family histories will ever be complete, yet another legacy of the inhumane treatment of enslaved Africans and their descendants. (See also: Their ancestors survived slavery. Can their descendants save the town they built?)

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Long History Shirley Plantation, one of the oldest Virginia plantations, was established in 1613 on the banks of the James, upriver from Point Comfort. The first enslaved Africans were documented there in 1622, the last in 1865.

Looking back to 1619, one realizes it is time to recognize how racist ideology fed the colonization of the Americas and the systematic enslavement and oppression of both Native Americans and captive Africans. Looking forward, one must also see how necessary it is for humanity to try to tell the full story of the millions of Africans who were stolen away.

Dr. Kelley Fanto Deetz is a historian of the African diaspora and director of programming, education, and visitor engagement at Stratford Hall in Stratford, Virginia.