Listen to the usual candidates named by Americans.
In March 1776 Virginian Everard Meade complained about the British conduct in “forcing the slave trade on us & mak[ing] us pay exorbitant prices for ‘em with the sweat of our brow; then arming them to cut our throats . . . .” ( Revolutionary Virginia , VII, pt. 2, 284)
White Americans’ compassionate ancestors:
In 1867 The Rev. Robert Dabney insisted that because Africans brought to North America were already enslaved and could not be returned to Africa, many colonists “were prompted by genuine compassion . . . to rescue them from their pitiable condition,” which made the Africans very grateful. (Dabney, Defence of Virginia , 51-53.)
Shortly before the Civil War Virginian Thornton Stringfellow, an Episcopalian minister, declared that God had “allowed England, and her Puritan sons at the North, from the love of gain, to become the willing interests, to force African slaves upon the Cavaliers of the South.” Joanne P. Melish, Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England, 1780-1860; Jay Coughtry , The Notorious Triangle : Rhode Island and the African Slave Trade , 1800-1807 .
The Dutch? Remember John Rolfe’s words: “ About the latter end of August, a Dutch man of Warr of the burden of a 160 tunes arriued at Point-Comfort” and sold those famous “20. and odd Negroes.” (New Netherland)
Yes, when the Virginia Slavery Debates of 1831-32 opened the Old Dominion’s past to judgment for the “original sin by which slavery was first introduced into this country” (Thomas R. Dew’s words in his review of the debates), some white Virginians did blame their ancestors: Rockbridge County delegate James McDowell declared that “if our ancestors had exerted the firmness which . . . we ourselves are called to exert, Virginia would not, at this day, have been mourning over a legacy of weakness, and of sorrow, that has been left her . . . .”
There is still one more candidate: the Spanish. The first enslaved Africans in North America were in mid-16 th -century St. Augustine.
So, has the maternity test uncovered the people who perpetrated the original sin of slavery in North America? Perhaps not, because the remaining Spanish and their slaves left Florida in 1783 and permanently in 1822.
So where did slavery first appear and then survive beyond 1776 and until 1865 in North America?
Why 1619? What happened at Point Comfort in 1619?
John Rolfe, 1619: “ About the latter end of August, a Dutch man of Warr . . . arriued at Point-Comfort, the Comandors name Capt Jope, his Pilott for the West Indies one Mr Marmaduke an Englishman. They mett Wth the Trer in the West Indyes, and determyned to hold consort shipp hetherward, but in their passage lost one the other. He brought not any thing but 20. and odd Negroes, WCh the Governor and Cape Marchant bought for victualle (whereof he was in greate need as he pretended) at the best and easyest rate they could.”
Lerone Bennett, in The Shaping of Black America : “ For in the context of the meaning of America, it can be said without exaggeration that no ship ever called at an American port with a more important cargo. In the hold of that ship, in a manner of speaking, was the whole gorgeous panorama of black America, was jazz and the spirituals and Funky Broadway. Bird was there and Bigger and Malcolm and millions of other X's and crosses, along with Mahalia singing, Gwendolyn Brooks rhyming, Duke Ellington composing, James Brown grunting, Paul Robeson emoting, and Sidney Poitier walking. It was all there in embryo in the 160-ton ship.”
Lerone Bennett is not alone in finding mythical importance in the 1619 event. One need only mention Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. The man who then meant as much as anybody to the African-American future found it appropriate in March 1865 to refer to “the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil.”
The São João Bautista ( San Juan Bautista, Saint John the Baptist) , a Portuguese/Spanish ship, transported “20. and odd Negroes” from today’s Angola. One African group had captured people from another group to help create this cargo. ( Engel Sluiter, “New Light on the '20. and Odd Negroes' Arriving in Virginia, August 1619,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d Ser. 54 (April 1997): 395-98; Deal, “Race and Class, 164; Thornton, “Notes and Documents: The African Experience of the '20. and Odd Negroes' Arriving in Virginia in 1619,” William and Mary Quarterly , 3d Ser. 55 (July 1998): 421-34; William Thorndale, “The Virginia Census of 1619,” M agazine of Virginia Genealogy 33 (Summer 1995): 155-70; Martha W. McCartney, “An Early Virginia Census Reprised. Quarterly Bulletin of the Archaeology Society of Virginia 54, no. 4 (December 1999): 178-95.)
So Africans should be held responsible for the 1619 event? Clearly only some Africans should be—i.e., those who ordered the raids and those who profited from selling fellow Africans to European buyers. (Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World , 313.) The chain of title by no means ended with these people.
The White Lion (the ship that carried the “20. and odd Negroes” to Virginia) was in 1619 a multi-national ship operating under a Dutchman’s com-mission, an English captain (Jope) and English pilot (Rayner), and a crew that probably included people of several nationalities.
The Africans on board the White Lion were “stolen property,” thanks to the White Lion’s and the Treasurer’s attack on the São João Bautista in the Caribbean. (Information on this attack has been available since at least 1977 and 1981.)
John Rolfe may have intentionally obscured the details of the August 1619 transaction to protect a Virginia Company faction and to avoid English conflict with Spain.
Possibly one of the “20. And odd Negroes” testified in a law suit relating to the Earl of Warwick’s interest in the 1619 episode and to the Spanish ambassador’s complaint about the São João Bautista incident.
So, the 1619 event is exceedingly complex, as were most early 17 th -century Atlantic world events: One group of Angolans captured another; Angolan leaders sold those Africans to Portuguese slave traders; those traders, the Portuguese ship owners, and the crew were subject to Spanish rule at the time; with a commission from a Dutch leader, the “Dutch” Man-of-War attacked the São João Bautista even though Spain and the Netherlands were temporarily at peace; Virginian leaders bought the “20. and odd Negroes” under suspicious circumstances; one of those Africans influenced an English lawsuit; and these events all influenced Virginian and United States history.
Another capture, 1630 “ Five years after the census of 1624-25 was taken, from which it appears that there were twenty-two Africans in the Colony at that time, an important addition was made to the slave population by Captain Grey, who, during a cruise in the ship Fortune of London had encountered a vessel loaded with negroes from the Angola coast, captured her and brought her cargo into Virginia. This cargo he exchanged there for eighty-five hogsheads and five butts of tobacco, which were afterwards transported to England for sale.” Bruce, Economic History of Virginia in the Seventeenth Century , II, 73.
Not necessarily: Might there not have been an earlier, unrecorded importation?
An even more important question is, were these first Africans in Virginia slaves?
Africans Imported to Virginia, 1619-1664 Bruce, Economic History , 63-79; Enslaving Virginia 20 and odd + 1 1 Several 137. (Headright system began.) 42 30; “a surge” Royal African Co. charter English privateer seized Dutch ship; captured slaves taken to Virginia 1619 1623 1629 1635-39 1642-49 1656-66 1662 1664 Number imported Year
He and other slaves were said to be “very sturbborne and would not follow his [their owner’s] business”
Mongon and owner made a covenant: faithful service would result in freedom.
In 1685, Mongon referred in court to his “wonted most hasty humour”
During freedom he was always a tenant farmer.
Nugent, et al., comps., Cavaliers and Pioneers, I:25. June 30, 1640-Commission to Organize a Group to Pursue Runaway Blacks [On June 30, 1640 the General Court commissioned John Mattrom and Edward Fleet to organize a group of men to pursue runaway blacks. This group was similar to the patrols authorized by the Assembly in the eighteenth century.] “ The court hath granted that a commission shall be drawn for John Mattrom and Edward ffleet authorizing them to levy a party of men, or more if need require, out of the trained band for Charles river [York] county with arms and ammunition to go in psuit of certain runaway negroes and to bring them to the governor. And it is further ordered that such men as shall be pressed for this expedition shall receive their pay and satisfaction for their pains at the public charge of the counties from whence such negroes are runaway and likewise for any boat or boats that shall be taken for the said service.” See http://www.virtualjamestown.org/practise.html#3 These are indentured servants? Don’t count on it!
The simplest hints reveal oceans of implications: Samuel Matthews, 1649
A Perfect Description of Virginia (1649) reported that wealthy planter Samuel Mathews “hath forty Negroe servants, brings them up to Trades in his house . . . .” His plantation: at the mouth of the Warwick River; called "Mathews Manor" and later "Denbigh."
Who is dependent on whom? Once these Africans became valuable to Matthews, they had some negotiating power.
1671: “It is the opinion and Judgement of the Court that francis Stripes ought to pay Leavyes and tythes for his wife (shee being a negro) It being according to Law; and therefore ordered that he pay the Same . . .” Lower Norfolk [Chesapeake] County Order Book, 1665-1675, fol. 73, in Billings, Old Dominion , 157-58)
Our inability to agree on African people’s status in pre-1662 Virginia reminds us that their status was uncertain.
But look what’s riding on this dispute. If the 1619 Africans and their immediate descendants were not slaves, was Virginia the Mother of Slavery? If those Africans were slaves, then wasn’t Virginia the Mother of Slavery?
If the best we can do is to conclude that African status in pre-1662 Virginia was uncertain, look at the opening such a condition created for those Africans. They could improvise, negotiate, and resist on their own behalf.
Anthony Johnson, Elizabeth Key, who successfully sued for her freedom in the 1660s on the grounds that she was a baptized Christian, and other Africans all influenced African-European interaction in early Virginia. These people were active participants in the Old Dominion’s development.
But with their participation came conflict.
For example: religious conflict.
Baptism Law, 1667 Hening, Statutes at Large, II, 260
Edward L. Bond, Damned Souls in a Tobacco Society (Macon, Ga., 2000), 198-202; John M. Fout, “The Explosive Cleric: Morgan Godwyn, Slavery and Colonial Elites in Virginia and Barbados, 1665-1685,” M.A. Thesis, Va. Commonwealth Univ., 2005; Alden T. Vaughan, Roots of American Racism: Essays on the Colonial Experience (New York, 1995), 55-81.
Religious control; slave control 1680: Governor Culpeper informed The Council of Virginia that a planned slave revolt in the Northern Neck had been quashed. The Council partly blamed masters for allowing slaves too much free time on Saturdays and Sundays, especially to “meete in great Numbers in making and holding of Funeralls for Dead Negroes,” which allegedly allowed the slaves to conspire. The remedy: require stricter execution of the laws “relateing to Negroes” and command “all Masters of families having any Negro Slaves, not to permit them to hold or make any Solemnity or Funeralls for any deceased Negroes.” Billings, Old Dominion in the Seventeenth Century , 160.
Causal Killing Law, 1669 Hening, Statutes , II, 270
Almost everything we’ve learned about slavery in the past few decades says that Africans and African Americans could sometimes overcome their perceived foreign, “heathen,” “savage” status and somehow negotiate the terms under which they labored in a hostile environment.
Thornton, Africans , 41: Africans brought to the Americas found that “the unsettled nature of the Americas provided the opportunity to escape, to play off contending parties, or to use the potential for defection or escape to improve their situation.”
The few biographies we have point to Africans who actively made decisions about their lives, who were not completely the extension of someone else’s will.
William Byrd I declared in 1685 that he lived in “a great family of Negro’s.” Byrd prided himself as the father of any family under his control, but his recognition of family at least acknowledged black humanity. Byrd, Correspondence , I, 32
African Importation to Virginia and South Carolina, pre-1700: the numbers began to increase more steadily Decade Virginia Carolinas 1680s 2,000 100 +/- 1690s 4,000 200 +/- Total 6,000 300 +/-
Historians of slavery have recently paid more and more attention to the African component of “African American.”
E.g., Michael Gomez, Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South (1998); Philip Morgan, Slave Counterpoint (1998); John Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World (2 nd ed., 1998)
Ira Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (1998) is acutely conscious of the African and Atlantic consciousness of enslaved Americans, while Mechal Sobel’s The World They Made Together: Black and White Values in Eighteenth-Century Virginia (1987) probed the influence Africans and African Americans later had on European Americans.
Charles Hansford, “My Country’s Worth” 18th-century white Virginian’s consciousness of African-American consciousness.
Charles Hansford, “My Country’s Worth”: That most men have a great respect and love To their own place of birth I need not prove— Experience shows 'tis true; and the black brood Of sunburnt Affrick makes the assertion good. I oft with pleasure have observ'd how they Their sultry country's worth strive to display In broken language, how they praise their case And happiness when in their native place.
Such tales and such descriptions, when I'd leisure, I often have attended to with pleasure, And many times with questions would assail The sable lad to lengthen out his tale. If, then, those wretched people so admire Their native place and have so great a desire To reenjoy and visit it again— Which, if by any means they might attain, How would they dangers court and pains endure If to their country they could get secure! But, barr'd of that, some into madness fly, Destroy themselves, and wretchedly they die.
Any attention to the African component of “African Americans” explicitly recognizes heritage, values, and experience.
Sheer numbers make the same point: Between 1700 and 1780, “about twice as many Africans as Europeans crossed the Atlantic to the Chesapeake and Lowcountry.” (Philip Morgan, Slave Counter-point , xv.) The western hemisphere ratio is three to one.
African Importation to Virginia and South Carolina, pre-1700 Decade Virginia Carolinas 1680s 2,000 100 +/- 1690s 4,000 200 +/- Total 6,000 300 +/- Estimated European migration to Virginia, 1681-1700: 16,400. Menard, “British Migration,” Colonial Chesapeake Society , 102.
Why did Virginia still have the largest number of slaves in 1860?
Even though seventeenth-century Africans reached North American shores in such proportionally great numbers, we obviously cannot conclude that they gave birth to their own enslavement. But their agency, their presence, and white owners’ dependence on them had an enormous impact on the nature of slavery in Virginia, as elsewhere, from the seventeenth century to 1865.
Virginia, the Mother of Slavery? Virginia, the Foster Mother of Slavery.
T. H. Breen and Stephen Innes, “ Myne Owne Ground” J. Douglas Deal, Race and Class in Colonial Virginia Anthony S. Parent, Foul Means Warren Billings, ed. The Old Dominion in the Seventeenth Century