Photo credit of The New York Times, Google Images
The New York Times, this past August, unveiled its ‘1619 Project’ to commemorate the first enslaved Africans to land in Virginia. The project- highlighting how the enslavement of Africans and Blacks over several hundred years has shaped America- and continues to impact various facets from social justice to healthcare, has brought attention to the presence of slaves in Atlantic colonies prior to 1619 and the significance of the first enslaved Africans to survive their accidental journey to North America.
The story reads like a tragic novel. Men, women, and children from the Kingdom of Ndongo, turned prisoners of war, were taken captive by African mercenaries in a forged alliance with the Portuguese king, and transported to present-day Angola. Once there, they were baptized and parceled out for a lifetime of slavery in Mexico. Where the story takes a dramatic turn is in the Bay of Campeche. Two privateer ships, the White Lion and the Treasurer, in search of silver and gold, intercepted the San Juan Bautista and found a treasure worth more than both. Angolan captives. They were loaded onto the privateers’ ships and taken to the closest port. There, “20 and odd Negroes”, were traded for food.
A turning point, not the beginning
The Africans brought to what became known as Virginia in 1619 were not the first Africans in North America. Nor were they the first slaves on North American soil. In 1526 “enslaved Africans were part of a Spanish expedition to establish an outpost on the North American coast in present-day South Carolina” (M. Guasco, 2017). In 1565 “the Spanish brought enslaved Africans to present-day St. Augustine, Florida, the first European settlement in what’s now the continental U.S.” (O. Waxman, 2019). And one cannot forget the indigenous people who were also used as slaves and sometimes sold to British colonies in the West Indies.
Slavery was not new to North America. What was new, were the Angolans being brought to North America with the purpose of being sold. According to Michael Guasco’s piece, The Fallacy of 1619: Rethinking the History of Africans in Early America:
“From the early 1500s forward, the Portuguese, Spanish, English, French, Dutch, and others fought to control the resources of the emerging transatlantic world and worked together to facilitate the dislocation of the indigenous peoples of Africa and the Americas. As historian John Thornton has shown us, the African men and women who appeared almost as if by chance in Virginia in 1619 were there because of a chain of events involving Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, and England. Virginia was part of the story, but it was a blip on the radar screen.”
Rick Hampson from USA Today echoes this perspective, “The men who founded the Virginia Company of London had dueling visions- a community of planters versus a commercial and trading center, with a subspecialty in raiding Spanish shipping. Neither envisioned slavery as its linchpin.” But that’s exactly what slavery became. With rising cash crops and a decrease in white indentured servants, slavery became the cheap, and much needed fuel, for the Industrial Revolution (Hampson).
In the midst of what would become a booming business, eeking out wealth for generations at the expense of human lives, what would become the United States flourished. Along the way, the identities and stories of thousands became mere footnotes in America’s history.
The emphasis placed on 1619 is one of the Angolan captives being the “first” slaves to land in early America. Much attention is paid to their existence as property, but what some historians have preferred to shine a light on is their journey to North America. On their march from Ndongo to Africa’s coast “about a fifth of the captives died en route” (Hampson, 2019). Of the 15,000 captives that reached the coast, 350 were taken aboard the San Juan Bautista. As they were shuffled into the dark cargo holds of the ship, did any of them look back? Did any hold onto the hope that one day they would return?
For some scholars, it’s not the trading of the Angolans for food that was the tragedy. It was the voyage to Virginia and the separation the Angolans suffered afterwards. How did they feel, or what were their thoughts, when they reached early America and witnessed the separation of people they survived this journey with? These individuals that were their only support and connection to home.
Colita Nichols Fairfax, co-chair of the Hampton 2019 Commemorative Commission and professor at Norfolk State University said in a TIME interview, “We have to rethink the place of those Africans in history. They are not just victims. They survived and contributed.”
Through insurmountable trauma, these people pulled on everything in them to make a life for themselves. To birth generations that would lift their harrowing experiences from the depths of unmarked graves and carry them across an ocean. Though 1619 marks the Angolans’ landing 400 years ago, it is just one year in a long history of Africans’ connection to early America. To hold 1619 as the more significant year is to leave in the shadows the hundreds of thousands of people taken captive before then and sold into slavery.
One would have to keep in mind the point Guasco made that, “. . . it is important to remember that historical framing shapes historical meaning. How we choose to characterize the past has important consequences for how we think about today and what we can imagine for tomorrow.”
About the author: Latanya Muhammad is a writer, advisor, and group facilitator. Her personal essays and short stories have appeared on multiple online platforms. When she is not writing, she is wrangling her two children and husband. To read more of her work, or to connect, visit www.shetanagain.com and Shetanagain Writes on Facebook and Instagram.