Point Comfort

20 and odd

Excerpt from Learn Our History | Vol. 29

In August 1619, “20 and odd” Africans were brought to the English colony of Virginia in the modern-day United States of America.

The arrival of these enslaved Africans in the so-called New World is said to have marked the beginning of slavery in North America.

However, whilst this day in 1619 represents a landmark in the long history of slavery in European colonies, it is a date that is surrounded by debate and misconceptions.

The Africans who arrived in Virginia in 1619 had come from the city of Luanda, now the capital of modern-day Angola. At the time, the land was occupied by Portuguese colonists who were in the midst of an ongoing war with the indigenous Kingdom of Ndongo.

Between 1618 and 1620, the Portuguese kidnapped approximately 50,000 Ndongo subjects and shipped them from Angola into slavery.

In early 1619, a Portuguese ship called the São João Bautista left Angola with approximately 350 African captives on board and headed west towards the Spanish colony of Veracruz (modern-day Mexico).

The captives aboard the São João Bautista included a disproportionate number of women and young children. It is thought that at least 143 of the 350 captives died during the voyage, a mortality rate of 41%.

During its journey, the São João Bautista was intercepted by two English pirate vessels, the White Lion and the Treasurer.

These two English ships attacked the São João Bautista forcing the crew to surrender as many as 60 of its African captives.

At the time, privateering was a form of legally sanctioned piracy in which ships obtained royal authorisation to prey on the ships of rival nations. Pirates were then allowed to sell stolen goods, including enslaved people, in English ports.

On 20 August 1619, the White Lion docked at Point Comfort (modern-day Fort Monroe, Virginia) with its cargo of captives.

This arrival at Point Comfort is said to have marked a new chapter in the history of the transatlantic slave trade, which began in the early 1500s and continued into the mid-1800s.

Historians do not know much about the African men and women who arrived in the colony of Virginia. What is known is that they were given new names by Portuguese missionaries whilst in Angola.

Among the arrivals were a man and woman christened Antonio and Isabella. These two are particularly significant as they had a son named William, who is believed to have been the first African child born in North America.

Under the laws of the time, William was born a free man; however, in the coming years, slavery in North America would become more codified and racialised.

Commonly American students are taught that the arrivals in the colony of Virginia in August 1619 were ‘the first Africans to set foot on the North American continent’ - this is incorrect.

In 1513, Juan Garrido, born in the Kingdom of Kongo, before moving to Portugal and converting to Catholicism, became the first documented African to arrive in what would become the United States when he landed in modern-day Florida, as part of an expedition for the legendary Fountain of Youth.

In 1526, 100 enslaved Africans were brought to set up the Spanish colony of San Miguel de Gualdape (modern-day South Carolina). However, within two months, these Africans revolted and escaped into the wilderness - it is not known what happened to them.

Going even further back, fourteenth-century Arab scholar, Ibn Fadlallah al-Umari, wrote about how sailors from the Kingdom of Mali travelled across the Atlantic, supposedly reaching the Americas in the process.

Regardless, 20 August 1619 is a critical date. The introduction of the transatlantic slave trade to Virginia marks a pivotal moment in the development and propagation of American race-based chattel slavery.

At the time of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, slavery was legal in every one of the newly created thirteen states. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the declaration, which contains the words “all men are created equal”, was a Virginia slave owner.

By 1860, 5 years before slavery was formally abolished, the United States was home to about 3.9 million enslaved African Americans.