On this day in 1619, Manuel Mendes da Cunha, captain of the Portuguese slave ship São João Bautista, arrived in Vera Cruz, New Spain (present-day Mexico), with only 147 slaves. He left Angola in West Central Africa with 350, but some were stolen off the coast of Campeche and others probably died during the Middle Passage.
So whatever happened to the stolen slaves? I thought you’d never ask. They ended up in Virginia—John Rolfe noted their arrival by counting “20. and odd Negroes”—and there (probably) became the colony’s first Africans. The pirates who commandeered them were both English, although one, the White Lion, carried a Dutch letter of marque (paperwork that allowed certain kinds of piracy), and that ship arrived first, sometime at the end of August. (Maybe today!) The other ship showed up a couple of days later. Called the Treasurer, it was partly owned by Samuel Argall, who in 1612 had sailed it on what at the time was the fastest-ever voyage from England to Virginia. (Fifty-seven days, in case you’re curious.) Four years later, the same ship delivered Pocahontas to England.
The Africans, meanwhile, may have come from a city like Loango (pictured above) but most likely hailed from the nearby kingdom of Ndongo, such as those pictured below.
In any event, these people did not fit what one historian has called “the stereotyped, parochial image of Africans from precolonial villages.” Many of them lived in cities and may even have been Christians. And if they weren’t, the Portuguese fixed that by requiring that all slaves be baptized before they arrived in America—which is why they arrived with Christian names like Antonio or Angelo (the latter actually being a woman who survived her voyage on the Treasurer).
And in related news, the first slaves arrived in Virginia exactly one month after the first meeting of the General Assembly in Jamestown and exactly 181 years before an enslaved blacksmith named Gabriel saw his planned revolt thwarted by bad weather and nervous compatriots.
Freedom, slavery, and rebellion. These are Virginia’s sometimes chaotic legacies …
A version of this post was originally published on August 30, 2011.
PS: I have been persnickety about a point of fact on this blog: that in spite of John Rolfe’s famous phrase “Dutch man of Warr,” both ships that arrived with African slaves in 1619 were English. There has been no particular reason to be persnickety about it other than just wanting to get it right, but now we find the white-supremacist blogger Hunter Wallace using the incorrect information to, in part, to concoct a Jewish conspiracy theory. Luckily, a commenter corrected him—using Encyclopedia Virginia!—so the theory was appropriately altered, if not the ideology behind it.
IMAGES: Bird’s-eye view of Loango from late in the seventeenth century (top); Iron Working, Kingdom of Kongo, 1670s (bottom) (both images courtesy of The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas)