Those privateers were likely two ships. The White Lion sailed out of the port of Vlissingen (Flushing), Holland, and its captain, John Colyn Jope, bore a Dutch letter of marque, paperwork that allowed him, as a civilian, to attack and plunder Spanish ships. The English Treasurer also sailed out of Flushing and was partly owned by Virginia's deputy governor, Samuel Argall. (In 1612, Argall had sailed the Treasurer on what at the time was the fastest-ever voyage from England to Virginia. In 1616, the ship delivered Pocahontas to England.) Its captain, Daniel Elfrith, also bore a letter of marque, his on the authority of Charles Emmanuel I, duke of Savoy, an independent duchy whose land has since been subsumed by present-day France and Italy. Working as a "consort," the two ships attacked the São João Bautista late in July or early in August 1619 and apparently robbed da Cunha of about 50 of his African slaves. (A large portion of the ship's Africans, perhaps as many as 150, probably died during the Atlantic crossing.)
The Treasurer arrived at Point Comfort three or four days later carrying between twenty-five and twenty-nine additional slaves. Although he apparently managed to sell some of his slaves, Captain Elfrith found that the residents of Kecoughtan (present-day Hampton) refused to sell supplies to him or his crew, perhaps because port officials knew that his letter of marque from the duke of Savoy was no longer valid. The duke had made peace with Spain, which meant that Captain Elfrith now could be accused of piracy, a legal complication the Virginia merchants may have wanted to avoid. Elfrith might have heard that Governor Yeardley had sent Secretary Rolfe, Lieutenant William Peirce, and a Mr. Ewens (probably William Ewens) to meet the Treasurer, and decided that he had better leave. Whatever the case, he was gone by the time the Virginia men arrived.
The discovery by the historian Engel Sluiter of Spanish records linking the slaves
sold in Virginia to the attack on the São João Bautista
discredits earlier theories that the Africans had been bought in the Americas for
resale. Instead, following the research of John K. Thornton, Virginia's first
Africans may have been enslaved in the kingdom of Kongo, north of Angola;
The Ndongo people lived in densely populated cities—in 1564 the city of Angoleme seems to have had 20,000 to 30,000 residents living in 5,000 to 6,000 thatched houses—interspersed with rural areas where farmers tended livestock and raised crops such as millet and sorghum. As such, Ndongos did not fit what Thornton has called "the stereotyped, parochial image of Africans from precolonial villages." They may even have been Christians; many in the kingdom attended Mass conducted by Jesuit priests, and the Portuguese required that all slaves be baptized before they arrived in America.
That they also may have been Christians is, perhaps, ironic. A Virginia law, passed in 1670, defined as slaves-for-life all non-Christian servants brought to the colony "by shipping." Such servants were, almost without exception, Africans, suggesting an assumption on the part of lawmakers that Africans were, by definition, non-Christians. The law already precluded freedom through conversion, and in 1682 it expanded its description of slaves-for-life to include all non-Christian servants (in other words, Virginia Indians who were imported into the colony, in addition to Africans). In this way, Christianity served as an early stand-in for racial identification.
In the Colony
Virginia's first muster, or census, was compiled in March 1620, at which time the population included 892 Europeans and, among "Others not Christians in the Service of the English," four Indians and thirty-two Africans. Fifteen of the Africans were male and seventeen were female. Although it is uncertain where the Africans lived, some probably resided at Jamestown in the households of Sir George Yeardley and Captain William Peirce, both of whom later were credited with having black servants.
Some of the twenty-one Africans listed in the 1624 muster had European names,
suggesting that they had been baptized. This could have occurred prior to their
leaving Africa, while they were in the Caribbean, or after they reached Virginia.
Four of the eleven Africans living at Flowerdew Hundred
The 1625 muster listed twenty-three Africans and a single Indian, all servants, who resided on plantations scattered from the mouth of the James to Flowerdew Hundred. As servants, they probably lived in houses separate from their European masters. And while the 1625 muster included, for most Europeans, the year in which they arrived and the ship on which they came, little such information was provided for Africans. Three male and five female Africans lived in Yeardley's household at Jamestown; at Flowerdew Hundred, there were four African men, two women, and a child. An African man named John Pedro lived in the household of Francis West, of Elizabeth City, and the same Edward from 1624 still lived with Richard Kingsmill at Neck O'Land. Captain Peirce's female African, Angelo, was said to have come to Virginia on the Treasurer in 1619. By 1625, Captain Tucker's Anthony and Isabella, in Elizabeth City, had produced a son, William; all three had been baptized.
Among the African slaves owned by the Bennett family in 1625 was Antonio (also listed in 1624), who had arrived on the James in 1621. In March 1622, he was one of just a handful of people who managed to survive Opechancanough's attack on the plantation, and he eventually gained his freedom. At some point, Antonio wed a woman named Mary, who had come to Virginia in 1622 on the Margaret and John, and the two lived as Anthony and Mary Johnson in Northampton County on the Eastern Shore. There, they raised four children and by the 1650s owned 250 acres of land. Their two sons owned adjoining farms of 450 and 100 acres each before the whole family moved to Maryland, in the 1660s. Anthony Johnson's grandson, John Johnson Jr., purchased a 44-acre farm there in 1677 and named it Angola.
Other Africans began to turn up in Virginia court records. On September 19, 1625, for instance, the General Court ordered Captain Nathaniel Bass to provide clothing for an African man named Brass (or Brase), who had come to Virginia with a Captain Jones and been sold to Captain Bass. The same decision awarded temporary custody of Brass to Lady Temperance Flowerdew Yeardley, the wife of Sir George Yeardley and a resident of Jamestown, who was then ordered to pay forty pounds of good tobacco per month for his labor "so long as he remayneth with her." It was a decision that both distinguished between African servitude and slavery, and put a price on the labor of an African male. On October 3, the court ruled again, this time transferring Brass to the custody of Governor Francis Wyatt and voiding the original sale Captain Jones had made to Captain Bass.
By 1628, the African population in Virginia jumped dramatically when the ship Fortune, out of Massachusetts Bay, captured a Spanish slaver carrying about 100 Angolans, whom the captain sold in Virginia for tobacco. A muster planned for 1629 either did not take place or the records did not survive.
The Africans' method of tilling the ground also readily transferred to Virginia. In West Africa, farmers practiced the same hoe-and-hill method of growing corn and tobacco that the early colonists had learned from the Indians. John Barbot, traveling in West Africa about 1680, noted that "two [African] men will dig as much land in a day, as one plow can turn over in England." Although tobacco and corn were not staple crops in West Africa, most African immigrants knew how to raise them. Their knowledge and skill would have been invaluable to Tidewater planters.
Many of northern Senegambia's inhabitants were nomads who tended wandering herds of foraging livestock, usually cattle, sheep, and goats. Farther south, where rain was more abundant, settled people raised poultry and grew peas, beans, peanuts, rice, millet, sweet potatoes, cotton, and indigo. Others worked as fishermen, potters, weavers, blacksmiths, and leather-dressers, all skills that Virginia's first Africans contributed, against their will, to the colony.
1618–1619 - Luis Mendes de Vasconçelos, governor of the Portuguese colony of Angola, in West Central Africa, leads campaigns against the kingdom of Ndongo, capturing thousands. These Africans likely provided the cargo for six slave ships from Angola that arrived in Mexico from June 1619 until June 1620.
Late August 1619 - The White Lion, captained by John Colyn Jope, arrives at Point Comfort, where Jope sells "20. and odd Negroes" in exchange for food. These are the first Africans to enter the Virginia colony. Four days later, the Treasurer arrives and sells an unknown number of its slaves.
March 1620 - Virginia's first muster, or census, is compiled and lists 892 Europeans and, among "Others not Christians in the Service of the English," four Indians and thirty-two Africans. Fifteen of the Africans are male and seventeen are female.
1621 - An enslaved African named Antonio arrives in Virginia aboard the James. The following March, he will be one of only a handful of people who manage to survive an Indian attack on the plantation of Edward Bennett.
1622 - An enslaved African woman named Mary arrives in Virginia aboard the Margaret and John.
February 1624 - The population of Europeans in the Virginia colony is 906. A muster, or census, lists twenty-one Africans, down from thirty-two in 1620. Twelve of the Africans are identified by name, suggesting they have been baptized.
October 3, 1625 - The General Court revisits its ruling from September 19, transferring custody of an African man named Brass from Lady Temperance Flowerdew Yeardley to Governor Francis Wyatt. The court also voids the original sale of Brass by a Captain Jones to Captain Nathaniel Bass.
1628 - The African population in Virginia rises dramatically when the ship Fortune, out of Massachusetts Bay, captures a Spanish slaver carrying about 100 Angolans, whom the captain sells in Virginia for tobacco.
1650s - By this time, Anthony and Mary Johnson, two former slaves, are living in Northampton County on the Eastern Shore, where they own 250 acres. Their two sons own adjoining farms of 450 and 100 acres each.
1660s - Anthony and Mary Johnson, both former slaves, and their two sons, all of whom own land on the Eastern Shore, move to Maryland.
1677 - John Johnson Jr., whose grandfather Anthony was a Virginia slave who bought his freedom, buys a forty-four-acre farm in Maryland and names it Angola, suggesting the origin of his family.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
McCartney, M. Virginia's First Africans. (2012, July 12). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Virginia_s_First_Africans.
- MLA Citation:
McCartney, Martha. "Virginia's First Africans." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 12 Jul. 2012. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: August 29, 2011 | Last modified: July 12, 2012
Contributed by Martha McCartney, a historian and independent researcher in Williamsburg.