The landing of the first Negroes

Virginia's First Africans

Virginia's first Africans arrived at Point Comfort, on the James River, late in August 1619. There, "20. and odd Negroes" from the English ship White Lion were sold in exchange for food and some were transported to Jamestown, where they were sold again, likely into slavery. Historians have long believed these Africans to have come to Virginia from the Caribbean, but Spanish records suggest they had been captured in a Spanish-controlled area of West Central Africa. They probably were Kimbundu-speaking people, and many of them may have had at least some knowledge of Catholicism. While aboard the São João Bautista bound for Mexico, they were stolen by the White Lion and another English ship, the Treasurer. Once in Virginia, they were dispersed throughout the colony. The number of Virginia's Africans increased to thirty-two by 1620, but then dropped sharply by 1624, likely because of the effects of disease and the Second Anglo-Powhatan War (1622–1632). Evidence suggests that many were baptized and took Christian names, and some, like Anthony and Mary Johnson, won their freedom and bought land. By 1628, after a shipload of about 100 Angolans was sold in Virginia, the Africans' population jumped dramatically. MORE...



Sometime in 1619, the Portuguese slave ship São João Bautista left the port of São Paulo de Luanda, a Portuguese military outpost in west central Africa and sailed for Vera Cruz, New Spain (present-day Mexico). The captain, Manuel Mendes da Cunha, carried with him 350 enslaved Africans, 200 of whom had embarked under a license, or asiento, held by investors in Seville to sell them in New Spain. When da Cunha arrived at Vera Cruz on August 30, however, he delivered only 147 slaves, including, according to Spanish records, twenty-four African boys whom he at some point sold in Jamaica. Those same records indicate that da Cunha had been robbed off the coast of Campeche (along present-day Mexico's Gulf Coast) by "English corsairs," or privateers.

Those privateers were likely two ships. The White Lion sailed out of the port of Vlissingen (Flushing), the Netherlands, 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 White Lion and the Treasurer immediately set sail for Virginia, where they hoped to sell their cargo. According to a letter written by the colony's secretary, John Rolfe, to the Virginia Company of London treasurer, Sir Edwin Sandys, the White Lion arrived first and landed at Point Comfort sometime late in August, having lost its "consort shipp" on the passage from the West Indies. Rolfe mistakenly described the ship as a "Dutch man of Warr," perhaps because it bore a Dutch letter of marque. "He brought not any thing but 20. and odd Negroes," Rolfe wrote, which the governor, Argall's successor Sir George Yeardley, and the cape merchant, Abraham Peirsey, "bought for victualle [food] … at the best and easyest rate they could." Some (or perhaps all) of the Africans were then transported to Jamestown and sold.

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.

Elfrith sailed to the English colony at Bermuda, where, for 50,000 ears of corn, he sold fourteen of his Africans to acting governor Miles Kendall and his successor, Nathaniel Butler. Butler later told a superior that if not for the Africans, he would not have been able "to rayse one pound of Tobacco this year" to generate revenue. He added that "Thes[e] Slaves are the most proper and cheape instruments for this plantation."


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 not been brought directly to the Chesapeake from Africa. Instead, following the research of John K. Thornton, Virginia's first Africans may have been enslaved either in Kongo, south of the mouth of the Congo (or Zaire) River, or in a region just to the south. This is where Portuguese authorities, who by 1618–1619 were under Spanish rule, were taking advantage of the disturbed politics in an Mbundu region in the watershed of the Kwanza River. Most likely they were captured from the forces of the nearby Ndongo polity, where in 1618 and 1619 the governor of Angola, Luis Mendes de Vasconçelos, fighting alongside a ruthless African mercenary group called the Imbangala, led two campaigns against the Kimbundu-speaking people of the region. Thousands were captured and likely provided the cargoes for six Portuguese slave ships from Angola that arrived in Vera Cruz between June 18, 1619, and June 21, 1620.

The Ndongo people lived largely in rural areas where they raised crops such as millet and sorghum and tended cattle. There was one densely populated political center, the city of Angoleme, which in 1564 seems to have had 20,000 to 30,000 residents living in 5,000 to 6,000 thatched houses. These people may have had come contact with Jesuit missionaries, and the Portuguese required that slaves be baptized before they arrived in America, a pro forma gesture that did not necessarily result in the Africans bringing with them Christian practices.

In the decades that followed, most slaves arriving in Virginia through the slave trade were captured not by Europeans but by other Africans who sold them to the Europeans at markets. As a result, slaves suffering through the Middle Passage often hailed from different regions and villages, spoke different languages, and abided by different social, political, and religious customs. The Ndongo, by contrast, were captured more directly by the Portuguese and shared with one another a complex ethnic identity.

Some historians have argued that these first Africans may have been Christian, although it is unlikely that they were. 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 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.

By 1624, when the next muster was compiled, Virginia's African population had dropped to twenty-one. Some of the Africans probably had succumbed to the so-called seasoning process, whereby summertime diseases killed a majority of new residents during the colony's first few decades. For this reason, Virginia leaders periodically requested that ships carrying new servants arrive during the winter months, as opposed to August, when the White Lion landed. Research suggests that some may have been carrying a blood parasite that transmits malaria, while their close contact with the European slave traders likely exposed them to other infectious diseases. They would have been susceptible to the various agues and fevers common to the Chesapeake Bay region, and probably suffered through the unfamiliar winter cold. And those Africans who did not die of disease may have died after being placed in vulnerable positions in fights against Virginia Indians. In particular, this may have been the case on March 22, 1622, when Virginia Indians led by Opechancanough attacked European settlements, killing as many as a quarter of the colony's inhabitants.

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 or after they reached Virginia. Four of the eleven Africans living at Flowerdew Hundred—a plantation on the upper reaches of the James River that leading merchant Abraham Peirsey had purchased from Governor Yeardley—were identified by name: Anthony, William, John, and another Anthony. Three Africans resided at Jamestown, but only one was listed by name: a woman named Angelo (sometimes Angela) belonging to William Peirce. An African named Edward lived in the Neck O'Land, the mainland behind Jamestown, and was part of the household headed by Richard Kingsmill, guardian of the late Reverend Richard Bucke's children. Peter, Antonio, Frances, and Margaret resided on the lower side of the James River at Edward Bennett's plantation near the former Indian town of Warraskoyack, while Anthony and Isabella were members of Captain William Tucker's household in Elizabeth City (formerly Kecoughtan). One African was listed among the dead at West and Shirley Hundred, in the corporation of Charles City.

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 years in which they arrived and the ships 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." 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 Portuguese 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.

Time Line

  • 1618–1619 - Luis Mendes de Vasconçelos leads campaigns against Kimbundu-speaking people in West Central Africa, capturing thousands. These Africans likely provided the cargo for six slave ships that arrived in Mexico from June 1619 until June 1620.
  • 1619 - Sometime in the first half of the year, the Portuguese slave ship São João Bautista leaves the port of São Paulo de Loanda, a Portuguese military outpost in West Africa, and sails for Vera Cruz, New Spain (present-day Mexico). It carries a cargo of 350 enslaved Africans.
  • July–August 1619 - Two English ships, the White Lion and the Treasurer, both sailing out of the Netherlands, intercept the Portuguese slaver São João Bautista off the coast of Campeche in present-day Yucatán. After stealing fifty or so slaves, the ships sail to Virginia with the intention of selling them.
  • 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.
  • August 30, 1619 - Manuel Mendes da Cunha, captain of the Portuguese slave ship São João Bautista, arrives in Vera Cruz, New Spain (present-day Mexico), with only 147 slaves. He left West Africa with 350, but some were stolen off the coast of Campeche and transported to Virginia for sale. Others probably died en route.
  • 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.
  • January 20–February 7, 1625 - The population of Europeans in the Virginia colony is 1,232. A muster, or census, lists twenty-three Africans and one Indian, all of them servants. They live on plantations scattered from the mouth of the James River to Flowerdew Hundred.
  • September 19, 1625 - The General Court orders Captain Nathaniel Bass to provide clothing to an African man named Brass, whom he had bought from a Captain Jones. The same decision awards temporary custody of Brass to Lady Temperance Flowerdew Yeardley, who is ordered to pay forty pounds of good tobacco per month for his labor.
  • 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 Portuguese 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.


Further Reading
Breen, T. H., and Stephen Innes. "Myne Owne Grounde": Race and Freedom on Virginia's Eastern Shore, 1640–1676. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.
Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1998.
Heywood, Linda M. and John K. Thornton. Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles, and the Foundation of the Americas, 1585–1660. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Mariners' Museum. Captive Passage: The Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Making of the Americas. Newport News, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.: The Mariners Museum and the Smithsonian Institution, 2002.
McCartney, Martha W. Virginia Immigrants and Adventurers, 1607–1635. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2007.
McCartney, Martha W., et al. A Study of the Africans and African Americans on Jamestown Island and at Green Spring, 1619–1803. Williamsburg, Virginia: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and National Park Service, 2003.
Rutman, Darrett B., and Anita Rutman. "Of Agues and Fevers: Malaria in the Early Chesapeake." William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 33 (1976): 31–60.
Sluiter, Engel. "New Light on the '20 and Odd Negroes' Arriving in Virginia." William and Mary Quarterly, 3d. ser., 54 (1997): 395.
Thornton, John K. Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400–1800. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Walsh, Lorena S. Motives of Honor, Pleasure and Profit: Plantation Management in the Colonial Chesapeake, 1607–1763. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    McCartney, M. Virginia's First Africans. (2018, September 21). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from

  • MLA Citation:

    McCartney, Martha. "Virginia's First Africans." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 21 Sep. 2018. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: August 29, 2011 | Last modified: September 21, 2018

Contributed by Martha McCartney, a historian and independent researcher in Williamsburg.