On August 20, 1619, “20 and some” Angolans, kidnapped by the Portuguese, arrived in the British colony of Virginia and were then bought by English colonists. The arrival of enslaved Africans in the New World marks the beginning of two and a half centuries of slavery in North America.
Founded in Jamestown in 1607, the Colony of Virginia was home to about 700 people in 1619. The first African slaves to arrive there landed at Point Comfort, in what is today known as the Hampton Roads. Most of their names, as well as the exact number that remained at Point Comfort, have been lost in history, but a lot is known about their journey.
They were originally kidnapped by Portuguese colonial forces, who sent captured members of the native Kongo and Ndongo kingdoms on a forced march towards the port of Luanda, the capital of modern Angola. From there they were ordered onto the ship San Juan Bautista, who set sail for Veracruz in the colony of New Spain. As was quite common, around 150 of the 350 captives on board the ship died during the crossing. Then, as it approached its destination, the ship was attacked by two privateer ships, the White Lion and the Treasurer. The crews of both ships flew up to 60 of the Bautistathe slaves. It was the White Lion who docked at Point Comfort in the Colony of Virginia and exchanged some of the prisoners for food on August 20, 1619.
READ MORE: Brutal First Slave Voyages details uncovered
The researchers note that the newcomers were technically sold as indentured servants. Indentured servants agreed to, or in many cases were forced to, work without pay for a fixed period of time, often to repay a debt and could legally expect to be released at the end of the contract. Many Europeans who arrived in the Americas came as indentured servants. Despite this classification – and records which indicate that some of them were eventually granted their freedom – it is clear that the Africans who arrived at Point Comfort in 1619 were forced into servitude and that they fit the definition of the Declaration. universal human rights of enslaved peoples.
The arrival at Point Comfort marked a new chapter in the history of the transatlantic slave trade, which began in the early 1500s and continued until the mid 1800s. The trade uprooted an estimated 12 million. Africans, depositing around 5 million in Brazil and over 3 million in the Caribbean. Although the number of Africans brought to mainland North America was relatively small – around 400,000 – their work and that of their descendants were crucial to the economies of the British colonies and, later, the United States.
READ MORE: How slavery became the economic engine of the South
Two of the Africans who arrived on board the White Lion, Antonio and Isabella, became “servants” of Captain William Tucker, commanding officer of Point Comfort. Their son William was the first known African child to be born in America, and by law of the time he was born a free man. In the decades to come, however, slavery became codified.
Servants of African descent were often forced to continue working after the end of their contract, and in 1640 a Virginia court sentenced rebellious servant John Punch to a life of slavery. With fewer indentured white servants arriving from England, a racial caste system developed and African servants were increasingly held for life. In 1662, a Virginia court ruled that children born to enslaved mothers were the property of the mother’s owner.
As cash crops like tobacco, cotton, and sugar became the pillars of the colonial economy, slavery became its engine. Although the slave trade was banned in 1807, movable property slavery and the plantation economy it made possible flourished in the South. The 1860 census revealed that there were 3,953,760 enslaved people in the United States, or about 13 percent of the total population.
The conflict between abolitionists and those who wanted to preserve and spread slavery was a major catalyst in the outbreak of the civil war. President Abraham Lincoln officially freed southern slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, although it was not until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 that slavery was completely abolished in the United States.
READ MORE: The last American slave ship
In the end, 246 brutal years of slavery had an incalculable effect on American society. It will take another century after the Civil War for racial segregation to be declared unconstitutional, but the end of state-sanctioned racism was by no means the end of racism and discrimination in America. Because it became a crucial part of the culture and economy of early America after its introduction to Jamestown, slavery is often referred to as the nation’s “original sin”.