Much of what we’ve been told about Virginia’s 1619 first Africans is wrong

By: - August 11, 2019 11:15 pm

The first Africans in Virginia arrived at Point Comfort, later the location of Fort Monroe in Hampton. (U.S. Army photo)

You might have heard about the commemoration taking place later this month.

“Four hundred years ago this month, the first African slaves arrived in North America on a ship landing at the Jamestown colony in what is today Virginia.” — PBS Newshour, Aug. 1.

That 1619 event was “the first documented arrival of enslaved Africans in an area that would go on to become part of the United States.” — the BBC, July 31. 

“It was the beginning of a barbaric trade of human lives.” — President Donald Trump, speaking July 30 in Jamestown. 

Well, no, historians say. The barbaric institution of slavery surely damaged millions of black lives, but those “firsts” didn’t happen.

And the ship bearing those 1619 captives didn’t arrive at Jamestown. And the African arrivals were slaves, not indentured servants. And on and on. 

“There’s a good deal of misinformation that swirls around this ‘first Africans’ question and everything even vaguely related to it,” said Melvin Patrick Ely, a College of William & Mary historian.

Virginia is drawing international attention as it approaches the 400th anniversary of … something later this month. But after all these years, it remains remarkably unclear to many people: What exactly happened that August day in 1619? And why is it important today?

What happened?

In late July or early August that year, historians say, two English privateers — little more than pirate vessels, but operating with government sanction — attacked an overcrowded Portuguese slave ship en route to Vera Cruz in the Gulf of Mexico and stole about 60 enslaved Africans. (About 350 captives from West Central Africa had been crammed into the slaver — men and women — and about a third of them had died on the brutal voyage.) 

A marker at Fort Monroe notes the arrival of the first Africans in Virginia. (Virginia Department of Historic Resources)

In late August, one of the English ships, the White Lion, showed up at Point Comfort at the mouth of the James River in present-day Hampton and sold perhaps 30 slaves for desperately needed supplies.

 Was that the beginning of slavery in the New World?

 No. Historians say the Spanish had enslaved Africans in present-day Latin America for more than a century.

 The beginning of slavery in what became the U.S.? 

 No. The Spanish took enslaved Africans to a settlement in the present-day Carolinas in 1526. The slaves rebelled, and the settlement failed. Also, the Spanish took African slaves to St. Augustine, Fla. — which, unlike the Jamestown colony in Virginia, still thrives — in 1565. 

 “Americans tend to forget about the Spanish colonies in North America and focus only on the English heritage,” said Adam W. Dean, a University of Lynchburg historian who specializes in slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction.

 In an exhibition, the Virginia Museum of History & Culture in Richmond calls the Point Comfort arrivals the “first enslaved Africans in British North America.” Other sources use similar language.

 Then that’s the best description?

 Not really, said Beth Austin, a Hampton History Museum historian who wrote a 17-page report on the 1619 Africans.

 It turns out that enslaved Africans were taken to English-controlled Bermuda — part of North America — in 1616, Austin said.

 Then what kind of “first” was Point Comfort’s 1619 event?

 “Here are all the qualifiers that have to go with that: the first documented Africans to arrive in mainland English America,” Austin said. 

A mouthful, to be sure.

Austin said she is OK with “first enslaved Africans to arrive in English North America” — another popular description.

“It’s not 100 percent accurate, but for a lay person it does convey the gist, I guess.” She prefers “English North America” to “British,” since Great Britain did not come into existence until decades later. 

Exhausted by historical nit-picking? Austin said there’s a simple but less-dramatic narrative: 1619 marked the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in Virginia.  

Misinformation about 1619 is an old, old story. For example, prominent colonist John Rolfe — widower of the Indian “princess” Pocahontas — said the White Lion was Dutch, and that myth persisted nearly 400 years. After a 1604 treaty between Spain and England, English privateers had to get commissions, called letters of marque, from other European heads of state, to raid ships, according to Austin’s report.

“White Lion sailed from Flushing, a Dutch port well-known as a base for English privateers,” Austin’s report says. “Several records refer to White Lion as “Dutch,” “from Flushing,” or “out of Flushing.” These records do not imply the ship was Dutch, but rather that it was an English ship based from Flushing, a commonly understood practice. They may have emphasized the White Lion’s Dutch letter of marque also to distance the Virginia Company and colony from the practice of privateering.”

Dwayne Yancey, 61, editorial page editor of The Roanoke Times, remembered being taught in Rockingham County that the Africans first arrived at Jamestown (they didn’t) and that the captives were indentured servants (they weren’t). 

“I can’t blame the teachers,” Yancey said. “It’s not like they knew the truth and were intentionally covering it up — they’d been taught the same thing.”

Yancey, who has written about bogus state history, said,  “Virginians of my generation (and earlier) were basically taught lies and propaganda — and a WHOLE lot of stuff was simply overlooked and not taught at all.” 

Modern historians say the 1619 Africans clearly came as slaves. There is little evidence they were treated as anything other than slaves in Virginia, even though slavery was not formally regulated by law in the colony until years later.  

“I think some conservative Virginians prefer the indentured servant story because they have the notion it gives us a way to claim that white Virginians weren’t all-in with slavery from the word ‘go,’ ” said W&M’s Ely by email.

“Some on the opposite end of the spectrum may go for the ‘indentured servants’ angle because they resist the notion that all black people everywhere in the New World were slaves. And in fact, some black Virginians later in the 1600s did purchase their freedom and become landowners.”

Gov. Ralph Northam drew criticism when he repeated the indentured-servant story in February.

Then there’s the Jamestown thing.

There is little excuse for Virginians being taught the slaves arrived at Jamestown, because the Point Comfort event was well documented, said Austin, the Hampton historian.   

The arrival site apparently evolved into Jamestown because it was better known. “People had heard of Jamestown,” Austin said. “They hadn’t heard of Point Comfort. Jamestown was kind of symbolic for the colony overall.”

Like George Washington cutting cherry trees, the myth made a better story than the truth. 

After the slaves arrived at Point Comfort, they were probably sold and unloaded there or at Jamestown, but no one knows for sure, Austin said.

In part, the story of 1619 changes because of new discoveries. For example, most sources quote Rolfe’s report that the White Lion brought “20 and odd” Africans. More recent research puts that number around 30, according to historians. 

How significant was the arrival of those 1619 slaves?

It depends on who’s talking.

Dean says it’s “not that big a deal, to be honest…I don’t like so much focus on 1619 because it kind of obscures the larger story.”

That larger, more important story, Dean said, is the expansion of slavery into the gargantuan institution that dominated the South’s economy and culture and led to the Civil War.

The slavery that began in Virginia in 1619 did not grow in a big way until decades later, when economic forces eventually favored slavery over indentured servitude, Dean said. 

And, Dean said, slavery in Virginia did not by itself metastasize into the institution that defined the South. In what became a huge trans-Atlantic trade, merchants brought other captive Africans to Georgia, South Carolina and elsewhere — even illegally, after the U.S. banned the importation of slaves in the early 1800s.

 Slavery truly exploded in the South in the 1800s – 200 years and more after the “first Africans” — with the advent of the cotton gin and British demands for cotton, among other factors, Dean said.  

 “I think the public is missing a big part of the story if they think that the arrival of slaves in 1619 directly led to the slave societies that characterized the South of the 1700s and 1800s.”

Austin, however, said 1619 “planted the seed” for southern slavery, which was largely based on the British-style slavery that began in Virginia and differed from Spanish slavery. For example, there was a stricter separation of the races under the British system, she said. 

“1619 is when the systematic enslavement of Africans and the use of their labor began, and that developed into the system of chattel slavery and the slave societies that reinforced that system,” Austin said.

Historian James Horn sees a line from 1619 slavery to current racial disparities such as unequal wealth distribution. 

“There were 246 years of institutionalized slavery, all the way from 1619 to 1865…And then of course what follows? The discrimination of Jim Crow…The 400 years of discrimination has led to a profoundly unequal society in term of race.”

Horn is president of Jamestown Rediscovery, a nonprofit organization, and author of “1619: Jamestown and the Forging of American Democracy.” 

In a remarkable coincidence, the Africans arrived shortly after the initial meeting of Virginia’s General Assembly, the first representative governing body in the Americas. 

“Arguably then,” Horn said in his book, “1619 marks the inception of the most important development in American history, the rise of democracy, and the emergence of what would in time become one of the nation’s greatest challenges: the corrosive legacy of racial stereotypes that continues to afflict our society today.”

Point Comfort eventually became the site of Fort Monroe – the former “Gibraltar of the Chesapeake” and a showpiece today of the National Park Service. In another bit of historical conincidence, the place where those 1619 slaves were taken turned into a sanctuary early in the Civil War when slaves escaped to freedom at the federal fort.

Virginia slavery began in Hampton, and “in a twist of fate, Hampton is also the place where slavery began to end,” the city says

In a sense, there are two stories here: The tale of what happened in 1619, and the story behind the story: How misinformation got spread, shaky historic “firsts” emerged by shedding qualifiers that convey truth, and confusion over the event’s significance arose in part from the public’s desire for simple answers. 

“One problem with this modern, sound-bite news media,” Dean said, “is that it’s hard to explain complex historic developments in a single sentence or in a tweet.” 

 On that, everyone agrees.

UPDATE: An image depicting a state sign commemorating the arrival of the first Africans in Virginia has been replaced with a newer version of the sign. 

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Rex Springston
Rex Springston

Rex Springston was a reporter for the Richmond News Leader and The Times-Dispatch for 36 years. He lives in Richmond and contributes reporting on history, wildlife and other topics for the Mercury.