The First Black Americans
A group of enslaved Africans changed Jamestown and the future of a nation
Everyone knows the tales of America's founding: John Smith, Pocahontas, and Jamestown. Yet buried by almost four centuries of history is the tale of the first African-Americans.
Under a mid-July sky in 1619, two pirate ships sailing between Cuba and the Yucatán Peninsula sighted a slow-moving Spanish frigate named the San Juan Bautista. Hoping the frigate carried gold and silver, the White Lion and the Treasurer gave chase, trapping the Spanish ship in the Bay of Campeche. After hours of cannon fire, the Spanish captain surrendered. The pirates boarded and discovered that instead of treasure, they had won a cargo of enslaved Africans being shipped from Luanda, Angola, to Vera Cruz, Mexico.
The Africans350 men, women, and childrenhad been captured four months earlier when an army of Portuguese and African allies seeking silver mines invaded the Bantu-speaking kingdom of Ndongo on the Kwanza River in north central Angola. Ndongo at the time was one of several sophisticated Iron Age states in Angolaa bustling kingdom of settled farmers, craftsmen, and cattle-herders. Angolans had embraced Christianity and were trading with Europe. Among the captives on the Bautista were several second- and third-generation Christians with Latin names such as Antonio, Maria, Isabell, and Francisco.
The captains of the White Lion and the Treasurer divided 60 of the Bautista's healthiest men, women, and children between them and sailed for the new English colony of Jamestowna struggling settlement in dire need of manpower. As recorded by John Rolfe, husband of Pocahontas, the pirates arrived in the Chesapeake at the end of August. Of the Bautista's captives, 32 (17 females and 15 males) were purchased by Jamestown settlers.
From Jamestown, both corsairs sailed for Bermuda, where they traded their remaining Bautista captives. Over the next four years, a half dozen of these Africans were sent back to Jamestown. Names of Bautista Africans first appear in the 1625 Jamestown census, and from the faceless anonymity of Rolfe's 1619 general description of "Negroes" emerge John Pedro, Anthony and Mary Johnson, and Antonio and Isabell Tucker and their young child, William, along with John Graweere, Margaret Cornish, and others.
Plantations. Having been taken from a flourishing country of a quarter-million inhabitants, the Africans were shocked by the appalling conditions of tiny, death-haunted Jamestown.
In the beginning, the first group of Africans was split up and sent to a handful of tobacco plantations along the James River. They were put to work mostly planting and harvesting tobacco, but records show they also raised cattle and acted as traders, selling produce to Indians and to European ships arriving in Jamestown.
During the next two decades, some were permitted to raise crops and cattle to purchase their freedom. They married, sometimes to their fellow Africans and sometimes to English settlers, and they raised families. By the 1640s and 1650s, a handful of families from the Bautista bought their own farms around Jamestown.
Slavery would not become fully institutionalized in Virginia until 1705, and, free to prosper, some of the Bautista captives in Virginia even acquired white servants to raise their tobacco in the 1650s. A few, like the Johnson family, became wealthy by colonial standards, even though others of their compatriots remained enslaved. Jamestown was the cradle of two African Americasone free and one slave. In time, John Graweere became a respected officer of the Jamestown court. Margaret Cornish charmed the son of a Jamestown legislator. John Pedro became a member of the militia.
However, in 1691, Jamestown outlawed freeing slaves unless the slaveholder transported them out of the colony. In 1705, the legislature refused to let slaves raise crops and cattle to purchase their freedom. Free African-Americans who were descendants of the first founders from the Bautista were stripped of many of their rights. In less than one century, the promising dawn had faded from memory, and the long night of slavery had begun.
Tim Hashaw is the author of The Birth of Black America: The First African Americans and the Pursuit of Freedom at Jamestown.
This story appears in the January 29, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.