Obama Slave-Ancestry Report Misses Mark

Two scholars dispute assertions that a 17th-century forebear was one of the first documented slaves.

Barack Obama (Jim Watson/AFP); Obama's mother, Stanley Ann Dunham(Maxine Box/Getty Images)
Barack Obama (Jim Watson/AFP); Obama's mother, Stanley Ann Dunham(Maxine Box/Getty Images)


Virginians in general probably understood things this way: The Africans were captives of the Portuguese, were held as slaves by them and were now recaptured by English privateers. This made the terms of their service indefinite, and the person who bought them decided what the term would be. For some it meant a lifetime; for others, maybe less time. The fact that the courts formalized the Africans’ status in a series of rulings between 1639 and 1664 and ruled that they could be held indefinitely thus differentiated them from the English, Scots, Irish and so on. This is the first formal indication that white Virginians viewed Africans as people with indefinite tenure, different from Europeans.

In fact, we would argue that for a while — perhaps as many as 30 years from 1639 — the whole approach was quite ad hoc. The community might have had a say in these matters, sort of general opinion, but we have absolutely no way of knowing what their mindset was.

When John Punch was captured as a runaway with two white servants, the court extended his term of service to lifelong. In this case, the court made a definitive decision only about his length of service, but the other Africans may well have had to serve for life before him, lacking the contract needed to be guaranteed freedom. In their cases, the terms were irregular and determined by their masters.

The Times article also mentioned that Punch had a DNA haplogroup common in the Cameroon. We consider this extremely unlikely. Our research shows clearly that the overwhelming majority of Africans brought to America on Portuguese ships before 1640 were enslaved in Angola. At that time, there was no slave trade at all from Cameroon.

We also know that the DNA haplogroups commonly found in Cameroon today are also widely distributed in Angola, but because existing databases of DNA have large samples from Cameroon and much fewer from Angola, the Cameroon matches are much more likely to be from Angola.

John Punch, therefore, was likely an Angolan, not a Cameroonian.

Linda Heywood, Ph.D., and John Thornton, Ph.D., are professors of history and African-American studies at Boston University.