My Slave Ancestors: From Angola?

Tracing Your Roots: A DNA test leads to questions, and a search for answers in historical records.

 
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A map of Angola (Thinkstock)

(The Root) --

"My father's family just got our African-Ancestry test back, and on our matrilineal side, we were traced to Angola. I was shocked, because I was under the impression that most slaves from Angola ended up elsewhere in the Americas, not in the United States. I'd like to know the percentage of Angolans that ended up in the U.S. What was their typical point of entry? Do you have any info about genealogy records that might help me establish Angolan ties? --Diamond Sharp

You had your mitochondrial DNA tested. Mitochondrial DNA is passed down from a mother to her children, so this test traces a person's mother's mother's mother's line, back for generations. All children inherit this identical genetic signature from their mothers, but only daughters pass it down from generation to generation. Accordingly, it is an ideal way to trace the maternal branch of a person's family back hundreds, even thousands, of years.

One of the biggest surprises about the history of the slave trade to the United States is the high percentage of our ancestors who were shipped to this country from Angola. African Americans have traditionally thought of Ghana and Senegal as our most common ancestral homes on the African continent, but almost half of all of the slaves arriving in this country were shipped here from two sources: Senegambia, yes, but also, Angola.

The slave trade from Angola to the New World began in the 16th century and continued (illegally) until 1860. It is estimated that, incredibly, there were more than 5 million slaves who came to the Western Hemisphere from Angola; more than half went to Brazil. Far fewer, in terms of absolute numbers, came to the U.S. (since the U.S. received dramatically fewer numbers of slaves than did Brazil, or even Haiti or Cuba or Jamaica, for instance). But the percentage from Angola was comparatively high.

According to historians Linda Heywood and John Thornton, we know that the first "20 and odd" Africans imported into Virginia in 1619 came from Angola. In fact, according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, of the 388,000 Africans who landed in the various ports in North America over the entire course of the slave trade, 24 percent, or about 93,000 of them, came from Angola. In other words, an African American has about a one in four chance of being descended from these Central Africans.

It is possible that your Angolan maternal ancestor arrived in Virginia or New York or at another major port such as Charleston or New Orleans between 1619 and 1807. But the first ship that brought the Angolans to Virginia was the White Lion, whose crew captured a Portuguese slave ship, the São João Batista, and took some of the slaves it was carrying to Veracruz, Mexico.

In 1808, the U.S. government made the importation of slaves into America illegal, but the illegal slave trade brought in many Angolans after that. The selling and trading of slaves in domestic markets was still allowed. If you are able to trace your enslaved ancestors back to an original owner, it might be possible to find more information about your ancestors' arrival.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.

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