To commemorate the quadricentennial anniversary of the arrival of enslaved Africans in America, we imagined what it would be like to cover that late August day when the first slave ship landed on the shores of the place now known as Hampton, Va.
8/20/1619 2:27 P.M.
Earlier: A few hours ago, The Root received several reports of a 160-ton Dutch privateer ship flying a British flag landing at Comfort Point. While the port is one of the Virginia colony’s busiest trading hubs, multiple sources indicate that the ship, the White Lion, was loaded with product that could possibly change the Colony and Dominion of Virginia as we know it.
In a letter to Virginia’s treasurer, James Rolfe said Virginia Governor Sir George Yeardley, along with the colony’s supply officer, Abraham Peirsey, negotiated a dirt-cheap price for the ship’s cargo—“20. and odd negroes” in exchange for food and the “best and easyest rates they could.”
Even though the Jamestown colony was originally founded as a get-rich-quick, wealth-building scheme, the Virginia charter explicitly states that the colonists’ goal was the “propagating of Christian religion to suche people as yet live in darkenesse and ... to bring the infidels and salvages living in those parts to humane civilitie and to a setled and quiet govermente.”
See? God, human civility and self-rule will prevail. I’m sure this African servant thing won’t last but something about it doesn’t feel right.
While this might seem a little suspicious, there is probably no need for concern. The African slave trade has become a popular form of labor in England ever since John Hawkins created his slave-trading startup in 1562 but The Root has seen no indication that the colonists will treat these newly arrived Africans any differently than the few hundred European indentured servants who are already here.
The Root will provide updates as the situation progresses.
Updated: 8/24/1619, 2:45 p.m.
The Root has learned that the White Lion’s companion ship, the Treasurer, arrived in Comfort Point two or three days after the White Lion left for Bermuda. Before leaving, the Treasurer sold two or three more Africans, including a woman named Angela, the earliest African whose arrival can be individually dated by name, according to a report obtained by The Root in the distant future. Over the past few days, we have managed to piece together a rough outline of how these enslaved human beings arrived on these shores.
Portugal has been trying to establish a presence on the African continent since 1575 when they began colonizing the African region they call Angola. Portugal is seeking to capitalize on the lucrative slave trade by building forts and markets across Angola, which includes the people of the Ndongo nation. But the Portuguese colonialists kept running into one problem:
The Ndongo kept kicking their ass.
To be fair, the Ndongo kicked everyone’s ass, even their powerful warrior neighbors, the Imbangala. One of the Imbangala’s tribal customs is that they do not allow women to have children because they don’t want any weaknesses in their society. Thus, the only way they can replenish their ranks is by raiding nearby villages and forcing the prisoners of war to serve as soldiers for a period of time until they integrate them into their society.
So, in 1618, the Portuguese Angolan governor, Luís Mendes de Vasconcellos made an alliance with the Imbangalan warriors to help raid Ndongo. Instead of fighting the Ndongo with hatchets and war clubs, the Imbangala now had guns.
And the Portuguese got slaves by the thousands.
In three years, Vasconcellos would enslave 50,000 Africans with the help of the Imbangala, who assumed the Portuguese would treat the captured men and women in the tradition of the Imbangalan society, which did not even have a concept of perpetual, generational enslavement.
This year, at least 36 ships have left Portuguese ports in Africa to transport thousands of enslaved people around the world. One of those ships was the San Juan Bautista, which left the coast of Africa in early 1619 loaded with 350 human prisoners. About 150 of the kidnapped victims aboard the San Juan Bautista had died by July 1619, when the vessel was attacked by pirates. The thieves stole as many of the captured Ndongo people as they could carry and loaded them on two separate ships:
The White Lion and the Treasurer.
And now, 20-something of those stolen Ndongo have a new home.
The Root will continue to provide details regarding this story.
Updated: 12/20/1624, 1:12 p.m.
Five years after the White Lion arrived here, this year’s census lists 21 Africans living in Virginia, a sharp decline from the 15 African men and 17 women who were included in the 1620 census. Maybe the colonists read a copy of The Root and finally figured out that slavery was wrong.
Listed in that 1624 census are Anthony and Isabella (no last name) who live in the home of Captain William Tucker. They are part of the group of the original Africans on the White Lion and, in spite of the rules governing servants, Anthony and Isabella married and had a son named William, the first recorded birth of an African in the English colonies.
The Root can confirm that a man named Samuel Maverick has introduced the institution of slavery to the Pilgrims in the Plymouth Colony only four short years after the Mayflower landed in 1620.
“I kinda feel sorry for the Pilgrims,” one person told The Root. “Not because they had to eat that unseasoned turkey this past November and have to wear those hot outfits during sundress season, but because they will be likely be forgotten by history. No one in the world will ever remember the Mayflower because future generations will be talking about the slaves who built this country.”
Thankfully, human slavery seems to only have been a passing trend.
It is unthinkable that these lovely Christian nations will treat these people in an ungodly manner. Perhaps one day, in the distant future, history will tell the story of these twice-stolen people. At the very least, no one will ever insinuate that these proud warriors came to America because they were “sold by other Africans.”
That would be crazy.
Updated: 7/9/1640, 5:12 p.m.
In a stunning new judicial decision, Virginia’s General Court created what many are calling the nation’s first slave when the court condemned John Punch, an African, to a life sentence of servitude because he was black.
Punch, one of the original White Lion Africans, had run away from his master along with an indentured Dutch servant and an indentured English servant. When they were found and brought back to their master, a judge ordered the three absconders to be whipped 30 times apiece. The Dutchman and the Englishmen were sentenced to a one-year extension on their indentured servitude contract. But John Punch received a different sentence:
...and that the third being a negro named John Punch shall serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural Life here or elsewhere.
For years, The Root has received reports that most of the Africans in Virginia were actually forced into this new kind of slavery. Of course, we’ve heard of a few Africans who were freed after a period of indentured servitude. Some even bought land and became slave owners themselves. However, Virginia doesn’t have laws governing indentured servitude, which means freedom is usually up to the benevolence of the master.
In the book From Africa to the Emergence of the Cotton Kingdom, which will be written 351 years from now, historian Philip S. Foner will describe indentured servitude for Africans this way:
But even while these rights were enjoyed by some blacks, even when there were only few blacks in the colony and white servants still formed the backbone of the labor force, there were distinctions between black and white. This distinction existed in the servant status itself, for although the black servant often was capable of contracting, Negroes usually did not, like white servants, have the benefits of written indentures defining their rights and limiting their periods of service. This lack of labor contracts facilitated their permanent enslavement.
...Some Negro servants were forced to serve for life by masters who simply refused to acknowledge that the period of indenture was completed.
When The Root contacted experts for comment, all declined, explaining that they couldn’t imagine a system of justice that was intentionally biased against a person based on a person’s skin color.
“You shouldn’t worry about that happening,” explained one person who spoke to the Root on the condition of anonymity. “That would mean that these people were slowly constructing a society based on the supremacy of whiteness. I wouldn’t even know what to call that idiotic idea.”
We were getting worried for a second.
Updated: 12/8/1641, 5:12 p.m.
The Root can now confirm that the Massachusetts legislature became the first American colony to pass a law legalizing slavery...but only for non-white Christians.
“There shall never be any bond slaverie, villinage or captivitie amongst us unless it be lawfull captives taken in just warres, and such strangers as willingly selle themselves or are sold to us,” the statute says.
It should be noted that the term “strangers” is derived from Leviticus 39:42-46, where Jewish law explains that Israelites cannot enslave their own people, but it is perfectly fine to ruthlessly enslave foreigners and outsiders such as Native Americans.
Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves. Do not rule over them ruthlessly, but fear your God.
Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.
This is probably just a Massachusetts thing. I’m sure it won’t spread.
Although everyone knows those people from Boston are racist arseholes.
Updated: 8/14/1662, 8:12 a.m.
The colony of Virginia passed a law today stating that any child born to a slave woman will automatically become enslaved, even if the father is free. The law also doubles the fines for any white person convicted of fornicating with a “negro man or woman.”
The Root will update this article when we stop crying.
Updated: 10/31/1669, 12:21 p.m
In less than 50 years, this land has gone from fewer than 30 stolen human beings to more than 4,500 and the numbers are increasing every day. The vast majority of Africans in America are enslaved and a number of recent events make it highly unlikely that the population of enslaved people will decline.
There are now slaves in all 13 of the English colonies. Maryland, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Virginia and South Carolina all have laws OKing lifelong involuntary servitude for Africans. But a new Virginia law will likely cement the institution of slavery into this continent forever by giving slave owners and their designees a brand new right:
Be it enacted and declared by this grand assembly, if any slave resist his master (or others by his masters order correcting him) and by the extremity of the correction should chance to die, that his death shall not be considered a felony
- October, 1669; “An Act About the Casual Killing of Slaves.
This is the final brick in the foundation of white supremacy upon which this country rests. One can only hope that one day soon, the people of this great new land will come to their senses. I am sure someone will realize that they cannot deny a person their rights because of the color of their skin. Soon they will see that a judicial system built on racism cannot dispense justice. I’m sure it won’t be long before they understand that a group of people can’t just kill another group for “resisting.”
I truly believe that there will be liberty and justice for all. One day, they will realize that all men are created equal. Anyone with faith in God, the universe, or humanity itself can easily see that this kind of cruelty and evil cannot last. I bet they’re even gonna pay us reparations for this free labor.
I give it 10 years.
Fifteen at the most.