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Jamestown: The 400th Anniversary, Relevance, Reflections, Myths, & Truths

August 1 – August 14, 2019
Praising the Past

four hundred years

Who knew that such a momentous historical event could be chronicled in such mundane language:

 " ... A Dutch man of warr of the burden of a 160 tonnes arrived at Point Comfort, the Commanders name Capt. Jope. He brought not anything but 20. And odd Negroes, w{hich} the Governo[r] and Cape Merchant bought for victuals.”

This account which is believed to have been written about the end of August 1619, is the only record of the arrival of the first Africans into a British colony on the mainland of North America. They actually did not land initially at Jamestown proper but at Point Comfort, in what is now Hampton, Virginia before being taken to the colony at Jamestown.

For years, we were taught that they arrived as indentured servants, but no such indentures have been recorded. They were, instead, enslaved, kidnapped, captives stolen off a Spanish slave ship bound for Vera Cruz, Mexico and boarded by English pirates sailing in two vessels. The Africans were traded for food by the hungry pirates when they reached Virginia.

By the time these Africans finally arrived in Jamestown, the town's best known residents were long gone. Pocahontas, also known as Matoaka, had died in England in 1617. Captain John Smith left the colony in 1609 as well, to recover from wounds sustained in a gunpowder explosion. He died in 1631. Many writers tried to clothe the colony's beginnings in gauzy myth. A 1907 Virginia guidebook waxed eloquent in lofty prose:

"The Far East has its Mecca, Palestine its Jerusalem, France its Lourdes, and Italy its Loretto, But America's only shrines are her altars of patriotism - the first and most potent being Jamestown; the sire of Virginia, and Virginia the mother of this great Republic."

But the early stories of Jamestown's founding never fit as neatly as say the supposedly pacific tales surrounding the Pilgrims. In addition to slavery, Jamestown was a place percolating brutality, shocking cannibalism, lurking typhoid, dysentery, salt poisoning, and the vicious betrayal of local Native Americans.

Pocahontas, an advocate for peace herself, was kidnapped by English colonists in 1613 and held for a year. Soon after her release, she married the tobacco planter John Rolfe who later recorded the arrival of the Africans. She and their son, Rolfe, and others journeyed to England where she died.

Three years after the coming of the Africans, in 1622, the hard-pressed Native Americans launched an uprising killing some English and some Africans. Death had regularly stalked the town's streets. Half of the original colonists had died within four months along with three-quarters of the 6,000 who arrived between 1607 and 1624.

We now know that the first Africans at Jamestown were not the first Africans in the Western Hemisphere. The triangular slave trade was already over a century old by 1619. Spain and Portugal had begun importing enslaved Black people into their colonies in Brazil and Uruguay even before the explorer Christopher Columbus died in 1506.

Spain brought enslaved labor to North America before the English. And there is evidence that African explorers made landfall in the Americas even earlier. In my book,"Black Explorers, 2300 B.C To The Present," I present several examples of the presence of independent African explorers in the "New World."

We now know that many, if not most, of the Africans on the first two ships to Jamestown were from the Kingdom of Ndongo, a sophisticated polity, with a capital city, Kabasa, of 50,000. Ndongo was then at war with the Kingdom of the Kongo and the local Imbangala, who were allies of the Portuguese. The Imbangala and the Portuguese were already heavily involved in transatlantic slaving.

These Black prisoners of war were shipped from Luanda, Angola. None of the African captives' names were recorded. They were given European names as they became America's earliest involuntary immigrants. Many more unwilling Black people would follow. 

Within a few years, their new names began to appear in the local records. In 1624, for example, the first documented African American was born in Virginia. His name was William Tucker. His surname was the same as his English enslaver. The child's parents were known only as Anthony and Isabella.

Amazingly, many of Tucker's descendants still live in Virginia today. They have established a family cemetery maintained by the William Tucker 1624 Society.
Whatever your point of view, the fact is that many Black people will observe this month in myriad forms: trips, seminars, prayers, and speeches. Scholars, activists, and teachers believe that more than ever the truth must be told despite discomfort to some.
After 1619, increasing numbers of enslaved Africans were used to wrest tobacco from the fertile soil of tidewater Virginia even as the already meager rays of freedom, humanity, and justice were slowly being extinguished all around them. As the burgeoning tobacco trade became evermore critically dependent upon legions of Black labor, laws promoting lifetime race-based servitude and discrimination gained ascendancy. Slavery continued to spread its tentacles through the other English colonies, north and south. Thus was began the 400 year battle against inequality, racism, and oppression still being waged today.

In Virginia, the womb of American slavery and segregation, on the eve of the Civil War, the average slaveowner held as many as eight people of African descent. In the shadow of the nation's capital at the same time, 20,000 enslaved people lived in the counties of Loudoun, Arlington, Fairfax, and Prince William.

The "irrepressible conflict" (The American Civil War) lasting four years and costing hundreds of thousands of lives ensued finally smashing the fetters of chattel slavery. A far longer battle is going on now.

Ultimately, the question is "should Jamestown 1619 be celebrated at all?" Whatever your point of view, the fact is that many Black people will observe this month in myriad forms: trips, seminars, prayers, and speeches. Scholars, activists, and teachers believe that more than ever the truth must be told despite discomfort to some. Race and slavery are fraught topics but to crack the crust of legends, the best  disinfectant is the light of truth. Not everything is known about the arrival of the first Africans in Virginia but thanks to recent diligent scholarship, there is now much more be shared. We are ever closer to the facts.

Will the truth about events so long ago change the day-to-day reality of people of African descent? Probably, no time soon. The road to justice, freedom, and equality is indeed long and winding.

In the early 1960s, historian Lerone Bennett Jr. made this cogent observation in his classic work of history "Before The Mayflower:"  "Today, 343 years after Jamestown, Negro Americans are still strangers in their own house. Today 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, American Negroes are still permanent exceptions to the melting pot theory. Not only are they not melting, one writer said most White Americans are determined that they shall not get into the pot."

Aluta continua. (Portuguese: The struggle continues.)

Note:  Read more CR Gibbs lectures, and see him on videos and upcoming lectures. Gibbs is also one of the keynote speakers at the 2019 Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society (AAHGS) Annual Conference & Exposition.

400 Years of Inequality

The Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project 

The ASALH website includes an exhaustive list of events scheduled for various parts of the country for the 400th Commemoration.
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