There’s still a bit of mystery surrounding the arrival of the first-recorded Africans in English North America. But a recent research breakthrough has shed a little more light on a key moment in early American history.
In late August 1619, some “20 and odd” Africans were taken from the ship White Lion at Old Point Comfort in modern-day Hampton. The enslaved Africans were exchanged with English colonists for supplies, according to a letter written by colonist John Rolfe.
A few days later, another ship, the Treasurer, arrived with more enslaved Africans in the hold. Only one of them, a woman named Angelo, is known by name to modern-day historians.
And that’s about all they knew for a while.
While a 1999 paper published in the College of William and Mary Quarterly offered more details — the Africans were Angolans, the White Lion and Treasurer were English privateers fresh off plundering a Portuguese slave ship heading to Mexico — questions still remain.
But more recently, researchers affiliated with the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation and Jamestown Rediscovery have determined a more accurate headcount of the Treasurer’s captives and how many went ashore in Virginia.
The finding is significant because it provides further details about the first Africans, said historian Martha McCartney, who conducted her research with newly examined documents preserved in the United Kingdom’s National Archives.
“It’s important to our modern-day African-American community to learn as much as it can about its roots,” she said.
McCartney is a consultant who has worked with the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation to find data to inform the foundation’s gallery update at Jamestown Settlement, which is scheduled to debut this spring. McCartney got on the trail that would lead to her discovery about a year ago while doing research on a separate project.
Both McCartney and James Horn of Jamestown Rediscovery made the same discovery separately with the same sources. Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation and Jamestown Rediscovery, which is affiliated with Historic Jamestowne, separately announced the new information about the first Africans earlier this month.
While researching another project, McCartney stumbled upon references of the first Africans arriving in February 1620, information that contradicted her understanding of events. She dug into primary sources and discovered stronger evidence in favor of a 1619 arrival date for the first Africans.
“I knew this didn’t make any sense,” McCartney said.
Previously there had been confusion on those details because of misleading historical documents, leading some scholars to argue the Treasurer didn’t drop off Africans in Virginia until February 1620 after sailing to Bermuda and then returning several months later.
But modern historians have court testimony to thank for clearing the air on that point.
Both the White Lion and the Treasurer were English ships operating with letters of marque from the Dutch Prince of Orange and the Duke of Savoy, respectively. Those letters gave the ships permission to attack Spanish ships, as well as Portuguese ships because Portugal was ruled by Spain at the time. Doing so otherwise would be illegal under a 1604 peace treaty brokered between England and Spain.
But therein lay the problem: just a month after the Treasurer left England to plunder Spanish ships, the Spanish king and Duke of Savoy made peace, invalidating the Treasurer’s letter of marque. A trial was called for the captain of the ship to determine whether he knew he acted illegally when he attacked the slave ship, McCartney said.
In testimony before the English High Court of the Admiralty, Treasurer’s navigator, John Wood, said the ship took 28 or 30 Africans from the Portuguese slave ship. White Lion and Treasurer headed to Virginia afterward, but lost contact and arrived separately.
“Much of Wood’s testimony in court was deliberately misleading, part of a scheme to cover up an unsanctioned raid on Spanish shipping in the West Indies. Nevertheless, Wood’s version of events offers vital clues about what actually happened to some of the first Africans,” Horn said in a statement.
The Treasurer left Old Point Comfort soon after its arrival, unable to secure supplies. Before the ship left, it unloaded two or three Africans, according to the navigator. It’s now known the ship left Angelo and one or two others in early September 1619.
A March 1620 census recorded 32 Africans in Virginia. Since there were no other recorded arrivals of Africans between September 1619 and the time of the census, it seems likely all of them arrived on the two ships.
Some simple subtraction suggests that if the two or three Africans who disembarked from the Treasurer are not included in the census, it’s likelier there were 29 or 30 Africans who were traded by the White Lion captain for supplies, rather than the roughly 20 who were reported by Rolfe.
Of course, without any record of births or deaths among the Africans during that period, this isn’t a proven fact. Still, the discovery fills in critical blanks in the early story of African Americans in the English colony.
“The evidence clarifies a complicated story,” Horn said.
Jack Jacobs, 757-298-6007, firstname.lastname@example.org, @jajacobs_