Tuesday, July 31, 2018
July 31, 2018: 17th Century Histories: Jamestown’s First Slaves
[On July 30th, 1676 Nathaniel Bacon issued his “Declaration in the Name of the People,” kicking off Bacon’s Rebellion. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that rebellion and other 17th century histories, leading up to a special weekend post on some of Virginia’s historic sites!]
On the transnational details of a crucial human cargo, and a fraught new historical lens for them.
I’m mostly going to cede this first paragraph over to this 2006 Washington Post story, and to the historians cited there (especially Engel Sluiter and John Thornton & Linda Heywood) whose ground-breaking research and writing helped recover and consider the stories, identities, and histories of the 20 African slaves brought to Virginia’s Jamestown colony in 1619. It’s to their efforts, and to Lisa Rein’s reporting in that story, that I owe pretty much all I know about that group of slaves, and you should check out that story to learn more as well!
Okay, welcome back! Obviously the individual and communal stories and identities of those first (or at least very early) African Americans are and should be the central reason to better remember the histories that Sluiter, Thornton & Heywood, and others have helped recover and narrate. But on a contextual level, I would also note the strikingly transnational factors that came together to bring those 20 Angolans to Jamestown. A Portuguese slave ship, the San Juan Bautista, that departed from the Angolan port city of Luanda with some 350 slaves bound for the Spanish (now Mexican) port of Veracruz. Two British pirate vessels, the Treasurer and the White Lion (the latter apparently flying a Dutch flag, likely for reasons of disguise or misdirection), that raided the San Juan Bautista and took its slave cargo for themselves. At least one of them (likely the White Lion, given the longstanding historical narrative that the ship was Dutch) that landed in Jamestown as part of its multi-stop voyage through the Americas, trading the slaves for provisions. It’s not just the transatlantic and increasingly globally connected 17th century world that these details reflect—it’s also, and most saliently for my post and series, how much even a small and seemingly isolated English colony like Jamestown was part of that transatlantic and global society, influenced by Angola and Portugal and piracy and the Caribbean just as much as by its direct English origin points.
I would also extend that point one complex and fraught step further, however. Those 20 Angolan American slaves also comprised a potently transnational community, one that immediately and forever after became an influential part of the new and developing Virginian and post-contact American communities as well. In emphasizing that aspect of this foundational African American community, I don’t mean for a moment to minimize the brutality and horrors and exclusionary white supremacist core of the slave trade and slave system that this moment helped bring to America, and that were inescapable parts of the lives of these 20 slaves as they would be for so many millions more in the next two and a half centuries. Yet if we focus entirely on those historical horrors and exclusions, we risk repeating at least the latter effect, continuing to exclude African American slaves from our narratives of American identity at every stage of its post-contact development. Whereas to my mind, as I argue at length in my current book project, the exact opposite is true: there is quite simply no American identity without this community, and without all that they brought and contributed to the evolving national community. And transnational elements—not just experiences and movement, but culture, language, religion, and so many more—were one key such contribution, as illustrated by the stories and histories of those 20 Angolan American arrivals.
Next 17th century history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other early American histories you’d highlight?