We don’t know their names, but they are as much our nation’s founders as ones we learned in history books —just unwilling ones. We do know where they came from: Modern-day Angola. They were most likely members of either the Kongo or Ndongo people, two nations that found themselves invaded (some would say colonized) by Portugal in the 1500s. The sea-faring Portugese found the west coast of Africa a fruitful place to engage in commerce — commerce in fellow human beings.
In 1618, Portugal built a fortress at a sheltered inlet that we know today as the city of Luanda. From there the Portugese fanned out to do their dirty business. The fact that they may have gotten help from rival African peoples is an interesting historical detail, but irrelevant to the morality involved.
Sometime the following year, 1619, several hundred captured Africans found themselves forcibly marched 150 to 200 miles to the port. We don’t know how many started on this harrowing journey, but we know that about 350 of them were alive enough to be crammed into the hold of a ship called the San Juan Bautista. Soon it was sailing west, bound across the ocean for Veracruz, the main Spanish port in what was then “New Spain” and today is Mexico.
The Spanish had founded Veracruz a century earlier, long before the English had even given any thought to colonizing this “new continent.” It wasn’t new to the people who already lived here, of course, but the Spanish had done a good job of killing them off, one way or another. The Spanish needed someone to do the work and when there weren’t enough natives left for the menial tasks, they solved their labor problem by importing slaves from Africa — perhaps as many one million beginning in 1535. The San Juan Bautista was just another vessel in what was by 1619 a well-established international trade in human property.
The only thing that made the San Juan Bautista different was what happened to the ship as it neared its destination. Somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico, two English ships appeared on the horizon. They were “privateers” — privately-owned ships to which the English government had issued “letters of marquee” giving them permission to raid Portugese and Spanish vessels. Today, we might call this a public-private partnership — independent contractors for the English navy. Other nations saw them as pirates. It all depends on which end of the gunsights you were on.
Whatever the legalities, the White Lion and the Treasurer spotted the San Juan Bautista and moved in. We don’t know the details of whatever battle ensued, or even whether there was one. We do know that the English sailors prevailed. If they hoped to find some gold or other treasure, the Portugese ship was headed in the wrong direction. Instead, the English found only people. By then, nearly half the captive Africans had died, their deaths of little concern to the Portugese merchants except for the bottom line. The English relieved the Portugese of 50 or so of their captives, probably as many as they could fit. The English then let the San Juan Bautista sail on to Veracruz, eventually delivering the remaining 147 Africans to the slave market there. Meanwhile, the White Lion and the Treasurer set sail for safe harbor in the English colony in Virginia.
We don’t know the day they arrived, only that it was late in August of 1619, and that the White Lion arrived first. The ship docked at Point Comfort — modern-day Hampton — and unloaded “20 and odd” Africans. The Treasurer arrived a few days later, with seven to nine Africans — so roughly 30 or so out of the 50 or so that were captured in the Gulf of Mexico made it to Point Comfort.
We can only imagine what happened to the rest, but it doesn’t take much imagination. They probably died en route, just as many of the others did on the voyage across the Atlantic.
We do know what happened once the White Lion docked in Virginia: The captain sold his captive Africans for food. This is how slavery was introduced to the future United States. If you want to trace the causes of the Civil War, you should start that August day at Point Comfort. “Few ships, before or since, have unloaded a more momentous cargo,” historian Lerone Bennett has written. Other nations managed to end slavery without war; we were not so fortunate. That stain goes deeper than blood.
Earlier this year, Gov. Ralph Northam — already beleaguered by his “blackface” scandal — was criticized for referring to the first Africans in Virginia as “indentured servants” and not slaves. Northam should be forgiven for that, because that’s what Virginians of his generation were taught in the state’s official history textbooks. Technically, it’s true that there was no slavery in early Virginia — because there were no laws about slavery at all. However, the fact that these first Africans were sold should say something about their status. They may have been called “indentured servants” because that’s the only terminology that the English knew. But indentured servants willingly signed a contract, for which they were released after their term of service. The Africans signed no such contract and were generally considered “indentured servants for life.” Whatever you want to call them, they weren’t free.
Americans didn’t invent slavery, of course. But we did participate in the practice — quite enthusiastically, too, for several centuries. There are those who argue that it was slavery that helped establish the United States as a global economic power. Cornell University professor Edward Baptist makes that case in his book “The Half That Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.” He writes that a slave-based economy “transformed the southern states into the dominant force in the global cotton market, and cotton was the world’s most widely traded commodity at the time, as it was the key raw material during the first century of the industrial revolution. The returns from cotton monopoly powered the modernization of the rest of the American economy, and by the time of the Civil War, the United States had become the second nation to undergo large-scale industrialization.”
That’s also an argument that raises the question of whether the heirs to that global economic power owe reparations to those who ancestors were held in bondage and by their enslaved labor helped create that global economic power.
Four centuries later, we’re still wrestling with what happened that fateful August day at Point Comfort with some starving and bewildered people an ocean away from their homes.