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Mystery of Va.'s First Slaves Is Unlocked 400 Years Later

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By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 3, 2006

JAMESTOWN -- They were known as the "20 and odd," the first African slaves to set foot in North America at the English colony settled in 1607.

For nearly 400 years, historians believed they were transported to Virginia from the West Indies on a Dutch warship. Little else was known of the Africans, who left no trace.

Now, new scholarship and transatlantic detective work have solved the puzzle of who they were and where their forced journey across the Atlantic Ocean began.

The slaves were herded onto a Portuguese slave ship in Angola, in Southwest Africa. The ship was seized by British pirates on the high seas -- not brought to Virginia after a period of time in the Caribbean. The slaves represented one ethnic group, not many, as historians first believed.

The discovery has tapped a rich vein of history that will go on public view next month at the Jamestown Settlement. The museum and living history program will commemorate the 400th anniversary of Jamestown's founding by revamping the exhibits and artifacts -- as well as the story of the settlement itself.

Although historians have thoroughly documented the direct slave trade from Africa starting in the 1700s, far less was known of the first blacks who arrived in Virginia and other colonies a century earlier. A story of memory and cultural connections between Africa and the early New World is being unearthed in a state whose plantation economy set the course for the Civil War.

"We went entirely back to the drawing board," said Tom Davidson, senior curator of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. "The problem has always been that all of the things that make for a human story [of the Africans] were missing. . . . Now we can talk about the Africans with the same richness we talk about the English and the Powhatans."

Behind him, an Angolan man was depicted stripping bark from a baobab tree in a re-created village featured in the museum's new 30,000-square-foot gallery, which will open Oct. 16. It's double the space of the previous one, to cover a long span of the 17th century and the African story, which was barely featured before.

How the story of the charter generation of Africans in Virginia has come to life in a new $25 million museum wing is a tale of two scholars who helped connect two coasts of the Atlantic Ocean.

The early 1600s was a time of war and empire-building in Southwest Africa; Portuguese traders under the rule of the king of Spain had established the colony of Angola. The exporting of slaves to the Spanish New World was a profitable enterprise. The Portuguese waged war against the kingdoms of Ndongo and Kongo to the north, capturing and deporting thousands of men and women. They passed through a slave fortress at the port city of Luanda, still Angola's capital.

At Jamestown, tobacco was on the verge of a boom after the British had failed at several industries. Indentured servants from England were common in the settlement, now close to 1,000 people strong.

John Rolfe, Virginia's first tobacco planter and husband of the Indian princess Pocahontas, wrote the widely held account of the African landing in a letter to the Virginia Company of London. The captain of a Dutch warship that arrived in Jamestown in August 1619 "brought not any thing but 20 and odd Negroes, wch the Governor and Cape Marchant bought for victuale . . . at the best and easyest rate they could." Rolfe explained that the ship and another called the Treasurer had embarked from the West Indies.


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