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

A retired University of California at Berkeley historian, Engel Sluiter, made a startling discovery in the Spanish national archives in the late 1990s as he did research for a book on Spanish America. A colonial shipping document he uncovered in an account book identified a Portuguese slave ship called the San Juan Bautista. About 350 slaves were bound for Veracruz, on the east coast of modern-day Mexico, when the ship was robbed of its human cargo off the coast of Mexico in 1619 by two unidentified pirate ships, the record said.

Sluiter, who died in 2001, published his discovery in the William and Mary Quarterly. It caught the eye of John Thornton, an expert on the Portuguese colonies in Africa in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The outlines of the other half of the story took shape.

"I said, 'I can figure out how these people were enslaved,' " said Thornton, a Boston University professor who, with his wife, historian Linda Heywood, is publishing a book on the slave trade between Angola and the North American colonies. Previous scholarship has documented the slave trade from Ghana, Senegal and other parts of West Africa. "We know Angola was a big exporter of slaves to Brazil and the Spanish colonies, but now we know that they showed up here," Thornton said.

Through records of a legal dispute between the pirate ships, Thornton identified the British vessels as the Treasurer and the White Lion, which was flying a Dutch flag. Each took 20 to 30 slaves before the San Juan Bautista continued to Veracruz. They landed at Jamestown within four days of each other and traded the Africans for provisions. The Treasurer then sailed to Bermuda, dropping off more slaves, and returned to Virginia a few months later, trading the final nine or 10 more.

Many Angolans followed -- not just to Virginia, but to New York and New England, say Thornton and Heywood, who are consultants to the Jamestown Settlement. Their research draws a portrait of the first Africans as urban people connected by common languages, who had had contact with Europeans for many years.

Virginia's first Africans spoke Bantu languages called Kimbundu and Kikongo. Their homelands were the kingdoms of Ndongo and Kongo, regions of modern-day Angola and coastal regions of Congo. Both were conquered by the Portuguese in the 1500s. The Africans mined tar and rock salt, used shells as money and highly valued their children, holding initiation ceremonies to prepare them for adulthood.

And they most likely had been baptized as Christians, because the kingdom of Ndongo converted to Christianity in 1490. Many were literate. This background may be one reason some of Virginia's first Africans won their freedom after years as indentured servants, the historians said.

The Portuguese and Catholic roots figure prominently on a glass wall in the new gallery at the Jamestown Settlement. Mareo, Christian, Nando, Acquera, Palmena, Cuba, Salvo -- they are among 400 African names engraved on the wall, one for each anniversary year.

One is Angelo, whose name appears on a 1624 census of the colony discovered in the past decade. She is listed as a "Negro woman" who came on the Treasurer and worked as a servant in the home of Capt. William Pierce and his wife, June. Historians assume the slave's name was Angela.

It is Angela, played by a young Angolan actress, who stars in the introductory film visitors will see as they watch the new story of Jamestown unfold. The 23-minute movie was filmed on a beach in Luanda in 2004.

The film will replace a 15-year-old version that gives the first Africans only a passing mention. Now visitors will be transported to a Portuguese cathedral in Luanda, where a Jesuit priest breaks bread with the captains of the San Juan Bautista. They discuss the souls to be saved and riches to be made from the continued shipment of slaves from Massangano, an inland city. The film cuts to a hut on the shore of the Kwanza River, where Angela, a young woman in her twenties, pounds grain and smiles. Then she and thousands of others are captured and taken to a beach at Luanda. A Jesuit priest asks her if she has been baptized, and she answers yes.

"Then she is a child of God. When she dies, she will go to heaven," the priest says. And the slave ship sets sail against the evening sun.

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