The country is marking the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to the English colony of Jamestown. The significance of their arrival cannot be overstated; from that moment onward, slavery existed in the colonies that became the United States in an unending chain until the passage of the 13th Amendment nearly 250 years later.
But those “20 and odd Negroes” were not the first enslaved Africans to set foot on the continental U.S. That happened 93 years earlier when Spanish explorers brought 100 slaves with them to a doomed settlement in what is now South Carolina or Georgia. Within weeks of their arrival, those enslaved Africans revolted. Then they vanished.
In order to understand their story, it is important to know who brought them there and who else was enslaved.
By the early 1520s, nearly all of the indigenous people in the Spanish colony of Hispaniola were dead. Enslaved Africans were brought in to replace them in the backbreaking search for gold — gold that was getting harder and harder to find.
Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón, a government functionary in the colony, wanted to start a settlement of his own, and he got permission from the King and Queen of Spain to send scouts sailing up the east coast of what is now the United States to find a good spot. According to historian and anthropologist Guy E. Cameron, that permission came with the specific instructions that they build friendly relationships with any indigenous people they encountered.
The scouts returned with details of the coastline of what is now South Carolina and Georgia and something else — 70 indigenous people they had abducted and enslaved.
Ayllón was angry; kidnapping was not exactly a building block of comity and friendship. Still, he did not order their immediate return. Soon the captives all started to die “of sorrow and hunger, for they would not eat,” according to a Spanish historian at the time.
One of the captives, named Francisco, survived. He quickly picked up Spanish, and Ayllón grew to like him. Ayllón brought Francisco to Spain to help convince the king and queen that although the scouting missions had not gone as planned, they should still be allowed to colonize. Francisco told them how amazing the land was — just like Spain! — and how welcoming his people, the Shakori, would be. He embellished quite a bit, Cameron wrote, and it is easy to see why: Convincing the Spanish to sail back to the Carolina coast was the only way he could get home.
Permission granted, Ayllón and Francisco sailed for Hispaniola, where they gathered people and supplies for their settlement. A few months later, likely in early June of 1526, they had 500 colonists, 100 enslaved Africans, plus livestock, plants and provisions packed onto three ships.
They arrived on Aug. 9 and immediately ran into a big problem when one of the ships sank. They managed to rescue all of the passengers but lost most of their food.
As soon as they were on land, Francisco disappeared into the trees, leaving the colonists no way to communicate with their new neighbors. The colonists settled farther south — between South Carolina’s Pee Dee River and Georgia’s Sapelo Island — named it San Miguel de Gualdape and ordered the enslaved Africans to clear the land and start building homes and a church.
They had arrived too late in the season to plant crops, however, and with the food supplies destroyed, the colonists began to starve. Plus, as Cameron’s research with Stephen Vermette in the Georgia Historical Quarterly indicates, they experienced an unusually cold fall.
Then, an unknown infectious disease spread through the settlement. And a group of settlers who sought help from indigenous neighbors were killed. Within a few months, 350 of the 500 settlers had died. It is unknown how many of the enslaved people perished; the Spanish did not keep a count.
Then, on Oct. 18, Ayllón himself died. His chosen successor did not sit well with some of the settlers, and two factions developed. Then, the Spanish historian wrote, “it happened that some of the Negro slaves independently set fire to [a leader’s] house … and as the fire burnt they all gathered to kill him; and in this way they managed to escape.”
Thus the first enslaved Africans known to have been brought to the continent were also the first to revolt.
“It appears that the Africans ran into the forest, never to be seen again,” Cameron wrote.
Weeks later, when the remaining Spanish bailed on the settlement and sailed away, there was no mention of any enslaved Africans onboard.
It is impossible to know what happened to the Africans when they escaped into the forest. There are no written records. Would the Shakori or another indigenous group have recognized them as victims of the Spanish and taken them in? Or would they have seen them as an extension of the colonizers and killed them? Would they have been able to survive on their own?
Little is known about the Shakori today, but Cameron speculates they probably would have helped the Africans so long as it did not negatively impact their own preparations for winter. It is also possible some of the Africans traveled south as winter approached; Africans knew about the movement of the moon and stars, and would have known that the weather would be warmer farther south, Cameron wrote.
Legends about “Black Indians,” tri-racial isolate groups and maroon communities abound in the southeastern United States. The Lumbee of North Carolina surmise they are descended from Native Americans who intermarried with white settlers and freed African slaves. The Brass Ankles of South Carolina are believed to come from intermarried runaway African slaves, white indentured servants and Native Americans, although that is just a theory. They were classified as “free people of color” before the Civil War.
Could some of their ancestors be those very first runaways? It is impossible to know.
In 1920, black historian Carter G. Woodson observed, “One of the longest unwritten chapters in the history of the United States is that treating the relations of the Negroes and the Indians.”
Read more Retropolis: