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Why we should remember 1619

Enslaved Africans were brought to Jamestown. Their descendants have led the fight for freedom.

Lakeika Davis and Kelly Preston-Davis, of Durham, N.C., visit the 1619 exhibit at the Hampton History Museum in Hampton, Va., last month. (Michael Mccoy/Reuters)

Four hundred years ago, the first Africans set foot on mainland English America. Held as captives first on a Portuguese slave ship and then an English privateer, they had endured a grueling journey across the Atlantic Ocean during the summer of 1619. They traveled from present-day Angola to Point Comfort, Va., where they were sold to the colonists of Jamestown. The arrival of enslaved Africans in colonial Virginia would shape not only the future of Jamestown, but also the subsequent development of the United States.

On this anniversary, we should acknowledge slavery’s deep roots and recognize the significant role that captive and free African Americans have played in building the United States of today. During the nation’s earliest days, economics and racism intersected to launch the insidious institution that would bring fortune and privilege to some and inequality, violence and death to others. As enslaved laborers, African Americans’ backbreaking work supported colonial economic growth and enriched slave traders, merchants and their owners. Striving for freedom, African Americans fought for emancipation and the abolition of slavery. During Reconstruction and the civil rights movement, they secured significant constitutional and legislative changes that expanded rights for all Americans, a struggle that continues today.

The enslaved Africans who were forcibly taken to Virginia in 1619 were part of an expansive and growing transatlantic slave trade that ultimately brought millions of Africans to what was then called the “New World.” In the years that followed the arrival of the first Africans in Jamestown, the demand by colonists in English North America for slave labor fueled the transportation of men, women and children to the colonies where they were sold like chattel. The racialized system of slavery would underpin the economy and contradict the values of liberty and equality embedded in America’s founding documents. Ultimately, it would take a bloody civil war, centuries later, to eliminate it.

Unfortunately, while we recognize the larger impact of slavery on American society, we know far too little about the individual identities of the Africans who were forced to make Jamestown their new home in 1619. The planter John Rolfe provides an important account of their arrival in a letter, recording that “20. and odd Negroes” landed in Virginia in late August 1619. They had been captured in West Central Africa, spoke a Bantu language called Kimbundu and were skilled at farming and caring for livestock.

These enslaved men and women were forced aboard a vessel called the San Juan Bautista that was headed for Mexico. While at sea, it was assailed by two armed English ships. The crews captured between 50 and 60 of the enslaved Africans. Both privateers then traveled to Point Comfort, where the first ship, the White Lion, sold its human cargo in exchange for food. The second ship, the Treasurer, docked at Port Comfort a few days later and sold several more enslaved Africans. Jamestown’s governor, George Yeardley, and head merchant, Abraham Piersey, purchased African slaves at what Rolfe calls “the best and easyest rates they could.”

There are no written testimonies from the enslaved Africans on the San Juan Bautista in 1619, but later accounts shed light on the brutal experience of captivity on slave ships. Olaudah Equiano, an African man who was kidnapped in present-day Nigeria and sold into slavery, described his transatlantic journey in his autobiographical narrative in 1789. When he boarded the slave ship, he recalled seeing “a multitude of black people of every description chained together, every one of their countenances expressing dejection and sorrow.” They endured wretched living conditions and physical abuse during the journey that led to extreme suffering and illness. Some slaves even committed suicide by jumping into the ocean, an act that Equiano says showed they “preferr[ed] death to such a life of misery.”

Of the 20 to 30 men and women who arrived in Jamestown that August, most were sent to work on tobacco plantations run by Yeardley and Piersey. Others toiled for Jamestown’s most prosperous colonists on their farms and in their households. Censuses from the 1620s primarily identify the Africans living in Jamestown by first name only. We read of Angelo, described as “a Negro woman,” and Mary Negro, called “a servant” of Edward Bennett. These individuals helped turn the Jamestown colony into a stable, permanent English settlement.

The majority of captive Africans who arrived in 17th-century Virginia were treated as slaves by their colonial masters. In exceptional circumstances, some Africans were able to work for a period of time before later gaining their freedom. Although chattel slavery and indentured servitude coexisted in colonial Virginia during the 1600s, slavery became the main form of forced labor by 1705 when Virginia’s General Assembly enacted a series of slave codes.

Slavery grew due to a decrease in the supply of indentured servants and the expansion of the slave trade. For white planters, a belief in white unity combined with a preference among planters for lifelong control of their laborers also drove the rise of slavery.

The enslaved men and women who arrived in Jamestown in 1619 would ultimately be joined by thousands of other Africans who were forcibly removed from their homelands and shipped to colonial America. By the end of the 17th century, records show that 6,000 African Americans lived in the colony of Virginia. Slavery grew rapidly as the slave trade boomed in the years that followed. Approximately 400,000 enslaved Africans reached British North America by the mid-19th century. In 1861, when the Civil War began, 4 million African Americans worth billions of dollars as human property remained enslaved in the United States.

The transatlantic slave trade and slavery also supported Spanish, Dutch, French and Portuguese colonial economies. Between 1500 and 1900, slaving ships transported 10 million to 12 million captive Africans across the Atlantic Ocean on a route that became known as the “Middle Passage.” Millions died while languishing in prisons on the African Coast or aboard the ships during the journey. Enslaved Africans planted and harvested tobacco, sugar cane, indigo, rice and coffee on plantations in North America, the Caribbean and South America. Ultimately, the commodification of human beings led to the generation of huge profits for European colonists and untold suffering for enslaved laborers.

Thus, the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Africans in Jamestown is a time for sober reflection on the consequences of the transatlantic slave trade. How should we honor the enslaved men and women whose forced labor contributed to the growth of colonial America and the United States?

This year, institutions are marking this complex historical moment in myriad ways. The Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation will host First African Landing Weekend, a series of events that includes historical discussions and a healing ceremony. Taking a different approach, the coalition 400 Years of Inequality is seeking to address the “lasting impact of chattel slavery on American society” and to build “a more just and equal future.”

Ultimately, the events of 1619 remind us of America’s moral failure to protect individual liberties for the sake of profit. Today, we must take this moment to face one of the most painful parts of our national history, to recognize that African Americans have been in the vanguard in the fight for freedom, and to commit ourselves to securing complete equality for all Americans.