February is Black History Month and is celebrated in the U. S., And later this year, our nation and other countries around the world will collectively come together to commemorate the 400th Anniversary of African Landing Day.
The first Africans to arrive in what is now the United States were just a few of the 350 people who were forcibly taken from villages in what is present-day Angola and put aboard the Portuguese slave ship San Juan Bautista, bound for the New World. Many aboard the ship would die before reaching their destination, some of the millions who perished during the Middle Passage from the 1600s to the 1800s.
By the time the ship reached Vera Cruz, Mexico, there were 147 Africans on board. Prior to docking, there had been a fierce battle in the bay of Campeche, in the Gulf of Mexico, two English privateer ships, the White Lion and the Treasurer attacked the San Juan Bautista, mistaking it for a Spanish galleon full of riches, not realizing it carried human cargo. The English ships took 50 of the human cargo.
On August 25, 1619, the White Lion landed unannounced at Point Comfort (today’s Fort Monroe, Virginia), carrying the “20 and odd Africans.” The captain had only one thing on his mind – sell the Africans in exchange for food.
An orderly West African village illustrating the villagers’ skill at growing such crops as cotton and corn and keeping cattle. This illustration appeared in A New General Collection of Voyages and Travels, edited by Thomas Ashley and published in London between 1745 and 1747
The Associated Press notes that Englishman John Rolfe, who would later marry Pocahontas, documented the White Lion’s arrival at Point Comfort. “He brought not anything but 20, and odd Negars, which the Governor and Cape Merchant bought for victualle,” Rolfe wrote in a letter in January 1620.
The landing of these first Africans could have easily been relegated to the back pages of the history books, however, this event is significant in a lot of ways, even today. For one thing, it reminds all of us, black and white, that black Americans have a history that dates back to the start of this country. And that story is amazing.
The first Africans in Virginia
Virginia history documents the fact that the first English colonists in Jamestown were starving before the arrival of the Africans. “Basically all of those people were right off of the streets in England,” said Kathryn Knight, who in May will release a book titled “Unveiled – The Twenty & Odd: Documenting the First Africans in England’s America 1619-1625 and Beyond
The colonists were city folks – not the type of people we think of today as the “hale and hardy” adventurer that can go into the wilderness and live successfully. They didn’t know how to farm or manage animals. They knew nothing of surviving in Virginia. Knight said, the Africans “saved them by being able to produce crops, by being able to manage the livestock. They kept them alive.”
Ric Murphy, an author, and a descendant of John Gowan, one of the Angolan captives brought to Point Comfort, fleshes the story out for us. He says the captives were Catholic and many spoke multiple languages. They came from one of Angola’s royal cities, and “were quite informed and educated, and several of them, based upon what they did in the latter part of their years, clearly were leaders in the community in one form or the other,” Murphy said.
“Many of them became landowners, which is quite different from the false narrative of what an enslaved person was.” Not only were the captives skilled farmers, herders, blacksmiths, and artisans, but they also contributed ideas and innovations including floodways, crop cultivation, music, and dance.
The construction of James Fort. The colonists knew nothing about growing crops or tending to animals, and the colony was nearly wiped out during their “starving time.”
Sidney E. King/USGS
Of the 20 or so enslaved Africans that came to Point Comfort, some were granted their freedom and in some cases were able to purchase the freedom of their relatives, own land, and even employ indentured servants. Some of the Africans – by intermingling with the English colonists, had children who ended up passing for white. This was during the time between 1619 and 1661. In 1661, Virginia established a law legalizing lifelong servitude of all un-free Africans.
400 Years of African-American History
The Association for the Study of African American Life and History, the custodian of Black History Month, is taking the lead in paying tribute to the 400th year commemoration of the first Africans to land in Virginia. Two years ago, Congress established the 400 Years of African-American History Commission.
And for the past two years, the Hampton 2019 Commemoration Commission and Virginia’s “2019 Commemoration, American Evolution” have sponsored programs and events highlighting the first landing and other significant events in the state’s and nation’s history.
Slavery is one of the worst crimes against humanity. The UN’s memorial is meant to serve as a reminder for this never to happen again.
Cliff James (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Some would say a 400-year commemoration is counterproductive – arguing why bother about something that ended up as being the reason for our Civil War and years of oppression. Some declare that 1619 marked the beginning of slavery in England’s American colonies – but they are wrong.
First, there were African slaves in the English colony of Bermuda before 1619. Second, the status of those “20. and odd Negroes” from the White Lion is still a matter of contention, according to USA Today.
“The 1619 story is only important for the people who develop within the nation-state that becomes known as the United States,” notes Daryl Scott, a professor of history at Howard University in Washington and a past president of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.
“It’s about how you define the history that you’re telling.” He also points out that we should consider the arrival of African slaves in Spain, Portugal, and Italy, as well as in the Arab world, dating back to the 15th century.
This year marks the 400th anniversary of four pivotal happenings in English North America’s Virginia colony: the arrival of the first Africans, the arrival of women, the convening of the first General Assembly, and celebration of the first Thanksgiving.
Virginia House of Delegates
“There is a tendency to simplify our story, to have a definitive start and end date, to say that slavery began on this day, when we actually don’t know; to say that black people arrived on this date so that we can mark it,” says Karsonya Wise Whitehead, a professor of communication and history at Loyola University Maryland. “That’s part of being American. We like to mark things. But our history is more complicated than that.”
A teachable moment for Virginia
Dinizulu Gene Tinnie is a South Florida-based artist, activist, and historian. He wrote a guest column in the Florida Courier today that is really thought-provoking. He likens the new knowledge we have on the first Africans to arrive in Virginia, and their importance in our history to what Native American First Nations people have recognized as a “Time of Awakening,” from which there is no escape or going back to past ignorance.
Writing that “knowledge is power” is given new meaning when Black Americans can realize their history and other contributions to the fabric that is America is just as meaningful as the history of Native Americans and other races. And Tinnie also asks that we remember that a quadricentennial only comes once in a very long time.
Only this generation, living today, can collect and preserve the historical facts that were either unavailable or too painful for those before us. If this is not done, those memories, events, including the ones most hurtful, will be lost forever. Today, we have an opportunity to make our nation’s Black History Month a teachable moment