This weekend marks the 400th anniversary of the “20 and odd” African people brought to Virginia in August 1619, in what most people think of as the start of slavery in the United States. But a lot of what was taught in schools has been debunked.
Here are five things you thought you knew about (but were probably wrong).
The Africans came to Point Comfort, not Jamestown
For hundreds of years, Americans have been told the Africans brought to Virginia landed at Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in North America.
In 1984, Calvin Pearson, a retired superintendent for the Hampton, Va., Parks and Recreation Department, was helping to plan the 375th anniversary of the city’s founding the following year. In his research, Pearson found references to a slave ship’s arrival at Point Comfort, which led to 10 years of poring over archives and reading books to “put the puzzle together.”
“They told me I didn’t know what I was talking about," Pearson said. "But I was on a 25-year journey that I couldn’t give up until the story had become recognized as the truth.”
In 1994, he launched a campaign to tell Virginians that the history books were wrong. By 2007, he had launched Project 1619 Inc. That same year the state acknowledged his work, and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources installed a historic marker at Point Comfort, now known as the Fort Monroe National Monument. Point Comfort is near where Chesapeake Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean; Jamestown is about 30 miles to the northwest on the James River.
They came from an established civilization.
The Africans brought in 1619 were captured from a village in the kingdom of Ndongo, where they were skilled farmers, herders, blacksmiths, and artisans, historians say. Ndongo is now part of Angola.
Their original destination was not the English colonies.
The captured Angolans were not brought directly to Virginia from Africa, but instead were destined for Veracruz, Mexico, according to research published in 1997 by historian Engel Sluiter.
By the time the ship San Juan Bautista reached the Gulf of Mexico, half of the 350 Africans had died, and two English privateers, the White Lion and the Treasurer, attacked, expecting gold or other riches. Instead, they robbed the ship of 50 to 60 Africans and headed toward Virginia to trade the captives for food.
They may not have started as slaves.
Although black and white servants worked beside one another, and sometimes married and ran away together, African servants did not have a contract. In some cases, however, African servants gained their freedom after working for a number of years. Massachusetts was the first colony to sanction slavery in 1641, but Virginia’s slave laws, beginning in 1662, are seen as setting a standard that other colonies, and later states, followed.
By 1705, Virginia had enacted a law that said, “If any slave resist his master, or owner, or other person, by his or her order, correcting such slave, and shall happen to be killed in such correction, it shall not be accounted felony; but the master, owner, and every such other person so giving correction, shall be free and acquit of all punishment and accusation for the same, as if such incident had never happened.”
The Africans who came in 1619 weren’t the first here.
Michal Guasco, a history professor and chair at Davidson College, wrote that focusing on 1619 ignores the suffering of the 500,000 or so other enslaved Africans who were sold in Central and South America from the early 1500s.
Telling this as an “English” story also glosses over the multinational slave trade, where European powers —- the Portuguese, Spanish, French, Dutch, and others — “fought to control the resources of the New World” and “worked together to facilitate the dislocation of the indigenous peoples of Africa and the Americas," Guasco wrote for Black Perspectives. In addition, the English used enslaved African labor in Bermuda as early as 1616.
In 1526, Africans were part of a Spanish outpost in South Carolina, he said. There is also evidence that Africans were aboard the ships that Sir Francis Drake commandeered to Roanoke Island, N.C., in 1586.