In late August of 1619, an English pirate ship landed at Point Comfort, not far from Jamestown, the capital of the colony of Virginia, bearing a cargo that would change the course of history for what would become the United States of America.
The White Lion and the Treasurer had been on the prowl off the coast of the Spanish colony of Mexico when it encountered the Portuguese ship, the San Juan Bautista. Months earlier, the San Juan Bautista had sailed from present-day Angola, where it had taken on board a human cargo of 350 or so Africans who had been sold into slavery. They were bound for the slave markets of South America. On the trip over, historians say more than half died. By the time she landed in Veracruz, Mexico, there were only 147 Africans on board, 50 or so having been seized by English pirates on the White Lion and the Treasurer.
The captain of the White Lion sailed north to the Virginia colony where he sold his cargo of “some 20 and odd Negroes” in exchange for food for his crew, thus beginning what would become the system of chattel slavery in British North America, the legacy of which is with us to this day.
Historians believe the first Africans were sold not as “slaves” but as “indentured servants.” The practice was a common way for settlers to get to the New World if they couldn’t pay the way themselves: They would “sell” themselves to an already established landowner or to the Virginia Company for a set period of time, usually seven years, after which they would gain their freedom and a small tract of land. Their indentured servitudes would be recorded in the local courthouse, as would the documents indicating when their freedom was regained.
A handful of the Africans who arrived at Point Comfort had their indentured servitudes and freedom dates recorded, but the majority are lost to history after they walked down the White Lion’s gangplank. The historical consensus is that most became lifelong slaves, deduced from court records of the time. In the 1640s and 1650s, many Africans were making the legal argument that Christian baptism had rendered them free men and women. The status of “servant for life” crept slowly into the statutes: Children born to an enslaved woman were deemed to be slaves from birth, according to 1662 law, while a 1667 law specifically declared that Christian baptism did not confer freedom.
By the turn of the 18th century, slavery from birth had become fully ensconced in law. Demographers estimate there were approximately 16,390 enslaved Africans in Virginia in 1700, growing to 210,000 on the eve of the American Revolution in 1775. By the time of the Civil War, there were more than 4 million enslaved people in the United States, most in the South. In South Carolina, for example, enslaved persons numbered more than 402,000, according to the 1860 census; they represented more than 57 percent of the population.
The labor of enslaved Africans in both the Northern and Southern colonies and states quite literally built America from the ground up. In 1993, historian Clarence Munford, who has done groundbreaking research over the last half a century into black slavery in the Americas, calculated the value of that labor, between 1619 and 1865, to be $97.1 trillion, compounded with 6 percent interest. Today, adjusted for inflation but with no additional interest, that value would be more than $172 trillion.
Over a three-day period from Aug. 23 to Aug. 25 at Fort Monroe in Hampton, there will be a series of events commemorating the arrival of the first Africans in British North America. You can learn more at AmericanEvolution2019.com/event/africanlanding; the final event on Aug. 25 will be what organizers are calling a healing ceremony, an attempt to begin the process of coming to terms with the magnitude of the events 400 years ago.
The legacy of 1619 is with us to this day, and it is as stark as ever. Though African Americans enjoyed a burst of freedom in the years immediately after the Civil War during the Reconstruction era, a period some historians have called slavery in all but name descended on the South. Rights won were chipped away as white America strived to put the Civil War behind it, and the “Lost Cause” myth rose to prominence in the South. Jim Crow segregation walled off black America from the rest of the nation, creating a separate and distinctly unequal nation within a nation. Thousands of African Americans paid with their lives whenever they tried to breach the wall of separation, and it was only 50 years ago that the major civil rights laws took affect.
It is foolish to think that we’ve achieved racial parity in those intervening 50 or so years. Economic data on the comparable wealth of white households and black households … business and educational opportunities … the rise of hate crimes in the last several years — it all belies the truth. But if we as a nation — black, white, brown and any color in between — honestly see the legacy of 1619 in play today, perhaps we can more quickly bend the arc of history toward justice and healing.