Today In History — August 20, 1619 — First Slaves Arrive In North America

AngolaToday in 1619, it was reported by English tobacco farmer John Rolfe, husband of famed Indian princess Pocahontas, that “20 and odd” African slaves arrived at the Jamestown Settlement in British colonial North America aboard a Dutch man-of-war ship.

The report wasn’t entirely accurate, as modern historical research reveals that the ship was actually a British ship called the White Lion (which was flying a Dutch flag) that, along with its partner The Treasurer, had seized the African slaves off a Portuguese slave ship called the San Juan Bautista headed for Veracruz on the east coast of Mexico.

The ship had originated in the Portuguese colonies of present-day Angola, which had been established in the 1500s. Angola was a heavy exporter of slaves to Brazil and the Spanish colonies.

Because slavery would not become a legal classification in the American colonies until the 1650s, and because the Angolan slaves were baptized Christians with a great deal of prior experience with Europeans, their arrival in Jamestown saw their status converted to that of indentured servants who had the ability to gain their freedom and even own land once they had achieved that status. It is estimated that more than half of all European colonial settlers came to the New World as indentured servants.

More Africans would follow, to Virginia, New York and New England. These Africans spoke Bantu languages called Kimbundu and Kikongo. Their homelands were the kingdoms of Ndongo and Kongo, regions of modern-day Angola and coastal regions of Congo.

Like their European counterparts, they arrived as indentured servants able to work their way to freedom. However, a distinction gradually came to be made between Africans and Europeans that would eventually give rise to actual slavery in the colonies, in which there was no opportunity for freedom and even the offspring of slaves were slaves by birth.

Although the importation of slaves was prohibited in 1808, smuggling of slaves into the South continued, and the domestic slave trade was business. By 1820, all the slaves had been freed in the North, but it wasn’t until the end of the Civil War and US President Abraham Lincoln’s famous executive order on January 1, 1863, called the Emanicipation Proclamation, that all African slaves would be declared free people of the United States of America.

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