History First, First History

Cassandra Newby-Alexander, a professor of history at Norfolk State University and project director for the 1619 Conference Series, tells Joanne about the complicated history behind the arrival of the first Africans and colonial Virginia.


The Falls by Podington Bear

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Speaker 1: Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Robert and Joseph Cornell Memorial Foundation.

Ed: From Virginia Humanities, this is BackStory. Welcome to BackStory, the show that explains the history behind today’s headlines. I’m Ed Ayers.

Joanne: I’m Joanne Freeman.

Nathan: And I’m Nathan Connolly. If you’re new the podcast, we’re all historians, and each week, along with our colleague Brian Balogh, we explore a topic of American history that’s been in the news.

Ed: At the end of August 400 years ago, something monumental happened on the shores of Virginia: something that would change the course of American history. John Rolfe, a prominent planter, recorded details of the event. He described how an English ship called the White Lion arrived at Point Comfort, a site just outside the Jamestown colony. Rolfe recorded that the ship brought, quote, “20 and odd negros.” Rolfe’s entry marked the arrival of the first Africans on land that would become British North America.

Ed: A couple of days later, another small group of Africans arrived aboard the Treasurer, another English privateering ship. The crew of the Treasure had stolen the Africans that were on board from a Portuguese slaving ship, the San Juan Batista.

Ed: The Africans weren’t the first to set foot in America. Some 100 years earlier, Spanish colonists brought Africans to lands that would later become part of the United States. Still, the arrival marked the beginning of the long and tragic story of slavery in Virginia and in the English colonies. Today on the show, we’re exploring the complicated history behind 1619. We’ll travel to Hampton, Virginia, and meet a family whose roots go back to where it all began. You’ll hear from Frank Harris who interviewed people from all walks of life about their thoughts on the 400th anniversary.

Joanne: But first, we thought we’d start off with… surprise, surprise… a little history.

Joanne: The story of the arrival of the first Africans to British North America might seem relatively simple. It’s 1619 and a ship arrives in the Virginia colony, a ship that includes people forcibly taken from west Africa. “But hold on,” says Cassandra [Newbie 00:02:24] Alexander, a professor of history at Norfolk State University. It turns out the history of these first Africans’ arrival is anything but simple. I talked more with Cassandra about the history of 1619 and started by asking her what historians have discovered about the lives of these first arrivals.

Cassandra: We know that these were people who had been free, who were living in urban areas in the kingdom of Ndongo. It’s in that kingdom, as well as the kingdom of the Kongo, that we would see a lot of understanding of the mixture of cultures coming into being in the lives of the people who lived in that region. What I mean by that is that the Portuguese were, of course, trying to dominate the area. They sent missionaries in. It’s at that point that many of the Africans who were living in the kingdom of Ndongo, who were Kimbundu-speaking peoples, that they learned Portuguese, that they learned to read, that they understood and learned about the religious canons of Catholicism that…

Cassandra: Of course, even though England separated from the Catholic church and create the Church of England, they followed a lot of these ideas: that you don’t enslave a fellow Christian, that there’s a certain order to society, that it’s supposed to be a society of laws. While their society was set up in a similar kind of way, they had a better understanding of these foreign people who were very different from them, at least as far as they could see.

Cassandra: These first Africans came from that environment. They were not unaccustomed to Europeans. These Europeans were not foreign to them. What they had to do was to learn English, but because they came from a region in which people spoke many dialects and many languages, picking up English seemingly did not take a very long time, at least as far as we can see in the brief mention of things in the records. These first Africans who were forcibly taken to the Virginia colony, they had been free, and now they found themselves in chains and bondage. The debate still continues about whether or not they were enslaved, whether they were bonded, whether they were indentured servants… although most historians say of course they weren’t indentured servants because there was no contract. I fall in the camp of arguing that these people were bonded.

Joanne: Explain what you mean by bonded.

Cassandra: In similar ways to Europeans who were forcefully taken and made to serve… In fact, there are records in England that talk about English people who were kidnapped and suddenly they found themselves on a ship bound for the Jamestown colony. At this time, you would see in the records the mention of Virginia, the Virginia colony, and Jamestown almost interchangeably. So these people didn’t have a contract, unlike indentured servants who signed a contract in exchange for their passage over, for food, or whatever; they would serve so many years and the average, they say, was seven years. But a person who was seized… and they were bonded servants… these individuals typically did not serve a lifetime of servitude, which was classified as anything over 20 years.

Cassandra: It seems that these Africans were treated more as these bonded servants, although from the beginning we would see in the records that they were listed and referred to differently than any of the Europeans who were brought in.

Joanne: I want to come back to that because I want to go into that in more detail, but I want to sum up what sounds like what you just said. I think people tend to assume there are two clear categories: free and enslaved. What you’re suggesting here is it’s very complex in this period, and even, still, to this day hard to tell some of the differentiations: that there’s a lot of shadings.

Cassandra: There are a lot of shadings. Because the records are so incomplete… and by incomplete, I mean that either there was no effort to record a lot, or over time a lot of the records simply were destroyed or lost. Because of that we see this homogenous term servant being used to apply to everyone who was not free. It would be in the court records when someone was freed or in your will; that’s when you see some of these specificities itemized.

Joanne: I want to highlight something here because I think… I’m sitting here as a historian and sort of thrilled and impressed at this level of detail that you need to go in to uncover these and decode and then piece together what you’re talking about here. I just want to highlight that for the people listening because what an incredible process that is still ongoing.

Cassandra: Yes, and that’s what exciting. That’s what I tell my students: that this notion that history is in the past and everything we know we already know is untrue. There’s so much intrigue when you begin to really parse out, in this time period of the 1619 era, you begin to dive deep into the records that we have. It unfolds conspiracies; it unfolds all kinds of actions and activities going on, some of them known, some of them may never be known. In Hampton Roads, you have the beginnings of our nation. These people who were being forcibly brought in from west/central Africa, they brought, fully intact, their culture, their ideas, their skills. You had people who already knew tobacco production, and while it wouldn’t be until the middle 18th century that the African laborers would begin to dominate over the white laborers, they knew tobacco production and were very useful in that. Many of these Africans were accustomed to riverboat trading and riverboat transportation, as were the native peoples, while the English had more ocean-faring transportation because they located on an island.

Cassandra: The Africans’ knowledge of riverboat navigation, transportation, was really important because they weren’t purchased as servants to lower, middle-class whites. They were purchased as servants to the elite in the colonies. These were the ones who would be constructing the boats, who were bringing in the goods, who were exporting the goods that were made here. They were in a position of influence, even though their numbers were very small, that kind of belie those small numbers; they had an influence beyond just how small of a number of they were compared to the larger white population.

Cassandra: Of course, the way that we interpret this time period… Once Pocahontas dies, it’s almost as if all native peoples evaporate. We know that the English continued for the next 100 years surrounded by… even though they were starting to diminish because of warfare and disease… They were still surrounded by much larger, hostile native population.

Joanne: You’ve depicted this image, a wonderful image of these people who obviously are free, have their own culture, their own skills, are captured, are brought to North America, and then are deploying those skills in this new environment, as you put it, often to this elite population. Here’s my question: I understand that you… kind of along the lines of stressing their independence… you prefer to call these people un-free rather than enslaved. I wonder if you could explain what that means.

Cassandra: Because Virginia did not have a legalized system of slavery, the first slave laws in Virginia would not be passed until 1662, though there were signs that slavery was emerging by the 1640s. I prefer not to focus on the system of slavery until we would actually see it emerging.

Joanne: It’s an institution.

Cassandra: As an institution, but even as a practice, because you had a number of people who were obtaining their freedom, and they were obtaining their freedom in the first 20 years because they had finished 20 years of service. You would see this written in the documents. You have, for example, Anthony and Mary Johnson who were bonded on the Bennet Plantation in Virginia on the James River. After they served that 20 years they were given land through the head rights system: land on the eastern shore. Anthony Johnson prospered so much that he could have, if the general assembly did not change the laws… or, at that time they called it the House of Burgesses… he could have become the first black freeholder. But the moment that he had the requirements by law, the general assembly… or, I should say, the House of Burgesses… met and changed the law, saying that this only applies to white men.

Joanne: Which gets back to a point you made earlier about a series of laws being passed in Virginia that are setting in place a pattern that doesn’t exist at the outset.

Cassandra: Yes. For example, in 1662, same year that there would be a clear law saying that all incoming Africans brought into the colony would be enslaved. That same year, this law said that black women’s children would take after the condition of their mother, while in that same law saying that for white women the children would continue to take after the status of their father, because England was a patriarchal and patrilineal society. But what America did, and what Virginia in particular did, was it changed that law for black people only.

Cassandra: This was a way, also, to continue any sexual exploitation that happened to black women with impunity. White men could force themselves on these women or have children… just have children… with these women and not worry about growing the free black population, instead actually growing their wealth that way.

Joanne: So there’s a series of these laws. You mentioned the earlier one about the amount of wealth that you need to be able to vote. It sounds like bit by bit these are codifying slavery into becoming some kind of institutionalized, legalized system.

Cassandra: Yes. I think there are two of the most heinous laws that were passed during this period: one in 1669 and the other in 1672. The first one allowed for the, quote, “Casual killing of black people by their owners.” In 1672, the law said that if any black person who was in bondage resisted arrest, that they could be killed with impunity. It set in motion what some legal experts have called a muscle memory. It set in motion a national way of regarding blacks before the law, and when it came to law enforcement in particular.

Joanne: Muscle memory is such a wonderful way of putting it because, obviously, one of the underlying assumptions there is that we’re talking about force, right?

Cassandra: Yes.

Joanne: It’s a memory and a threat of a force. That’s a great phrase.

Cassandra: And it does not require any conscious thought. It is just a natural reaction because it’s so embedded in the culture.

Joanne: You’ve given us this really wonderfully human, complex, shaded, in some ways amorphous or nebulous, image of the complexities of life for white and black and every other shade of person in this time period that… Again, as we said at the outset, I think it is so important to get people past the easy assumptions that they might bring to understanding this period from modern times.

Joanne: Related to that, I understand that you’re involved with the public events that are going to be commemorating the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Africans to Jamestown. Given everything that we’ve talked about here, what do you want people to come away with in learning about that history?

Cassandra: I want people to know that our history, our narrative, is not written in stone. That much of what we’ve grown up learning is incorrect in terms of these early years. It wasn’t neat, and it certainly wasn’t cleaned up the way that we present it in terms of our national narrative. But most importantly, I want people to know that these were human beings. They weren’t things, they weren’t objects, they had hopes and dreams, and their hopes and dreams helped to transform the course that the Virginia colony was on.

Cassandra: After 1619, the Virginia colony was never going to be what it started out in 1607, or even in 1616 when John Rolfe showed the colony that they could produce tobacco and that was a money-making crop for them. That from 1619 moving forward, we would see Africans helping to define the concepts of freedom and liberty and equality that went beyond the normal understanding that English people or Europeans in general had about that: that it only related to them, that only they could be Christians. These Africans were not complacent with their fight for that and their fight actually helped to evolve a very expansive understanding that has become our national moniker of freedom, liberty, and equality.

Joanne: Cassandra Newby-Alexander is a professor of history at Norfolk State University.

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1619 Lesson Set

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In 1619, the first Africans were brought against their will across the Atlantic Ocean to the Virginia colony. It marked the beginning of the institution of slavery in the Unites States. Over 400 years later, the United States is still grappling with the legacy of slavery and systemic racism. Generations of African Americans have been subject to untold cruelty. However, it is also true that much of America’s current prosperity can be traced back to the contributions of slaves.

This lesson, and the corresponding BackStory episode, provide a retrospective of the origins of the African slave trade in the U.S. The episode raises difficult questions about how we should commemorate the 400-year anniversary of this dark moment in American history. Using modern perspectives, students will form arguments on how to best approach the legacy of slavery in the United States.