History : Jun-Jul 2015
THE FIRST SLAVES ? NE OF THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES for Ameri- can democracy has been the issue of slavery, which coincidentally began just a few weeks after the first meeting of the general assembly. A “Dutch man-of-war”—more accurately a pirate ship—called the White Lion arrived in Virginia in late August carrying “20 and odd Negroes, which the Governor and Cape Mer- chant bought [in return] for victuals.” They were Angolans being shipped by a Portuguese slave trader, from Luanda to Mexico, and acquired by the captain of the White Lion when he looted the slave vessel off the Mexican coast. These captives have become known as the first African Americans. But whether or not they were slaves during their time in Virginia remains con- troversial. Eleven of them were put in “ye service” of Abraham Peirsey, a planter with 200 acres in need of cultivation. This means they became his indentured servants, forced to work his land in return for food and lodging. This may have amounted to slavery, but these were the same terms being endured by English servants too (a source of ongoing resentment, and a subject of much discussion by the general assembly). Several, if not all, of the African Ameri- cans fulfilled their indentures (typi- cally between three and seven years) and were made freemen. Some even went on to become planters in their own right. By 1620 there were 32 African Americans in Virginia, and in 1628 an additional 100 Angolans arrived. Their ex- perience in growing tobacco in Africa would contribute greatly to the colony’s success. HULTONARCHIVE/GETTYIMAGESM.GRAHAM-STEWART/BRIDGEMAN/ACI THE “20 AND ODD” ARRIVE IN VIRGINIA IN THIS ENGRAVING MADE IN THE 18TH CENTURY. SHACKLES SUCH AS THESE WERE USED TO KEEP THE SHIP’S CAPTIVES IMMOBILIZED BELOW DECK.