As we know there’s a certain gearing up to commemorate – commiserate perhaps – the arrival of African American slavery in America – here meaning what would observable become the United States – this year. The 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first African Americans in the cultural antecedents of what would become the current polity.
Needs to be that wordy a description because there was full chattel slavery under varied Spanish and Portuguese attempts to colonise the same land area but they all failed, died away.
So, 1619 the starting date, this year the 400th commiseration. The only problem with this being that this isn’t the start of slavery at all. The actual start being either 1640 or, more likely, 1655, and that later start was a case of a black owning a black. This being more than mere pendantry as well – slavery is a rather more complex historical occurrence than merely the whites oppressing the blacks.
Not that this is stopping The Guardian of course:
Point Comfort: where slavery in America began 400 years ago
No, it didn’t.
In 1619, a ship with 20 captives landed at Virginia, ushering in the era of slavery in what would become the United States
Over half a millennium, the Algernoune Oak has witnessed war and peace and the fall of empires, but never a day like the one in late August 1619. It was here that the White Lion, a 160-ton English privateer ship, landed at what was then known as Point Comfort. On board were more than 20 captives seized from the Kingdom of Ndongo in Angola and transported across the Atlantic. This dislocated, unwilling, violated group were the first enslaved Africans to set foot in English North America – ushering in the era of slavery in what would become the United States.
Simply not what did happen. This is so well known, what did in fact happen, that even Wikipedia has it unencumbered by wokeness.
The first 19 or so Africans to reach the English colonies arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619, brought by English privateers who had seized them from a captured Portuguese slave ship. Slaves were usually baptized in Africa before embarking. As English custom then considered baptized Christians exempt from slavery, colonists treated these Africans as indentured servants, and they joined about 1,000 English indentured servants already in the colony. The Africans were freed after a prescribed period and given the use of land and supplies by their former masters. The historian Ira Berlin noted that what he called the “charter generation” in the colonies was sometimes made up of mixed-race men (Atlantic Creoles) who were indentured servants, and whose ancestry was African and Iberian. They were descendants of African women and Portuguese or Spanish men who worked in African ports as traders or facilitators in the slave trade. For example, Anthony Johnson arrived in Virginia in 1621 from Angola as an indentured servant; he became free and a property owner, eventually buying and owning slaves himself. The transformation of the social status of Africans, from indentured servitude to slaves in a racial caste which they could not leave or escape, happened gradually.
There were no laws regarding slavery early in Virginia’s history. But, in 1640, a Virginia court sentenced John Punch, an African, to slavery after he attempted to flee his service. The two whites with whom he fled were sentenced only to an additional year of their indenture, and three years’ service to the colony. This marked the first legal sanctioning of slavery in the English colonies and was one of the first legal distinctions made between Europeans and Africans.
That’s the 1640 start, if you prefer that. When the distinction was made between black and white runaways from that indenture.
Worth noting that there was nothing unusual about indenture. Very similar indeed to the idea and practice of apprenticeship at the time. In effect, a time limited ownership of the labor – not the person – in return for certain benefits such as transport, sustenance, training and so on. This was actually the manner in which anyone at all entered the skilled working class. Sure, it all sounds a bit feudal but then that’s because it was rather the overhang of that feudal system. And it really did apply to people irrespective of skin colour or racial – even national – background.
England hadn’t had chattel slavery since the Anglo Saxons – Scotland and certain miners being evidence that all of Britain wasn’t so lucky – and it was rather more the Moors, Ottomans, Arabs, various places below the Olive Line, who still had full on slavery.
This then full changed in the colonies. And Anthony Johnson, that arrival from Angola in 1621, who makes the history here:
When Anthony Johnson was released from servitude, he was legally recognized as a “free Negro.” He became a successful farmer. In 1651 he owned 250 acres (100 ha), and the services of five indentured servants (four white and one black). In 1653, John Casor, a black indentured servant whose contract Johnson appeared to have bought in the early 1640s, approached Captain Goldsmith, claiming his indenture had expired seven years earlier and that he was being held illegally by Johnson. A neighbor, Robert Parker, intervened and persuaded Johnson to free Casor.
Parker offered Casor work, and he signed a term of indenture to the planter. Johnson sued Parker in the Northampton Court in 1654 for the return of Casor. The court initially found in favor of Parker, but Johnson appealed. In 1655, the court reversed its ruling. Finding that Anthony Johnson still “owned” John Casor, the court ordered that he be returned with the court dues paid by Robert Parker.
This was the first instance of a judicial determination in the Thirteen Colonies holding that a person who had committed no crime could be held in servitude for life. Though Casor was the first person declared a slave in a civil case, there were both black and white indentured servants sentenced to lifetime servitude before him.
That first instance of that full on chattel slavery in the colonies that became the US was firstly in 1655 – we even know the date, March 8 – and it was of a black owning a black. Oh, and free blacks owning slaves themselves was something that never did entirely disappear from American life, not until slavery itself did in the 1860s.
This all is more than mere pendantry too. Because slavery was not simply the invention of white Europeans to oppress black Africans. A few places in NW Europe – see England above – didn’t have slavery for several hundred years before the Atlantic trade. The rest of the world carried on, quite gaily, having it. To the point that the very word “Slav” is cognate with slave. The Mamluks who ruled Egypt were a caste of mercenaries composed of slaves. The Ottoman Sultan took as his tribute from the Balkans and elsewhere male children who were then sent to Egypt to enlist. Their own children could not join that ruling caste and army. It was a non-hereditary ruling army of slaves, weird as it may seem. Africa itself was awash with slavery and the Arab slave trade up into North Africa and the Mediterranean was a trade in something already happening.
Oh, and that shores of Tripoli thing in the Marines tune is about beating up the North African slave traders who were raiding Europe for supplies. The South West of England and Ireland suffering significantly from such raids and enslavements.
As to why we are all shouting about this one instance – the Atlantic trade and thus New World enslavement of Africans – of an institution as old as civilisation itself the answer has to be just happenstance. The European shipment of millions was simply the last large scale example before the invention of the steam engine which destroyed the entire economic rationale for slavery altogether. It wasn’t the last example, not by a long, long, way. The Royal Navy was still running the East African patrols to interdict the Arab slave trade well into the 1920s. Mauretania actually abolished slavery some time in the 1980s – 1984 comes to mind but that memory might be bleeding over from the book. Mengistu, to continue the 1984 references, was the son of a slave who came to rule Ethiopia.
Do at least to try to note something here. None of this is to say that slavery was right – it wasn’t. It is though to say that it wasn’t unusual – for it wasn’t, it was a commonplace. It also wasn’t something unique about whites and blacks, Europeans and Africans. The things that’re special about the African American experience is that there are so many descendants of it – itself unusual – plus the fact that it was the last large scale attempt. And that’s pretty much all that was unique about it.