“Virginia has a long history to confront. Our nation’s experience with slavery began there, when some 20 captive Africans arrived on a warship in Jamestown in 1619. Black bondage existed in Virginia for close to a century longer than black freedom has. Slavery made colonial Virginia prosperous, creating a plantation society founded on tobacco production, social and economic stratification, and unfree labor. It also produced a class of white owners whose daily witness to the degradations of bondage instilled in them a fierce devotion to their own freedom. They were determined to be the masters not just of their households, their estates, and their laborers, but also of their society, their polity, and their destiny. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, George Mason—slaveholders all. That so many of the Founding Fathers, including the leaders of the Revolution and the authors of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, were slaveholders is both an irony and a paradox…. The nation conceived in liberty was also the nation conceived in slavery. The state of Virginia and the country it did so much to create were born out of a set of conflicting commitments that have destabilized the republic ever since.” —Drew Gilpin Faust, historian and former President of Harvard University, “Race, History, and Memories of a Virginia Girlhood,” The Atlantic, August 2019 issue
For an institution whose seeding, harvesting and uprooting has resulted in consequences down to the present day, little documentation exists about the creation of slavery. What we do know is that, four centuries ago this week, what Jamestown settler John Rolfe (husband of Pocahontas) called “20 and odd Negroes” disembarked at what is now Hampton, Va. The area’s name was different back then: Point Comfort, almost cruelly chosen for the conclusion of its trans-Atlantic odyssey.
As described in this post on “The First Africans” on the Web site Historic Jamestowe, it all began with natives of present-day Angola being captured and marched 100 to 200 miles to the slave-trade port of Luanda, where the whole jostling, chained, confused group of 350 were shipped off to Vera Cruz, Mexico, aboard the San Juan Bautista. Approaching the Gulf of Mexico, the ship was attacked by two English privateers, the White Lion and the Treasurer, which carried off 50 to 60 Africans.
The White Lion made it to Virginia with only a third of this human contraband. This hideous mortality rate was emblematic of the larger “Middle Passage”, from 1500 to 1866, saw 12.5 million Africans transported across the Atlantic, with 1.8 million of these dying enroute, their bodies tossed into the ocean.
What began as a solitary crime in West Central Africa would end in a genocide that for 250 years would be excused by religion, nourished by commerce, and inscribed by law. The African slave trade and the American settlements that grew from it destroyed not just people but their religion, language, families and hope. Only a total war would eradicate it. But the carcass of slavery left the lingering stench of slavery.
Improved technology boosted both the efficacy of carrying so much human cargo (low clearance to preclude slaves from standing, nets to prevent them from escaping overboard) and their use in the New World (the cotton gin increased demand for both land and slave labor). Now, technology may aid in counting the true costs of slavery: digitization of bills of sale, manumission papers, emancipation notes, bonds, auction notices and other assorted items; spreadsheets to crunch the data in these materials; software to write the analysis; and the Internet to share the results.
In another sense, though technology may advance the study of slavery, it will take something more basic to understand what slavery has done to the American soul. It began through exploitation of captives, survived through the fears of their owners, and has seeped enough into America’s soul to poison through racism the descendants of masters, slaves, and all in contact with them—in other words, all of us.
(The image accompanying this post is of what may be the most famous TV depiction of slavery—LeVar Burton as Kunta Kinte, in the 1970s TV adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots.)