Some 20 and Odd Negroes’: The Beginning of Revolutionary Change
“Some 20 and odd Negroes,” was said to have been how it was duly noted by the colony’s secretary, John Rolfe (famous as the widower of Pocahontas), that the first African slaves had arrived in America.
The first 20 arrived in late August 1619 on the English pirate ship the White Lion. A few days later, more arrives on another pirate ship, The Treasurer.
The Africans had begun their trip in Angola on board the Portuguese ship the San Juan Bautista. By the time the ship arrived in Mexico, nearly half of the 350 who began the trip had died. On their way, the pirate ships intercepted and boarded the ship and captured between 50 and 60 of the enslaved Africans. The pirates sailed on to Port Comfort, where they exchanged their human cargo for food.
“Few ships, before or since, have unloaded a more momentous cargo,” historian and journalist Lerone Bennett wrote in his 1962 book, ”Before the Mayflower: A History of the Negro in America.” The book shocked America with the revelation that slaves arrived in America before the pilgrims, who arrived one year later, in 1620.
Reportedly, the first slaves were sold to Jamestown’s Gov. George Yeardley and head merchant Abraham Piersey. Of the initial 20 to 30, most were sent to work on tobacco plantations run by Yeardley and Piersey. Some worked for Jamestown’s more prosperous colonists.
It is also reported that Capt. William Tucker also took two into his household, Isabella and Antony, and allowed them to marry. When their child William became the first recorded Black birth in the future USA, he was baptized into the Anglican faith in 1624.
There remains a question of whether the first African arrivals were slaves or indentured servants. American colonists were accustomed to indentured servants. That was how many Whites came to the New World, providing labor for a set number of years. At the end of their contracts, they received “freedom dues” of food, clothing and maybe even a parcel of land.
Some of the early Africans like Anthony and Mary Johnson, who arrived in 1621 and 1622, amassed hundreds of acres of land and owned slaves themselves. Some won their freedom in court; others, like John Punch was sentenced to permanent servitude for daring to run away.
Certainly, the early colonists had no rules for handling the early Africans, but as their numbers increased, due to birth and the rapid growth of the slave trade, the colonists found a need to formalize their relationship with the Africans. By the end of the 17th century, records show that 6,000 African Americans lived in the colony of Virginia.
In 1705 Virginia’s General Assembly enacted a series of slave codes. This series of so-called racial integrity laws institutionalized White supremacy.
Between 1500 and 1900, slaving ships transported 10 million to 12 million captive Africans across the Atlantic Ocean on a route that became known as the Middle Passage. Approximately 400,000 enslaved Africans reached what would become America. In 1861, 4 million African Americans were enslaved in America.
They worked hard and toiled for no pay, while on the backs of their free labor, America grew and White Americans prospered.