The Arrival of the First Africans to English North America, 1619
In August 1619, a privateering vessel flying the flag of the Dutch Republic arrived at Point Comfort, Virginia (in present-day Hampton). According to John Rolfe, the ship held no cargo but “20 and odd” Africans who were traded to Governor George Yeardley and Cape Merchant Abraham Peirsey in exchange for provisions. This event marked the first documented arrival of Africans in English North America.
Though Rolfe believed the ship, the White Lion, to be Dutch, modern research has revealed that both the ship and its captain, John Jope, were English. As a privateer, Jope had been commissioned by Maurice, Prince of Orange to aid the Dutch Republic in its rebellion against the Spanish Empire. Due to the dynastic union between Spain and Portugal that existed at the time, this legally permitted Jope to capture both Spanish and Portuguese ships. He could not have done so under English authority, as England and Spain were at peace in 1619.
While patrolling the Gulf of Mexico in the summer of 1619, Jope encountered the Treasurer, another privateering vessel captained by Daniel Elfrith. Sailing in consort with one another, the White Lion and the Treasurer managed to capture a Portuguese slave trading vessel, the São João Bautista, off the coast of Mexico. Jope and Elfrith discovered that the ship was carrying several hundred Africans who were victims of Portugal’s war with the kingdom of Ndongo, in what is now Angola. Luis Mendes de Vasconcellos, the Portuguese governor of Angola, enslaved approximately fifty thousand Africans between 1617 and 1621, sending them from the Angolan port city of Luanda to colonies in Spanish America. After taking on approximately 50-60 captive Africans from the São João Bautista, Jope and Elfrith chose to sail north to the Virginia colony. The White Lion arrived at Point Comfort shortly ahead of the Treasurer, which sailed into port four days later.
While John Rolfe’s account confirms that the slaves aboard the White Lion were left in Virginia in 1619, the same cannot be said of the slaves aboard the Treasurer. After arriving at Point Comfort, Captain Elfrith discovered that his patron, the Duke of Savoy, had made peace with Spain, invalidating his privateering marque. Fearing that Governor Yeardley might arrest him for piracy and unable to secure supplies from the residents of Point Comfort, Captain Elfrith quickly departed for Bermuda.
The legal status of Virginia’s early Africans was highly complex. The institutionalization of slavery and the creation of major legal distinctions between black and white servants in the colony did not begin until 1661. Records indicate that a number of early Africans were treated as servants who were able to earn their freedom after many years of servitude. Once freed, there were no legal restrictions on their ability to marry white colonists, receive fair treatment in court, and even acquire servants of their own. However, the absence of statutory slavery did not prevent unscrupulous landowners from taking advantage of their African servants, forcing them to remain in bondage long after their contracted period of servitude had ended. While some of these servants were eventually released, others were forced to serve their owners for life, making them de facto slaves.