400 years ago, first slaves arrived in American colonies

Frank Harris III, a journalism professor at Southern Connecticut State University, believes there should be recognition of the 400th anniversary of enslaved people being brought to Virginia.

NEW HAVEN — Frank Harris III calls it simply “the 400th,” but he knows many will not know what he’s referring to.

So Harris, a journalism professor at Southern Connecticut State University, is doing what he can to promote the anniversary of the first enslaved Africans to set foot in Great Britain’s American colonies, 257 years later.

“I don’t want it to pass without some type of recognition, some type of observation,” said Harris, who led off a lecture series and is involved in planning more events at Southern for later this year. “My whole mission has been really to bring awareness of it and to get people involved in doing something about it.”

Harris said the general understanding that the first Africans were brought to Jamestown, Va., is incorrect. They actually landed at Point Comfort, now part of the city of Hampton, at the mouth of the James River. There’s a marker noting that “20 and odd” Africans were captured from the Portuguese ship, the Sao João Bautista, whose crew thought they were capturing goods bound for Mexico. They were “traded to the Virginia colonists in exchange for foodstuffs,” reads the marker near the spot.

“Some people thought they came from somewhere else where they were enslaved, but they were from Africa,” specifically the Portuguese colony of Angola, said Harris, who has had his own ancestry documented and found that he is partially descended from an Angolan tribe, the Kimbundu, as well as from the Ibo of Nigeria.

“The ship was coming from Angola and it was intended to go to Mexico and … apparently this English ship just wanted to take what they thought were just goods and cargo,” Harris said. Veracruz, Mexico, the Sao Joao Bautista’s destination, was one of the largest slave ports in the Western Hemisphere, he said.

According to project1619.org, when the ship, the White Lion, arrived at Point Comfort, it was met by John Rolfe, famous for marrying Pocahontas, who died in 1617. He was the secretary of the Virginia Company, and “was responsible for keeping England involved in what was going on in the colonies,” Harris said. Rolfe wrote that the captain of the White Lion “brought not anything but 20 and odd” Africans, according to project1619.

Somewhere along the way, Jamestown was named as the first place where enslaved Africans landed in the 13 colonies. “I’ve always said Jamestown because that’s what the history books had said,” Harris said. But additional research revealed the site as Point Comfort, and there’s even a possibility that Africans had landed here before 1619.

“One researcher found a census that said there were Africans in the 1619 census,” he said. “There’s always going to be new discoveries and new information that’s going to come up.”

The 400th anniversary, commemorated in Hampton on Aug. 20 as “Landing Day,” while a key date in American history, is not the clear-cut beginning of slavery in the United States, said Siobhan Carter-David, an associate professor of history at Southern.

“This is the introduction of people of African descent to Protestant British North America,” she said. “In that early colonial period, slavery wasn’t as rigidly tied into people’s African descent as it was in the coming decades.”

Besides the slavery that existed in Spanish-ruled colonies such as Mexico and Florida before 1619, the status of Africans in the British North American colonies wasn’t well defined at first, she said.

“Africans weren’t all enslaved who came here, and some white people were treated as slaves,” said Carter-David, herself a descendant of slaves. “Attaching slavery to African people solely and exclusively wasn’t something that happened right away.”

She said colonies began to define slavery over the coming decades, colony by colony. Maryland, for example, passed a law in 1664 defining all blacks and their descendants — as well as any “freeborne English women” who married enslaved blacks — as slaves in perpetuity.

Carter-David said a turning point occurred in 1676 known as Bacon’s Rebellion, led by plantation owner Nathaniel Bacon against the government of Gov. William Berkeley, largely because of economic oppression and attacks by Indians on his property. Bacon led a mixed-race force against Berkeley, burning Jamestown, but the uprising failed when Bacon died, according to facinghistory.org.

As a result, however “the people of power in the colonies decided to attach slavery solely to people of African descent,” Carter-David said.

But while in 1619, “It was not what it would become afterward where black equals slave or slave equals African,” according to Harris, “I would consider them to still be Africans who were brought here to be slaves,” based on the writings of Rolfe and John Smith, leader of the Jamestown settlers.

The blacks who landed at Point Comfort were on their way to Mexico to be sold as slaves, Harris pointed out. “This is the one (event) that has been clearly documented,” he said. “This is what we have to go by in terms of recorded arrival of the Africans, something that’s documented.”

While Harris doesn’t use the word “celebrate” to describe the 400th anniversary, he understands why some do. “I’ve had people make a logical argument for celebration, not that they were enslaved but that they survived,” he said. “And that we blacks as people are descendants and all those who came after them have endured a lot.

“I want to recognize that group, but I also wanted to extend (the recognition to) those who’ve come after them and those Africans who were born in slavery, lived in slavery and died never having tasted freedom, never having breathed the air of liberty,” Harris said.

The story of slavery is not just of whites forcing Africans into shackles and treating them as less than human. It’s also the story of Africans kidnapping others and selling them to the slave traders. “It’s important to understand the trauma that these Africans endured not just in America but in Africa,” Harris said.

In “Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo,’” published last year, novelist Zora Neale Hurston (“Their Eyes Were Watching God”) wrote about her interview with Cudjo Lewis, the last living person who had been brought to the United States as a slave, 50 years after the trade was banned.

“He talked about what happened in Africa, how he was captured and the brutality of his fellow Africans, how they were involved in the slave trade,” Harris said. Hurston, who died in 1960, “realizes that whites bought us and kept us enslaved and did all these things, but what stuck in her craw was that her African brothers and sisters had sold them into slavery: People looking for glory and greed and how that drives slavery. … They saw this as a business.”

Harris has a visual aid he uses to demonstrate how blacks were treated by their owners: a jar with nail holes in the top. “When I’ve given talks, I’ve used the analogy of fireflies,” he said. As a boy, “we’d capture as many fireflies as we could to suit our purposes. Then, when the lights went out, we’d open the jar and (we’d) pour it on the ground. I’ve compared those fireflies to Africans and the jar to the jar of slavery. Their lives did not matter beyond being slaves and what they could produce.

“I look at slavery as being something where it dehumanized people and … that their lives really did not matter,” Harris said. “They got the worst food to eat, they had no protection from cruelty. Women had no right to say no. … Cruel things were done to them, and when slavery ended … although the chains were gone, figuratively speaking and literally speaking, they were set free with nothing. No other group has come to America where they were forced to endure labor where they were not compensated and had everyone against them.”

While Quakers and fellow abolitionists opposed slavery, even most religion “was used to justify slavery,” Harris said.

The arrival of African slaves in 1619 began a 400-year history of racism that America is still dealing with today. Racism has endured despite the Civil War, in which 620,000 soldiers died to end slavery, the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution, Supreme Court rulings to end school segregation and the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts of the 1960s.

Even though it was Crispus Attucks, a mixed-race man, who is thought to be the first to die in the Boston Massacre of 1770, which led to the Revolutionary War, Harris said, “We have today where people question the patriotism of black people who are fighting for the same rights as everybody else, the right to be treated fairly.”

While the 400th anniversary is a reminder of how far America has come, Harris said,“I think it’s important that the good people of America … stand up and do not allow people to bring back the terrible yesterday.”

When Barack Obama was elected president, “It was the proudest time I felt to be American,” Harris said. “There are times I have not felt fully American.”

While he thought he would never see a black president — and “my parents certainly didn’t think they’d see it,” he said — “It’s like we’re now fighting for what we thought we had already overcome, and now I have to tell my younger daughters … that there are people who will not like you or respect you because of the color of their skin.”

At 9 and 10, Harris’ daughters have already experienced racism from a playmate, Harris said.

Calling President Donald Trump “unquestionably” a racist, Harris said, “When I see ‘Make America Great’ hats or caps, I see the Confederate flag; I see the swastika. I see the potential for all that that represents, all the bad that that represents … in terms of how people want to disrespect and treat people in a way that they would not want to be treated.”

He said the climate in the United States invites those with racist views to express them. “Racism is like alcoholism, and if you are trying to kick your drinking habit, you usually want to stay away from alcohol and places where there’s alcohol and temptation,” Harris said. “However, if alcoholism is everywhere you go and life is one big bar, there’s more opportunities to indulge.

“Its difficult to not have racist views about black people if it’s reinforced by family or friends and people don’t speak up about it,” he said.

Looking back to the “20 and odd” Africans who landed at Point Comfort on or about Aug. 20, 1619, Harris said, “These were people. They had lives, they had families they left behind, they had a life. They didn’t know what was coming to them. … I think that we should never forget those first Africans who were brought here as slaves, that they were human beings that had lives and that their descendants today are human beings that have lives that need to be respected by everybody. That includes fellow African Americans. We need to respect their lives as well,” Harris said.

“I’m thankful for the fact that those who came before me were able to endure, to withstand or to keep moving forward, to keep living, because they’re the reason that I and millions of their descendants are here in America today.”

Connecticut Media Group