UNESCO in Virginia, 1619

Fort Monroe, UNESCO Designation

Aged plague. Located on the outside of the Main Gate at Fort Monroe National Monument. Picture by author.

In 1994, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) launched a global movement memorializing and commemorating landscapes of resistance, liberty, and heritage in connection with slavery and the slave trade. Since 1994, UNESCO has designated over 50 sites and on February 19, 2021 another site received recognition; Fort Monroe, Virginia. On a rain soaked day, in the middle of an ongoing pandemic, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam made the announcement near the ground where “20. and odd Negroes” were forcibly brought to English occupied North America. This designation in Virginia – a landscape deeply embedded in slavery’s past – signifies the long impact slavery played globally and domestically.

In August 1619, a Dutch Man of War – White Lion– arrived in Hampton Roads and landed somewhere along Point Comfort (most likely near the fishing pier). Under the command of Captain John Jope, the crew offloaded “20. and odd Negroes” to which they traded for “victualle” – food stores. Picture, for a moment, the amount of horrors already faced by enslaved Africans as they were shuffled into a cramped steerage area and shipped across an unforgiving Atlantic Ocean. Then imagine stopping in foreign lands, in a foreign climate, feeling and sensing fear among you and your companions as some are offloaded mercilessly. Next, visualize coming under attack not knowing from who but knowing that escape is impossible. After the cannonballs cease and the firing stop, picture yourself remaining in shackles only to trade your captivity from a Portuguese-speaking sailor to an English-speaking captain. And finally, envision the last leg of your journey occurring across choppy waters. The choppy waters finally calm only to reveal the strip of land where you and your compatriots are unceremoniously dropped onto foreign soil and ushered into a life of enslavement at the hand of English colonists. Little is known of the first Africans, of the first survivors brought to English occupied North America in 1619, but in recent years a cadre of historians have followed the little evidence available to better understand this moment through a globalized lens and allow us to look inwardly to challenge our understanding of Americanness.

Picture of the shoreline near the “African Landing Spot” designated in Fort Monroe, Va. The view looks out towards the entrance of Hampton Roads where the White Lion entered in August 1619. Picture by author.

To better grasp the roots of 1619 in America, we must first come to realize that slavery was not an invention of seventeenth century colonial history. In fact, the use of slaves dates back centuries in which slavery operated as a system of military conquest. Therefore, English first experiences with slavery in the Mediterranean Sea and Spanish North America was an extension of an institution based on military conquest. But by the mid-seventeenth century, slavery in the Americas separated from a traditional sense – military conquest – and transformed into an institution based on race.

The “20. and odd Negroes” who arrived in Virginia were part of a group captured by a Portuguese military conquest against the Kingdom of Ndongo in 1619 (the larger struggle in Africa occurred between 1618-1620). African prisoners were marched overland to Angola – thePortuguese center of slave operations – and held there until prodded onto a slaver headed for Spanish America (in 1619, 36 Portuguese slave ships left Angola for Brazil and parts of Spanish West Indies). One of those ships, Sao Joao Bautista, departed Angola with 350 African souls. Along the tortuous route nearly 100 Africans passed within 30 days and when the vessel entered the Caribbean, it offloaded seriously ill Africans in Jamaica before heading for Vera Cruz. It was in route to Vera Cruz when two English privateers intercepted the Portuguese slaver off Campeche and captured 60 enslaved Africans. The two English privateers – the White Lion and the Treasurer– split their prize and headed for friendly waters where the White Lion discharged “20. and odd Negroes” at Point Comfort in August 1619. Historian Cassandra Newby-Alexander describes this moment as a vital event where “people of African descent became a permanent cultural and political fixture in America.”

Cassandra-Newby’s statement cannot be understated. For the next 401 years, slavery and race defined American policy, American culture, and American society, but the traditions, culture, and experience of Africans and later African Americans created an identity of resilience and survival. This identity took a whole new form in the decades leading up to the American Civil War as enslaved African Americans initiated movements of self-emancipation on levels unseen before. Amid the Civil War, African Americans joined the United States military in multiple capacities but ultimately outlining a new place in American society. While Reconstruction became an entrenched tribalism of racist segregation, African Americans became themselves entrenched in promotions of citizenship, suffrage, and equality – 13th, 14th, and 15thAmendments. Into the twentieth century we see the same identity through fights in military inclusion – WWI and WWII – an end to Jim Crow through Civil Rights, and a continued push for the promissory note fulfilled. UNESCOs designation not only allows for the stories of 1619 to be told, commemorated, and memorialized, but it ensures that future generations have a voice to be heard and an equal existence in the idea behind “We the People.”

To Learn more about UNESCO’s mission, visit https://en.unesco.org/themes/fostering-rights-inclusion/slave-route. For more information on the African Landing site in Fort Monroe, Virginia, visit https://1619landing.org. And for more information on Fort Monroe National Monument, visit https://www.nps.gov/fomr/index.htm.

Bibliography

Guasco, Michael.Slaves and Englishmen: Human Bondage in the Early Modern Atlantic World. Philadelphia,      PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014.

Heywood, Linda M. and John K. Thornton. “In Search of the 1619 African Arrivals.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 127, No. 3 (2019): 200-11. Accessed January 25, 2021. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/26743946.

Newby-Alexander, Cassandra. “The Arrival of the First Africans to English North America.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 127, No. 3 (2019): 186-99. Accessed January 25, 2021. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/26743945.

Thornton, John. “The African Experience of the ’20. and Odd Negroes’ Arriving in Virginia in 1619.” The William and Mary Quarterly, Jul. 1998, Vol. 55, No. 3 (July. 1998): 421-34. Accessed January 25, 2021. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2674531.

Wood, Betty. The Origins of American Slavery: Freedom and Bondage in the English Colonies. New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 1997.