arrived in Jamestown in the famous phrase of Lerone Bennett, "before
the Mayflower." An early 1619 census reported the presence of Africans
even before the noted arrival in 1619 of the Dutch slaver carrying the
"twenty Negars," in John Smith's wording, but no one is sure
how those first Africans got to Jamestown (Smith 126).
are clear about these early arrivals. First, Africans came to Jamestown
with a status not yet clearly defined by law or custom in the English
world, although the Spanish and Portuguese had already decided that
slaves were property whose labor could be sold and whose status could
be inherited. That is a complex story, well-told by A. Leon Higginbotham
and Ira Berlin among others. Second, these African migrants did not
come voluntarily; they were forcibly seized from a Portuguese slave
ship which in turn had picked them up from holding pens at the slave
port of Luanda, Angola, where they in turn had arrived after their capture
from places unknown by persons unknown. John Thornton suggests several
possible African backgrounds for the Jamestown twenty and ends up strongly
favoring the hypothesis that they might have originated in the Angolan
Kimbundu-speaking Christian community. Third, the Atlantic passage from
Africa to the Americas was horrific. It is estimated that some eleven
to twelve million Africans were taken on ships for passage to the Americas
between 1520 and 1860. Only nine to ten million survived the Atlantic
crossing and many more died soon after their arrival. The Middle Passage
was always dangerous to the African captives no matter how humane or
brutal the captain and crew might have been. However, the incentive
to make a profit on each slave body may have meliorated the cruelty
It is clear
that slave voyages were complicated commercial endeavors. Slave vessels
had large crews, including those hired solely to guard captive Africans
and to insure their passivity in the face of the passage. Slave ships
at the time of Jamestown were small, relatively inexpensive, and built
with speed in mind. They held two hundred and fifty to three hundred
captives. The Middle Passage from Africa to the Americas has been described
as a physical and psychological hell. Typically, enslaved Africans were
separated by sex, shackled in pairs, and placed below
deck in the various slave quarters that smelled of human excrement
and vomit. With the relatively airless quarters no more than six feet
long and two feet high, enslaved Africans were forced to crouch or lie
on bare planks with no coverings for their bodies. The captives were
fed no more than twice per day on fish, beans, and yams, with limited
fresh water. Those who refused food were force-fed. Other types of resistance
were met with corporal punishment or death. It was common, moreover,
for live slaves to be thrown off the ship into the Atlantic in order
to balance the ship's weight. Women and children were sometimes given
more relative freedom and allowed to walk on deck, although this increased
the real risk of rape and physical abuse by the crew. We know that despite
the heavy security, at least some enslaved Africans managed to organize
revolts against the captain and crew. Most attempts, however, were unsuccessful.
The most famous revolt, of course, occurred well after Jamestown, in
1839 on the Amistad.
the Atlantic slave trade, mortality rates reached fifteen-to-twenty
percent, a figure that includes the journey in the seventeenth century
when slaves were brought to Jamestown. Because profits to the traders
depended to some extent on the survival of the slaves, some measures
were taken by the end of the eighteenth century to improve conditions
during the Middle Passage, so that mortality rates were reduced to five-to-ten
percent. Ironically, more slaves seemed to survive the trip when they
were fed less, as they were not forced to eat contaminated provisions.
crossing typically lasted three to five weeks from Angolan ports, a
hellish but brief journey compared to the Middle Passage from Benin
or Biafra which sometimes took several months. The passage of the Jamestown
twenty, who most likely hailed from Angola, was only the beginning of
the African-American experience of misery, depravation, and degradation.
While scholars such as Ira Berlin have argued for the existence of Atlantic
Creoles who had already arrived and been naturalized in a world where
slavery had not yet been defined, time would only make the Middle Passage
harsher. The end of the journey would prove bleaker, not only for the
transported Africans but for their descendants in Jamestown and elsewhere
in the Americas.
Suggestions For Further Reading
Bennett Jr., Lerone. Before
the Mayflower: A History of Black America. 6th Edition. New York:
Berlin, Ira. Many
Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America.
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.
Curtin, Philip. The
Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census. Madison: University of Wisconsin
Higginbotham, A. Leon. In
the Matter of Color: Race and the American Legal Process in the Colonial
Period. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.
Sluiter, Engel. "New Light on the "'20.
And Odd Negroes' Arriving in Virginia, August 1619." The
William and Mary Quarterly 54 (1997): 395-398.
Thomas, Hugh. The
Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1440-1870. New York: Touchstone
Thorndale, William. "The Virginia Census
of 1619." Magazine of Virginia
Genealogy 33 (1995): 155-170.
Thornton, John. "The African Experience of
the '20. and Odd Negroes' Arriving in Virginia in 1619." The
William and Mary Quarterly 55 (1998): 421-434.