Angelo was her name: Historian speaks of 1st Africans in Virginia

by Elsa Verbyla - Posted on Oct 09, 2019 - 02:33 PM

Photo: Martha McCartney, left, is thanked after her remarks on Oct. 2 by Mathews County Historical Society president Bobbi Hatton. Photo by Elsa Verbyla

Martha McCartney, left, is thanked after her remarks on Oct. 2 by Mathews County Historical Society president Bobbi Hatton. Photo by Elsa Verbyla

Deciphering the photographs of ancient script took nearly two days per page; but the reward for historian Martha McCartney of Williamsburg and Mathews was finding the date on which the ship Treasurer brought some of the first Africans to Virginia in 1619.

Treasurer was the second ship that brought Africans to the colony, a few days after White Lion which arrived at Old Point Comfort in late August 1619. Aboard was Angelo, an African woman known to have arrived on the Treasurer.

Angelo (McCartney said she insists on the “o” ending which is clear in the script, although some interpretations make the woman’s name “Angela,”) lived in the household of Captain William Peirce at Jamestown. The site of his homeplace is known and is being excavated, in hopes of learning more about Angelo, McCartney said.

McCartney, the featured speaker of a Mathews County Historical Society meeting, addressed a large audience on Oct. 2 at the Kingston Parish House on Main Street. She discussed the arrival and something of the lives of the first Africans brought to Virginia. She said that while the status of some Africans in the first few decades is ambiguous, the laws applying to blacks were tightened during the course of the 17th century, until Virginia enacted a formal slave code in 1705.

McCartney is author of 14 books, including a 2015 history of Mathews County, and has another in the works for the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation outlining her research into the arrival and lives of the Virginia colony’s first Africans.

She described the research that led to her conclusions, including prolonged study of obscure records that a friend, returning a favor, photographed for her in the National Archives of the United Kingdom in London. The several documents that held the answers are so tattered that  they can only be handled by an archivist, McCartney said.

Slavery was an established practice since ancient times in Africa, McCartney said. Victors of regional conflicts enslaved the losers, sometimes marching them chained together overland to the coast, selling them to the Portuguese. Wealthy Africans sometimes used slave labor in their own homes.

The Cape Coast Castle in present-day Ghana became a center of international commerce in slaves, with the captured Africans forced to embark from the infamous “door of no return” into the dank, unhealthy, crammed holds of ships carrying their human cargo to overseas destinations. Shackled together in cruel conditions, the slaves suffered dehydration, hunger, sexual abuse and disease along with the natural fear of going to the unknown, and the death toll could be 50 percent, McCartney said. Some sick Africans were tossed overboard alive, she added.

“It is impossible for us to fully comprehend the pain, fear, anguish and despair these people experienced,” McCartney said.

She said Portuguese slave traders tried to force Christianity onto the Africans, and some were baptized, taking new names. McCartney believes Angelo, having a European name, could have arrived at Jamestown among the Christianized Africans.

Central and South America and the Caribbean were the usual destinations for slaves during this period. McCartney has put the pieces together from records describing events that occurred in 1619. At that time the White Lion and Treasurer held letters of marque, enabling them to operate as privateers and to attack the ships of countries with which England was at peace.

McCartney cited the work of Engel Sluiter, who found records indicating the Spanish ship San Juan Bautista was en route to Vera Cruz, Mexico, with a load of Africans, when it was intercepted by English corsairs and relieved of part of its cargo. She believes those privateers were the White Lion and Treasurer, and that their course then took them to Virginia, where Africans were landed.

She noted that some historians believe the Africans aboard the Treasurer did not land in Virginia until 1620, but said she has found original documents that determine at that time the Treasurer was in Bermuda. There the ship was discovered to be in poor condition and was scuttled, making its return to Virginia impossible, she said.

According to the March 1620 census, there were 15 African men and 17 African women in Virginia who were described as “non-Christians in service to the colony.” In 1624, when another census was taken, all the Africans “lived in settlements from the mouth of the James River to Flowerdew Plantation,” all along the James River. She named a number of individuals, but noted, “We can’t say they all kept on being enslaved” because the delineations between slave and servant were not clear at that time.

McCartney said that while the Africans were at a terrible disadvantage in their new home, as they knew at best a smattering of Portuguese or Spanish from the slave traders and no English, they did bring a number of skills from their backgrounds in Africa that were useful in the young colony: farming, tending livestock and poultry, fishing, leatherwork, weaving, carpentry and other trades.

She said “by 1660 the status of Africans in the colony began to erode and they were beginning to be considered servants for life.” During the century worries grew that the increasing number of Africans could unite and rebel, McCartney said.

By then, she said, slavery was an established fact in Virginia and other colonies. She quoted the research of contemporary historian Dr. Louis Henry Gates Jr., noting his comment that “the largest forced migration in human history has given rise to a human tragedy that still haunts us today.”