African Woman Brought to Virginia
From 1618 to 1620 the Portuguese fought the people of Ndongo in western Africa. Thousands of Africans were abducted and killed by African warlords and mercenaries employed by the Portuguese in Angola. Many were marched from their villages to the port of Luanda. Some escaped. Some died. They were often kept in terrible conditions for months until 350 to 400 could be packed together on an available vessel for the journey across the sea. Survivors were shipped in bondage, at first to the mines of Mexico and the fields of Brazil.
The Portuguese had been in Angola for some time — building a large trade industry between Africa, Europe and the New World. There is evidence that some Africans had been baptized in the Christian faith before being enslaved. Others were baptized shortly before being loaded onto ships.
In August 1619, a privateer vessel, White Lion, landed in Virginia at Point Comfort, present day Hampton, with a cargo of more than 20 Africans. While raiding in the Caribbean the White Lion, along with privateers from another ship, Treasurer, had seized part of a cargo of Africans from a Portuguese slave ship named Sao Jao Bautista bound from the African city of Luanda to Veracruz, Mexico. A short time after the White Lion stopped at Point Comfort, the Treasurer arrived carrying more Africans.
The status of the Africans in Virginia is uncertain, but some were “bought” by Governor Yeardley and Abraham Peirsey — meaning they were either slaves or indentured servants. Without papers of indenture (as carried by most white servants), these new arrivals had no protected legal standing and could be easily exploited.
Because so many Africans in 17th-century Virginia came from the same region, early arrivals may have recognized some of those who came later and maintained shared identities. Among them were skilled craftsmen and farmers whose influence on the English is clear from the governor’s order that crops be planted in 1648 “on the advice of our Negroes.”
By the 1650s there were free people of color in the colony, but most did not do as well economically as free white Virginians. Although legal discrimination was evident by the late 17th century, Africans, such as Anthony Johnson, did prosper in Virginia. He owned land in Northampton County, had one servant, and owned one slave.
The first law recognizing the existence of slavery in Virginia was passed in 1661, and a law making it hereditary was passed the next year. As landowners created laws to control the labor they needed, institutionalized slavery gradually evolved from these laws and a “slave code” was produced by the General Assembly in 1705.
Few records exist to shed light on the lives of the first Africans in Virginia — either before or after their arrival; however, there is some historical information about one of them — a young woman called “Angelo” who came on the Treasurer in 1619. The Muster Roll of 1625 reveals that Angelo was still in Virginia — a servant in the household of Captain William Peirce.