The history of Jamestown has been recorded and interpreted by wealthy, white men since its founding in 1607. Due to this, the history presented to us has been skewed to align with their bias and intentions. As we commemorate 400 years since the first Africans and English women came to Jamestown, Jamestown Rediscovery has begun to look at their interpretations in a new way. Recently, the director of archaeology at Jamestown, David Givens, presented a lecture at the University of Mary Washington entitled “The Angela Site: An Archaeological Student of Race, Inequality, and Community in Early Jamestown.” His talk focused on the archaeology being conducted at the Angela site, the site where an enslaved African woman worked for the Pierce family, and how the discoveries being made would add a new layer of interpretation to the Jamestown Island.
In 1619, two ships, the Treasurer and the White Lion attacked a slave ship on route to the Caribbean, capturing between 55 and 60 Africans (Horn 2018:86). The Treasurer along with the White Lion landed in Virginia where they sold “20. and odd” Africans to the colonists (Horn 2018:87). David Givens believes that Angela was one of the captured Africans sold during this transaction. With the development of tobacco as the cash crop of the colony, many settlers became desperate for laborers to aid in harvesting and to maximizing profits (McCartney 2003:43). The African slave trade became a solution to this problem, thus binding them to slavery and perpetual labor in the tobacco fields.
The labeling of these first Africans as indentured servants or slaves has become a hotly debated topic among scholars, but the answer may depend upon the lens through which they choose to view 1619 Jamestown. Individuals in the indentured servant camp cite that because laws outlining slavery did not go into effect until the late 17th century that the first Africans were treated as servants and that slavery evolved later. They also referenced that Africans were listed as servants on records and the label of slave was not applied until later (Horn 2019:103). Perhaps the term slave was not used because the English associated it with punishment for an indiscretion and these Africans were not being punished for anything; therefore, servant may have seemed like a more appropriate term (McCartney 2003:30). There is also some evidence that a few Africans gained their freedom and were able to become landowners; however, the majority never had this opportunity (Horn 2019:103-104).
Even though these first Africans were not labeled slaves, they were treated very different from the white indentured servants. As David Givens also pointed out, these Africans were bought against their will; whereas, indentured servants willingly signed a contract of servitude. The white settlers that purchased Africans also had no intention of ever granting these people freedom or land. Due to their knowledge of tobacco, African slaves were seen as more valuable than traditional servants and only the wealthiest colonists could afford to purchase them (Horn 2018:100-101). Additionally, the concept of slavery was also not new to the English settlers. For many years, the Spanish had enslaved Africans on sugar cane plantations in the Caribbean (Horn 2018:87). Slavery was also not new in the colony, as there is record of colonists selling captured Natives into slavery following raids (McCartney 2003:30).
In a world where history has been recorded by the victors, it is important to recognize and criticize the biases that history has been told through. As David Givens stated, academics must start looking at history through different lenses and provide interpretations for all parties involved. One cannot possibly understand what life was like at Jamestown if we only interpret the Anglo perspective. For decades society has overlooked those whose stories were deemed insignificant by the writers of history, but perhaps now that there is increased advocacy and study of minorities the complete story can come to light.
2018 1619: Jamestown and the Forging of American Democracy. Basic Book, New York, NY.
McCartney, Martha W.
2003 A Study of the Africans and African Americans on Jamestown Island and at Green Spring, 1619-1803. Report to the Colonial National Historical Park, National Park Service from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, VA.