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New Light On Virginia's First Documented Africans

“1607: A Nation Takes Root,” Jamestown Settlement’s introductory film, features the story of Angelo of Angola. Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation photo.

The traditional story about the arrival of Virginia’s first documented Africans begins in late August 1619. A ship, the White Lion, arrives at Old Point Comfort (today’s Hampton, Virginia), at the mouth of the James River, where the historical record says “20. and odd” African captives are exchanged by the ship’s captain for some victuals. Three or four days later another ship, the Treasurer, comes into port with a human cargo of more captured Africans, only one of whom we know by name – Angelo.

Through newly-examined documents preserved in the United Kingdom’s National Archives, more details are now known about this pivotal event in American history. We now know how many Africans were aboard the Treasurer and how many of them were put ashore in Virginia. There has been confusion on this point because the use of misleading abstracts of some of the historical documents led some scholars to argue that the Africans aboard the Treasurer did not come ashore in Virginia until February 1620. This interpretation had the ship sailing to Bermuda before anyone on board could disembark, then returning several months later with Africans (including Angelo) aboard. However, the documents themselves support the 1619 date.

National Archives of the UK

Research findings discovered at the National Archives of the United Kingdom. Courtesy of Martha W. McCartney.

Virginia’s first documented Africans had been captured during warfare in the Angolan kingdom of Ndongo, sold to the Portuguese, and placed – with over 300 other captured Africans – in the San Juan Bautista, a Portuguese slave ship bound for the Spanish colony of Vera Cruz in modern-day Mexico. The slave ship was nearing its destination when it came under attack by the White Lion and the Treasurer. These were two English privateers holding official licenses called letters of marque that permitted them to attack Spanish shipping, something they could not legally do under the 1604 peace treaty between England and Spain.  In this case the ships held their licenses from the Duke of Savoy (the Treasurer) and the Dutch Prince of Orange (the White Lion), but there was one major problem that created quite a scandal. One month after the Treasurer departed England on its privateering ventures, the King of Spain and the Duke of Savoy had made peace, thereby invalidating the English ship’s letter of marque. Did Daniel Elfrith, captain of the Treasurer, know that he was engaging in illicit activities against Spain? An investigation ensued.

Five men, who testified before the English High Court of the Admiralty about the Treasurer’s alleged piratical activities, said that they had been aboard the ship when the Africans were taken at sea. At least two others swore that they had been in Bermuda in September 1619 when the Treasurer arrived and that in February 1620 it had been anchored at a warehouse in St. George’s Town. As the ship was “so weatherbeaten and tourne, as never like to put to sea againe,” Bermuda governor Nathaniel Butler had its ordnance removed and put to use in the islands’ fortifications. Afterward, the Treasurer’s crew went ashore to live and their ship was taken into a creek where it “overset and sunk in the water past all recovery.” Three witnesses stated that the Treasurer had brought 25 Africans to Bermuda and that the ship never left Bermuda.

John Wood, the Treasurer’s navigator during its voyage to the West Indies, stated under oath that “28 or thirty negroes” from the San Juan Bautista were placed on the Treasurer. Afterward, the two ships set sail for Virginia but became separated while en route and arrived within three or four days of each other. John Wood stated that the Treasurer left Old Point Comfort soon after arriving as it was unable to procure provisions. But, importantly, he added that before departing “two or three negroes they caste at Virginia.” Thus, we know that in by early September 1619 the Treasurer left behind the African woman known only as Angelo and one or two other Angolans.

Detail of a page from “Muster of the Inhabitants of Virginia,” circa 1625, that lists Angelo. Courtesy of the National Archives of the UK_CO1-3 (136v).

A census made in March 1620 records 32 Africans living in Virginia, all of whom could have arrived on the Treasurer and the White Lion since we have no record of any other Africans arriving in the colony between September 1619 and March 1620. By extension, if we deduct the two or three Africans that were left by the Treasurer from the thirty-two recorded in the census, then it appears the “20. and odd” Africans exchanged for provisions by the captain of the White Lion probably numbered closer to 29 or 30. We cannot say for certain as we don’t have knowledge of any births or deaths that may have occurred among the African population during those months. It also seems that the Treasurer and the White Lion had each taken about 30 of the enslaved Africans from the San Juan Bautista.

This research, conducted in collaboration with the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, is not only informing new gallery content for the Jamestown Settlement museum, but it is also helping to enrich Angelo’s story and provide a greater understanding of those possible “30 and odd” Africans who arrived on Virginia’s shores in 1619.

Martha W. McCartney
Research Historian

About the Author

Martha W. McCartney is a recognized independent research historian who has studied the people and places of Virginia for almost 50 years. She is author of 12 books and more than 200 published articles, including A Study of Africans and African Americans on Jamestown Island and Green Spring (2003), Virginia Immigrants and Adventurers 1607-1635: A Biographical Dictionary (2007) and Jamestown People to 1800 (2012). In collaboration with the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, McCartney researched the arrival of the first documented Africans in Virginia in 2018-2019, using new information from documents discovered in the National Archives of the United Kingdom for inclusion in new Jamestown Settlement gallery exhibits.  She presented her findings at a Jamestown Settlement public lecture, “Piracy, Political Intrigue and Human Tragedy: Virginia’s First Africans” on June 13, 2019, as part of the opening of the newly refreshed Jamestown Settlement galleries. Her academic paper on this new research appeared in a publication of the Archaeology Society of Virginia.  


4 thoughts on “New Light On Virginia’s First Documented Africans

  1. Mark Bunch says:

    I have also seen the San Juan Bautista referred to as the São João Batista — not sure if it’s a matter of different names in different records, or maybe the Portuguese name tends to get hispanized by English-speaking researchers?

    1. bobjeffrey says:

      The original Portuguese ship name is often rendered in Spanish.

  2. Steve Wann says:

    If San Juan Bautista is a Portuguese ship, why is the name Spanish? The Portuguese king would not have allowed that. If the English had letters of marque to attack Spanish ships, why did they attack the San Juan Bautista which you say is a Portuguese ship?

    1. bobjeffrey says:

      Portugal was ruled by Spain at this point in history. The Portuguese were transporting Africans for the Spanish in Mexico.

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