Who were the Africans who came to Jamestown?

The year 1619 is an important date in Virginia’s history. Even though women were in Jamestown prior to that time, this was the year the English decided to send a large group of women to become wives and make homes in Virginia – a clear signal that the English intended a permanent settlement. It was also the year a group of representatives called burgesses was elected to make laws – a first for this part of the world. But it was a ship flying a Dutch flag, the White Lion, which arrived that same year bringing a group of West Central African captives to Jamestown, that would affect a labor change at Jamestown and other colonies for years to come.

Jamestown Settlement film scene - Angolan villageEvidence shows that the Africans who arrived in Virginia were captured as slaves during the Portuguese wars in West Central African Angola during the previous year. They were most likely Kimbundu-speaking peoples from the kingdom of Ndongo and from a heavily-populated area in Angola, which included the royal capital, Kabasa. This means many could have been from an urban area and may have been familiar with European languages, trade items, clothing and customs. They may also have been introduced to Christianity, because Portuguese law required all slaves to be baptized before arriving in America.

The civilization that the 1619 West Central Africans left behind in Angola was highly developed and included both walled urban centers and rural regions. The Angolans brought useful skills and knowledge to the Jamestown colony, including farming. They may have known how to grow crops such as tobacco. Since tobacco agriculture in Virginia demanded much labor, this made the Africans a useful addition to the colony, as it made possible the expansion of the tobacco economy.

In Angolan society, women were often in charge of raising the crops, very much like the women in Powhatan society. Like Powhatan men, Angolan men were also hunters. Some Angolan men also may have had experience tending herds of cattle, goats, chickens and guinea fowl. Unlike the Powhatans, the Angolans produced iron tools and weapons. They wove cloth from materials such as tree bark and cotton. This cloth was used for decorative purposes, as well as for clothing. Like English and Powhatan fashions, dress was one way that Angolans could communicate status and social role to one another. Angolans dressed in different styles depending on their status.

Jamestown Settlement film scene - Angela of AngolaThe Angolans who were transported to Virginia most likely arrived with nothing more than the clothes they wore, their knowledge, skills and customs. They were probably expected to adopt the English manner of dress to suit their new roles. They did not speak the language of the colonists or the Powhatan, and their culture had no tradition of written language. However, if members of the original group who arrived in 1619 came from the same general region of Angola, they probably had little difficulty communicating with each other. Some may have had knowledge of Portuguese from their contacts with traders in their homeland and may have heard other European languages spoken aboard the ships that transported them from Africa. When Virginia became more involved in the slave trade later in the 17th century and the numbers of Africans transported to the colony increased, many more African regions and language traditions were represented. These later arrivals may have encountered as much difficulty communicating with each other as they did with the English and the Powhatans.