Commentary: Africans came to America 400 years ago

The United States is observing the quatercentenary of the arrival of the first Africans to its shores. This means that 400 years ago this year slavery began in America.

The books that I have used to teach the history of slavery provide the correct year, but the rest of the story they tell is incredibly simplistic. Every once in awhile, however, someone comes along to give us more of the story. Take Professor Thomas F. Andrews, Ph.D. for instance. Last week I was made privy to some private thoughts he had on the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Blacks in America.

After I read his comments, I wrote him asking for permission to publish them. He gave it with the caveat that his remarks were not written for publication. They were given in the context of a conversation between a teacher and his student.

What follows is a verbatim account of his part of the conversation.

Looking back 400 years, Andrews wrote:

“Here’s the 1619 story as we now know it. The two ships that approached the Jamestown area (actually Pt. Comfort) were English ships commanded by English captains but hoisting a Dutch flag — so they were English privateers with letters of marque and reprisal from the Dutch government which was at war with the united kingdom of Spain and Portugal.

“The first ship to arrive, The White Lion, desperately needed foodstuffs and supplies and offered to exchange about 28 enslaved Africans, whom they had taken off a Portuguese slave ship, in exchange for those goods. The exchange was made and the colony of Virginia (really Jamestown) owned those Africans. They would initially be treated as indentured servants — and colonists would purchase their indenture with so many pounds of tobacco.

“In 1612 Jamestown had started planting tobacco and found it to be a profitable crop for export, and needed more field hands by 1619. A second English ship with an English captain carrying a Dutch flag, the Treasurer, arrived a short time later and also wanted to exchange Africans for goods and supplies, but the colony didn’t have enough resources equal to 20 more indentured servants. It’s unclear but the colony may have taken 3 more Africans. I think the two English ships captured a total of about 70 Africans off the Portuguese ship, the San Juan Bautista.

“From then on, it is pretty much as Degler (Carl Degler, United States historian and Pulitzer Prize winning author) has shown; prejudice, distinctions, and discrimination between Black and white indentured servants set in between the late 1620s through the 1640s, and a fully operational slave code was in place between the 1660s and 1680s.

“His argument that what is important here is not the evolution of the legal status of the Negro as slave in Virginia, but the long period of discriminatory action and legislation that came before the legal definition of slavery — long enough for prejudice and discrimination to fully determine the inferiority status of the Negro. Degler’s pointing this out, was to me, when I first read it, pure brilliance….”

Therefore, as I observe the quatercentenary of American Negro Slavery, thanks to Andrews, via Degler, two salients appear: 1) those first Africans in Jamestown were apparently not slaves but indentured servants, and 2) we aren’t real sure which came first, prejudice or slavery. That’s a lot to think about on this 400th anniversary.

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Thomas F. Andrews, Ph.D. is a retired professor of American History, having taught at Pasadena (Nazarene) College, Azusa Pacific University, and Westmont College, where he was also Academic Dean. Dr. Andrews founded the prestigious Special Collections at Azusa Pacific University and was named Professor Emeritus. For 19 years he served as the Executive Director of the Historical Society of Southern California.