AFTER a terrifying crossing of the Atlantic, in late August 1619, ‘Angela’ reached the shores of America. She was one of the first African slaves known to reach the permanent English settlement in Virginia, North America.
Originally from the kingdom of Ndongo, in what is now Angola, Angela was loaded onto a Portuguese ship in Luanda, which then headed to Veracruz, in the Spanish colony of modern-day Mexico.
Nearly a third of the 350 slaves died before the Atlantic crossing was complete because of dire conditions on board the vessel.
Before reaching Veracruz, two privateer ships attacked the Portuguese vessel and snatched about 60 Africans, according to James Horn, president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation in charge of the dig.
The first of the two, the White Lion, arrived in Virginia in ‘the latter end of August’ 1619, wrote John Rolfe, a wealthy English settler and the husband of Pocahontas, whose father was a powerful native American tribal leader.
Arriving at Point Comfort – today Fort Monroe, near Jamestown – the privateers exchanged ‘20 and odd’ Africans for needed supplies.
The second ship, the Treasurer, arrived soon thereafter, dropping off a small group. The only woman whose name was preserved for history was Angela: ‘The first documented African woman in Virginia,’ says Bly Straube, the curator at the Jamestown Settlement, a living history museum.
About 30 Africans in all were counted in Virginia in early 1620.
Angela’s name appears in the colony’s census documents in 1624 and 1625 – she is listed as “Angelo.” Some historians disagree on her actual name, which was probably given by the Portuguese.
But all agree that she was a slave to the wealthy Pierce family. She likely worked in the house and the orchards likely lived alongside white servants, according to Straube.
It was only 40 years after Angela’s arrival, in around 1660, that several English colonies in North America decreed that slave status would be transmitted via the mother.
Interracial marriage was banned, a prohibition that continued in some US states well into the 20th century.
After 1625, Angela disappears from the records, but her name is now more than ever in the spotlight in Jamestown.
‘To me, the story is sort of like Eve,’ Straube told French news agency AFP.
‘She and her fellow Africans who arrived in 1619 are the founding generation of what would become our African-American community today. That’s the beginning.’
Their arrival marks the beginning of a dark period of US history: 250 years of slavery followed by a long period of racial segregation, the repercussions of which are still felt in American society.
The enslaved Africans arrived shortly after settlers founded the first local legislature on 30 July 1619 – in what Horn calls a ‘paradox’ of history.
Just weeks after ‘the first expression of our democratic experiment’ came the arrival of people ‘stripped of their rights, and even their identity,’ the historian said.
‘That’s a fundamental part of our story as Americans.’
For Terry Brown, the first black superintendent of the Fort Monroe National Monument, the history of slavery in the United States is ‘the greatest survival story written in American history.’
Brown and his team organised a series of events on 23-25 August to celebrate the ‘contributions’ of Africans to US society.
‘The more we gather around, the more we talk, the easier it is to break with the insidiousness of racism,’ said Brown, who discovered through a DNA test that his ancestors came from Cameroon.
He says ‘it’s really emotional’ to think about the first Africans arriving in Virginia, including Angela.
‘That’s 400 years ago. Who would have ever imagined that I would be here standing on their shoulders?’