The language on the revised roadside marker was based on a supposition that the Englishmen residing in Jamestown and surrounds in 1619 encountered Africans before only as slaves, if not by law then by custom. The conclusion then is that they carried that custom with them to the Virginia Colony.
Logic and some fact support this theory. At least a few of the folks at Jamestown were previously in the Caribbean where slavery of Africans was the practice. Also, let’s not forget that when captured, the “20 and odd Africans” were enslaved and bound for sale to New Spain.
My argument is simple. If we are willing to accept one supposition, should we not consider others? Is it enough to cite custom in another country and ignore the custom or practice in the area in question?
Before 1619, in the colony of Virginia, there is no evidence of Africans. Thus, it is fair to presume there existed no laws, customs or practices about Africans.
The arrival of the “20 and odd Negroes” (as described by John Rolfe) was not by request, order, or plan by the colonists. The unexpected arrival may have caused a level of confusion.
No doubt, some of the colonists saw the opportunities in “keeping” the new arrivals to expand their personal wealth via the headright system. In the headright system, the head of household received 50 acres for every member of his household including spouse, children and servants.
There existed a conundrum. In the Virginia colony in 1619, there was no law, custom or practice of slavery: not of Africans (there were not Africans), Native Americans, or Europeans. However, the laws governing indentured servants were well established and in practice in the colony.
Is it not logical to suppose that the solution for the unexpected arrival of the Africans was to sell them as indentured servants?
In fact, there is documentation of named individual Africans who served as indentured servants.
The challenge is that there has yet to be found a record of any discussion by the governmental body resulting in an official opinion pertaining to the status of the 20 and odd. At this point, it is hypothesis, conjecture, logic, peppered with a few scattered facts, that rule the day. That needs to be very clear.
Virginia Department of Transportation’s (VDOT) historic markers—approved VDHR—are limited to 100 words. A momentous challenge, for sure. Regardless, it is incumbent upon any historian or historic entity to be hyper-vigilant in its choice of words. The public views such statements and exhibits as gospel, creating an enormous burden and responsibility on the authors.
A dear friend once advised me to always examine the profile and agenda of the individual espousing an opinion. It is an instructive piece of advice.
The facts that exist surrounding the Jamestown settlement and particularly the arrival of the first Africans in 1619 are scant at best. As we disseminate theories, we must provide all known facts, customs and practices. Otherwise, we are projecting only one variation of the story and nothing from those without a voice.
Stay tuned for an interesting discussion of the differences between the words history, historiography and historicity.
This is so much fun!
Previously published in the Orange County Review.