Some Long-term American Myths finally Meet Reality, October 20, 2013
An important footnote on Slavery
Chapter Twenty-One, entitled the Imbangala, tells the story of how slavery got into the English colonial picture. It is such an interesting and unexpected story that I am including a rough summary of it here as well.
The transatlantic slave trade began under a license issued at Seville, in 1598 while Portugal was a province of Spain. At the time, Portugal had had much success in enlisting very unreliable local black armies to help it defeat local towns in Angola raided for large caches of slaves taken as spoils of war. That is, until it was routed by a chief of the Ndogolo people. Rather than continuing to rely on the unreliable “black armies,” Portugal hired the much more feared and ruthless, if not entirely barbaric, group of itinerant marauders called the “Imbangala,” best known for settling within a country, sucking it dry and then moving on.
Using weapons supplied by its Portuguese backers, the Imbagala managed to sack Ndogolo’s town of nearly 30 thousand, taking enough slaves to fill three ships. A couple of hundred were purchased at the slave market in Luanda and transported on the “San Juan Bautista” in June and July of 1671 enroute to Veracruz, Mexico. However just outside Veracruz, at Campeche Bay, the ship was robbed of its cargo by two English pirate ships: the “White Lyon,” and the “Treasurer.”
After a harrowing trip and several transfers, 20 of the slaves on the “Treasurer” ended up in Jamestown, traded for food by the ship master to one Abraham Peirsey. It was mostly coincidental that this transaction occurred at the same time that more hands were needed to harvest the latest very labor intensive tobacco crop. However, since the English did not yet have a term for slavery, the men of the cargo were not considered slaves in the same sense that Spain had used the term. They were set to work in the normal English way, as indentured servants, hired under contract for 3-7 years to pay for transport and room and board. After all, Sir Francis Drake, a notorious English pirate (euphemistically referred to as “privateers”) had fought on the side of escaped slaves against the mutually much hated Spanish masters.
Slavery was Spanish, freedom was English. The ethos of the day was that a true Englishman would rather surrender to death than engage in the kind of barbarism called slavery that the Spanish and most of the rest of the world engaged in. But now, due in large part to exports of tobacco, Jamestown finally was booming. And the 20 slaves stepped right into line. In fact some worked out their contract; became free and were given plots of land to farm. The kind of slavery that eventually led to the ideology of racism came much later and clearly was an indigenous American invention, not as we have been led to believe, an English invention.