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  • Writer's pictureKweku Demetrius Hobson

The 40 Decades Initiative #1

The 40 Decades Initiative is a blog project by the team at Liberate History with a goal to post a blog every Saturday for 40 weeks highlighting significant events of the African experience in each decade since our Ancestors arrived to the 13 British Colonies that became the United States of America. If you would like to contribute to our blog please email

1st Decade: 1619-1629

Today we are answering the question:

“Our Ancestors were in the Americas for over 500 years! So why are we only celebrating 400 years in 2019?”

This year people of African descent in the United States will celebrate the arrival of 20 Africans to the fledgling colony of Virginia, in the city of Jamestown in 1619. Although highlighting the 400 year struggle of African humanity and citizenship in the United States is significant, the arrival of these Africans were not an “exceptional historical moment.”

Originally the 20 Africans were on a Portuguese slave ship called the San Juan Bautista headed to Mexico for sale. The Dutch were hired by the English to disrupt the slave trade of the Spanish and Portuguese, of which both countries pillaged West Africa, enslaved the strongest and brightest, and sold them to the colonial plantation owners in the Caribbean and South America throughout the 1500s. Since the arrival of Crystobol Colon in 1492, European monarchies of Spain, Portugal, France and the Netherlands were in an international race to establish colonies in the “New World” which is now North/South America and the Caribbean. Africans were present and active participants (mostly not willingly) of the “invasion” of European powers in the land of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas.

Before 1619

Below are a few facts from Black Perspectives and A Journey of Liberation, centering the African presence in the “New World” prior to 1619:

1420s - The Portuguese were trading with Asians and Africans on small ships known as caravels.

1490 - Spain ended the 700 year occupation of African Moors known as the “Reconquesta” and commissioned an Italian navigator Crystoforo Colon (English: Christopher Columbus) to join the international trade war.

1501 - The first enslaved African is taken to Santo Domingo.

1515 - The Trans-Atlantic European Slave Trade network of European countries began.

In 1526, enslaved Africans were part of a Spanish expedition to establish an outpost on the North American coast in present-day South Carolina. Those Africans launched a rebellion in November of that year and effectively destroyed the Spanish settlers’ ability to sustain the settlement, which they abandoned a year later.

Sir John Hawkins was behind four slave-trading expeditions during the 1560s suggests the degree to which England may have been more invested in African slavery than we typically recall.

There is also suggestive evidence that scores of Africans plundered from the Spanish were aboard a fleet under the command of Sir Francis Drake when he arrived at Roanoke Island in 1586.

As early as May 1616, Blacks from the West Indies were already at work in Bermuda providing expert knowledge about the cultivation of tobacco.

Nearly 100 years before Jamestown, African actors enabled American colonies to survive, and they were equally able to destroy European colonial ventures.

Back to 1619

Although the White Lion was an English ship, John Wolfe (yes, the Pocahontas guy) published, "About the latter end of August, a Dutch man of Warr of the burden of a 160 tunes arrived at Point-Comfort. … He brought not any thing but 20. and odd Negroes…” Wolfe was attempting to cast the blame on the Dutch for the piracy by an English privateer. Today we call this #fakenews!

The White Lion was known as a “privateer,” meaning the ship was owned by an individual or a business but commissioned by the government to be used in war or to capture the enemies of merchant shippers. The company that commissioned the White Lion was the Virginia Company of London. Founded in 1606 and chartered by King James I, the company was comprised of two divisions: “The Plymouth Company would establish a short-lived colony at the mouth of the Kennebec River near what is now Phippsburg, Maine. The London Company would establish Jamestown in Virginia, England's first permanent settlement in the New World.”

Originally these 20 Africans were to be sold as slaves in Mexico, but when the Bautista ship was commandeered by the White Lion, the English war ship, in 1619 the Africans aboard were forced into indentured servitude. The Colony of Virginia had yet to establish slavery in its laws. According to the census (known as a muster at the time) counts of the Virginia colony of 1623 and 1624 list the Africans as “servants.” The descendants of these Africans were the source of the population of free Africans in Virginia prior to the Civil War.

Our friends at points out that “William Tucker was the first person of African ancestry born in the 13 British Colonies. His birth symbolized the beginnings of a distinct African American identity along the eastern coast of what would eventually become the United States.”

(Side Note: To honor the legacy of William Tucker, the Morehouse College African American Studies Department named their student organization The William Tucker Society.)

By 1619 there were over 500,000 Africans captured and enslaved by European countries to power the international slave economy of the Trans-Atlantic European Slave Trade. Africans were in the Americas for over 100 years before 1619, according to the documented history of Europeans. However, Ivan Van Sertima makes a compelling argument for African exploration and trade with Central American civilizations for thousands of years before Columbus, in his seminal book They Came Before Columbus.

“As historian John Thornton has shown us, the African men and women who appeared almost as if by chance in Virginia in 1619 were there because of a chain of events involving Portugal, Spain, [France], the Netherlands, and England. Virginia was part of the story, but it was a blip on the radar screen.”

Acknowledging our survival and successes is important for our self-determination and self-efficacy. As we join the celebrations of the 400 year time mark of African/African-American resilience in the United States of America, let's remain mindful of our agency, power, and existence in the Americas long before 1619.


Asante, Molefi Kete. African American History: A Journey of Liberation. New Jersey: Peoples Publishing Group, Inc., 2002. Print.

Baptist, Edward E. The Half Has Never Been Told : Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. New York :Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group, 2014. Print.

Franklin, John Hope, 1915-2009, author. From Slavery to Freedom : a History of African Americans. New York :McGraw-Hill/Connect Learn Succeed, 2011. Print.

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