Commentary

Five things you didn’t know about slavery’s birth 402 years ago | Michael Coard

Slavery was a key component of daily life here in Pennsylvania generally and Philadelphia particularly

Julia Ann Jackson, age 102 and the corn crib where she lives. The image comes from “Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1938” (Image via The Library of Congress).

By Michael Coard

PHILADELPHIA —  Before I begin this entry in my weekly Freedom’s Journal column, I want you to look at the photograph below and to the left. Correction — I need you to look at this photograph and to look at it closely.

(Philadelphia Tribune)

The person photographed there is a human being. His name is Wilson Chinn. If you’re around 50 years old, he could be your grandfather’s or grandmother’s great-grandfather.

Look at that heavy iron contraption around his neck that makes it impossible for him to walk, sit or lie without excruciating pain.

Look at that heavy iron contraption extending from his upper thigh to his ankle that makes it impossible for him to run or to walk without excruciating pain. Look at that heavy iron shackle at his left ankle connected to his right ankle that, when attached, makes it impossible for him to run at all and even to walk effectively.

Look at the two heavy wooden paddles on the ground that are used to sadistically beat him until he’s battered, bruised and severely injured.

Look at his forehead that has been burned with a red hot iron brand to display the initials of the man who “owns” him.

That is the photograph of evil inhumanity. That is the photograph of unimaginable hell. That is the photograph of American slavery.

This past Wednesday, Aug. 25, marked the 402nd anniversary of arrival of the first documented “enslaved” Africans in British colonial America.

And here are five things you probably didn’t know about the birth of slavery in British colonial America:

1. Near the end of August 1619, as documented in a letter from English settler John Rolfe, a rich tobacco planter, to Sir Edwin Sandys of the Royal Virginia Colony, “there came a Dutch man of warre [i.e., pirate ship] that sold us twenty and odd Negars” in the Virginia Colony at Old Point Comfort (now Fort Comfort in Hampton).

2. Following raids in southern Africa by Luis Mendes de Vasconcellos and his Portuguese troops beginning in 1617, two years later he invaded the village of Ndongo in Luanda, Angola, and loaded 350 of those Kimbundu-speaking human beings aboard the “slave” ship Sao Joao Bautista before ordering it sent to Vera Cruz, Mexico. After setting sail, that ship, while in the waters of the West Indies, encountered an English pirate ship called the Treasurer, which was accompanied by its enforcer, the White Lion, a ferociously armed Dutch war vessel and pirate ship.

3. Together, they attacked and boarded the Bautista before kidnapping about 60 of the 350 Angolans. There is no historical record regarding what happened to the remaining 290 or thereabout. Approximately less than 30 (which is why the archaic “twenty and odd” phrase was used) of the kidnapped 60 or so were loaded onto the White Lion, which arrived at Old Point Comfort in August 1619. The other approximately 30 were forced onto the Treasurer.

4. The Treasurer landed a few days after the White Lion’s arrival and its captain attempted to trade those nearly 30. However, for geopolitical reasons, the Virginia authorities were compelled to turn the Treasurer away. It then sailed to Bermuda to conclude its hellish voyage of brutal enslavement.

5. The “twenty and odd Negars” who had arrived a few days earlier on Aug. 25 on the Dutch White Lion were traded, sold, and forced to labor at plantations along the nearby James River in what would become Charles City.

Although American slavery was founded in Virginia, which is in the South, it wasn’t unique to that colony or state or region. It also happened in the North, including right here in Philadelphia.

On the southwest corner of Front Street and High Street — now Market Street — stood the London Coffee House, which opened in 1754 with funds provided by 200 local merchants.

It was where shippers, businessmen and local officials, including the governor, socialized, drank coffee and alcohol, and ate in private booths while making deals. It was where, on the High Street side, auctions were held for carriages, foodstuffs, horses, and African girls, boys, women and men who had just been unloaded from ships that docked right across the street at the Delaware River.

Slavery was a key component of daily life here in Pennsylvania generally and Philadelphia particularly. In the 1760s, nearly 4,500 enslaved Blacks labored in the colony. About one of every six white households in the city held at least one Black person in bondage.

This cruel institution began here in 1684 when the slave ship Isabella from Bristol, England, anchored in Philadelphia with 150 captured Africans. A year later, William Penn himself held three Black persons in bondage at his Pennsbury manor, 20 miles north of Philly. Even George Washington enslaved Blacks, 316 to be exact. And he held nine of them right here in the so-called City of Brotherly Love at America’s first “White House,” which was known as the President’s House at Sixth and Market (then High) streets.

Based on recently disclosed archival evidence publicized by Project 1619, an “organization whose mission is to promote the arrival of the first Africans in America to be brought ashore on English occupied territory at Point Comfort, today’s Fort Monroe in Hampton,” the public finally knows the precise date of the 1619 birth of what became American slavery.

Many persons, including most historians, had previously been citing August 20 based on the only records available at that time.

But as recently written by Calvin Pearson, founder and president of Project 1619, “On August 25, 1619, the White Lion [pirate and slave ship] entered from the Chesapeake Bay and arrived at Point Comfort, an English settlement … at the mouth of the harbor, 20 nautical miles downstream from Jamestown.” For more information about his organization’s scholarly research concerning slavery, log onto Project1619.org.

By the way, that Aug. 25, 1619, date is confirmed by primary source documents in “Voyages: The Transatlantic Slave Trade Database,” compiled from 40 years of archival records by the National Endowment for Humanities as well as by other similar documents in the inimitable Archivo General de Indias in Seville, Andalusia, Spain.

Slavery kinda/sorta ended in 1865 with the adoption of the 13th Amendment — but not really because that amendment actually opened the door to the Black Codes, which created convict leasing, which in turn led to the racist mass incarceration of the 20th century and especially the 21st century.

For more information, watch “13th,” a powerfully disturbing but culturally enlightening documentary written and directed by Ava DuVernay.

And it gets worse. In addition to the maliciously tricky language of the 13th Amendment, Blacks were and/or are victimized by the reactionary Redemption Era, sharecropping, peonage labor, mass lynchings, de jure segregation (known as Jim Crow), de facto segregation, stop-and-frisk, police murder of and other brutality against unarmed Blacks, legislative voter disenfranchisement, court-sanctioned gerrymandering, redlining, and additional systemic forms of official racial injustice.

For more information about the continuation of slavery-in-effect after 1865, watch “Slavery By Another Name,” a powerfully disturbing but culturally enlightening documentary based on a book written by Douglas A. Blackmon. It can be viewed here.

On Aug. 25, 2021, remember what happened precisely 402 years ago beginning Aug. 25, 1619. Remember the kidnappings, the loss of name, culture, language, land and spirituality, the whippings, the chaining, the shackling, the feces-, urine- and vomit-filled “slave” ships, the buying, the selling, the family separations, the branding, the rapes, the castrations, the lynchings, the utter despondency of hellish slavery, and Mr. Chinn.

But don’t just remember that. Remember this: “Never forget. Always avenge.”

Michael Coard, an attorney and radio host, is a columnist for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this column first appeared

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