Slavery in the US before 1619; why are we ignoring it?

When English pirates arrived in Jamestown, Virginia in 1619 and sold 20-32 African slaves (which they had stolen from a Portuguese vessel off the coast of Spanish-controlled Veracruz, Mexico) to the settlers there, it was the first time that a British colony on what was to become US soil enslaved Africans.

I totally get that 1619 is a historical marker that is useful for focusing public attention on the legacy of slavery and the on-going history of discrimination against African Americans. (See this post for how reparations could work.) But there are several other options for historical markers in “US” history. I put “US” in quotes because it did not exist, of course, until over a century and a half later.

If our focus is slavery inflicted by Europeans within US lands, we could possibly go back to 1501, when European slavers off the coast of New England (or maybe Canada) kidnapped native Wampanoag. Or 1511 when Spanish slavers abducted some native Timucua or Ais in Florida, and again in 1513, as well as Calusa in 1513 and Matecumbe in the Florida Keys in 1516 and Tuscarora in South Carolina in 1521. You get the idea. In fact, the enslavement of Native Americans exceeded that of African Americans in US lands until some time in the 1700s. Florida was almost entirely depopulated by English slavers around 1700; the Seminoles of Florida are descended from Creek refugees and arrived from the north afterwards.

Focusing on the enslavement of Africans in the US, the first record is from 1526, 93 years before 1619. The Spanish colonists set up a fort called San Miguel de Guadalupe at Sapelo Sound, Georgia. It was Guale territory at the time. The outpost lasted four months before it was overthrown by their African slaves in concert with the Guale. We know little of what became of the liberated Africans, but it’s clear they did not depart with the fleeing Spanish survivors. We could use this year to mark the 493rd anniversary of African slaves in the US, and at the same time honor the first slave revolt, a successful one at that.

Two years later, in 1528, the Moor slave Estevanico was one of 600 men of the ill-fated Narvaez Expedition to land at Tampa Bay, Florida. Four years later, he was one of four survivors who trekked across the Gulf Coast to Texas and eventually Mexico. He later joined a precursor to Coronado’s attempted invasion of New Mexico, where he was either killed by the Pueblo or defected to them. He was undoubtedly the first African in the Southwest, not to mention the first Muslim in the US.


slavery timeline

The enslavement of Africans to the US got off to a slow start compared to elsewhere in the Americans, where it started in 1492. By 1619, over half a million slaves had been shipped from Africa to the Caribbean and South America.

Looking at the timeline, the history of African slavery got off to a slow start: two short episodes involving a single settlement and a single individual. I can understand not counting them as the true beginning of the enslavement of Africans in the United States.

But in 1565, still a full 54 years before 1619, the Spaniards founded St. Augustine, Florida, the oldest currently-inhabited city in the United States founded by Europeans. As historic sites in St. Augustine attest, enslaved “African Americans helped establish American’s oldest city.” This fully functioning slave market continued thru the Civil War.

So that’s a strange thing to ignore. Why don’t we count 1565 as the start of the enslavement of Africans in the United States? I assume it’s because white America discounts the roles played by Spain and France in their history. Because they weren’t British or didn’t speak English, they are erased like Native Americans. The basic white narrative is this: the land was empty, the British/white Americans came, and then they brought slaves from Africa. The role of the slaves in building the colonies (or tearing them down in the case of San Miguel), and the role of Spain and France in the history of the US, are simply ignored. Florida belonged to Spain and not to England, so it doesn’t count. In a strange way, ignoring the slavery perpetuated by Spanish colonists dismisses non-English people as founders of the US; only the British count.

If we want to be Anglocentric, 1619 wasn’t even the first incident involving African slaves and the British in the United States. That happened in 1586, when Francis Drake dropped off a cargo of several hundred men on a sandbar near the fledgling colony of Roanoke. He had ransacked St. Augustine, absconded with the slaves, and was heading back to England. For reasons unclear, he dumped them as jetsam on a remote beach on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Another English vessel arrived in the area four days later, but found no sign of the men. They had disappeared into the forest and probably sought refuge among the Powhatan.

In reality, both St. Augustine in 1565 and Jamestown in 1619 were tenuous footholds on Native land. In a 2017 article in Black Perspectives and Smithsonian Magazine, Michael Guasco argued that “the most poisonous consequence of raising the curtain with 1619 is that it casually normalizes white Christian Europeans as historical constants… [that the Europeans were] already home. But, of course, they were not. Europeans were the outsiders. Selective memory has conditioned us to employ terms like settlers and colonists when we would be better served by thinking of the English as invaders or occupiers. In 1619, Virginia was still Tsenacommacah, Europeans were the non-native species, and the English were the illegal aliens.” To illustrate the tenuous position of the English in Jamestown in 1619, three years later the Powhatan rose up and killed a quarter (347 of 1,240) of the British colonists in one morning.

All this is to say that British US history should not serve as the benchmark for all US history. Ignoring slavery in Spanish Florida, of course, erases the non-English roots of the US. As Guasco notes, “When we make the mistake of fixing this place in time as inherently or inevitably English, we prepare the ground for the assumption that the United States already existed in embryonic fashion. When we allow that idea to go unchallenged, we silently condone the notion that this place is, and always has been, white, Christian, and European.” And exclusively English.

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