Friday, January 18, 2019

400 Years of African-American History



This year was designated as “400 Years of African-American History”.


Twenty-nine Angolan African captives from a conflict between Portuguese induced hostilities against the Ndongo Kingdom arrived in North America in 1619. The Ndongo had sent expeditionary forces into distant Matamba, captured and exported as many as 50,000 people, some to Brazil and also those who ended up in Jamestown, Virginia. The Angolans brought to Jamestown were most likely Matamba who were Kimbundu-speaking people.

Conflicts between Angolan kingdoms had increased with the arrival of the Portuguese who had been allowed to set up trading forts along the coast. Originally destined for enslavement and bound for Veracruz, Mexico via the Portuguese Slave Trade, they were rescued from a slave ship by a Dutch Man-of-War. They were then taken to Point Comfort, Virginia then to Ft. Monroe then on to Jamestown and exchanged for provisions. Upon arrival they became freed people.
Slavery was not yet instituted in this British Colony so the Angolans might have been received as bonded servants. This contract could be from four to seven years with added rights. The indenture could be extended for running away or becoming pregnant. The fledgling Virginia colony was in dire need of labor. Especially since John Rolfe (the late Pocahontas' husband) had introduced to Virginia, the more mild (and sacred) Caribbean Taíno tobacco as a cash crop. Since local Virginia Native American tobacco was harsh, he intended to provide the Colony with Taíno tobacco to rival the same product already made popular by the Spanish in Europe. In 1492 the Spanish had been introduced to kohiba/tabako (United Confederation of Taíno People) by the Caribbean's indigenous Taíno civilization whose many products like sweet potato (batata) and peanuts (mani) later also arrived in Virginia. 
English bonded servants were brought to the Colony via passages paid for their transport that had to be worked off through a period of indenture. The Angolans became involved in the indenture system instituted by English landowners along with imported Englishmen and women.

"We in English-speaking America sometimes think of them [the Angolans] as the first slaves in Jamestown in 1619. But there had been many Africans in North America before that, traveling with the Spanish explorers and throughout the southeast and southwest. But this is different -- to have these people arrive aboard a slave ship and be sold to as workers in Jamestown." --Peter Wood, Professor of History, Duke University


So, what was the lay of the land for the Angolans? This portion of North America was still Powhatan Territory whose mamanatowick (emperor) was Wahunsenacah or Powhatan II. Powhatan II had allowed the English to set up what he had intended to be an economic entity, a trading post. However, the English had other clandestine intentions. The Angolans had come from a country with Indigenous, Islamic, and Portuguese Catholic religions and were steeped in their own traditional folklore. Their kings had become involved with Portugal and the ensuing slave trade to Brazil, South America. So, they did not come from a backwoods society. Angola had allowed the Portuguese to only set up slave trading posts on the coast. The Portuguese traders were not allowed inland, so trading was done by local coastal middlemen. For trade, these prisoners of war were from the interior kingdoms and chiefdoms. Like many African rulers along the Slave Coast, Gold Coast and Ivory Coast, they had become involved with the new Portuguese international trade in goods and human beings. As for the Angolans in Africa, the first outsiders to contacted them were members of the expanding Islamic empires of North Africa. The Angolan arrivals who ended up at the fledgling Jamestown had the misfortune of probably being victims of local conflicts instigated by the expanding Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. In 1619 the 29 Angolans had arrived in Powhatan Territory where Amerindians were still the dominant force.

The Relationship With The Indigenous Powhatan People

What did the Angolan 29 live through upon their arrival in Jamestown?

At the time of the Angolan arrival, the relationship with the Native Americans of the then viable Powhatan Confederacy/Kingdom was in flux. For example, the year before the arrival in 1619, by May,1618 Powhatan II had died and his body may have remained with the Tauxenents of Northern Virginia, whom he had visited, until its transfer for burial in a sacred place in 1621. His interment site is believed to be in a large mound on the Pamunkey Reservation in King William County, Virginia ( Powhatan II's succession was briefly passed on to his younger brother, Opitchapam, and then to his next younger brother Opechancanough.

A Brief History of the Lay of the Land

1607 - The English had landed in Powhatan Territory.1610 - Pocahontas, who was now a young woman, married a Powhatan "private captain" named Kocoum.1613 - The English kidnapped Pocahontas with the help of the Patawomecks of Stafford County, for whom the Cohkaruta River ("River of the Cohonks", was renamed the "Potomac". Canadian geese noisily arrived there yearly in Fall, so honk, Honkey and Honky-tonk came from Cohonk. 1614 - While in captivity Pocahontas was taught English ways, the Christian faith and baptized. [Her marriage to Kocoum was considered by the English, to be an unlawful heathen one so she was fair game for any Christian Englishman. As was the tradition, she may also have had children with Kocoum.] 1616 - The Virginia Company paid to send Pocahontas, her husband, their infant son and several Powhatan Indians to England, to promote the Colony. 1617 - Pocahontas became ill and died in Gravesend, England. After her death the peace between the Powhatan Indians and the English back in Virginia began to unravel. 1618 - Powhatan died.1622-1644 - Tired of English expansion Opechancanough planned two coordinated wars of expulsion of the illegal English settlements, killing many English. [The first, from 1622-1632 and the second in 1644 when he was assassinated, shot in the back while in custody by a "settler".]
[John Rolfe was one of the victims of the first war. This act exhibited the Powhatan attitude that Mamanatowick Opechancanough, Pocahontas' uncle, had towards the bigamous marriage to Rolfe. She was not divorced from Kocoum]-- National Park Service


The Angolans lived the same hard life of indenture as did their English counterparts. And if converted to Christianity, possibly intermarried with whites and Indians. Because of economics, indenture became more expensive and at the end of the term of servitude, the freedmen began to compete with the elite for land. So some freed men turned to taking Native wives so as to inherit land from them. This practice emulated the Pocahontas/John Rolfe model. While others, as in the terms of their contract,  were given at least 25 acres of land, a year's worth of corn, arms, a cow and new clothes." (History Detectives -pbs). Most indentured were not so lucky and it is not certain which model the Angolans inherited. However, in 1661, the Colonial government passed slave laws. "And any small freedoms that might have existed for the [surviving Angolans] may have been taken away."

Since its inception, for their population numbers, the African presence in the United States has had, and continue to have disproportional local and international impact. Basically, I have come to the conclusion, that American popular culture is heavily influenced by an African inspired joie de vie. African-American slang has spread worldwide. This point was brought home to me when I saw coverage of proceedings in the British Parliament when one of the members said,  "We have to do our own thing!" This slang is straight out of the Inner City communities.

In spite of legendary hardships, African-American history is replete with a wide array of cultural, scientific, economic, political and social contributions.


Two examples of the African animal tale influence on American literature were the Brer Rabbit and Aunt Nancy tales. Although there were no rabbit but hare tales in Africa, both animals existed among North America's Algonquians (Michabo the Great Hare). Rabbit tales were told by the Cherokee among whom African-Americans had lived in North Carolina. Uncle Remus, a fictional narrator of animal tales, was introduced as an African-American by journalist Joel Chandler Harris who had heard and published them in Atlanta in 1881.He published seven Uncle Remus books, mainly framed in plantation life.For "authenticity" he narrated the stories in African-American dialect. One popular story is "Brer Rabbit and the Tar Man", a story about the mischievous Rabbit that is caught stealing from a garden by being stuck to a tar covered puppet. When caught, Rabbit pleads not to be killed but instead, be thrown into a brier patch. Rabbit escapes, saying "I was born and bred in a brier patch!" There is a traditional Anansi story parallel titled "Anansi and the Tar Baby". The sequence in which each character smacks and kicks the Tar Baby/Tar Man, remains the same.

My book, “How Anansi Came to the Americas from Africa” is a tale of the introduction of African storytelling in the Americas. (For more on the book, see It is a tale of how the Angolans and other Africans got here. It is certain that the 29 Angolan refugees at Jamestown brought their folklore with them. Although the spider-man character is not Angolan, AnansiStories (Anansesem) surfaced in South Carolina as “Aunt Nancy”. In the book Anansi, an Asanti folk hero, is forced to travel with the captured Angolans and reflected the beginning of African cross-cultural engagement that is a reflection of today's reality. It is the only folkloric story that connects Africa to the Americas via an arrival in Jamestown.
Kweku Anansi is known by many names depending on the country and language in which he landed. For example, in Jamaica alone he is called Brother Anansi, Bra Nancy or Nancy. Some storytellers can shorten the name Anansi to to “Nancy Stories”, but within the story he remains male. His gender changed in parts of the American South. Traditionally his wife is Aso and they had a number of children. In Ghana one of his sons is “Intikuma” which changed to Takooma or Bra Tookuma in Jamaica, in some tales may or may not be cast as Anansi’s son.


They survived in a turbulent society and melted into the Colonial fabric. The Angolan 29 was also the foundation on which African-American history was built. As a Jamaican emigre, I have been struck by what I perceive to be a distinctive "American Personality" which, in my opinion, is heavily influenced by African-American vibrancy, slang and points of view that expresses itself in the form of an exported "Popular American Culture". Exported through jazz, blues, gospel, rock and roll, etc.  As a minority, African-Americans have had a disproportionate impact on American life and history. Without them, we could not be distinguished from Australians or Canadians.

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