The First Lie: 1619, Jamestown

Bruce Janu
7 min readJun 17, 2020

The unpleasant aspects of our history are often told through purposeful obfuscation. Consequently, what people in this country think they know about race and slavery, in particular, are viewed through minimalization, carefully selected words that obscure the actual history, and purposeful omission of events and people.

A friend recently turned me to a book by Linda Tuhiwai Smith called Decolonizing Methods: Research and Indigenous Peoples. This book has helped me, as a history educator, to more fully understand the purpose of history; or, I should say, how history is used in society. In the book, she writes:

“We believe that history is also about justice, that understanding history will enlighten our decisions about the future. Wrong. History is also about power. In fact, history is mostly about power. It is the story of the powerful and how they became powerful, and then how they use their power to keep them in positions in which they can continue to dominate others.”

Case in point: Jamestown, 1619.

One of the most popular American history textbooks is American History, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.* This book proudly has the “History Channel” logo on the cover and is also punctuated with links to History Channel resources in an obvious attempt to legitimize this narrative. This is what the book says about the introduction of slavery into Jamestown in 1619:

American History, p. 52

There is so much to unpack here. Let’s look first at language. Words are purposefully chosen here to minimize what happened in 1619. These “Africans” are called “laborers” and “Indentured Servants.” In fact, the text goes out of its way to not refer to these people as being enslaved. This occurred “decades before the systematic use of Africans as slave labor,” it tells us.

And, to further add to its authority, the text states that “records suggest” that these people were treated as “indentured servants” (people who paid for their passage to the new world with dedicated labor for a number of years).

But the records don’t really suggest that at all. In fact, the records suggest the opposite.

John Rolfe, the Jamestown settler who not only married Pocahontas, but also introduced tobacco as a cash crop to Jamestown, wrote in a letter about this shipment:

“He brought not any thing but 20. and odd Negroes, which the Governor and Cape Marchant bought for victualls (whereof he was in greate need as he pretended) at the best and easyest rates they could.” (Letter from John Rolfe to Sir Edwin Sandys)

The fact is these people were brought to Virginia as enslaved persons; they were purchased with food.

The text goes on to explain why these people may have been treated as indentured servants. This is deliberately misleading. These African people brought to Jamestown were not meant to be indentured. The ships came to Jamestown for the purpose of selling them for profit or supplies.

The story of Jamestown, however, fits into a much bigger story than what is implied above. It is important to note that the people brought to Jamestown in 1619 were not the first Africans brought to North America as enslaved people.

Prior to the establishment of the English settlement of Jamestown, over 1 million enslaved Africans had already been brought to the New World by Portuguese and Spanish enslavers. In fact, the Spanish had not just conquered the Caribbean and Mexico, but also settled Florida, and to compete with the French, they build settlements up the East coast of North America. A settlement created on what is now Parris Island, South Carolina, became the new capital of Spanish Florida in 1566. Up and down the coast, even into Virginia, the Spanish built forts and brought with them enslaved African people. How many, we do not know.

The Spanish fort, Santa Elena.

That settlement on Parris Island was known as Santa Elena, and it fell into war with indigenous people of the area. After the Spanish decided to retreat back to Florida in 1587 due to a new threat from the English, the fort and town were burned to the ground. However, during its 20-year existence, many of the enslaved African people brought to Santa Elena had escaped bondage and made their lives with the native peoples.

The Portuguese had been waging wars along the Western Coast of Africa, to create footholds and to expand the burgeoning international slave trade long before Jamestown was even a thought. By 1619, the Portuguese were at war with the African kingdom of Ndongo, located in present day Angola. The Europeans, with the help of a band of marauding raiders known as the Imbangala, stormed the capital, forcing the king to flee. Thousands of people — men, women and children — were taken prisoner and enslaved. Thirty-six slave ships from both Portugal and Spain left port and headed to the New World with human cargo. One of those ships was the São João Bautista with 350 enslaved human beings on board, destined for Veracruz in New Spain. Conditions aboard the ship were horrible. Over 120 people died crossing the Atlantic, their bodies thrown overboard.

En route, the boat was attacked by two English privateers** — The White Lion and the Treasurer. Although all three ships were damaged, the English prevailed and took 50 to 60 of the enslaved people for hopes of selling them in Virginia for cash or supplies. What happened to the rest of the people aboard the São João Bautista is not known; the boat was left floundering, the survivors left to fend themselves.

The White Lion landed at Jamestown on August 20, 1619. Here, the colonists “bought” 20–30 enslaved African people for supplies of food that the captain of the White Lion requested. These people were not indentured servants; indentured servitude was a choice for Europeans. These people had no choice. A few days later, the Treasurer arrived and sold maybe 10 people, but details are not as clear in this case. The only thing known was that there was a young enslaved woman who was referred to as “Angela” aboard who was bought by Captain William Pierce.

In 1624, a census listed some 23 Africans living in the Virginia colony, down from 32 since 1620. However, unlike all of the white indentured servants counted in that census who are listed with first and last names, the Africans listed were referred to by only a first name, no name at all or by the color of their skin. This indicates that they were not treated as indentured servants, as indicated in the textbook.

There are two people brought to Virginia aboard The White Lion whose story was not typical, however. These two African people married and anglicized their names to Anthony and Mary Johnson. They labored for 20 years (way beyond the traditional 4 or 7 years of indentured servitude, another indication that they were not treated as typical indentured servants) and were able to buy their freedom in the 1640s. They ended up purchasing some land in 1650 and had indentured servants working for them, as well. However, after Anthony’s death in 1669 his land could not be transferred to his sons because by that time slavery was recognized by law in Virginia and the legislature had been busily passing laws regulating the lives of not just slaves, but of free blacks as well. An all-white jury hearing the case brought by a white planter challenging Anthony Johnson’s will declared that the state had the right to take his land simply because he was black.

Slavery was firmly entrenched in Virginia in less than a generation, and the roots of this were first established in 1619 with the landing of The White Lion in Jamestown.

The textbook American History does not do this history justice and, in fact, is purposefully negligent in telling this history. But this is not unusual as American history textbooks go. In fact, this new book has much of the same text as The Americans, a textbook that I had started using back in the early 2000s, which was recycled from The Americans: A History published in 1992. Not much has changed in the telling of this history in 30 years.

The evolution of a lie — Textbook treatments of Jamestown.

But then again, history textbooks are big business and the selling of the books are more important than the history they contain. By the way, American History, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, sells for around $120 a book.

Our students and our history deserve better.

American History, published Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, annotated.

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*The first mention of slavery in American History, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, comes in Module 1 when the book talks about African kingdoms and Spanish Colonization of the New World. Again, the minimalization is astounding:

American History, p. 32

** The White Lion and The Treasurer were both English-made boats. The White Lion sailed from Vlissingen and carried a Dutch letter of marque, but its captain was English. Letters of Marque gave boats the license to pirate and plunder. The Treasurer had an English Letter of Marque, but by the time it landed in Virginia, that letter had expired, so people were more reluctant of working with that ship due to its “illegal” piracy.