The Question of the Slave Female Community and Culture in the American South: Methodological and Ideological Approaches

Article excerpt

It is not certain when the first black females came to reside in the mainland British colony of Virginia. In 1619, when a divided parcel of contraband enslaved Africans, probably Kimbundu-speakers from the Kingdom of Ndongo--who had been forced aboard the Sao Joao Bautista in Luanda and were on their way to Vera Cruz when they were pirated by a Dutch man-of-war and the British ship Treasurer--arrived at Point Comfort, thirty-two blacks already were living in the colony. (1) The two cargoes arriving in 1619 added a few women. When the Dutch ship finally docked in Virginia in August, it carried twenty of the original one hundred Angolans taken aboard. Their names bore the marks of their Catholic baptismal. (2) One was called Isabel. The Treasurer landed only one of its contraband in the colony, a female named Angela. Certainly a few others came in those early years of the 17th century. Another ship arrived in Jamestown in 1622, for example, with an African woman called Mary. Yet, unearthed records rarely documented, as did those from 1619, the actual date of African arrivals, their accurate numbers, their places of origin, or their ethnic or cultural backgrounds.

How did these first African women, indentured and then enslaved, survive--culturally and/or communally in the frontier Chesapeake? There are a few clues that point to the broad contours of the lives of Isabel and Angela in Africa that undoubtedly shaped their experiences in Virginia. Evidence strongly suggests that they were Ambundu, taken during a series of violent raids mounted by Portuguese forces between 1618 and 1620. These women, more than likely, came from matrilineal societies in the "royal district" of Ndongo, located on an elevated plateau of about 4,000 feet between the Lukala and Lutete Rivers in present-day Angola. Fifteen of those who arrived in 1619 went to live and work as indentured servants for Governor George Yeardley at his frontier estate at Flowerdew Hundred. The rural nature of early colonial Virginia, with its very thin population, would have been a decided change. Flowerdew Hundred had only sixty residents in 1624. The Ambundu, however, were mostly an urbanized people, living in and around a group of cities of about twenty to thirty thousand residents each. (3)

Since they came from the royal district, Isabel, Angela, and their peers, represented a variety of classes and occupations, including farmers, skilled artisans, royalty, and royal servants. Unless they were of a particularly high class, however, they would have known much about the agricultural work that was required of their Virginia indentureship. In Ndongo, even many urban dwellers grew grains like millet and sorghum. In the more rural areas of their towns, they also raised cattle, goats, chickens, and other livestock. The women were responsible for domestic labor and farming, but also participated in the market. In Virginia, they helped to grow tobacco and in 1624, Yeardley's laborers produced a tobacco crop valued at 10,000 pounds sterling. Most of the Ambundu servants already had been introduced to Catholicism before they arrived in Virginia, and, therefore, would not have found the religious beliefs and practices of the English colonists, relatively speaking, unfamiliar. As historian John Thornton noted, "By 1619, a Kimbundu-speaking Christian community existed in Angola," which "quite possibly" included those who arrived in Virginia in 1619. (4)

The Ambundu had an ethnic identity, based in part on their shared language, political affiliations, and perceptions of themselves as "people of the court" that probably was the basis for the beginning of a community in the mainland British colony. Given that most of those who arrived in 1619 came from the same region of Angola, spoke the same language, and shared other cultural attributes, it is not surprising that there remains evidence of community life. Isabel married Anthoney, a fellow member of the 1619 cargo. …


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