On this dayAug 20, 1619

First Enslaved Africans Land in Jamestown, Virginia

Image | Hulton Archive, Stringer, Getty Images

The stage was set for slavery in the United States as early as the 14th century, when Spain and Portugal began to capture Africans for enslavement in Europe. Slavery eventually expanded to colonial America, where the first enslaved Africans arrived in the Virginia colony at Point Comfort on the James River on August 20, 1619. There, “20 and odd Negroes” from the White Lion, an English ship, were sold in exchange for food; the remaining Africans were transported to Jamestown and sold into slavery.

Historians have long believed that these first Africans enslaved in the colonies came from the Caribbean, but Spanish records suggest they were captured in Angola, then a Portuguese colony in West Central Africa. While aboard the ship São João Bautista bound for Mexico, they were stolen by two English ships, the White Lion and the Treasurer. Once in Virginia, the enslaved Africans were dispersed throughout the colony.

Although Virginia was the first British colony to legally define slavery in mid-17th century North America, slavery did not immediately become the predominant form of labor there. For decades after slavery was formalized, Virginia plantation owners held nearly ten times as many indentured servants as enslaved Africans, and many of them were white. By the 1680s, however, African slave labor became the dominant system on Virginia farms and the slave population continued to grow exponentially. As enslavement became a status centrally tied to race, colonial American laws and culture developed to create a narrative of racial difference that defined African people as intellectually inferior, morally deficient, and benefitted by the "civilizing" influence of slavery.

This belief system and institution spread widely over the next two centuries, even as the United States gained independence and embraced a national identity as the "land of the free." At the start of the Civil War in 1861, Virginia had the largest population of enslaved black people of any state in the Confederacy.

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