The Misguided Focus on 1619 as the Beginning of Slavery in the U.S. Damages Our Understanding of American History

Michael Guasco in Smithsonian:

SlaveIn 1619, “20. and odd Negroes” arrived off the coast of Virginia, where they were “bought for victualle” by labor-hungry English colonists. The story of these captive Africans has set the stage for countless scholars and teachers interested in telling the story of slavery in English North America. Unfortunately, 1619 is not the best place to begin a meaningful inquiry into the history of African peoples in America. Certainly, there is a story to be told that begins in 1619, but it is neither well-suited to help us understand slavery as an institution nor to help us better grasp the complicated place of African peoples in the early modern Atlantic world. For too long, the focus on 1619 has led the general public and scholars alike to ignore more important issues and, worse, to silently accept unquestioned assumptions that continue to impact us in remarkably consequential ways. As a historical signifier, 1619 may be more insidious than instructive. In 1619, “20. and odd Negroes” arrived off the coast of Virginia, where they were “bought for victualle” by labor-hungry English colonists. The story of these captive Africans has set the stage for countless scholars and teachers interested in telling the story of slavery in English North America. Unfortunately, 1619 is not the best place to begin a meaningful inquiry into the history of African peoples in America. Certainly, there is a story to be told that begins in 1619, but it is neither well-suited to help us understand slavery as an institution nor to help us better grasp the complicated place of African peoples in the early modern Atlantic world. For too long, the focus on 1619 has led the general public and scholars alike to ignore more important issues and, worse, to silently accept unquestioned assumptions that continue to impact us in remarkably consequential ways. As a historical signifier, 1619 may be more insidious than instructive.

…Telling the story of 1619 as an “English” story also ignores the entirely transnational nature of the early modern Atlantic world and the way competing European powers collectively facilitated racial slavery even as they disagreed about and fought over almost everything else. From the early 1500s forward, the Portuguese, Spanish, English, French, Dutch and others fought to control the resources of the emerging transatlantic world and worked together to facilitate the dislocation of the indigenous peoples of Africa and the Americas. As historian John Thornton has shown us, the African men and women who appeared almost as if by chance in Virginia in 1619 were there because of a chain of events involving Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands and England. Virginia was part of the story, but it was a blip on the radar screen.

More here.

Like what you're reading? Don't keep it to yourself!
Share on Facebook
Facebook
Tweet about this on Twitter
Twitter
Share on Reddit
Reddit
Share on LinkedIn
Linkedin
Email this to someone
email