It is appropriate and thoughtful that the United States is commemorating the 400th anniversary of the first “African Landing” in the New World. Between 23rd and 25th August, ceremonies would be performed at a site known as Point Comfort, in Hampton, in the state of Virginia, where the first two ships that brought enslaved Africans docked. The commemoration began with the US Congressional Delegation which arrived in Ghana a fortnight ago, including Representatives John Lewis, one of the fathers of the Civil Rights movement, and Ilhan Omar, the intrepid Somali refugee recently elected to Congress.
Leader of the delegation, the Hon. Mrs. Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives, spoke to the Ghanaian Parliament on 31st July at which she observed that slavery was a “grave evil,” which the United States is still wrestling with. She said the visit had been a humbling experience for her delegation. “At the Elmina Castle, we saw the dungeon where thousands were grotesquely tortured. At the Cape Coast Castle, we stood before the Door of No Return, where countless millions caught their last glimpse of Africa before they were shipped to a life of enslavement.”
The first “20 odd Negroes” arrived in 1619 on board a ship, White Lion, after a harrowing journey that first began in a Portuguese ship, San Juan Bautista, with about 350 Africans on board. The voyage was racked by terror, hunger and death. Indeed, more than half of the slaves had died before the ship’s encounter with English pirates who seized 50 of those captives and took them aboard two ships, the White Lion and the Treasurer. The White Lion was first to arrive Point Comfort, and the captain’s immediate task was to sell the Africans in exchange for food.The Treasurer docked three days later. Their arrival was duly noted by the colonial secretary, John Rolfe, who was famous for being the widower of a Native American woman, Pocahontas, a name President Donald Trump tags on US Senator Elizabeth Warren, 2020 Democratic Party presidential candidate, to deride her Native American heritage claims.
Historians did not find many of their names, but it was recorded that Captain William Tucker took two of them into his household, Isabella and Anthony, and allowed them to marry. At the time there was no set way of dealing with Africans. They had indentured people in Virginia which was how many English men began their sojourn in the New World. They served some years and were freed and sometimes given a plot of land. “Some people may have seen Africans just like they saw other indentured people. We know some became free so it looks like they were treated like every other indentured person,” wrote historian and journalist Lerone Bennett in his 1962 book, Before the Mayflower: A History of the Negro in America. Some of the early Africans, like Anthony and Mary Johnson, who arrived in 1621 and 1622, respectively “amassed hundreds of acres of land and owned slaves themselves.”
A tragic change occurred in 1705 when the racial integrity laws were enacted which then institutionalized white supremacy and became a licence for the dehumanization of African people. From there things went uphill. The cruelties went on shamelessly for more than a hundred years till 25th March 1807 when the British Parliament abolished slavery and banned British ships from any involvement in the trade in any part of the British Empire. The next year, 1808, President Thomas Jefferson officially ended the African Slave Trade, but the trade went on. In 1822, freed African Americans founded Liberia as a new home for freed slaves. But in 1860, Abraham Lincoln won the election. He had promised to free the slaves. The Southern states to which slaves were their life-blood seceded from the union thereby setting up the Civil War. In 1862, Lincoln made good his promise.The Emancipation Proclamation freed all slaves in the seceded states, and, in effect, all the United States. In 1865, the Civil War ended in Union victory and slavery was abolished by the 13th Amendment. A hundred years passed before black people could vote.
Thus, the last 400 years had been a rough ride for Africans in the United States. The election of President Barak Obama was one bright spot. But for Africa, slavery had been one unmitigated disaster. It under-developed Africa. It was the continent’s first brain drain, which left the continent impoverished till today. The trade led to loss of cultural identity, language and self-esteem of African Americans. The African Group should raise the issue of the slave trade during the next UN General Assembly. It deserves a debate.