Brendan Wolfe: George Sandys came to Jamestown in 1621. Officially he was the colony’s treasurer. Unofficially, he was a poet. When he wasn’t tending the account books, he was at work on his magnum opus—
An English translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Living just a short stroll from the James River, Sandys spent his days untangling the stories of Roman mythology, refashioning them in the form of heroic couplets.
All of which makes me wonder—
As he immersed himself in Perseus’s fight in the palace of Cepheus—
Or Minerva’s encounter with the Muses on Helicon—
Or Proserpina’s abduction by the king of the Underworld—
Did the poet notice the dark-skinned woman who bustled around him?
She was called Angela and her story was every bit as remarkable as these others. In some ways it even paralleled them.
You can’t take the analogy too far, of course. But like Proserpina Angela had been violently ripped from her home. From everyone she knew and everything she understood.
She may even have been violated, like the goddess. So many in her position were.
Unlike Proserpina’s, Angela’s story probably didn’t end in freedom.
But she is remembered today. Four hundred years later, she serves as a vessel for understanding the past—
The Underworld that once was Virginia.
I’m Brendan Wolfe, editor of Encyclopedia Virginia at Virginia Humanities. On this episode of NOT EVEN PAST, we consider the life of Angela, one of Virginia’s first enslaved Africans. The staff at the encyclopedia has been out to Jamestown a couple of times now, and we’ve walked around the site where archaeologists believe Angela lived.
They’re digging it now and you can see the foundation of the house where the poet George Sandys penned his verses. It was a brick house—
“The fairest in Virginia,” according to Sandys. And it belonged to William Peirce.
Peirce was captain of the governor’s guards and commander of James City. His daughter was married to John Rolfe, once husband to the late Pocahontas. The two sold tobacco together.
Captain Peirce was one of the top men in the colony, in other words. When something big happened, he was someone the governor called on.
And late in the summer of 1619, something big happened.
It’s two years before Sandys shows up, by the way. And two English pirate ships have arrived at Port Comfort three or four days apart.
The White Lion comes first. John Rolfe is there to meet it and ends up reporting about the event in a letter.
This is the letter in which he famously describes the ship as a “Dutch man of Warr”—
But he was right that it “brought not anything but 20 and odd negroes.” They are sold into slavery for food and supplies.
When the second ship arrives, the Treasurer, Rolfe is joined by Captain Peirce. He’s there by request of the governor, who suspects the ships of piracy.
By the time he arrives the Treasurer and its captain have fled, leaving behind another dozen or more Africans.
One of them, of course, is Angela.
Myths involve the play of archetypes. Mars is the Roman god of war, Neptune the god of the sea, Cupid the god of love. They are the embodiment of something larger and more important.
In Virginia, as we approach the 400th anniversary of 1619, she is the goddess of slavery. I don’t mean that flippantly. She’s become a vessel for centuries of oppression and violence. She’s become an embodiment of that experience.
This is true in part because she was one of the first, at least here in Virginia.
But it’s also true because we know so little about her. It’s easier for us to abstract her.
Angela appears in the historical record just twice.
The first was a muster, or census, taken at Jamestown in 1624. She is identified as “Angelo a Negar” and living in James City. Note that she is not Angela but Angelo.
We might assume she was a he—
Except that she shows up again in the 1625 muster, this time as “Angelo a Negro Woman.” She came on the Treasurer, the records say, and labors in the household of Captain William Peirce.
Why Angelo instead of Angela?
As the poet Angela Jackson put it, “out of ignorance or spite or haste or casual hate…a flourished o instead of an a.“
Whatever the reason for her name, it blurs Angela a bit more. Or at least it makes her more fluid—
Moving as she does across the centuries.
Here’s what we do know about Angela. She was a survivor.
She probably was one of the Kimbundu-speaking people from a West African polity known as Ndongo. That’s in what’s present-day Angola.
Back then the Portuguese had figured out how to manipulate instabilities in the climate, geopolitics, and the economy. They whipped up violence and then swooped in to purchase captives like the ones from Ndongo.
Angela may have been a farmer, raising crops such as millet and sorghum, and tending cattle. We don’t know if there was a drought or a war. But there must have been a raid on her village.
So that’s the first thing she survived: the violence of her capture. Maybe she had a family and they were killed. Or maybe they were sold to other traders. Or maybe they simply remained in Ndongo.
Survival came with a steep price: heartbreaking separation.
Angela then had to survive the long march to the ships and the unspeakable cruelties of the sea voyage to America. More than 40 percent of the Africans who boarded the slave ship with her never made it.
They died from disease, from punishment, or from suicide.
Angela somehow survived all that—
As she did the attack on the Portuguese made by two English pirate ships, the White Lion and the Treasurer.
And after arriving in Virginia, she survived the sickness that took many first-comers and about a third of those first Africans.
Then three years later, in 1622, she survived a coordinated attack by Indians that wiped out nearly a third of the colony’s non-native inhabitants.
It seems almost a miracle that Angela lived long enough to be counted in that 1624 muster.
Survival still came with a steep price: alienation from everything she knew, understood, and held dear.
Captain William Peirce traveled from Jamestown to meet the Treasurer. Angela was on the Treasurer. Angela was recorded as living in his household.
Peirce probably purchased her—for food and supplies, as the records say—and so became one of the first slaveholders in Virginia.
She lived in his fair brick house, cleaning probably, and cooking. Mrs. Peirce cultivated a large garden. It was three to four acres, and one year they reaped 100 bushels of figs.
Certainly Angela helped with that.
She worked alongside several white indentured servants, including seventeen-year-old Thomas Smith, and thirty-five-year-old Henry Bradford. And a maidservant named Ester.
Peirce owned other slaves, but they worked on other properties. It’s not clear whether Angela ever met them. If she did, she might tested out whether they spoke similar tongues. She might have asked which village they came from. She might have hinted at the things she had lost and the things she had survived.
And all the while, George Sandys, the poet and translator, was lolling about—
Dreaming of his gods and goddesses—
And not seeing, I would guess, the one busy working in his midst.
As I mentioned earlier, the Encyclopedia Virginia staff traveled to Jamestown over the summer and we stood in that dug-up foundation of the Peirce house.
It’s just a few hundred yards from the James River, that day calm and blue. The tour guides can point to the spot on the shore where the docks had been. This is where Angela disembarked, where slavery entered the lexicon of Virginia history.
And this here, where we were standing, is where she labored in bondage.
We happened to notice some discolored spots in the dirt. Long oval patches that according to the archaeologists are probably graves.
Those same archaeologists are quick to point out, though, that we don’t know whose graves they might be. And for now nobody seems intent on digging them up.
Still, though. It makes you wonder.
Four hundred years after Angela arrived, Historic Jamestowne is using Angela as the lens by which they interpret slavery. Her picture—or at least a dark silhouette meant to represent her—can be seen on signs everywhere.
It’s not just Jamestowne, though. The National Baptist Convention of America has latched on to Angela, too. Or better yet, the idea of Angela. This summer they launched the Angela Project, a three-year movement commemorating the anniversary of black enslavement in America.
Angela is a striking figure—
Abstract enough to be useful but tantalizingly close.
Especially when you’re standing there, at Jamestown, looking at what might be her grave.
One of the archaeologists we met when we went to Jamestown was Chardé Reid and we asked her about what kind of stuff she’s found at the Angela site.
Chardé Reid: There’s something just so powerful I think for any archaeologist to have an artifact in your hand that nobody’s really interacted with in 400 years and to think of some of these artifacts that could potentially date to her time. And although many of them are European artifacts or a couple of them are Native American artifacts, if they were here when she was here, thinking of the way she would have interacted with it. Possibly she wasn’t drinking out of this fancy German stoneware jug but possibly she was responsible for filling it or cleaning it or admired it in some way or looked at menacingly in some way for what it represented. Who knows? Just kind of thinking of her connections to the object and to the place is really a unique opportunity to have especially for someone who was here at the very beginning.
I’ve always been really fascinated in what life in particular would have been like for African American women or African women especially during this time period. Through my family on my mother’s side we had people living in Virginia, Northern Neck of the Colony in the late 1600s. I really see Angela and the other first Africans who arrived here in 1619 as the foundation of that culture and that history that my family and myself now see as our own.
Something that is commonly said in archaeology is archaeology gives a voice to the voiceless or gives a voice to those who are silenced in the historical record. People who lived alongside and helped build society but could either not write or were not given the opportunity to write or their documents may have been destroyed at some point. People like women, children, African, African-American, Native American, poor whites, poor immigrants. There’s a big segment of the population whose voice is silenced by the documents that are left later. So by doing archaeology we can actually dig back in time and learn what their daily lives were like. And that’s exactly why we’re working on the Angela site right now is we don’t have any documents certainly left behind by those first Africans who were here. They didn’t leave us any written record of what their lives and their experiences here were like.
So by doing archaeology, we can look back and actually learn what life was like from them through the items that they left behind in their trash pits or things that they may have lost or the buildings that they built. It’s really the only way that we’ll be able to tell that portion of the story and to have a better, fuller idea of what early America was like for different individuals who lived here.
That was Chardé Reid, a graduate student in anthropology at the College of William & Mary and a First Africans Fellow with Jamestown Rediscovery and National Park Service Colonial National Parks.
BW: To read more about Angela and the first Africans in Virginia, go to EncyclopediaVirginia.org.
Music in this episode is by Blue Dot Sessions.
This podcast was produced by Miranda Bennett.