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Modern Voices
Margaret Washington on the earliest Africans in Virginia
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Q: Who are the early Africans who come to America?
Margaret Washington

A: We're not really sure where these early Africans came from. They were on mostly Dutch ships, some Portuguese ships, so they probably were from the central part of West Africa. That would mean that they were Congolese or from the Angolan region. And in the process of going from Africa, they probably stopped at the Caribbean, and from there, came to Virginia. They probably were individuals who had been exposed to several cultures before they got to Virginia. And that was another exposure. They probably had not heard English in the early years, and may have spoken Portuguese, and may have spoken French, may have spoken Spanish. And once again, had to adjust to another language.

One of the early Africans coming to Virginia, Antonio, who was later called Anthony Johnson, gives us a sense of this. His name was initially recorded as Antonio. So we know that he was probably given that name either by Spanish or Portuguese people. That's one possibility. The other possibility is that Antonio was from the Congo and may have been baptized, even by a Congolese priest, which they did on the coast of the Congo, who gave him that Latinized name. So there are various ways in which the early African Virginians arrived in the British mainland.
Margaret Washington
Associate Professor of History
Cornell Universiy

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