It was 400 years ago, “about the latter end of August,” that an English privateer ship reached Point Comfort on the Virginia peninsula. There, Governor George Yeardley and his head of trade, Cape Merchant Abraham Piersey, bought the “20. and odd Negroes” aboard in exchange for “victuals” — meaning, they traded food for slaves.
Such a trade, as described five months after the fact in a letter to the Virginia Company of London, had never before occurred in English North America, making this an ignominious milestone — and one that 400 years later is still surrounded by misconceptions and debate.
At the very least, 1619 represented a landmark in the long history of slavery in European colonies, and the beginning stages of what would become the institution of slavery in America. The New York Times this past weekend announced a special project devoted to its indelible mark on American society, and Hampton, Va., is commemorating the anniversary through Wednesday. Previously, on July 30, when President Trump spoke in Williamsburg, Va., to mark the 400th anniversary of Virginia’s General Assembly, he noted — in a speech boycotted by the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, over Trump’s comments about black politicians — that it wasn’t long after that governing body first met that the colony saw “the beginning of a barbaric trade in human lives.”