First Africans in Virginia: Alexandria Author Ric Murphy Writes About His Ancestors

'I think it’s really important that we find out who our people are, but more importantly how our people contributed to making America what it is today.'

Author and historian Ric Murphy (Courtesy photo)

ALEXANDRIA, VA – On the Nov. 3 edition of “Reading, Writing and Ralph,” The Zebra’s literary critic Ralph Peluso spoke with Alexandria resident Ric Murphy about his book, “Arrival of the First Africans in Virginia.”

Murphy is a self-described “man for all seasons.” He is an educator by training, businessman by vocation, historian by curiosity and genealogist by birth.

Murphy is Black man and enjoys writing about African American history because his roots are so impressive. Murphy’s ancestors were from the first 30 African-born settlers to arrive in the British colonies in 1619. In fact, he has thirteen ancestors who fought in the Revolutionary War and many of them were commended for their bravery.

“I think it’s really important that we find out who our people are, but more importantly how our people contributed to making America what it is today,” he said.

An enlightening history

In an enlightening history lesson, Murphy discussed how Portugal came to colonize Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries. During that time, Spain and Portugal were the only major seafaring powers. Pope Alexander VI demarcated a line in 1493 – later codified in the Treaty of Tordesillas – that allowed the Portuguese sole ownership over Africa and Brazil without having enter into war with Spain.

The Portuguese gravitated towards Angola for trade because it was a relatively advanced society. The two kingdoms were trading partners for 125 years. Many Angolans actually went to Portugal and Rome to be educated.

The relationship changed in 1618 when silver was discovered in the city of Kabasa. Afterward, the Portuguese immediately decided to conquer the Angolans. Within months, the Portuguese sent an armada of 33 ships and enslaved them with overwhelming force.

That the Portuguese enslaved their captors, Murphy noted, was not an unusual form of cruelty. The practice was customary in European, African, and even Native American societies. The enslaved people would then be assimilated into society over multiple generations.  Murphy noted that this was significantly different than the Antebellum South.

The Slimmest of Coincidences Saves the Colonies

The San Juan Bautista was the first ship to take prisoners and happened to take members of the royal class. This ship was bound for present-day Mexico when it was captured by British pirates. The pirates were hoping to get gold and loot. Instead, they found 360 slaves on board.

They took the 60 healthiest and split them between two ships. One vessel headed for the West Indies and the other to Jamestown Colony At Jamestown, 30 men were offloaded with the intention of being added to a class of indentured servants taken up by peasants.

Contrary to popular belief, these thirty men were not technically slaves since the law did not exist under the British crown. Regardless, a labor force was still available.

Murphy argued that the British partially encouraged colonization to control the population control. Ridding the mainland of its peasantry led to “less mouths to feed” in times of hardship. The Crown was not directly invested and didn’t expect the peasants to succeed. The endeavor was a private one by the Virginia Company. Tragically, one-third of each shipload of passengers would die by the time the next shipload arrived.

The differences in climate made the settlers ill-equipped to deal with Virginia in terms of both survival and agricultural success. Murphy explained that because these Angolan Royals were educated at the best universities and had experience cultivating, they were successful at advancing farming in the colonies.

Rather than highlight their victimization, Murphy discussed with Peluso how this first generation of Africans were saviors of the Jamestown colony.

A Very Well-Documented Population

Records of the sixty slaves seized from the San Juan Bautista existed everywhere from Mexico to Rome to Virginia to Angola.

It also helped that this cohort of Angolans were trained in the law. The Portuguese system of law was more advanced than the British. As a result, they quickly adapted to mastering it, which allowed Murphy to draw from more documentation for his research.

Raised on Oral Tradition

Murphy grew up being surrounded by stories of his rich ancestry by his grandparents’ generation.

“You can’t believe how rewarding it was to validate all those stories,” said Murphy. “I wish my grade school teachers and high school teachers were still alive because I wasn’t a good history student.”

The writer described his reputation in history class as that of a trouble maker.

“When I would read certain things in middle school or high school, I would disagree with the teacher because what I learned at home (the oral traditions in my family) was not what I read in the text book,” he said. “When people heard I had 13 ancestors who fought in the revolutionary war they were like, ‘Sure, Ric. Go sit in the corner.’ ”

“All of those stories I heard as a child, I was now able to prove,” Murphy said.

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