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WHY 1526 IS AS DESERVING OF COMMEMORATION AS 1619

September 12, 2019
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In 1526 African slaves and Native Americans combined to rid North America of slavery for the first time. That year, those same Africans became the first permanent settlers on the land later to be called the United States of America, nearly a century before Jamestown. 

In 1521, the wealthy Spanish sugar planter Lucas Vazquez de Ayllón, from present-day Santo Domingo (DR), sent Francisco Gordillo and his cousin, the slave-hunter Pedro de Quejo to explore the American continent. They landed at a place thought to be the mouth of the Pee Dee River in South Carolina. Instead of exploring, Pedro de Quejo captured 70 Native Americans for sale into slavery in Santo Domingo. Thus, the official start of European-imposed slavery in (what we now call) the U.S. began with the capture of peaceful Native Americans in 1521. 

 In 1523, Ayllón obtained a patent from the Spanish King Charles V to explore and settle the continent.  Undeterred by Quejo’s violent start, in 1525, Ayllón again sent the slave catcher to make peace with the natives. It is believed that Quejo explored as far north as Delaware Bay, “obtaining” men from several areas to return to Spain or established colonies in order to learn the Spanish language and be used as interpreters. 

The first attempt at settlement — and slavery — on the continent would start off badly. In July, 1526, Lucas Vazquez de Ayllón sailed from Santo Domingo for South Carolina with three ships of 500 Spanish settlers, 100 horses and 100 African slaves onboard. They landed near present-day Georgetown, South Carolina on September 29th, 1526. Navigating upriver, they lost one ship immediately and the Native Americans they were using as interpreters fled almost immediately upon making landfall. After traveling by boat and land for several days they came to the mouth of the Pee Dee River and established the settlement of San Miguel de Guadalpe on October 8th, 1526.  

The Native Americans near the settlement fled the area or were openly hostile to it. Even though fish and game were plentiful, famine and outbreaks of disease plagued the settlers. After ten days, on October 18th, Ayllón died, leaving his nephew Johan Ramirez in charge. The Spanish argued among themselves. In November, the enslaved Africans, with the help of the neighboring Native Americans, rebelled. They set fire to the colonial dwellings, abandoning the settlement and assimilating into the surrounding Native American tribes. What was left of the Spanish colonizers, returned to Santo Domingo. Ayllón, who had paid for the entire expedition out of his own pocket, left his family in poverty.

So, as early as 1526, Native Americans and Africans effectively abolished slavery, and were the first real settlers of what came to be the U.S. were actually of African descent. 

The British also tried to settle the continent before the founding of Jamestown in 1607. With the financial help of, and permission from, the British Queen Elizabeth, Sir Walter Raleigh established the Roanoke Colony in 1585. The history of Roanoke is well-documented. When Raleigh returned to the site after a two-year absence, not a trace of the settlers could be found. Rumors abound, but there were only two possibilities: they were either assimilated or annihilated by the Native Americans tribes nearby.

Sir Walter Raleigh had another hand in making sure that Black people were the earliest permanent settlers on the continent. A slave trader, Raleigh carried shiploads of enslaved Africans for sale in the Caribbean and Brazil. Along with permission to settle North America, Queen Elizabeth granted him a marker to wage piracy against Spain (then at war with the British). Raleigh pursued and captured Spanish galleons with treasures stolen from the Americas. When Raleigh’s ships were carrying slaves to trade and came across Spanish vessels whose gold he could pursue, Raleigh would “maroon” his cargo of slaves along the continent’s east coast. So British greed brought even more Africans to the new land, long before they arrived as slaves in 1619. 

Those so-called maroons are part of America’s hidden history. Between 1500 and 1859 there were more than 500 reported revolts on slave ships. During the same period, at least fifteen hundred slave ships were never accounted for. There is no doubt that Africans who succeeded in taking over slave vessels often forced the ships to shore, killed the crews and burned the ship before disappearing into the interior of the U.S. and the Americas. Maroons faced the same fortune as the Roanoke settlers: be assimilated into or be annihilated by Native American tribes.

From a Black perspective, our African-American ancestors were here in the hundreds — maybe even, in the thousands — for nearly a century before 1619 or Jamestown. Moreover, these pre-Jamestown inhabitants were free. So it seems that marking 1619 as anything but the start of Anglo slavery under British law in what would become the U.S., presents history through a specific lens. Commemorating 1619, once again fits people of color — both Native Americans and Africans — into a familiar narrative of subjugation. But from a Black and Native American perspective, we should be proud of 1526, when we joined together to rid the continent of the vile institution for the first time. 

Nick Douglas is author of Finding Octave: The Untold Story of Two Creole Families and Slavery in Louisiana and Reclaiming Black History: Finding Admirable Ancestors, A Wealth of Heroism and Traits that Shatter Defeatist Clichés.

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