Before 1619, there was 1526: The mystery of the first enslaved Africans in what became the United States

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tags: slavery, United States, enslaved africans

Gillian Brockell writes for The Washington Post's history blog, Retropolis. She has worked for The Post since 2013.


By the early 1520s, nearly all of the indigenous people in the Spanish colony of Hispaniola were dead. Enslaved Africans were brought in to replace them in the backbreaking search for gold — gold that was getting harder and harder to find.

Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón, a government functionary in the colony, wanted to start a settlement of his own, and he got permission from the King and Queen of Spain to send scouts sailing up the east coast of what is now the United States to find a good spot. According to historian and anthropologist Guy E. Cameron, that permission came with the specific instructions that they build friendly relationships with any indigenous people they encountered.


It is impossible to know what happened to the Africans when they escaped into the forest. There are no written records. Would the Shakori or another indigenous group have recognized them as victims of the Spanish and taken them in? Or would they have seen them as an extension of the colonizers and killed them? Would they have been able to survive on their own?

Little is known about the Shakori today, but Cameron speculates they probably would have helped the Africans so long as it did not negatively impact their own preparations for winter. It is also possible some of the Africans traveled south as winter approached; Africans knew about the movement of the moon and stars, and would have known that the weather would be warmer farther south, Cameron wrote.

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