• Overemphasizing 1619?

    Here’s an important article from The Smithsonian Magazine about the consequences of framing long historical processes. In this case, Michael Guasco explores what is meaningful about the arrival of “20. and odd Negroes” at Jamestown and the answer is not much. Guasco makes several insightful observations. Europeans had trafficked in African men, women, and children for at least 100 years before 1619. They had also relied on African and Caribbean locals for knowledge about tobacco planting and other necessary skills for transforming the landscape and sustaining life on the “wisp of America” precariously held by English settlers. Most importantly, Guasco reminds us that Europeans were not “at home” in the Americas in the 16th and 17th centuries. The narrative of the arrival of Black people in 1619 makes it seem as though the Jamestown settlers received the Africans into a stable community. In reality, the English were barely hanging on. They were but the advance guard of English colonizers that would systematical dispossess African and indigenous North American Indians from their lands. And it is worth noting that the Spanish, Dutch, and Portuguese joined the English in creating the transatlantic trade networks that depended on African labor. Finally, the story of 1619 silences not only the voices and agency of the “20. and odd Negroes” but also those of “the more than 500,000 African men, women, and children who had already crossed the Atlantic against their will.”


Professor of English and American Literature at Bucknell University since 2003.


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