It’s kind of a famous line now, uttered by former Virginia Senator George Allen to a young political staffer named S.R. Sidarth. Many of us think it was probably responsible for bringing down the former Senator and shifting the Senate to the Democrats in the 2006 elections. It turns out that Allen’s statement would have been MUCH more appropriate if he had uttered it just under 400 years ago. On today, the 400-year-anniversary of the founding of Jamestown and the birth of what would one day become America, Francis Assisi and his fellow reporters at Indolink bring us this news culled from historical research of the last several years:
The best evidence suggests that the people from India arrived in colonial America in one of two ways. They were taken aboard as lascars or helpers aboard the trading ships of the British East India Company from Indian ports, and, on reaching England, succumbed to the promises of agents who were taking indentured workers to the New World. Or else they were taken as servants by the British “Nabobs” who amassed their fortunes in India and subsequently returned home to England and thence to the newly established colony in America – where they took their servants with them as a sign of their status.
A 2003 study prepared by Martha W. McCartney, a project historian for the National Park Service’s Jamestown Archaeological Assessment reveals that Captain George Menefie, who was assigned 1200 acres of land in Jamestown in 1624 used “Tony, an East Indian,” as a headright. This is further confirmed in a 2006 report from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation which identifies Menefie as a wealthy English merchant who arrived in Virginia in 1622, and obtained legal right to the land by paying passage for 24 immigrants, including an East Indian.
At the heart of the early migration to colonial America was the headright system designed to encourage immigration. Every Englishman who “imported” a laborer or servant to the colony received a fifty-acre land grant.
What the evidence from Jamestown/Williamsburg suggests is that the first East Indians were brought to Virginia within less than a generation of the arrival of European settlers in Virginia – and within a decade after the Mayflower landed in Plymouth. [Link]
p>Of course, as we know from history, Jamestown began to flounder and descended into chaos until they started profiting from growing John Rolfe’s tobacco, harvested by the first slaves in North America. After the first batch of African slaves, East Indians soon followed:
Social historian Thomas Brown, a faculty member at Lamar University, Beaumont, Texas has corroborated this in a 2004 research paper. Brown explains that many East Indians were imported to the American colonies by way of England, arriving already Christianized and fluent in English. Others arrived as slaves who had been captured and sold. “It is impossible to confidently estimate the size of the South Asian population in the Western Shore counties, but “East Indians” outnumber “Indians” in the extant colonial records after 1710 or so,” acknowledges Brown.
Furthermore, he claims: ‘In 18th century Chesapeake, South Asians stood out from sub-Saharan slaves both in culture and appearance. Since South Asians were a minority among the slave population, the community’s perception of their distinctiveness persisted for a longer period of time.’ And most surprisingly, Brown adds: ‘there was a significant contingent of “East Indian” slaves in the colonial Chesapeake.’ [Link]
When the Indolink article reprints ads placed to find runaway slaves, it just becomes sort of surreal for me:
- The Virginia Gazette of 4 August 1768 describes one young “East Indian” as “a well made fellow, about 5 feet 4 inches high” who had “a thin visage, a very sly look, and a remarkable set of fine white teeth.” Another is identified as “an East India negro man” who speaks French and English.
- On 13 July, 1776, the Virginia Gazette reported the run away of a “Servant Man named John Newton, about 20 Years of Age, 5 feet 5 or 6 Inches high, slender made, is an Asiatic Indian by Birth, has been about twelve Months in Virginia, but lived ten Years (as he says) in England, in the Service of Sir Charles Whitworth. He wears long black Hair, which inclines to curl, tied behind, and pinned up at the Sides; has a very sour Look, and his Lips project remarkably forward. He left his Master on the Road from Williamsburg, between King William Courthouse and Todd’s Bridge, where he was left behind to come on slowly with a tired Horse…” The advertisement by slave owner William Brown goes on: “he is a good Barber and Hair-Dresser, it is probable he may endeavour to follow those Occupations as a free Man. Whoever takes up the said Servant, and secures him in Gaol, giving me information thereof, so that I may get him again, shall have eight dollars Reward; and if delivered to me at Westwood, in Prince William, further reasonable Charges, paid by William Brown.” Another advertisement placed in the 19 July edition of the paper by the same William Brown, ups the reward amount to ten dollars with the added information that John Newton “shaves and dresses well, but is much addicted to liquor.”
For those of you that love history (always my favorite subject) I dug up a .pdf by Martha W. McCartney. Page 52 (out of 262 pages) has the reference to “Tony the East Indian”. There is another reference on page 133:
In 1737 when two male servants in Gloucestertown stole a pistol and some clothes and then spirited away on horseback, one was described as an “East Indian” (Parks, April 22, 1737).
The next time someone welcomes you to Virginia, welcome them back. Your peoples were at Jamestown.
Oh, and in somewhat related news.