"Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia"

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.

54 thoughts on “"Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia"

  1. “a thin visage, a very sly look, and a remarkable set of fine white teeth.”

    Wow. Ok so my Indian friends and I get complimented on our amazing teeth when we go in to the dentist every time. Are we the only Indians that this happens to? So when I saw that quote, a smile came on my face. I’m keepin’ it real, Macaca!

    Anyways, I sent SM an email about this (like I always do). My African-American friend found out this year that his grandmother is 100% Indian. She came over to New York with her family in 1918, they settled in Wisconsin and married black people. I’ve been trying to find more historical evidence of this but have had no luck yet. I would love it if anyone could point me in the right direction.

  2. Ok so my Indian friends and I get complimented on our amazing teeth when we go in to the dentist every time. Are we the only Indians that this happens to?

    And Daycruz, you might know this but for the benefit of others, back then having nice teeth was a sign of your value as a slave. If your teeth were nice and you didn’t have scurvy you could probably perform more labor for the massa. That is why the slave owner mentioned that in the ad.

  3. And Daycruz, you might know this but for the benefit of others, back then having nice teeth was a sign of your value as a slave. If your teeth were nice and you didn’t have scurvy you could probably perform more labor for the massa. That is why the slave owner mentioned that in the ad.

    Thanks for ruining it, Abhi. :)

  4. I have few other visible indicators of desiness… but I do have teeth like granite. Still awaiting my first cavity at age 38…

  5. Okay, I think the links in Francis’ comment are what I originally linked to in my comment that I now can’t find (!).

    If you or your friend needs more information, try contacting one of the authors in the article. I’m sure they will have more leads.

  6. Or else they were taken as servants by the British “Nabobs” who amassed their fortunes in India.

    So that’s what “nabob” means. Suddenly I feel all jumbly inside about jumping around as a little kid and singing “Friend Like Me” from Disney’s Aladdin. (It’s in one of the lyrics Robin Williams tosses off.)

  7. That ad Name linked to in #5 is effing awesome. Now I can go to bed happy.

  8. Blue:

    Nabob is a corruption of nawab, which refers (roughly) to Muslim governors under the Empire, and which becomes generally a word for a smallish ruler.

    According to wikipedia:

    The term is Urdu, derived from the Arabic being the honorific plural of naib i.e. ‘deputy’. In some areas, especially Bengal, the term is pronounced Nabob… In colloquial usage in English (since 1612), adopted in other Western languages, the corrupted form nabob (never officially awarded, but homophonous with the Bengali pronunciation) was erroneously used instead of Nawab but, also, since 1764 to refer to commoners: a merchant-leader of high social status and wealth or a capitalist. It can also be used metaphorically for people who have a grandiose style or manner of speech, as in Spiro Agnew’s famous dismissal of the press as “nattering nabobs of negativism”. East India Company men became known as nabobs and for those familiar with British insults this is also the origin of the British word knob. There was resentment in Britain against company men coming back from India very wealthy and then buying up land and mansions that used to belong to the established aristocracy in Britain.

    So Nabob = Nawab = Knob. No need to feel guilt about Robin Williams.

  9. Or else they were taken as servants by the British “Nabobs” who amassed their fortunes in India. So that’s what “nabob” means. Suddenly I feel all jumbly inside about jumping around as a little kid and singing “Friend Like Me” from Disney’s Aladdin. (It’s in one of the lyrics Robin Williams tosses off.)

    “Nabob” is a corruption of the title “Nawab.” There are other possible sources of South Asian slaves. The Mughals often disposed of undesirables by selling them into slavery. Since India did not have much of an internal slave trade, these prisoners usually ended up in Central Asian, Persian or European markets. Smaller states also contributed. Arakan (in present day Myanmar/Burma) was especially notorious in this respect, and slaving accounted for a substantial portion of its economy. “Pirates”… actually privateers in the pay of the Arakani government… harvested vast numbers of captives through both shore raids and seizure of shipping. Half of the prisoners became property of the state and were sent to forced labor camps to raise food crops or build roads and other public works. The remainder were sold to European traders who frequently called at Arakani ports. Arakan remained a slaving hub until it suffered a major military defeat at the hands of the Mughals in 1666 and lost its ports on the Bay of Bengal. I’m no Early America expert, so I can’t say for certain that any Jamestown slaves came through these channels…

  10. Great post, Abhi. I sound like a homer, but I just started checking out SM and keep getting good reasons to keep doing it. The added bonus this time is that I’m confident for my dentist visit tomorrow (who can’t believe that I never learned about floss at home).

    Maybe John Newton the Darjee was the first desi on N. American soil to say “Not that kind of Indian.”

  11. I’ll do you one better. Kennewick man was my long lost proto-ancestor Murali P. Thiruchengodu Mudaliar. I know this because his skeleton was found with a tiffin carrier containing a fossilized idli which was composed of rice only grown in the Cauvery river delta. Sadly he was not able to finish his meal, which was lovingly prepared by his devoted wife Meenaksi R. Mudaliar, due to his sudden demise by megapossum attack.This land is MY land, the rest of you can get the fudge out.

    Now that I got that out of the way, I am pretty sure the founder of Yale, who used to manage “Madras” for the East India company, came to the US with several Indians but I believe in this case they were indentured servants rather than slaves. I was not aware of Indians here in the US who were actual slaves

  12. I have few other visible indicators of desiness… but I do have teeth like granite. Still awaiting my first cavity at age 38…

    Branch Davidian: I think it has more to do with diet than anything else. I am 100% desi, am around the same age as you, born/raised in the US and have 4 cavities. My contemporaries and the generation younger than me are about the same. I think it’s all the sugar & soda. If you don’t show any external signs of desiness, you may have some internal ones. Be sure to be extra carefull with respect to cardio health, a skinny Indian is more at risk than an obese Euro-American. Hate to be a downer, but I was given the same advice and want to spread the gloom

  13. I figure that when production of cane sugar in the American colonies took off, Europeans’ teeth started to seriously deteriorate. (When did the toothbrush come into widespread use??) :-S

  14. I will be using this post as part of a lesson plan about local communities one day.

    Here in the real world of VA , we are being inundated by ads and stories luring us to W’burg and J-town for that tourist dollar. I dunno if the rest of the country is seeing these ads for Virginia-with the folks in T-shirts that say “Thank You insert name of famous early settler.”

    Now I will think of “Tony”, John Newton, and his descendants the next time I see that commercial.

  15. This is such an interesting bit of history. I wish we could trace back and find out what happened to some of these early Indian settlers…who did they marry, where are their descendants now. I bet a lot of people would be surprised they have Indian-not-Native-American blood in them. I wonder if that happened: some people who say they have Indian blood, and mean NA blood, actually have REAL Indian blood. Or if its people who say they have African/black/slave blood but actually have Indian blood.

    Plus, this seems like it should’ve been so obvious but we never really thought of it before. The British were in India, then the British went to America…of course a few Indians went along too!

  16. I’ve been trying to track down McCartney’s study, and here’s the very file I was after. This is spooky. A million thanks for posting this, Abhi. I’ve been intrigued by this story for years.

    A.R.Yngve, my handy Panati tells me that Du Pont brought Americans nylon toothbrushes in the 1930s, but they were stiff and tore up the gums, so widespread use wasn’t until the 50s when softer brushes were introduced.

  17. Thank you Abhi for this great post. I embrace and kiss on the forehead any new knowledge that can tell me more about how U.S. history REALLY happened instead of self-aggrandizing, glossy, tourist-oriented whitewash. These early stories of slavery that stole all kinds of enslaved browns, blacks and whites from around the world to the economic benefit of the U.S. are part of the more than 400 year bloodsoaked saga of the ongoing American slavery. As a nation, we have to talk about this country’s dependence upon and denial of exploitation and oppression.

    Speaking of tracing geneology and genetics, I recommend “African American Lives”, a fascinating PBS series from a couple years ago. The family trees of several prominent African Americans are researched, and they get DNA tests. Asian ancestry is found for one of them, with a short history factoid about the use of Chinese indentured labor in the US. The series also mentions the surprising genetic profile of a white researcher who finds more that just Europeans in his own family tree. Anyway, just another source of info on how very mixed this country’s bloodlines are.

  18. It really annoys me that people refer to Native Americans as Indians. We are the Indians. They are Native Americans. Most West Indians aren’t even Indian either..

    From Wikipedia: The name “Caribbean” is named after the Caribs, one of the dominant Amerindian groups in the region at the time of European contact during the late 15th century.

    The analogous “West Indies” originates from Christopher Columbus’ idea that he had landed in the Indies (then meaning all of south and east Asia) when he had actually reached America.

    The Spanish term Antillas was commonly assigned to the newly discovered lands; stemming from this, “Sea of the Antilles” is a common alternate name for the Caribbean Sea in various European languages.

    In the English-speaking Caribbean, someone from the Caribbean is usually referred to as a “West Indian”, although the rather cumbersome phrase “Caribbean person” is sometimes used. The use of the words “Caribbean” and “Caribbeans” to refer to a West Indian or West Indians is largely unknown in the English-speaking Caribbean.

  19. Some of these Lascars also ended up in Salem MA and later married black women. Later (early 19th c), there were lots of Indians on the east coast of US working on whaling ships. One thing worth knowing is when did the first women arrive? With all these groups, presumably even the few Indian slaves that came w/brits, it was just men. Same goes for all those railroad people on the West Coast much later and for the whalers.

  20. Great post and fascinating information.

    Latest National Geographic magazine has article on Jamestown and problems initial folks went through. While reading it a thought did cross my mind wondering with all those ships doing UK-India-UK routes those days was it possible some slaves or “exotic Indians” (along with loot) were taken from India to UK during at least some initial runs and if they made it to US.

    And it appears they did! Cool stuff.

  21. hey, noblekinsman, Do you have any references for Indians in New England? I’d especially be curious about the whaling industry.

  22. Fascinating stuff.

    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.

    Actually, if one considers the fact that the gypsies of Europe originated in India, then desis can claim to have settled in the Americas, including North America, long before the Mayflower landed in Plymouth:

    http://sciway3.net/clark/freemoors/roma.html

    “Roma, or Gypsies, were in the Americas along with the very earliest settlers……There are written records of the Portuguese “dumping” Gypsies in South America, and legends of them doing the same at what is now Port Royal, SC, long before the English came.

    Roma, or Gypsies as they are often called by non-Roma, have clear origins in India, early characterized by Europeans with dark skin and black hair. A thousand years of co-existence in Europe has resulted in some integration and today Roma may be found in all sizes, and with all shades of skin and hair”

    http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles/RR/pxrfh.html

    “Romani people, commonly known as Gypsies, have been in the Americas since 1498, when Columbus brought some on his third voyage to the West Indies. Their subsequent forced transportation brought most Gypsies across the Atlantic. To understand why Gypsies were shipped to the American colonies, it is necessary first of all to examine the circumstances of their presence in Europe. They arrived in the Balkans from India in the middle of the thirteenth century because of the spread of Islam into the Byzantine Empire; the ancestors of the Gypsies had in fact left India in the first place during the first quarter of the eleventh century”

    Gypsies were the first people of color to come into Europe in large numbers-their descendants there today number about eight million……During the colonial period, western European nations dealt with their “Gypsy problem” by transporting them in large numbers overseas; the Spanish shipped Gypsies to their American colonies (including Spanish Louisiana) as part of their solución americana; the French sent numbers to the Antilles, and the Scots, English, and Dutch to North America and the Caribbean. Cromwell shipped Romanichal Gypsies (i.e., Gypsies from Britain) as slaves to the southern plantations; there is documentation of Gypsies being owned by freed black slaves in Jamaica, and in both Cuba and Louisiana today there are Afro-Romani populations resulting from intermarriage between freed African and Gypsy slaves.”

    Being of Indian descent, Gypsies have retained an Indian cultural and linguistic heritage as well; Romani is widely spoken, and is certainly one of the healthiest immigrant languages in the country, transmitted from generation to generation with little danger of dying out in the foreseeable future. This is because language is a principal factor of Romani ethnic identity, and because certain cultural events require its exclusive use. If one cannot speak the language, he simply cannot participate. One such event among the Vlax is the kris or Romani Tribunal, a kind of internal “court” which deals with problems within the community. Such courts take place several times a year, usually in Houston or Fort Worth, and have their origins in the Indian panchayat.”

    “Unlike the situation in Europe, where Gypsies are much in evidence, Roma in the United States have been called the “hidden Americans” because they remain by choice largely invisible. There are two reasons for this: first, the United States is made up of minority groups of all complexions, and so it is easy for Gypsies to present themselves as American Indians, Hispanics, or southern Europeans, and they usually do this rather than identify themselves as Gypsies.”

  23. there’s a few in moby dick (1851). Emerson talks about seeing picturesque hindoos in New Bedford (1830). Vijay Prashad says something about these Salem people that married blacks (with a source, but I don’t recall his) but it seems unsubstantiated and honestly unlikely.

  24. “Unlike the situation in Europe, where Gypsies are much in evidence, Roma in the United States have been called the “hidden Americans” because they remain by choice largely invisible.

    Jeffrey Kripal, the professor who wrote Kali’s Child, which claimed Ramakarishna was gay, is of gypsy origin.

  25. Amazing.

    I wonder why I haven’t heard of this before, though. All the sociological research I’d read about the Desi community in the states pegged Sikh Canadian laborers in the 19th century as the earliest significant population of Desi migrants. I wonder what happened to the descendants of all of these early immigrants. I wonder if any of their descendents knew about their Indian ancestry when encountering the large new waves of immigrants since the 1960s.

    Also, I wonder why the Indian culture brought by these indentured servants and slaves didn’t survive in the US the way it did in the Carribbean, or the way African traditions survived even through slavery days.

  26. “Being of Indian descent, Gypsies have retained an Indian cultural and linguistic heritage as well; Romani is widely spoken, and is certainly one of the healthiest immigrant languages in the country, transmitted from generation to generation with little danger of dying out in the foreseeable future. This is because language is a principal factor of Romani ethnic identity, and because certain cultural events require its exclusive use. If one cannot speak the language, he simply cannot participate.

    Yeah! The Roma’s connection to India is one of the coolest

    And it makes me wonder about what happened to these 18th century Desi settlers even more. If the Roma could hold on to some semblance of brown culture despite years of oppression for it and African slaves could hold on to parts of their culture even while white society was trying to stamp it out, what happened to the earliest Desis? Perhaps there’s some local American sub-culture with weird Desi quirks and traditions still lurking out there…

  27. Neal,

    I think there are disputes regarding links between Indians and the Roma. Also, numbers are important. Indians made up negligible numbers in the US compared to the West Indies. Also, migrations to the West Indies are far more recent, 19th century. Good question tho.

  28. SM should host a contest to seek out desis with the longest ago Indian-come-to-America blood. And the winner of the contest will get a….pat on the back? Seriously, though, it would be fascinating to learn more about the stories of some of these decendants.

    Also, I wonder why the Indian culture brought by these indentured servants and slaves didn’t survive in the US the way it did in the Carribbean, or the way African traditions survived even through slavery days.

    There probably were not enough desis in the colonial US to forge such a strong bond. Plus, although many Carribean desis were brought to the US as indentured servants, they weren’t treated as poorly as slaves, and thereafter had access to great business opportunities and success.

  29. from #13: (who can’t believe that I never learned about floss at home)

    i’m SO relieved to see that i’m not the only one who wasn’t told at home i needed to floss and how to do it!

  30. Neal

    I wonder why the Indian culture brought by these indentured servants and slaves didn’t survive in the US the way it did in the Carribbean, or the way African traditions survived even through slavery days.

    Probably b/c they came in such small numbers. Once the importation of Indian slaves ended, the remainder were just assimilated into the larger slave population. And since they were such a minority, there cultural impact on the wider slave population was negligible.

  31. i heard an interview with james brown where i thought i heard him say his mom was indian… and no one believes me… they argue he meant “native american”, which he is from his dad’s side. on wikepedia all it says is his mom was “asian”… they argue that means the “other” asian. with this info i have more ammo to my arguement. thanks abhi

  32. 38 And the winner of the contest will get a….pat on the back?

    No, a date with Vinod :-D

  33. No, a date with Vinod :-D

    He’s pretty hot, but I think I’d skip on the date. My boat don’t float that way.

  34. and a remarkable set of fine white teeth This is the FIRST thing that popped into my mind.

    Oh yeah, Abhi? And what about Sanjaya?

  35. “Indian slaves”/”coolies” worked all over, ESPECIALLY in the Caribbean/West Indes…to the poster who said most West Indians aren’t even Indian, it really depends on where you’re talking about…you are technically correct, but in countries like Guyana, Indian Guyanese outnumber the African Guyanese…in Trinidad, its about 50/50, even in counties like Jamaica, Indians are the major minority (20%)…my family is from Guyana, its obvious Guyanese Indians have far more influence and impact as a minority in the Caribbean than blacks or hispanics do in the US… They just choose not to identify themselves as seperately as Americans tend do…while everybody in the US is “african american” or “asian american” you rarely see people in the West Indes call themsleves “Indian Trini, African Trini” and the like (unless its in the form of political struggle of course)…they are just all Caribbean folk…and very proud of that… To any West Indians out there, yall know what I am talking bout – we don’t feel the connection to India other NRIs do as we have been away from it for a LONG time…and also because of the big elephant in the room – the simple fact that the average Indian has no knowledge of, or doesn’t care about the fact that it exported its own people into “legal slavery.” I am also a DJ, and I’ve done a couple Indian/Guyanese weddings, and the two sides ALWAYS clash when together…so its funny to see an (East) Indian site do stories like this as if this part of the diaspora is connected to India in some meaningful way…no disrespect, but that connection was severed quite some time ago…

  36. Why don’t people refer to Filipinos as Spaniards? The difference between them is similar to the differences between Indians and the “West Indians.” While there are people of Indian descent in Guyana, Jamaica and Trinidad who retain some aspects of Indian culture such as the food, their culture and attitude has evolved and become more similar to the native Caribbean folk – a sharp contrast from NRI Indians in the US or UK.

  37. “I wonder what happened to the descendants of all of these early immigrants. I wonder if any of their descendents knew about their Indian ancestry when encountering the large new waves of immigrants since the 1960s.”

    Men can’t make descendants by themselves. In California, some punjabis married mexicans. These east coast people were probably not even migrants but worked on ships. They wouldn’t have left any descendents in the U.S.

  38. 24

    It really annoys me that people refer to Native Americans as Indians. We are the Indians.

    Names change significance over time to the people who use them. Many Native tribes call themselves American Indians today, as opposed to Native Americans, which they see as a PC term invented by academics who were mostly white.

    An artist friend, Marguerite Houle, and I spoke together at a conference earlier this year. (She’s Huron/Metis from the Great Lakes Area, now lives in New Mexico; and I’m desi, born in India, now live in NM). Our talk was titled “Indian to Indian” and was about humor in picture books (as in we need more of it!)

    Photographer Annu Palakunnathu Matthew has a cool exploration of stereotypes in imagery of “Indians” (them, with us as the “other”) on her web site.