"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. Very nice link, thanks Uma!

    And all the pictures in this part of her gallery – are of herself, in poses corresponding to those she saw in earlier-taken pictures of ‘American Indians’, featured side by side – and they are all Sepia-toned! Perhaps an ‘homage’ to a certain website we know and love (?) :) Very nice indeed.

  2. 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

    Branch Dravidian, I think the above “advise” is completely BOGUS in my humble opinion. You dont look anything Desi because you are not completely Desi. So wouldnt you get any traits (I say most) from your european side of ancestory?? The whole logic of suggesting that you are at same a cardiological health risk as an FOB like me who has come from the “Des” into this completely different weather with totally different lifestyle, is as ABSURD as any comparison can be. So congrats on your healthy teeth (it is a sign of good eating habits which is an indicator of good health) and look forward to a long healthy life (without cardio risks).

  3. Branch Dravidian, I think the above “advise” is completely BOGUS in my humble opinion.

    Don’t listen to RC, best to err on the side of caution and cut down on the shrimp po’boys until you know you haven’t inherited Tamil arteries. If you’ve inherited French/Cajun genes, party on my fortunate Gallic-Dravidian friend laissez le bon temps rouler.

    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.

    Back on topic Ananda K. Coomaraswamy was an early, i.e. before 1917, desi immigrant (part Sri Lankan Tamil & part English) in the US. He was a philosopher and curator at Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

  4. Don’t believe the hype NK . Seafaring men of all races have quite the reputation for leaving descendents.

    Ship Ahoy…. Ship Ahoy Americans are arriving Midst the hubbub of the quay There are tears of joy Fugitive crystals Lighting up the women’s eyes. All have passed by -Chinese, negroes, Americans, Dutchmen- All have passed by and casually left their race in the bellies of the harlots of the port. [link]

    There were African immigrants in New England from the early 1800′s if not earlier and they were concentrated in the very seaport areas that the lascars would have frequented. So, anything’s possible.