Angolan musicians and dancer, from a 1690 drawing by Antonio Cavazzi. Courtesy of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.
As you walk into the exhibition hall at Jamestown Settlement you’re suddenly plunged into a village in the small African kingdom of Ndongo, surrounded by sounds of the forest and greeted by the serene figure of a woman smoking a long-stemmed pipe.
There’s a circular hut and, just beyond, a woman tending a field with a hoe, a baby nestled into a sling on her back. There’s a man stripping bark from a baobab tree, which was to be hammered into fibers and woven into a fine, soft cloth.
If you pick up an audio stick you hear the cheerful voice of a native speaking in Kimbundu. Chances are you won’t understand a word, unless you’re familiar with the languages of West Central Africa. And I’ll wager not many of us has ever been to this region of the world.
But it’s very much part of our culture, and may now be, because of the historical importance of Fort Monroe, more relevant than ever.
Old Point Comfort, where the fort is located, is the spot where Dutch privateers, who had captured a Portuguese slave ship in the Caribbean, stopped in 1619 and traded the slaves for provisions. These 20 or so residents of Ndongo, now part of Angola, are considered to be the first slaves brought to America.
As the American colonies and the Caribbean sugar plantations grew more and more dependent on forced labor, the Europeans obliged by setting up a massive slave trading industry, with headquarters on the western African coast. Port cities like Norfolk and Charleston were gateways for this massive human cargo. The slave population in Virginia grew from those original 20 to 472,494 in 1860, according to the group Slavery in America.
It’s fair to say that many blacks in the U.S. today can trace their origins to these West African villages.
The Jamestown Settlement, the state-supported facility next to Jamestown Island, has a major exhibition hall that depicts “The World of 1607,” with equal attention to the English, Native Americans and Africans. During Black History Month in February the staff has highlighted parts of the exhibit with gallery guides titled “From Africa to Virginia.”
That African culture, both before and during the slave years, was richer than I realized – and the reason I’ve returned to see the exhibit.
West Central Africans lived in rural villages, towns and cities. Ruled by kings and queens, they prospered from extensive trade networks. They had developed the technology to make tools and weapons from smelted steel.
Ndongo religious practices were a blend of Christianity that was imported from Portugal and indigenous beliefs that included a high god called Nzambi and territorial deities and other lesser spirits. Daily religious life revolved around ancestors, and priests who – not unlike European counterparts – offered spiritual advice, problem-solving and healing.
They played a wide variety of musical instruments – drums, tambourines, flutes, guitars and lutes; they perfected crafts like weaving and wood carving; and they danced frequently, even adopting European-style court dances for special occasions.
One of the striking parts of the African exhibit is a life-size, bronze-like statue of Queen Njinga, the ruler of Ndongo for nearly 40 years who spent much of her reign battling the Portuguese who had sought to enslave villagers they had captured.
She was evidently a shrewd leader, aligning herself with powerful African military factions to defeat the Portuguese, then, later, converting to Christianity and signing a peace treaty with them. Still later, with help from the Dutch, she fought off the Portuguese again, often leading troops into battle.
Then the inevitable happened. After her reign, the English set up the Royal Africa Company. English-made goods were sold to Africa for gold, ivory and slaves. The slaves, hundreds every year, were shipped to Virginia and sold to planters – who used them to produce tobacco, which in turn went back to England. It was a vicious triangle that lasted for almost two centuries.
There you have it, Among the baobab trees, farm fields and thatched mud huts, awaits a whole lot of history and culture.