The Mayflower, which brought English Puritans, known today as the Pilgrims, from England to the shores of Cape Cod in 1620 has been called “one of the most important ships in American history.” Yet, another lesser-known ship, the White Lion, arrived on the eastern coast of North American a year earlier and also had a great impact on American history.
The White Lion was one of two English privateers – pirate vessels operating under Dutch government sanction – that attacked a Portuguese slave ship that was on its way to Vera Cruz. The slave ship initially had 350 captives from West Central Africa, but about a third of them had already died on the journey. The privateers then stole about sixty of them.
A few weeks later, in August 1619, the White Lion anchored off the coast of Point Comfort, at the mouth of the James River in desperate need of supplies. Records of the Virginia Company of London record that 20 or so of the captured slaves were then sold for food and other resources:
About the latter end of August, a Dutch man of Warr of the burden of a 160 tunnes arrived at Point-Comfort, the Comandors name Capt Jope, his Pilott for the West Indies one Mr Marmaduke an Englishman. They mett with the Treasurer in the West Indyes, and determined to hold consort shipp hetherward, but in their passage lost one the other. He brought not any thing but 20. and odd Negroes, which the Governor and Cape Marchant bought for victualls (whereof he was in greate need as he pretended) at the best and easyest rates they could.
This event is often regarded as the inception of African slavery in the American colonies. This is not entirely accurate. Enslaved Africans in the Spanish colonies go back at least a century earlier and even in what would become the United States, the Spanish had slaves as early as 1526 in the present-day Carolinas and 1565 in Florida. However, the White Lion slaves were the first brought to the mainland English colonies of North American.
Other factors would also be important in great expansion of the slavery in the South in the 18th and 19th centuries, but the White Lion planted the seed for southern slavery which was largely based on the British-style slavery rather than the Spanish. Therefore, the arrival of the White Lion and its cargo signaled the start of a deeply troubling practice that would persist for centuries, inflicting immeasurable suffering upon countless individuals.
To learn more about the White Lion and the history of slavery in the United States check out these resources from the Library.