Discovery Offers Portuguese Angolans as Melungeon Link
The first shipment of slaves into Virginia now are identified as Portuguese Angolans by Engel Sluiter, a California historian who has delved into early Portuguese maritime records. The English colonists hardly knew what to do with the some two dozen blacks who landed from a Dutch ship at Jamestown in the summer of 1619.
There were no large plantations at that time to utilize slave labor. And the English colonists were accustomed to endentured servants who worked for their masters a specified number of years to pay for their passage to the New World and for their freedom–and they were unaccustomed to lifetime slavery.
Probably the condition of the slaves was not much worse than that of the endentured servants brought over from England. At times it might have been even better because the master had reason to take care of his slave who represented capital, whereas he had no similar incentive in regard to the condition of the endentured servant.
The development of slavery came extremely slow in Virginia. In 1681 only 2,000 black slaves were recorded there as opposed to 6,000 endentured servants. With the development of southern plantations, the importation of slaves rapidly increased. In 1754, 263,000 slaves were reported as taxable property. By 1860, 4,441,863 slaves were enumerated in the U.S. census.
Melungeon researchers point to several facts developed by Sluiter in his research suggesting that these early Angolan slaves were possibly a genetic component of the mysterious Melungeons. Many researchers have despaired of ever finding the origin of this enigmatic race. Their beginning has long been obscured in the mists of antiquity, but now progress is being reported in perhaps one genetic component of their forbears.
Most of the Angolans simply stepped off the gangplank into obscurity; only one possible member of the group, John Geaween, has been found in Colonial Virginia records examined thus far. By making a deal to raise hogs “on the halves” with his master, Geaween earned his freedom, according to “Virginia Council and General Court Records, 1640-1641.”
On March 31, 1641 the Virginia Court ordered:
“That John Geaween being a negro servant unto William Evans was permitted by his said master to keep hogs and made the best benefit thereof to himself provided that the said Evans might have half the increase . . . and whereas the said negro having a young child of a negro woman belonging to Lieut. Robert Sheppard . . . the said negro did for his said child purchase its freedom of Lieut. Robert Sheppard . . . the court hath therefore ordered that the child shall be free from the said Evans . .”
Sluiter determined that the Angolans were placed aboard the Portuguese merchant-slave ship “Sao Joao Bautisto” at the Angolan port of Sao Paulo da Luanda on the African west coast. The ship, heading for the New World, was attacked in the West Indes by the Dutch ship, and its human cargo fell into the hands of the privateers. The Dutch captain promptly set sail for Virginia to sell his human prize.
The Portuguese had fallen into the slave trade by accident. Toward the close of the war with the Moors, the Portuguese captured a group of Moorish prisoners-of-war. The Moroccans offered an even larger group of Blacks to secure the release of the Moors, and the Portuguese accepted the ransom. Immediately they were in business.
In 1420 Prince Henry the Navigator came to power in Portugal and immediately set about to build up a navy and a merchant fleet. He organized skilled map makers, ship builders, navigators and seamen into an immense maritime task force in an effort to dominate the world’s sealanes.
His aims were five-fold: He wanted to develop a Portuguese empire. He wanted to explore for a sea route to reach India and its lucrative spice trade. He wanted to fight the Muslims on their own soil. He wanted to accommodate the Catholics in their desire to Christianize the world. And he wanted to finance all of this expansion with the African slave trade.
His efforts were imminently successful. Portuguese captains in 1430 claimed Madiera, the Canary Islands and the Azores, uninhabited until then. Quickly the Cape Verde Islands, “Sao Tome & Principe, Guinea and Mozambique were added to the Empire. In 1488 Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope and discovered the coveted Spice Route. Vasco da Gama in 1497 claimed Brazil. In 1506 Adm. Tristao da Cunha discovered the South Atlantic island that still bears his name today. The Portuguese Navy wiped out the Muslim Navy in a sea battle off Diu in 1509. Pedro Alvarez Cabral reached China in 1542 and established Macao in 1557.
Probing the West African coast, they reached the mouth of the Congo River in 1482 and claimed 1,000 miles of the coast as Angola. Paulo Dias de Novais founded Luanda as its capital in 1576 and brought in the Catholic Church who began to convert the inhabitants, scattered over 481,000 square miles, an area almost 150 times larger that Portugal itself. A native monarchy, the Manicongo, sought conversion and alliance with the Portuguese. As a result, today 3,000,000 Angolans are Catholic.
In contrast to the colonization efforts of the British, the French and the Dutch, the Portuguese did not plant colonies. They organized each territory as a state in the Portuguese nation, and the inhabitants of each became Portuguese.
Thus when the Portuguese Angolans stepped of the gangplank in Jamestown in 1719, they were Portuguese citizens, spoke the Portuguese language and were Christians. Perhaps they eventually linked up with the descendants of the Portuguese survivors of the Spanish colony of Santa Elena which was established by Capt. Joao Pardo in 1566 in presentday Parris Island, South Carolina.
It is suggested that it was their descendants that Capt. John Sevier encountered in the Appalachians when he was dispatched by John Murray Lord Dunmore, governor of Virginia. His mission was to pacify the Indians before the outbreak of Lord Dunmore’s War in 1774.
In a report to Lord Dunmore, Capt. Sevier mentioned his encounter with a mysterious people he found west of the mountains. He described them as dark skinned, of reddish-brown complexion, neither Negro nor Indian, but with European features and who claimed to be Portuguese.
Another description of the possible Melungeons was given by early explorers Abraham Wood and James Needlum. According to Wood’s journal, “Eight days jorney down this river lives a white people which have long beards and whiskers and weares clothing.”
Samuel Cole Williams, LLD, wrote in “Early Travels in the Tennessee Country,” “There is a tradition among the early Cherokees that they respected a settlement of white men among them.” “Natural and Aboriginal History of Tennessee” by Haywood also deals with the early white men who lived among the Cherokees. Mention is made that they displayed a cross, iron implements and were called to assembly by a bell, suggesting a Catholic influence.
3) Dear Cousins
We were interested in the series of articles on the Ango-
lan connection to the American Melungeons by Tim Hashaw.
For the past three years we have been researching this
question from the “other end,” that is as specialists in
the history of Angola.
We are trying to see what happened to the thousands of
Angolans who were captured in a variety of campaigns
waged by various people in Angola in the period from 1615
to 1641 who were transported across the Atlantic. We
have come to believe that for this relatively short peri-
od of time, a very large percentage [over 80% and in some
years 100%] of all the Africans crossing the Atlantic
came from Angola.
The story is complicated, but it has to do with the com-
plex politics of the asiento, the contract to supply the
slaves for the Spanish Indies, and as it happened, Portu-
gal with close ties to Angola won the contract for the
period. They in turn benefitted from a military alliance
with Imbangala, a rootless mercenary group of people, who
allowed them for a brief time to pillage and nearly con-
quer the kingdom of Ndongo. It was only in the 1630s
that Queen Njinga finally fought them back. Her story is
one of the most dramatic in African History.
This is relevant to North Americans because this was a
time of English/Dutch war with Spain, and after the 12-
year expired about 1618, English and Dutch privateers
preyed on Spanish and Portuguese shipping in the Atlantic.
These privateering raids were the source of virtually all
the slaves brought to the Anglo-Dutch colonies. Because
they preyed on asiento vessels, almost all of these ships
were carrying Angolans. The best records of raiding are
for the Dutch, because Johannes de Laet, the chronicler
of the West India Company, chartered as a privateering
group, recorded the voyages of all the company ships from
their logs, including details of the captures they made.
All but one of the ships that the Dutch took were from
Angola, and they captured several thousand slaves during
the time of de Laet’s chronicle [1621-38]. English voya-
ges are more complicated and less well documented. but it
is interesting to note that all the ships that definitely
did bring slaves to America, Jupe’s “White Lion,” El-
firth’s “Treasurer” and Guy’s “Fortune” had all captured
Angolan ships. We know of no other ship taken by English
taken by English privateers from any other origin.
We have a quibble with the suggestion that “Malange” may
have been the source of the name “Melungeon.” Malange is
an important center in modern Angola, but it didn’t exist
in the seventeenth century, and the plateau called Ma-
lange was not so named in the earlier period.
We floated the idea that “Melungeons” derived from the
Kimbundu word “malungu,” which means boat, but came to be
extended, in Brazil at least, to mean “shipmate” or later
friend and pseudo-kinsmen from the tight bonds that peo-
ple formed on ships.
With regards to the origins of Gowen or Gaeween, we think
that the two names are probably the same word or name,
and the spelling irregularities are just typical of the
way Englishmen spelled in those days, that is phonetical-
ly without much standardization. We think that Mihil was
probably a similar spelling of “Miguel” [Michael], cer-
tainly a common name in Angola at the time. But we don’t
have a quick Angolan answer for “Gowen.” It does not
look like a word in Kikongo or Kimbundu, the only two
languages likely to have been an Angolan source [it would
not work in Umbundu either, a less likely but possible
origin]. We know a lot about Angolan names at the time,
but we ought to add some comments on this.
Angolans normally did not take surnames that they passed
down from one generation to another. A few people did
take Portuguese surnames, like de Castro, da Silva, da
Cruz, etc, and others took names from Biblical scenes or
verses–dos Reis Magros [the Magi Kings] was one. This
was particularly true in Kongo. But this latter class of
names was rare and mostly restricted to aristocrats, who
were not real likely to be in the slave trade.
Most Angolans, whether in Kikongo or Kimbundu speaking
areas took their father’s first name as their second name.
We think this is the origin of names like John Pedro, or
Antonio Francisco in Virginia, and in New Netherland, we
are able to show that children were definitely named us-
ing this pattern. Somtimes one or both of these names
would be in an African language, and there was a set for-
mat for presenting them: Joao Francisco Nkenge a Mvemba,
for example would be Joao son of Francisco who was also
Nkenge son of Mvemba. He might be known by just his
Christian names or by his Kikongo [in the case] names,
but USUALLY by his first name [or given name], the other
names would be used only in more formal situations. It
was very common to give a second name as an African name:
Maria Ndongo, Joao Lukeni, etc. These pairs were not a
first and last name, they were two first names, one in
Now what to say about Mihil/Miguel? We doubt that his
father was named “Gowen” or any variant of that, so we
think it likely that he took it as a patronymic, perhaps
from his master, perhaps from another person that he ad-
mired. But whatever its source is. it was passed on as a
patronymic from then on, just as second generation Ango-
lans converted the second names into patronnymics after
the first generation [so that Cisco is a common Melungeon
name from the orignial Francisco).
John and Linda Thornton