AMERICA’S GIFT: THE UNTOLD STORY OF HOW BLUES EVOLVED. EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER TWO.
The genesis of the blues as a style of music began with one of the biggest crimes against humanity, the evil that is slavery.
The African slave trade, in particular, had been operating for thousands of years, with black slaves a common sight in ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, ancient Rome, and other early societies across their world. In Western Africa alone, where the first seeds of blues music originated, it has been estimated that up to half of the population were held in slavery between the years 1300 and 1899.
For historical balance, it must be mentioned that white slaves, too, were traded globally in massive numbers, until as recently as the nineteenth century, especially in Muslim countries. It is not exaggerating to say, right up until the end of the American Civil War, that slavery was the unsavoury way of an unfair world. Unfortunately, slavery in some countries still goes on today.
The catalyst that sparked the evolution of the blues started in the 1430s, when Portuguese ships exploring Africa’s western coast for gold and spices chanced upon the enormous slave markets, which had been operating there seemingly forever.
On sale were hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children, many of whose only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time. These Africans had been captured by more powerful local tribes, or by the nomadic Berber warriors who regularly crossed Western Africa on dedicated slave-hunting expeditions. Other slaves for sale would have been those who had broken tribal law (an African queen was once sold into slavery because of her adultery) as well as African warriors taken prisoner in local battles.
In today’s language, slavery on Africa’s west coast had long been a multi-billion dollar industry, market-driven by an insatiable demand from Muslim merchants in Africa’s north, to service a clientele stretching from the Middle East to Carthage, and beyond. Strong slaves were in particular demand, to work as porters carrying goods across the Sahara, a gruelling task with a high mortality rate.
Forever on the lookout for lucrative business opportunities, by the early 1440s, the Christian Portuguese, too, were heavily involved in the African slave industry. Their sadistic practices were even endorsed by the Catholic Church in 1452, when the Pope granted the Portuguese King, “The right to enslave Saracens, pagans and other unbelievers to perpetual servitude”. In other words, the Church gave the Portuguese carte blanche to put anyone who wasn’t white or Christian into a state of hereditary slavery. As far as the Portuguese were concerned, they were dealing in slaves with God’s blessing. Slavery was obviously the way of the Christian world, too, in the mid-fifteenth century.
By the early 1500s, the Portuguese were shipping untold numbers of reluctant Africans to toil in their enormous new South American colony, Brazil. As many as 15 million enslaved Negros are thought to have been sent to the Americas by the Portuguese and Spanish between 1650 and 1850 alone, with another 15 million unfortunates dying en route.
Such numbers make the half a million African slaves, transported to the USA between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, seem almost moderate in comparison.
The story of some of the first African slaves to arrive in North America is a complicated one; and only recently revised, thanks to research by the late U.S. historian, Professor Engel Sluiter. Contrary to the belief that these slaves came from the West Indies, Dr. Sluiter’s research shows they were from Angola on southern Africa’s west coast, overturning 400 years of American history.
In 1619, a Portuguese slave ship, the ‘San Juan Bautista’, was robbed of a number of slaves off the east coast of today’s Mexico by English and Dutch privateers. These were two warships licensed by their countries to attack and loot enemy ships. Many would call them pirates. The English privateer, the ‘Treasurer’, was part-owned by the then governor of Virginia, which 12 years earlier had become England’s first overseas colony. Virginia’s governor, Samuel Argall, was the sea captain and explorer whose ship took the legendary Native-American princess, Pocahontas, to England. The other warship, the ‘White Lion’, flying a Dutch flag, originated from Flushing, an English garrison operating in the rebel Spanish Netherlands, famous for its corsairs and privateers.
Settled in 1607, Virginia was being developed by a joint stock company chartered by England’s King James 1, also King of Scotland, then a separate state. In an early example of corporate nastiness, the Virginia Company introduced into America a subtle form of white slavery, called “indentured servitude”. This was a scheme where poor or orphaned British children, and even those from German states, had their sea passages to Virginia and board in America paid for, in return for up to seven years of hard labour. Such was the demand for cheap labour in Virginia, white adolescents were even kidnapped and transported to America totally against their will. Due to the corrupt systems in place, some of these “indentured servants” never did obtain their freedom.
Dr. Sluiter’s ground-breaking translation of Spanish tax records, as revealed in the April 1997 edition of the William and Mary Quarterly, tells us how 2,000 African slaves, during the fiscal year of 1619, were loaded into six slavers in Sao Paulo de Loanda, capital of Portuguese Angola. As was commonplace, most of these slaves died en route to their destination – Vera Cruz, in the Gulf of Mexico. One of these slave ships, the ‘San Juan Bautista’, which had taken 350 slaves aboard in Angola, wrote Dr. Sluiter, was then “robbed at sea off the coast of Campeche (a state in south-east Mexico) by two English corsairs. Out of 350 slaves, large and small … loaded in said Loanda, the English corsairs left him (the San Juan Bautista’s captain) with only 147.”
Concluded Dr. Sluiter, “It is extremely likely that these two ships (the White Lion and the Treasurer) were the two that attacked the slaver San Juan Bautista in late July or August that year (1619). After the attack, there presumably was time enough to sail through the Florida Strait so as to reach Virginia by the end of August … the San Juan Bautista was the only slave ship among the 36 names as arriving at (its destination) Vera Cruz during the fiscal years 1618-1619 through 1621-1622 to be attacked, inbound from Angola, by corsairs.”
The Portuguese colony of Angola was established under the flag of the King of Spain, explaining why Spanish authorities were ‘head’ taxing slaves shipped by the Portuguese from Africa; and why English and Dutch privateers were robbing Portuguese ships.
The White Lion, flying its Dutch flag, docked first in Virginia with a cargo described as “20 and odd Negroes”, landing at Point Comfort in Chesapeake Bay. It was August 1619, the height of summer. Four days later, Governor Argall’s ship, the Treasurer, arrived at Point Comfort. This ship, carrying between 25 and 29 Negro captives, was then sent to Bermuda, returning to Virginia a few months later to sell its ten remaining Africans. Seventeenth century letters show Governor Argall and other Virginia officials traded the Dutch ship’s “20 and odd Negroes” for provisions, which they falsely claimed were in short supply in Virginia, underhandedly grabbing themselves a bargain.
While most histories describe these first African Americans as slaves, it appears they initially had the same rights and opportunity to gain their freedom as white indentured servants. Admittedly, these unfortunates were little more than slaves themselves. Even so, American colonialists would eventually discover slavery to be an even more cost-effective way of extracting hard labour than indentured servitude. By 1641, slave laws were passed in Massachusetts taking away what little rights and freedom the African workers might have had. Virginia followed suit in 1661. Within one hundred years, Britain would be the foremost European country engaged in the slave trade.
Until recently, most people took it for granted that the essence of the blues came solely from Africans transported from tribal western Africa. A growing body of evidence, however, suggests the true origins of blues music might be from those more northerly parts of Africa, those areas touched by Islam. You only have to hear for yourself the traditional music of the Tuareg people, the nomadic Berbers of the central and Western Sahara, to appreciate its uncanny correlation with some of the earliest recorded rural blues.
To find out more about the amazing evolution of the blues, check ‘America’s Gift’, my big blues paperback at goo.gl/At5AZe; my eBooks ‘How Blues Evolved 1&2’ at Amazon or my blues videos at goo.gl/UQ8id8