The seeds of what was to become modern America were planted on May 13, 1607, when British colonists arrived at an island that they would come to call Jamestown in what is now Virginia.
This first permanent English settlement in the New World would eventually become “the rightful birthing ground of America”; its soil sprinkled with the blood of Native Americans, European settlers, and their African slaves.
To this racial mix we must now include people from the Indian subcontinent.
That’s because, while preparations are underway for a grand commemoration of Jamestown’s 400th anniversary in May-June 2007, we have uncovered compelling evidence of the presence of people from the Indian subcontinent going as far back as 375 years in Virginia: people identified in American court documents of the time as “East Indians,” “East India Indians,” or “Asiatic Indians.”
As these South Asians melded into the population, they would be identified variously as “Mullato,” “Negro,” and “colored” in the ethnic cauldron that was evolving in America, thus losing much of their racial distinctiveness with each passing generation, merging into the African-American community, largely unaware of their Indian roots.
My research into this early American history suggests that people from South Asia were transported as indentured servants or slaves— first by trading vessels belonging to the Dutch, French, and English; later, by captains of American vessels.
There is considerable evidence to suggest that “lascars” or seamen were recruited from Indian ports by European trading ships, and, on reaching Europe, succumbed to the promises of agents who enlisted indentured workers for the New World. Or else they were taken as servants by East India Company officials who amassed their fortunes in India, and subsequently returned home to England and thence to their newly established colony in America, where they took their servants with them as a sign of their wealth and status as “nabobs.”
The First “East Indians” in America?
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 1,200 acres of land in Jamestown in 1624 and 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 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 50-acre land grant.
The evidence from Jamestown and Williamsburg suggests that the first South Asians may have been brought to Virginia within less than a generation of the arrival of European settlers in Virginia, and a decade after the Mayflower landed in Plymouth.
Social historian Thomas Brown, a faculty member at Lamar University, Beaumont, Texas, has corroborated this in a 2004 research paper. Brown explains that many 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.”
The other evidence I have uncovered comes from runaway slave advertisements in 18th century colonial Virginia newspapers.
Runaway Slave Advertisements
Consider this. The Virginia Gazette of Aug. 4, 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 July 13, 1776, the Virginia Gazette reported the escape 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 July 19 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.”
The above information is culled from a digital collection of advertisements for runaway slaves and servants found in 18th-century Virginia newspapers. There are many more such references to “East Indians” to be found in “The Geography of Slavery” project in Virginia. Compiled by Thomas Costa, professor of history, University of Virginia’s College at Wise, for the Virginia Center for Digital History and Electronic Text Center, the database is available online http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/subjects/runaways/allrecords.html
With these findings documented in 18th-century American newspapers, Indian Americans, or South Asian Americans, or Desis, as many of them like to call themselves, stand on the cusp of rewriting their history by acknowledging the full complement of their heritage—including that of slaves in America.
Francis C. Assisi acknowledges the research assistance of Elizabeth F. Pothen in this project. He has been researching the presence of people from the Indian subcontinent in early colonial America for nearly a decade. He dedicates this research to third-generation desis Zadie and Riya Jivan of Berkeley.