The Chinese University of Hong Kong Department of History Department of History
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1619: The Global Origins of American Slavery

Principal Investigator


Total Fund Awarded


Funding Source

RGC General Research Fund

Abstract of Project

In the late summer of 1619, two English privateers sailing under Dutch letters of marque arrived in Virginia. These carried African slaves seized from a Portuguese ship called the São João Bautista that had departed Luanda earlier in the year bound for Veracruz in New Spain (Mexico). Although there had been small numbers of enslaved fricans in Spanish Florida, the arrival of these captives is frequently identified as the beginning of Black slavery in North America, and has recently been made famous by the 1619 Project published by The New York Times Magazine.


While one scholar has argued that the 1619 voyage to Jamestown had an important hemispheric (i.e. Caribbean and Latin American) context and another has speculated about the lives of these Africans pre-slavery, we still know very little about how this pivotal event fits into the broader global history of human bondage. This is largely because the study of slavery remains very much divided along national-linguistic and oceanic lines, with the Atlantic world and Asia very rarely being brought into dialogue, and North America being tacitly regarded as unique and exceptional to some degree.


This project will therefore place the 1619 voyage to Virginia within the context of the larger Iberian (i.e. Spanish and Portuguese) world slave system of which it was essentially an extension. Indeed, one consequence of Iberian expansion from the fifteenth century onwards was that many of the already highly integrated regional markets in human beings of the Mediterranean, Africa, Asia and the Americas became loosely conjoined for the first time, creating an uneven and fragile, but nonetheless identifiable world market. This stretched across the Atlantic and into the Mediterranean, and linked the Iberian Peninsula to Africa and Asia through a network of port cities, such as Luanda, Mozambique, Goa, Malacca, Macau and Nagasaki. There, the trade crisscrossed cultural spheres with subtly different conceptions of “slavery” and “freedom” as both legal categories and lived experiences. These were, however, ultimately made commensurable in the act of buying and selling slaves (“the commensurability of commerce”). In this way, the project will show that while racialized slavery in North America took on a particular form, there were also parallels, overlaps and direct connections with slavery in large parts of the early modern world.


This project will result in a substantial monograph published by a major North American university press, a peer-reviewed article and three conference presentations.

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