Tracing the Ancestry of the Earliest Enslaved Ndongo People
Clyde W. Ford on a Story Born in Blood
“Antoney, Negro, and Isabell, Negro” is how they were known in the 1625 ledger of Captain William Tucker of Elizabeth City, Virginia. In all likelihood, they also had African names only the ages know now. They may have been baptized shortly after birth, and their anglicized names conferred then by Portuguese priests who’d ventured deep into the interior of Angola, where Catholicism was well established by the 16th century.
Or, Portuguese priests may have performed obligatory baptisms and christenings of these two young people as they were herded into the hold of the São João Bautista, a Portuguese slave ship at anchor in Luanda Bay off the coast of Angola, in the late central-African rainy season of 1619. Let’s call them Anthony and Isabella, for our narrative. Two among the “20. and odd Negroes” Sir John Rolfe recorded aboard the Dutch man-of-war White Lion, lying at anchor on August 20, 1619, at the mouth of the James River off Point Comfort.
Anthony and Isabella carried within them the germinal cells of the first Black child born in America, though on that fateful day in August 1619 they probably did not know that, nor did they know his name. Nor could they have known that symbolically they also carried within them the germinal cells of Scipio and Crispus and Nat and Sojourner and Maggie and Frederick and Booker T. and W.E.B. and Marcus and Langston and Duke and Yardbird and ’Trane and Malcolm and Martin and Rosa and Barack and Trayvon and Eric and Breonna and George… and me… and countless millions who, in some measure or part, were torn, like them, from Africa’s soil.
Anthony and Isabella stepped from the decks of the White Lion into a pinnace, bobbing in the surf off Point Comfort, Virginia; a small boat that would carry them to the White planters and merchants and colonists waiting ashore, men who had just determined their worth in terms of salted meat and vegetables and grain and the other provisions needed by the captain of the White Lion. What they did not know then, could not know then, is that in being handed over to these men, they were about to embark on a journey of unimaginably epic proportions; a heroic journey in which, during their lives, they would endure great hardships and privations; a symbolic journey that would see their work lay the foundation of the economics, politics, religion, medicine, education, industry, law enforcement, and technology of a new nation; and, a hard-earned journey that would generate great power and wealth for some that, sadly, Anthony and Isabella, and those like them, for the most part, would never share.
In their interaction with those White men ashore lay the embryonic maps of many roads, some surveyed and taken, others surveyed and deemed unworthy: American slavery, American freedom, Bacon’s Rebellion, the Revolutionary War, the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, Nat Turner’s Rebellion, the cotton gin, the Age of Sail, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Great Migration, railroads, mines, oil drilling, cars, racism, lynching, Red Summer, two world wars, two Marches on Washington, the murders of Malcolm and Martin, the gunning down of Trayvon and Ahmaud, the killing of George Floyd, and the many other events shaped by the interaction of Black folks and White folks in America. Anthony and Isabella did not know this then, and neither did the men onshore, like Captain William Tucker, who would acquire and settle the couple to work on his farm near present-day Hampton, Virginia.
But today, we can know what became of those seeds, real and symbolic, which Anthony and Isabella carried within them; we can know of the roads taken and those that were not. And where they could not know, we must not forget.
Anthony and Isabella were Angolan; they came from the Kimbundu-speaking, Bantu Ndongo people of the highlands surrounding the modern-day city of N’dalatando, a little over one hundred miles inland from the coastal capital Luanda.
We may never know if they knew each other in Angola, but I can imagine they did; that their families also knew each other. And that their love may have even begun in the Angolan highlands, survived a savage capture by the Portuguese, a “death march” to the coast, the ravages of the Middle Passage, to be consummated in a strange new land.
We can say, however, that Anthony and Isabella knew each other as malungu.
Malungu, originally a Kimbundu word meaning “watercraft,” is how Angolans referred to their fellow captive shipmates. Eventually, malungu was extended to mean a close companion, compatriot, or friend. The word found its way into the Portuguese as melungo (“shipmate”) and into English as Melungeon. Initially, in English, it referred to an ethnically diverse group of people originating in early-17th-century Virginia, Carolina, Maryland, and Delaware from Bantu Africa, with some combination of eastern Native American and northern European ancestry.
Recent DNA testing has shown that Melungeons possess significant African and European DNA markers with little discernible evidence of Native American DNA. Others have made claims, with varying degrees of scientific and historical evidentiary support, that Abraham Lincoln, Tom Hanks, Ava Gardner, Elvis Presley, Heather Locklear, Rich Mullins, and comedian Steve Martin are also Melungeon.
Ultimately, Melungeons settled Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, Louisiana, and Texas. They are often called the “Lost Tribe of Appalachia.” Some historians and heritage societies have labored to obliterate or obscure their African roots, preferring instead to describe Melungeons as having descended from the “Lost Colony of Roanoke” or from Mediterranean settlers. They have traced the word to melon jinn (from the Arabic meaning “evil spirit”) or the French mélange (meaning “mixture”) without ever mentioning the Kimbundu word malungu.
But, in 1880, the Portuguese philologist Macedo Soares, citing a 1779 Portuguese dictionary, gave the definition of malungo, poetically, as: “Malungo, meu malungo… chama o preto a outro cativo que veio com ele na mesma embaracao.” (“Malungo, my malungo… one black calls to another captive who came with him on the same ship.”)
I, too, am malungu.
I know this from the surprising results of DNA testing, which showed only one genetic hot spot in Africa on both my mother’s and my father’s side of the family, where I thought there might be two. That hot spot: Angola. On the maternal side of my family, I am descended from Africans who lived across the James River from Jamestown, forty miles upstream from that fateful anchorage at Point Comfort, in Surry, Virginia.
I would also be considered a Melungeon.
Curious about what DNA showed of my European roots, I was equally surprised to find, once again, only one major hot spot for both my mother’s and father’s side of the family. This hot spot was in northern Europe, in the Scottish Highlands.
No abstract tale from a time long ago, the story of Anthony and Isabella is my story; a story borne in my blood, which starts in Angola in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.
Anthony and Isabella resided in the Kingdom of Ndongo, a principality of the well-organized Kingdom of Kongo, founded in the late 16th century by Ngola Kiluanje, chief of a Kimbundu-speaking clan, and a migrant from Kongo. Throughout the 16th and earl 17th centuries, the kingdoms of Ndongo and Kongo were at odds with each other, and also with the Portuguese.
Both factions, however, viewed the Portuguese as arbiters of their conflict, and Christianity as the currency of that arbitration. So, seeking a declaration of independence from Kongo, between 1518 and 1571 the Kingdom of Ndongo sent three missions to Lisbon asking for missionaries, offering to be baptized, and seeking military assistance in fighting their Kongo rulers. In response, Portugal sent three military missions in return; one in 1520 and another in 1560 ended in retreat. The third, in 1571, was led by Paulo Dias de Novais, grandson of Bartolomeu Dias, the famous explorer who’d first rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1488.
Dias operated under brutal orders from King Sebastian I of Portugal and Pope Nicholas V in Rome. Dias founded the port city of São Paulo da Assunção de Loanda (present-day Luanda) in 1576, and pushed his way inland along the Cuanza River, blessed by Lisbon to subjugate the Kingdom of Angola and by a papal bull “to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery…”
Religion could not hold its own against the powerful forces of profit and greed unleashed by the slave trade. A Catholic bishop, Manuel Bautista Soares, living in Angola at the time of Anthony and Isabella’s capture, lodged a complaint with the Holy See against Portuguese raids on the Ndongo, and the plunder of slaves, but to no avail. A Calvinist minister and ship captain, John Colyn Jope, would finally deliver Anthony, Isabella, and the other captives to a settlement in colonial Virginia. Jewish merchants, escaping the Portuguese Inquisition for the Dutch lowlands, held contracts, known as asientos, to deliver slaves to Spanish colonies.
And Muslims ran a massive Trans-Saharan, Indian Ocean slave trade, where by some estimates as many as 80 to 90 percent of the estimated six to seven million captured Black Africans died before reaching their final destinations. Muslims also participated directly in the transatlantic slave trade to America. In places like Senegal, Ghana, and Nigeria, slaves were captured by Muslim African communities at war with other Africans they considered nonbelieving infidels. With profits to be made, and scores to be settled, all the children of Abraham were complicit.
Dias failed in his second attempt to vanquish the Kongo and the Ndongo in 1560. Ever a soldier in service of God and country, he went back again, but experience taught him he needed a better plan. So, he made alliances with both the kingdoms of the Kongo and Ndongo, often pitting one against the other in service of Portugal conquering and controlling territory. Back-and-forth conflict ensued among all three parties for more than a quarter century. A Portuguese force was ambushed and massacred by Kongo forces in 1579, leading to the narrow defeat of a subsequent Kongo invasion and a foray by Portuguese forces in 1582 up the Cuanza River whereby many Ndongo riverine principalities switched their allegiance from the Ndongo to the Portuguese.
Eventually, the Portuguese settled on the Kingdom of Kongo as an ally, and the Kingdom of Ndongo as their mortal enemy. A 1590 offensive by the Portuguese against the Ndongo capital of Kabasa was repulsed owing to an alliance between the Ndongo and the nearby Matamba, and many of the formerly pro-Portuguese principalities along the Cuanza returned to the control of the Ndongo.
By the start of the 17th century, this teeter-totter warring had ceased, and a border had been formalized between the Portuguese colony of Angola centered in Luanda and the Kingdom of Ndongo. A tenuous truce prevailed, even as the Portuguese continued their expansion into Ndongo lands along the Cuanza River. In 1611, when Bento Banha Cardoso took over as governor, he once again pursued war with the Ndongo, but unlike his predecessors, he enlisted a new, lethal weapon. Cardoso made a fateful, strategic decision to align with a ruthless, feared group of nomadic raiders, neither of Kongo nor Ndongo origin, known as the Imbangala, intent on sacking and pillaging the Ndongo countryside.
Imbangala societies were based on military, not kinship, bonds. In Imbangala kilombos (war camps) brutal control was exercised over members through a strict set of yijila (codes) that included real and symbolic infanticide, persecution of women, real or symbolic cannibalism, and the grooming of child soldiers through alcohol and terror. Many of the Imbangala’s tactics of control are still in use by groups in Nigeria, Uganda, Afghanistan, Colombia, and other countries around the world where child soldiers are groomed for conflict today.
Imbangala warriors smeared an ointment, maji a samba, over their bodies, believed to anoint them with invincibility. By the early 17th century, Portuguese merchants, with the insights and assistance of an English sailor named Andrew Battell, who lived as a captive among the Imbangala, were buying Imbangala war captives, mostly Ndongo, whom they sold as slaves to Iberian colonies in Central and South America.
In the Imbangala, the Portuguese found the perfect mercenary force for their battle with the Ndongo. In 1617, Governor of Angola Luís Mendes de Vasconcelos, a successor to Cardoso, first rejected an alliance with the Imbangala before committing to it. Under Portuguese guidance, the Imbangala conducted a series of raids against the Ndongo: sacking the capital city of Kabasa, forcing King Ngola Mbandi to flee to the island of Kindonga in the Cuanza River, and capturing thousands of Ndongo subjects, royalty and commoners alike, who were then acquired by the Portuguese for sale on the other side of the Atlantic.
Anthony and Isabella were among those Ndongo captured by the Imbangala, then marched in irons the hundred or so miles to the coast. One can only imagine them cresting a hill for their first view of the Atlantic near Luanda, seeing slave ships riding anchor in the bay, like hungry beasts with empty bellies waiting to be fed.
In the early 17th century, from New England to New Spain (Mexico), prior to the British engaging in a direct slave trade of their own, most Africans in the Americas came from the Ndongo region of Angola.
Excerpted from Of Blood and Sweat. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher Amistad, an imprint of Harper Collins. Copyright © 2022 by Clyde W. Ford.