Before 1619, there was 1526: The mystery of the first enslaved Africans in what became the United St
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Spanish explorers brought 100 slaves to a doomed settlement in South Carolina or Georgia. Within weeks, the subjugated revolted, then vanished.
The country is marking the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to the English colony of Jamestown. The significance of their arrival cannot be overstated; from that moment onward, slavery existed in the colonies that became the United States in an unending chain until the passage of the 13th Amendment nearly 250 years later.
But those “20 and odd Negroes” were not the first enslaved Africans to set foot on the continental U.S. That happened 93 years earlier when Spanish explorers brought 100 slaves with them to a doomed settlement in what is now South Carolina or Georgia. Within weeks of their arrival, those enslaved Africans revolted. Then they vanished.
In order to understand their story, it is important to know who brought them there and who else was enslaved.
By the early 1520s, nearly all of the indigenous people in the Spanish colony of Hispaniola were dead. Enslaved Africans were brought in to replace them in the backbreaking search for gold — gold that was getting harder and harder to find.
Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón, a government functionary in the colony, wanted to start a settlement of his own, and he got permission from the King and Queen of Spain to send scouts sailing up the east coast of what is now the United States to find a good spot. According to historian and anthropologist Guy E. Cameron, that permission came with the specific instructions that they build friendly relationships with any indigenous people they encountered.
The scouts returned with details of the coastline of what is now South Carolina and Georgia and something else — 70 indigenous people they had abducted and enslaved.
Ayllón was angry; kidnapping was not exactly a building block of comity and friendship. Still, he did not order their immediate return. Soon the captives all started to die “of sorrow and hunger, for they would not eat,” according to a Spanish historian at the time.
One of the captives, named Francisco, survived. He quickly picked up Spanish, and Ayllón grew to like him. Ayllón brought Francisco to Spain to help convince the king and queen that although the scouting missions had not gone as planned, they should still be allowed to colonize. Francisco told them how amazing the land was — just like Spain! — and how welcoming his people, the Shakori, would be. He embellished quite a bit, Cameron wrote, and it is easy to see why: Convincing the Spanish to sail back to the Carolina coast was the only way he could get home.
Detail of a 1529 map showing the "Land of Ayllon," the doomed settlement of San Miguel de Gualdape. (Diego Ribero /Library of Congress)
Permission granted, Ayllón and Francisco sailed for Hispaniola, where they gathered people and supplies for their settlement. A few months later, likely in early June of 1526, they had 500 colonists, 100 enslaved Africans, plus livestock, plants and provisions packed onto three ships.
They arrived on Aug. 9 and immediately ran into a big problem when one of the ships sank. They managed to rescue all of the passengers but lost most of their food.
As soon as they were on land, Francisco disappeared into the trees, leaving the colonists no way to communicate with their new neighbors. The colonists settled farther south — between South Carolina’s Pee Dee River and Georgia’s Sapelo Islan