Obama Slave-Ancestry Report Misses Mark

This article first appeared in The Root on July, 31 2012

Monday’s New York Times article on President Obama’s roots in Southern slavery through his mother has reopened the contention that the first Africans brought to Virginia were indentured servants and not slaves. While some observers, such as writer Alondra Nelson, may contend that genealogy studies prove little beyond how closely all members of the human family are related, they are invaluable for understanding the greater past.

Yesterday’s news was also about real historical events and the ability to bring the past alive. There was a real John Punch, real laws that defined his status in a racializing America and real descendants who made certain decisions in the evolving marketplace of American race relations. These past decisions have major implications about the way that contemporary Americans view themselves and fellow Americans.

That being said, the issue is a complicated one. As professors of history and African-American studies at Boston University, we have been unraveling the story of the first African arrivals in Virginia over the past decade, and despite suggestions to the contrary in the New York Times article, we can assert that Africans were not indentured servants as Europeans were.

As stated in the Times piece, genealogists from Ancestry.com said they have evidence that “strongly suggests” that through his white mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, President Obama had an enslaved ancestor in the 17th century named John Punch: “In 1640, Mr. Punch, then an indentured servant, escaped from Virginia and went to Maryland. He was captured there and, along with two white servants who had also escaped, was put on trial. His punishment — servitude for life — was harsher than what the white servants received, and it has led some historians to regard him as the first African to be legally sanctioned as a slave, years before Virginia adopted laws allowing slavery.”

We should immediately note, though, that the word “slave” was rarely used in documents generated in Virginia in 1640 — at least, not in the legal sense of a condition of constant and inheritable servitude. Africans were, however, usually identified in documents as “negroes.” In fact, this was by far the most common term for people of African descent in Virginia records.

“Negro” was not, of course, an English word but, rather, a Portuguese one. It entered English in the late 16th century and with specific reference to Africans because Portugal was the only European nation engaged in the slave trade, and the Portuguese used this word specifically to designate slaves.

The word was not confined to slaves from Africa. Brazilian records routinely use the term negros da terra (Negroes of the country) to describe Native Americans held as slaves in sugar plantations during the same period.

When the word appeared in Virginia in 1619, it referred to Africans taken from Portuguese ships — as were all slaves brought to English and Dutch colonies in North America — and took on the Portuguese meaning of slavery. For the Portuguese, there was no confusion about what slavery was: a permanent, lifelong and inheritable condition of servitude that could be relieved only by manumission from the master.

The question then, is, would Africans arriving in Virginia under these circumstances be given contracts of indenture for a specified term of service, as Englishmen and other Europeans were? There are few records of indentures for anyone in early Virginia, since many contracts were only verbal, but we think it most unlikely that they would have been.

Virginians in general probably understood things this way: The Africans were captives of the Portuguese, were held as slaves by them and were now recaptured by English privateers. This made the terms of their service indefinite, and the person who bought them decided what the term would be. For some it meant a lifetime; for others, maybe less time. The fact that the courts formalized the Africans’ status in a series of rulings between 1639 and 1664 and ruled that they could be held indefinitely thus differentiated them from the English, Scots, Irish and so on. This is the first formal indication that white Virginians viewed Africans as people with indefinite tenure, different from Europeans.

In fact, we would argue that for a while — perhaps as many as 30 years from 1639 — the whole approach was quite ad hoc. The community might have had a say in these matters, sort of general opinion, but we have absolutely no way of knowing what their mindset was.

When John Punch was captured as a runaway with two white servants, the court extended his term of service to lifelong. In this case, the court made a definitive decision only about his length of service, but the other Africans may well have had to serve for life before him, lacking the contract needed to be guaranteed freedom. In their cases, the terms were irregular and determined by their masters.

The Times article also mentioned that Punch had a DNA haplogroupcommon in the Cameroon. We consider this extremely unlikely. Our research shows clearly that the overwhelming majority of Africans brought to America on Portuguese ships before 1640 were enslaved in Angola. At that time, there was no slave trade at all from Cameroon.

We also know that the DNA haplogroups commonly found in Cameroon today are also widely distributed in Angola, but because existing databases of DNA have large samples from Cameroon and much fewer from Angola, the Cameroon matches are much more likely to be from Angola.

John Punch, therefore, was likely an Angolan, not a Cameroonian.

Linda Heywood, Ph.D., and John Thornton, Ph.D., are professors of history and African-American studies at Boston University.