Puneet Varma

Atlantic Creole

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Atlantic Creole is a term used in North America to describe the Charter Generation of slaves during the European colonization of the Americas before 1660. These slaves had cultural roots in Africa, Europe and sometimes the Caribbean. They were of mixed race, primarily descended from European fathers and African mothers. Some had lived and worked in Europe or the Caribbean before coming (or being transported) to North America. Examples of such men included John Punch and Emanuel Driggus (his surname was possibly derived from Rodriguez).

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The historian Ira Berlin (1998) identified the arrival of the "Atlantic Creoles" in the Chesapeake Bay region in the 17th century. He traced the Atlantic creoles to descendants of European sailors and traders as fathers and African mothers. They were born generally in the port cities of the west coast of Africa, where Portuguese traders had been active since the mid-16th century. Growing up in multi-lingual environments, the men, whether enslaved or free, often worked as interpreters or go-betweens for Africans and Europeans; others worked as sailors, merchants and traders. Later some traveled to the Caribbean, North America, or Europe.

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Berlin writes that Atlantic creoles were among what he called the Charter Generation of slaves in the Chesapeake Colony, up until the end of the seventeenth century. Through the first 50 years of settlement, lines were fluid between black and white workers; often both worked off passage as indentured servants, and any slaves were less set apart than they were later. The working class lived together, and many white women and black men developed relationships. Many of the new generation of creoles born in the colonies were the children of European indentured servants and bonded or enslaved workers of primarily West African ancestry (some Native Americans were also enslaved, and some Indian slaves were brought to North America from the Caribbean, Central and South America.).

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According to the principle of partus sequitur ventrem, incorporated into colonial law in 1662, children born in the colony took the status of the mother; when the mothers were enslaved, the children were born into slavery, regardless of paternity, whether by free Englishmen or enslaved workers. This was a change from English common law, which had asserted that children took the status of the father. Paul Heinegg and other twentieth-century researchers have found that 80% of the free people of color in the Upper South in colonial times were born to white mothers (thus gaining freedom) and African or African-American fathers. Some male African slaves were freed in the early years as well, but free mothers were the source of most of the free families of color.

According to Berlin, some of these mixed-race "Atlantic Creoles" were culturally what today is called "Latino" in the United States, as they were descended from Portuguese and Spanish fathers, primarily in the trading ports of West Africa; they had surnames such as Chavez, Rodriguez, and Francisco. In the Chesapeake Bay Colony, many of the Atlantic Creoles intermarried with their English neighbors, adopted English surnames, became property owners and farmers, and owned slaves in turn. The families became well-established, with numerous free descendants by the time of the American Revolution.

In 2007, Linda Heywood and John Thornton used "newly available data from the DuBois Institute and Cambridge University Press on the trade and transportation of slaves" in their new work on the relation of Central Africans to the Atlantic Creoles. They found strong support for Berlin's thesis of the Charter Generations of slaves, before 1660, coming primarily from West Africa. They also noted that in the Kingdom of Kongo (northern present-day Angola), the leaders adopted Catholicism in the late 15th century due to Portuguese influence. This led to widespread conversion of the people. They formed a type of African-Catholic spirituality unique to the region, and the people frequently adopted Portuguese names in baptism. The kingdoms were Christian for nearly 400 years and many of their people were taken as slaves by the Portuguese. The historians argue that numerous people from Kongo were transported to the North American colonies as slaves, especially to South Carolina and Louisiana. Kongolese Catholics led the Stono Rebellion in 1739. They estimate about one in five African Americans are descended from Kongolese ancestors.

These slaves, rather than the small mixed-race communities around European trading posts, were the source of most early Atlantic Creoles with Iberian surnames in North America. Many were Christian, were multi-racial and multi-lingual, and familiar with some aspects of European culture. The Dutch colonies in South America, the Caribbean and New York were also populated by numerous enslaved Atlantic Creoles from the Kingdom of Kongo.

The authors suggest that as the English and Dutch imported more slaves from outside the Atlantic Creole areas to supply the increased labor needs of the Plantation Generation, they found the non-Christian Africans more ethnically and culturally different. Such differences, especially as the slaves were not Christian, made it easier for the English to gradually adopt the concept of chattel slavery and the colonial equation of Africans with slaves that prevailed through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This was the change institutionalized in partus, which made all children of slave mothers born into slavery. By the late eighteenth century, decades of interaction between white men and enslaved women led to slaves who were primarily of European ancestry. For instance, the slave Sally Hemings and her siblings at Monticello were three-quarters white (three of her grandparents were white) and descended from two generations of white fathers. Her children by Thomas Jefferson were seven-eighths white (or European) in ancestry. The Hemings children were legally "white" under Virginia law of the time but, born to a slave mother, they were slaves.


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