Three historians to share their insights on slavery’s origins in America at on-campus panel discussion.

From the moment the New York Times started to roll out installments of The 1619 Project in 2019, this painstakingly researched and groundbreaking long-form origin story heightened ongoing discussion about slavery and its painful legacy in the United States. 

That project also put 1619 into the popular imagination as a fateful year in slavery’s history. 

But why was that year a turning point for the institution of slavery in America? This question lies at the heart of “What Actually Happened In 1619,” a panel discussion that uses The 1619 Project as a jumping off point for a deeper dive into the happenings and consequences of that year. The Humanities Institute at the University of California, Santa Cruz (THI) is presenting this free event on Thursday, Feb. 1, from 6:30-8:30 p.m. at the Music Recital Hall on campus.  

This panel brings together three historians who have done extensive research on slavery: UCSC History Professor Gregory O’Malley, author of Final Passages: The Intercolonial Slave Trade of British America, 1619-1807 (University of North Carolina Press, 2014);  Elise Mitchell, Presidential Postdoctoral Research Fellow in History at Princeton University, whose essay,  “Morbid Crossings: Surviving Smallpox, Maritime Quarantine, and the Gendered Geography of the Early Eighteenth-Century Intra-Caribbean Slave Trade,” appeared in the William and Mary Quarterly; and UC Merced Associate Professor of History Kevin Dawson, author of Undercurrents of Power: Aquatic Culture in the African Diaspora (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021).

O’Malley notes that the essays collected in The 1619 Project and the public conversations that followed only touch on the events of that year, or even on the slave trade more generally. 

Instead, The 1619 Project focuses crucial attention on the legacy of that year, with essays on slavery’s long-term impacts on American democracy, capitalism, incarceration, and even modern transportation.

“As an historian of colonial America and the slave trade, I’ve noticed that many people are left with only hazy notions of what happened in 1619,” O’Malley said. “So I hope ‘What Actually Happened In 1619’ will help people understand how slavery took root in North America. I’m hoping the upcoming event will illustrate that slavery spread to the English colonies in North America rather than being invented there. I want to underscore how early that date is.”

O’Malley notes that the Mayflower landed in New England in 1620, a year later than the first enslaved Africans landed in Virginia. “This begs the question of why so many people now know the name of the Mayflower, but few know that the ship delivering the English colonies' first Africans was the White Lion,” O’Malley said.

The White Lion was also a privateering vessel, which stole its captives from a Portuguese ship trying to deliver enslaved people to Spanish America.  

O’Malley hopes the event will invite reflection on the importance of slavery to colonial empires, as illustrated by sending privateers to steal enslaved people from one another.

Elise Mitchell will focus more on the shipboard experiences of enslaved people, with a particular eye to disease and the other dangers of being a captive in the ugly business of slavery.

Kevin Dawson will address the knowledge, culture, and ideas that enslaved African women and men carried with them, with a particular focus on maritime skills.

Enslaved people were denied the right to bring possessions to the Americas, but they brought ideas, skills, and ways of seeing the world that shaped colonial life and economies, with legacies that persist.

This event is funded by a UC-MRPI Grant, and sponsored by The Humanities Institute at UCSC and Bookshop Santa Cruz. Register here for the free event.