These days, not much happens on the T-shaped wooden fishing pier that juts out of the seawall south of Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia. Seagulls ride the breeze overhead, and the occasional motorboat glides by as anglers cast their lines for striped bass, white perch and rockfish.
But the tranquility of this spot belies its dramatic history: 400 years ago, the arrival of a ship here, where the James River meets the Chesapeake Bay, profoundly altered the course of what would become the United States of America. In late August 1619, a battered English ship called the White Lion docked at what was then known as Point Comfort with some unexpected passengers.
A few weeks earlier, the White Lion and the Treasurer, another privateer (a state-sanctioned pirate ship), had teamed up to attack a Spanish vessel known as the San Juan Bautista. The English mariners hoped the Spanish ship carried gold in its hold, but instead they found hundreds of enslaved Africans aboard. The pirates seized about 60 of them and eventually found their way to the Colony of Virginia. The White Lion got there first, its crew famished after months at sea. They sold a couple dozen of their captives to two of Virginia’s wealthiest settlers so they could buy food.
Nicolas Brulliard, “A Momentous Arrival,” National Parks Conservation Association, accessed November 6, 2021, https://www.npca.org/articles/2280-a-momentous-arrival.