It is simple human nature to see what we are expecting to see. Atheists or Buddhists do not tend to see the face of Jesus in the patterns on burnt toast – we are all conditioned by the culture around us.
This tendency carries-over into our understanding of American history. We see what our education prepares us to see. We have been told so often that early Americans were “white”, “black”, or “Indian”, that like Cinderella’s stepsisters, we try to squeeze everything into a proverbial glass slipper. When the “tri-racial” slipper doesn’t fit, we try to force the issue.
A case in point…
With the advent of inexpensive autosomal DNA testing, many, many Old Mix Americans with deep roots in pre-Revolution British America have discovered small percentages of Southeast Asian and Oceanian in their DNA results.
Some Southern Appalachians who self-identify as being the descendants of Melungeons (a group recently discussed in this blog) often have a higher amount of these SE Asian and Oceanian admixtures than Native American in their DNA test results. And yet many still disregard these clues, or try to squeeze them into the “glass moccasin” of Native American ancestry.
Is it possible there were other “olive-skinned” peoples in colonial America? People with Southeast Asian and Oceanian DNA?
Yes. The Malagasy of Madagascar.
Without going into exhausting detail, Madagascar is one of the largest islands in the world, lying about 250 miles off the southeast coast of Africa. Madagascar was only settled by humans during the past 1,500 to 2,500 years, by people from the Sunda Islands of Malaysia – almost 4,400 miles to the northeast, in a feat of long distance exploration only rivalled by later Polynesians.
These Oceanian peoples were later added-to by subsequent waves of immigration which included Arab traders in the 10th century, Bantu peoples from the African continent a century after the first Arabs, with people from Southern India near Sri Lanka finally arriving perhaps another hundred years after the Bantu.
This cultural melting-pot was left to simmer and bubble away for three or four centuries, until the age of European exploration, with the Kingdom of Portugal establishing a presence in the early 1500s.
As ever with European colonisation, the Portuguese presence was not benign. Almost immediately, Malagasy people were made into a tradeable commodity, transported as slaves to every corner of the Portuguese Empire, from the Bay of Bengal to Brazil and the Caribbean.
But the Portuguese did not confine their international trade to places under Portuguese control.
Not when the American English had money to spend…
“From 1719 to 1725 more than 1,000 Malagasy slaves arrived to the Commonwealth of Virginia through the ports of Rappahannock and York rivers.
The Prince Eugene of Bristol came into York River district of Virginia on May 18, 1719 carrying 340 Malagasy; the Mercury of London arrived at the district of Rappahannock River on May 17, 1720 with 466 Malagasy; and were followed by the Rebecca Snow, the Gascoigne Galley, the Henrietta, and the Coker Snow.
The Prince Eugene, Rebecca Snow, and Gascoigne Galley apparently made directly from Madagascar for Virginia, where the Prince Eugene had sold her licensed cargo in 1719.
The Henrietta stopped in Pernambuco, Brazil before continuing to Barbados and Virginia.
Three of the Madagascar vessels arrived in Virginia over a period of only six weeks, entering at York River as follows:
The Gascoigne Galley with 133 slaves, on May 15, 1721;
the Prince Eugene (on a second trip) with 103 slaves in June, and
the Henrietta with 130 slaves later that month.
Platt states that the total number of Malagasy brought into Virginia between 1719 and 1721, comes to 1, 231 when the 340 slaves brought on the Prince Eugene‘s previous voyage and the 466 brought by the Mercury in 1720 are counted in.” [Platt, 1969]
Is it possible that the straight black-haired Malagasy of colonial-era America sometimes chose to refer to themselves as “Portuguese”, in reference to the empire which held dominion over their homeland?
If so, the Malagasy would not be the first group to do so. This researcher has viewed innumerable primary sources in which Sephardic Jews, Angolans, Angolan Lançados (slave traders of mixed Portuguese-African heritage), Brazilians, South Asians from Goa, and Iberian Ciganos (Portuguese Gypsies) have all chosen to self-identify as “Portuguese” at various times in the past.
Amazingly, some African-American folklore still preserves memories of their familial descent from “Molly Gaskie” people.
It has also been written that northern Georgia and Alabama were home to people known as “Madagaska Creeks“.
Of course, there is also the old self-descriptor used by the so-called Melungeons of Southern Appalachia. “Porty-ghee“.
Overly self-confident American anthropologists with too little foundation in history have tended to dismiss the historical claims of Portuguese ancestry or heritage made by rural multi-ethnic communities, asserting that these self-identities were simply an attempt to deflect from African ancestry in a world hostile to “blackness”. To a certain extent this was no doubt true. But this says far more about the traditional American Protestant problem with the nuances of complex identities. People can hold simultaneous identities based on their religion, ethnic group, citizenship, etc.
If a Malagasy, Romani, or Jew in the 1600s was asked “What are you?”, they certainly didn’t reach first for a “racial” or “color” identity. Race and color were an Anglo-American construct, a way of categorising and assigning people into three simple groups: free, unfree, or “savages”. A part Portuguese, part African, part Arab person with parents from Madagascar was hardly going to identify in their frontier community as “black”. Calling themselves “Portuguese” was less a deflection, than a choice to put forward that part of their self-identity least likely to bring them and their family to harm.
As regards the multi-ethnic communities of the Appalachian mountains, only more research will tell to which group(s) of Portuguese many were referring.
One of the “core” or archetypal surnames associated with the Melungeons is the surname “Goins“, first appearing in early 1600s Virginia. Most researchers have tried to squeeze this name into being a variation of the Irish surname “Gowan”, even though almost every variation of the name – Gowen, Goen, Going, etc. – appears to be an attempt to render a long “O” sound. The Irish name “Gowan” is pronounced with an “ow” sound, as in “Ouch!”, coming from the Gaelic surname for “smith” or “blacksmith” – “gabha”. This is where we get the surname “McGowan”, meaning “son of the smith”.
Various branches of this family can be found scattered from Appalachia to Louisiana and Texas, and family members have returned DNA results showing a range of origins including both West African and Romani.
Neither ethnic background is incompatible with a simultaneous claim of Portuguese heritage.
And perhaps most odd of all, is the fact that – as far as this writer is aware – no one has ever put forward a possible connection to any similar Portuguese surname.
© Brian Halpin, 2015 (revised and updated July 2021)
#BeforeWeWereWhite #history #appalachia #madagascar #malagasy