Atlantic Creole

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Atlantic Creole is a term used in North America to describe a cultural group of Americans who have ancestral roots in Africa, Europe and sometimes the Caribbean. These people are culturally American and are the descendants of enslaved peoples and indentured workers during the European colonization of the Americas before 1660. 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).[1][2]


The historian Ira Berlin (1998) identified the arrival of the "Atlantic Creoles" in the Chesapeake Bay region in the 17th century.

Berlin writes that Atlantic creoles were among what he called the Charter Generation of slaves in the Chesapeake Colonies, 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.[3] 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.[4]).

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 or not their fathers were free or enslaved. This was a change from common law tradition, 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.[5] Some male African slaves were freed in the early years as well, but free mothers were the predominant 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 European neighbors, adopted European 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 that the Charter Generations of slaves, before 1660, came primarily from West Africa.[6]

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.[7] 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. Thornton and Heywood estimate that about one in five African Americans are descended from Kongolese ancestors.[7]

Brunelle says that the Kongolese 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.[6]

Brunelle also suggests that as European slave traders imported larger numbers of enslaved Africans from outside the Atlantic Creole regions to supply the increasing labor needs of white colonists, the colonists found non-Christian Africans to be far more culturally and ethnically different. Such differences, especially as the slaves were not Christian, made it easier for the colonists to gradually adopt the concept of chattel slavery and the colonial equation of Africans with slaves that prevailed through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.[6]

In 1662 the colony of Virginia, followed by other colonies, adopted a law that stated all children born in the colony would take the status of their mother.[8] This was in contrast to common law tradition, whereby children inherited the social class of their father. The colonial law incorporated the Roman principle of partus sequitur ventrem, and resulted in all children born to enslaved mothers being born into slavery, regardless of the father's ancestry or citizenship.[9]

Southern US Atlantic Creoles[edit]

Tidewater Creoles[edit]

The first Africans in Virginia were from parts of Angola that were settled by the Portuguese since the late 15th Century. Many were multilingual and baptized. This creolization is attributed as the possible reason why some were able to gain freedom in colonial Virginia and Maryland. [10] Eventually slave codes began to solidify which splintered Tidewater creoles, some were able to pass and merge into White communities, while some became Melungeon people. Others became free people of color while the rest became enslaved Black populations.

Gullah Creoles[edit]

Historically, the Gullah region extended from the Cape Fear area on North Carolina's coast south to the vicinity of Jacksonville on Florida's coast. The Gullah people and their language are also called Geechee, which may be derived from the name of the Ogeechee River near Savannah, Georgia. Gullah is a term that was originally used to designate the creole dialect of English spoken by Gullah and Geechee people. Over time, its speakers have used this term to formally refer to their creole language and distinctive ethnic identity as a people. The Georgia communities are distinguished by identifying as either "Freshwater Geechee" or "Saltwater Geechee", depending on whether they live on the mainland or the Sea Islands.

Because of a period of relative isolation from whites while working on large plantations in rural areas, the Africans, enslaved from a variety of Central and West African ethnic groups, developed a creole culture that has preserved much of their African linguistic and cultural heritage from various peoples; in addition, they absorbed new influences from the region. The Gullah people speak an English-based creole language containing many African loanwords and influenced by African languages in grammar and sentence structure. Sometimes referred to as "Sea Island Creole" by linguists and scholars, the Gullah language is sometimes likened to Bahamian Creole, Turks and Caicos Creole, Barbadian Creole, Guyanese Creole, Belizean Creole, Jamaican Patois and the Sierra Leonean Krio of West Africa. Gullah crafts, farming and fishing traditions, folk beliefs, music, rice-based cuisine and story-telling traditions all exhibit strong influences from Central and West African cultures.

Louisiana Creoles[edit]

Louisiana Creoles are people descended from the inhabitants of colonial Louisiana before it became a part of the U.S. during the period of both French and Spanish rule. As an ethnic group, their ancestry is mainly of African, French, Spanish and Native American origin. German, Irish, and Italian immigrants also married into these groups. Louisiana Creoles share cultural ties such as the traditional use of the French, Spanish, and Louisiana Creole languages and predominant practice of Catholicism.

In the early 19th century, amid the Haitian Revolution, thousands of refugees, both Europeans and free Africans from Saint-Domingue (affranchis or gens de couleur libres), arrived in New Orleans, often bringing enslaved Africans with them. So many refugees arrived that the city's population doubled. As more refugees were allowed in Louisiana, Haitian émigrés who had first gone to Cuba also arrived. These groups had strong influences on the city and its culture. Half of the white émigrė population of Haiti settled in Louisiana, especially in the greater New Orleans area. Later 19th-century immigrants to New Orleans, such as Irish, Germans and Italians, also married into the Creole groups. Most of the new immigrants were also Catholic.

New Orleans also has had a significant historical population of Creoles of color, a group that mostly consisted of free persons of mixed European, African, and Amerindian origin. Most of these Creoles of Color later assimilated into Black Culture through a shared history of slavery in the United States, while some chose to remain a separate yet inclusive subsection of the African American ethnic group. Another area where many Creoles can be found is within the River Parishes: St. Charles, St. John, and St. James. However, most Creoles are found in the greater New Orleans region or in Acadia.

Seminole Creoles[edit]

The Seminole Creoles are a population associated with the Seminole people in Florida and Oklahoma. They are mostly originators of the Seminole people, Africans, Creoles, and escaped enslaved people (called maroons) who allied with Seminole groups in Spanish Florida. Many have Seminole lineage, but due to the stigma of having darker skin, they all have been categorized as slaves or freedmen.

Historically, the black Seminoles lived mostly in distinct bands near the Amerindian Seminole. Some were held as slaves, particularly of Seminole leaders, but the black Seminole had more freedom than did slaves held by whites in the South and by other Amerindian tribes, including the right to bear arms.

Caribbean Atlantic Creoles[edit]

In many parts of the Southern Caribbean, the term Creole people is used to refer to the mixed-race descendants of Europeans and Africans born in the islands. Over time, there was intermarriage with residents from Asia as well. They eventually formed a common culture based on their experience of living together in countries colonized by the French, Spanish, Dutch, and British.

A typical creole person from the Caribbean has French, Spanish, Portuguese, British, and/or Dutch ancestry, mixed with sub-Saharan African, and sometimes mixed with Native Indigenous people of the Americas. As workers from Asia entered the Caribbean, Creole people of color intermarried with Arabs, Indians, Chinese, Javanese, Filipinos, Koreans, and Hmongs. The latter combinations were especially common in Guadeloupe. The foods and cultures are the result of creolization of these influences.

Kreyòl" or "Kweyol" or "Patois" also refers to the creole languages in the Caribbean, including Antillean French Creole, Bajan Creole, Bahamian Creole, Belizean Creole, Guyanese Creole, Haitian Creole, Jamaican Patois, Trinidadian Creole, Tobagonian Creole, and Sranan Tongo, among others.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1998 Pbk, p.39
  2. ^ "Individual Stories- Individual Heroes" Archived 2012-04-29 at the Wayback Machine, Slavery and the Making of America, WNET, accessed 30 September 2011
  3. ^ Berlin (1998), Many Thousands Gone, pp. 29-33
  4. ^ see Forbes (1993).
  5. ^ Paul Heinegg Free African Americans of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland and Delaware (2005), accessed 15 Feb 2008
  6. ^ a b c Gayle K. Brunelle, "Central West Africans in Diaspora", History-Net, July 2011, accessed 30 September 2011
  7. ^ a b John Thornton and Linda Heywood, "A Forgotten African Catholic Kingdom" Archived September 29, 2011, at the Wayback Machine, 'The Root, 12 August 2011, accessed 30 September 2011
  8. ^ Taunya Lovell Banks, "Dangerous Woman: Elizabeth Key's Freedom Suit - Subjecthood and Racialized Identity in Seventeenth Century Colonial Virginia", 41 Akron Law Review 799 (2008), Digital Commons Law, University of Maryland Law School, accessed 21 Apr 2009
  9. ^ Linda Heywood and John Thornton, Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles and the Foundation of the Americas, 1585-1660 (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007)
  10. ^ "Mystery of Va.'s First Slaves Is Unlocked 400 Years Later - The Washington Post".