From the source, “
BLACK HISTORY Month offers an opportunity to spotlight the history and achievements of African people and their descendants in America. In Maryland, we celebrate the lives of men and women like Benjamin Banneker, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman.
It may seem ironic that in observance of the first Black History Month of the millennium, we question the identity of an official Maryland first: Mathias de Sousa — widely celebrated as the first black man to vote in the Maryland legislature.
We do not question lightly. Most people want answers from the past, not questions. But we must ask: Is Mathias de Sousa passing for black?
To pass is to be something you are not: an identity rooted in fiction. According to anthropologist Signithia Fordham, “passing for black” is based on absolute and timeless notions of race, notions that refute the complex identities of Americans of African descent. Mathias de Sousa has a complex identity indeed, but in the end he is painted with the broad brush of black — in service of our need for easy answers, but in disservice of hard questions of early race relations in Maryland.
What do we know about de Sousa? Very little. He is mentioned a mere seven times in the early records, and none of these entries suggests where he came from, or when and where he died.
Here’s what we do know: In 1634, the first Maryland settlers came to what is now St. Mary’s County. Mathias de Sousa was an indentured servant transported to the colony at that time by Jesuit missionaries.
By 1639, de Sousa had completed his term of indenture. In 1641, the Jesuits hired him to skipper a boat bound for a trading expedition with the Susquehannock Indians in the northern Chesapeake. A year later, de Sousa attended a meeting of the Colonial Assembly and voted on several bills.
By the end of 1642, he fell into debt, and once more became an indentured servant. After 1642, he disappears from the records; he might have left Maryland, but historians generally assume that he died. One historian speculates that de Sousa “disappeared into an unremembered grave, the victim of some frontier mishap or an Indian axe.”
Only fragments of de Sousa’s life survive, but his experience was typical for most men who arrived in the colony as servants and lived long enough to secure freedom.
So why did historians dig him out of that “unremembered” grave? What makes de Sousa so remarkable today? Two things: his Portuguese surname and a single description of him as mulatto. These two pieces of evidence have been used by a number of writers to identify de Sousa variously as Jewish, Catholic, black, Portuguese and African.
As early as 1924, historians discovered de Sousa in the records. Initially, he was identified as one of the first Jews in Maryland, based on his common Jewish surname and other plausible but circumstantial evidence. By the 1960s and 1970s, de Sousa had been reinvented as the “first black landowner,” with no reference to his religious background.
In 1981, he was identified as the “first documented Portuguese settler” in North America, who “may have been Jewish.” In 1985, the state-owned museum at Historic St. Mary’s City staked its claim to de Sousa’s memory, declaring him to have been black, Portuguese and Catholic — a “rugged black seaman” commemorated with a small memorial on the banks of the St. Mary’s River.
On its Web site, the Jewish Museum of Maryland claims him as a Portuguese Jew. The Archdiocese of Washington claims him as one of “our Catholic ancestors of African descent.” Modern schoolbooks describe him as Maryland’s first black. Recently, the Washington Post identified him as an “African-Portuguese Jew.”
Nowhere in the record is there any indication of how de Sousa viewed himself. Was de Sousa black?
What about the fact that, in one instance, a 17th-century Englishman called him a mulatto? The Oxford English Dictionary defines mulatto as “one who is the offspring of a European and a Black,” but it notes that the term was also used loosely to describe anyone who had the appearance of mixed race.
First used in England at the end of the 16th century, the meaning of the term was far more fluid in de Sousa’s day than in ours. Not until the end of the 17th century does the term begin to take on our modern understanding. Indeed, racial terms and categories were applied quite differently in the early Colonial period. In Maryland, two white settlers named John Price were distinguished, one as “black” and one as “white,” while elsewhere Asians were sometimes described as “Negro.”
In the late 18th century, one writer speculated that if the English and blacks continued to intermarry, eventually the whole nation would resemble the Portuguese “in complexion of skin.” So, perhaps the Englishman who described de Sousa as mulatto was referring to his Portuguese complexion.
While we may never know how early Marylanders identified de Sousa or how he identified himself, the records contain many other references to men and women in early Maryland described as “Negro,” presumably African, and these individuals were treated significantly different than de Sousa. Most were enslaved. Indeed, in 1642, the year de Sousa voted, Gov. Leonard Calvert attempted to sell a parcel of land in exchange for “14 negro men-slaves & 3 women slaves.”
In 1644, Thomas Cornwallis paid Richard Bennett for “2 Negroes,” and the high price he paid suggests the two were bound for life. In 1649, Cuthbert Fenwick bound over three “Negroes and all their issue” to his future wife. And in 1658, 16 years after de Sousa voted, Antonio, an enslaved Negro whose full name we don’t know was punished by his master for refusing to work. According to court records, Antonio was hung by his wrists, whipped, doused with lard, and left as spectacle. He died, ironically, in the yard of the very same building where de Sousa had voted.
Treatment of Negroes like Antonio in 17th century Maryland became a matter of law. Although black men and women made up a small percentage of the population, to the English settlers the numbers were large enough to warrant legislative action. As early as 1639, the Assembly considered, but did not act on, the question of whether Christians could be enslaved. In 1664, however, the Maryland Assembly enacted slavery into law. Significantly, this law recognized “Negro” or black slavery as a prior practice in the Colony.
The record indicates that Mathias de Sousa was certainly not treated like these other Africans. We believe that it is a mistake to always equate the 17th century use of the word “mulatto” with 21st century uses of the word “black.” Mulatto became black in North America as a result of 18th and 19th century efforts to protect rights in human property and to control an enslaved underclass.
We tend to see Mathias de Sousa not as he was, but as we are. Yet, if we consider how he was treated in comparison with other Negroes of the period, and if we are circumspect of a single ambiguous word, we might question whether Mathias de Sousa was black at all. Maybe he’s just passing.
The importance of memory
Why should we care about the memory of Mathias de Sousa? After all, he came to Maryland 367 years ago, and we know so little about him. Perhaps it is not the details of his life that are important, but rather how he is remembered. As we celebrate Black History Month, we must contemplate the how, because it reflects issues of identity and representation that make meaning in our lives.
What can we learn from the memory of Mathias de Sousa? Today, de Sousa is presented as black, Portuguese, African, Jewish and/or Catholic. But most prominently, and with state support, he is celebrated as a black man who voted in an early American assembly.
The problem with these representations is that they are grounded in modern and limiting perspectives of race and identity — too often by those who interpret the depth of our past through the shallow politics of the present.
Mathias de Sousa teaches us that his world was not black and white, but many-hued. His identity was not fixed and singular, but fluid and multiple. And race is not scientific and immutable, but culturally constructed and transformed through time and place. And so it is today. We continue to lack agreement about the meaning of race and identity.
For example, many Americans questioned the reality of ethnic and racial categories found in the 2000 census. If modern Americans have trouble classifying themselves after centuries of racial and ethnic interaction, how did Mathias de Sousa and his contemporaries deal with racial differences in an era when these differences were just beginning to be realized?
A troubling question
And if we assume that de Sousa was of African descent, through what lens do we view racial relationships in early Maryland? This is a troubling question. Nearly all of the representations of de Sousa as the first black to vote in an American assembly ignore the fate of the men and women known to have been Negro in the 17th century.
Modern-day representations of de Sousa urge us to celebrate a period in American history when racism had supposedly not yet taken hold. In frontier Maryland, we are told, de Sousa was judged by his abilities rather than by his skin color. Indeed, a description of de Sousa in the Washington Post declared him to have been “quite a capable man” who, by most historical accounts, “had a life barely defined by his blackness.”
Marylanders are steeped in the state’s sense of itself as religiously tolerant; the Mathias de Sousa story suggests that early Maryland was also a land of racial harmony.
But when we consider de Sousa’s life in the context of those whose lives in the 17th century were defined by their blackness, our modern-day notions of him are, at best, disingenuous. If de Sousa was somehow able to escape enslavement because of his “capabilities,” must we conclude that enslaved blacks were incapable, deserving their enslavement?
Certainly, the Mathias de Sousa story should foster engaging discussion about race and racism in our past and present. Unfortunately, however, when the de Sousa story is shorn of its historical context, we risk distorting that discussion. While the idea of a racially harmonious Maryland may make us feel comfortable with the past — and the present — it compromises the story of African-American challenge and achievement in the state.
Mathias de Sousa has become the canvas upon which so many people have painted pictures of themselves, either by claiming him as their own, or by holding him in distinction from themselves. By questioning his identity, we are not denying the possibility that de Sousa was of African descent.
We certainly do not demean his achievements, nor the intentions of those who would celebrate him. We recognize those intentions as a challenge to racial hierarchy.
But by placing Mathias de Sousa in a black box, by giving him simply one identity and ignoring his complexities, and by ignoring the lot of those Africans contemporary with de Sousa, it may be that this intended challenge to racial hierarchy actually serves it.
Let’s take Mathias de Sousa out of the box — even if, in so doing, the results are controversial, or are largely ignored by those who use him.
Julia A. King is director, Maryland Archaeological Conservation Labo ratory, Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum. Edward Chaney is director of research, Maryland Archaeologi cal Conservation Laboratory. Iris Carter Ford is associate professor of anthropology, St. Mary’s College of Maryland at Historic St. Mary’s City.”
This source provides some interesting commentary on a potential Portuguese Jew. In my opinion, it is very likely that he was a person of mixed “white” and “black” ancestry which meant how he was defined was based entirely upon the viewer who was describing him. One person may have described him as being black, but someone else (as indicated in this article) identified him as being a “mulatto”. In my opinion, this means he wasn’t the darkest of peoples but he also didn’t look “white”.