Black History Month: Mathias de Sousa

mathias de sousaSt. Mary's City, MD - The first black man to come to Maryland was neither slave nor free. Mathias de Sousa was probably African and Portuguese. He was one of nine indentured servants Jesuit missionaries brought to the province. When the Ark and Dove sailed into the St. Mary’s River to settle a new colony in 1634, de Sousa was among the company.

The role of Mathias de Sousa in American History is grossly understated. There are not too many places in colonial America where a black man was allowed to be a participant in government, yet de Sousa was in Maryland. His participation was pre-slavery in the colony.

Slavery began in America at Jamestown in 1619 after Dutch traders captured a Spanish slave galley and brought them in chains to Virginia. For Mathias de Sousa, who arrived in Maryland some 15 years later, the circumstances were different. He was an indentured servant, a system established by Lord Baltimore, Cecilius Calvert, as a way to attract participation in the new colony.

The indentured servant was required to work out a four-to-seven year term, then, at least in the early years of the colony, was given 50 acres of their own property. In a culture where only kings and nobleman were allowed to own land, the allure of such terms was obvious. The reality of such an indenture was by no means a cut and dry proposal. Newcomers to the region were confronted with sickness. Pathogens Europeans were never exposed to in the Old World ravaged them in the New. Historians refer to the six-month ordeal as “the seasoning time.” Those who survived were “seasoned” against such maladies in the future. It is estimated that only four in 10 would live to see the end of their indenture.

Unfortunately, that knife cut both ways. European newcomers likewise exposed Native Americans to diseases they had never seen before. The cruel joke was that one white man sneezed and wiped out half the Indian nation. When the Mayflower landed on Plymouth Rock, the Pilgrims inherited a land nearly devoid of people due to European-borne diseases which ripped through the landscape years before.

Although not much is known of de Sousa’s earliest years in the colony, he was bound to the Jesuits and Father Andrew White. Historians conjecture he probably spent time planting and harvesting crops and learned to sail, trading with local Indian tribes on behalf of the Jesuits.

When his indenture concluded in 1638, de Sousa was listed as mariner and fur trader. In 1641, he commanded a trading expedition with the Susquehannock Indians in the northern Chesapeake Bay. The following year, he was named master of a small cargo vessel owned by John Lewger, provincial secretary for the colony.

In 1642, de Sousa served in the Maryland General Assembly, making him the first man of African descent to participate in an assembly in English America. Prior to 1670, any man who was not a servant, regardless of color or religion, could participate and vote in the colonial assembly. That included Mathias de Sousa.

After he served in the General Assembly, de Sousa was lost to the historical record. No writings or documentation of his activities after 1642 have been found. War with the Susquehannocks in 1644 scuttled further trading expeditions.

Mathias de Sousa should not, however, be lost to history. Although it might not have seemed like such a big deal at the time, in retrospect, his contributions were significant to people of color in America.

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