AFRICANGLOBE – James Armistead Lafayette was the first African American double spy. An African American slave, Armistead was enslaved by William Armistead in Virginia during the American Revolution. James Armistead took the surname of Lafayette to honor General Lafayette, whom he served under in the Revolutionary War.
Because Slave-owners seldom kept records of the births of the people they enslaved, it is unclear exactly when and where James Armistead was born, but most records agree that he was born in 1748 in Elizabeth City, Virginia.
James Armistead volunteered to join the army in 1781. After gaining the consent of his owner, Armistead was stationed to serve under the Marquis de Lafayette, the commander of French forces allied with the American Continental Army. Lafayette employed Armistead as a spy. While working for Lafayette he successfully infiltrated British General Charles Cornwallis’s headquarters posing as a runaway slave hired by the British to spy on the Americans.
Armistead got work in a British camp as a forager, a person who gathers food from the countryside. His job allowed him to move freely between the British and American camps. The British grew to trust him so much that they asked him to spy on the Americans! As a double agent, Armistead gave useful information to Lafayette while giving false information to the British.
In the summer of 1781, General George Washington sent a message to General Lafayette, instructing him to keep his forces strong and to inform him of Cornwallis’s equipment, military personnel, and future strategies. Lafayette sent several spies to infiltrate Cornwallis’s camp, yet none proved able to produce valuable information except for James Armistead. His activities contributed to the British defeat at Yorktown.
After the Revolution, Lafayette praised Armistead for his dedication and instrumental role in the surrender at Yorktown. Armistead returned to William Armistead after the war to continue his life as a slave, as he was not eligible for emancipation under the Act of 1783 for slave-soldiers since he was considered a slave-spy. In 1784, Lafayette found Armistead in Virginia and was disappointed to find he was still a slave, he wrote a testimonial on Armistead’s behalf and two years later the Virginia General Assembly emancipated him. It was at this time that Armistead made “Lafayette” his last name, in honor of the General.
Some Black Americans with the last name of Armistead are suspected of being descendants of James Armistead Lafayette as he is said to have had a number of children after the Revolution. Also it is possible that James was an illegitimate son of William Armistead, The Purser of the Virginia Troops. Regardless of his birth, he is remembered as an American patriot. His intelligence contributions to Lafayette and Washington aided in the capture General Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia with few shots fired.
The sad commentary of the indignities of being a slave cannot be ignore in James Armistead story. Wanting to fight for a country that had enslaved him, yet still needing permission from his owner shows the total lack of understanding that a man, regardless of the color of his skin was due the very rights that we were fighting for in the Revolutionary War.
Although James Armistead could have escaped to freedom, or double crossed those who had enslaved him, he chose instead to be of high moral character and a man of his word. He fought bravely for a country that was not willing to allow him the basic right of freedom, and in the end was relegated back into slavery until General Lafayette interceded several years later.
Although the story of James Armistead is told as a hero’s story and indeed James was a hero, it was really a commentary on prevailing attitude toward racism.
Like the portrait of Lafayette in which James Armistead appears, Blacks are frequently present in surviving documents but almost always as objects of concern rather than as self-reflecting subjects. Portraits like Paon’s do not make Blacks more visible as subjects. But they do illustrate for us a pattern of representation that is so ubiquitous in surviving written documents that it is easy to overlook. On its own, such an image merely suggests yet another example of slave-owning conceit or planter-class self-indulgence. However, when overlaid on the written record, portraits like Paon’s re-enact for us a critical feature of enslavement.
In order to survive in early America Blacks had to accept the self-denying identity, Negro. Those who refused to do so did not survive. It was that simple and that terrifying. The process was often a brutal one, driven by physical violence and torture. Brutality was a means to an end, however, not the preferred way of achieving it. Slavery as an institution, representing the economic foundation upon which much of colonial antebellum America was grounded, could not be run as a prison camp, not day in, day out for more than two and a half centuries. Instead, physical violence was used to create a climate of terror in which the necessity of becoming a Negro, or at least convincingly pretending to do so, became a part of the slaves’ intuitive understanding of what it meant to survive, a self-perpetuating means of self-enslavement.
The way Blacks were visually portrayed, and the ways in which they were forced to project in daily life the same lack of subjectivity that comes through in these rare portraits, demonstrate this unrelenting assault on the slave’s sense of self. Unintentionally, portrait painters like Paon provided us with a glimpse of that process as it was experienced by a few survivors. The fact that Armistead, through his own initiative, was a privileged survivor only heightens the effect.