Picture of a couple dancing in Angola

A duo dances by the beach on Ilha de Luanda in Angola.

Photograph by Alfredo D'Amato, Panos Pictures

By Joe Mozingo

We rolled down a sliver of red dirt road, weeds and sticks cracking under our tires, in search of an old slave port that long ago vanished in mangrove jungle. This out-of-the-way track made me nervous because it was exactly where the travel advisories warned visitors not to go in Angola, a country riddled with land mines after three decades of civil war.

My guide and translator, a British expat named Paul, asked the two young boys showing us the way if they knew of any mines. I heard them say hesitantly, “No.”

“They say there aren’t any,” Paul confirmed.

This was not convincing.

We bumped along farther until the track fell away entirely into a gully, and we set down the path on foot. The sun was getting low, washing the tops of the palm trees in ocher light. A man harnessed high in the fronds tapping sap for palm wine looked at us curiously as we passed beneath.

We were just outside the town of Soyo, hiking to an estuary of the Congo River, about five miles from its mouth on the Atlantic. I had envisioned finding old stone docks and iron slave pens, perhaps strangled in roots like some ancient Khmer ruin. Even if I found that, I did not know what it would mean; there was no checklist to mark off, no tangible objective or end point. I was on a quest that was more than anything an act of imagination—if not insanity, given the cost and time it took me to get here. I was looking for the man who gave me the surname Mozingo, an ancestor who landed in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1644. He was a “Negro” man who married a white Englishwoman during a brief period in colonial America when that could happen. More than 300 years later, his white descendants, including me, had long lost track of that history and were wondering where they got this funny name. Many insisted, sometimes vociferously, they were Italian or French or from anywhere but Africa, but the truth was here in Angola, this troubled country on the western coast of central Africa, which once sent torrents of slaves to America.

Variants of the name are common here even today, and the revered first Christian king of Kongo was named Mozinga. In the year Edward Mozinga likely journeyed across the Middle Passage, 4,336 slaves were documented as being taken from Angola, out of 6,529 from all of Africa. They went to Brazil and the Caribbean, and a tiny fraction ended up in Virginia.

I knew I couldn’t find records of my ancestor here as I could with my other forebears in Europe. I would not see the school he went to or the church he attended, or pore through baptismal records, or meet long-lost cousins with oral histories. But I needed to have a sense of where he came from, beyond the wild phantasms most of us in the West harbor about sub-Saharan Africa. I needed to cross a breach in my mind that made it difficult to really fathom my family’s story, for Edward to be real.

We descended into the mangrove forest, where the path ended at a clear stream. Paul said he’d wait there. The boys and I trudged down the stream as it got deeper and joined more streams in a silty tidal swamp.

The boys laughed as they attempted to spear a crab with a stick near an old dugout canoe decaying in the mangrove roots. The forest seemed to be closing in, not leading us to a port where slave ships could have launched. We crossed a sulfurous mudflat that slurped at our feet and had the boys in hysterics. I thought about how children like these, their parents somewhere waiting for them to return home, must have marched through here in shackles, never to see their families again.

“Onde porto?” I asked.

They all pointed down. “Here.”

The port can’t be here, I thought; no ship could get here. I started down the channel, the water rising above my knees.

The boys just stood there on the mudflat, studying the crazy white man.

“Porto aqui?” I yelled back again.

“Sim, sim, sim, aqui—Yes, yes, yes, here,” they said.

Maybe they were right. Maybe long ago, silt filled in the port. The sun was setting in the northwest, and the mosquitoes were swirling around me. I knew I had to stop. When you journey into the past, you always want to go further, and you’ll never get to your destination, and you’ll never be sated, just as you’ll never fully understand your roots as they split into infinity. But you learn something in the glimpses.

Joe Mozingo is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times and author of The Fiddler on Pantico Run.

Read more essays from writers who return to their ancestral lands in Ireland, Sicily, Krakow, and Taipei.

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