As White Europeans swept across the Americas en mass after 1492 – a colonisation project that in its earliest layers included the Spanish and the Portuguese – it is well known today that Christopher Columbus was not the ‘first’ European – or even person – to discover the continent, that indigenous Native Americans (of various ethnicities) were already present, and that archaeological evidence now suggests that Vikings, Chinese and even Romans might have been there thousands of years earlier. The point is that despite modern Eurocentric ethnocentric propaganda to the contrary, the vast landmass of the Americas could well have been settled by diverse peoples who did not necessarily adhere to the racial politics of later European settlers. This would suggest that a settler community could well have been premised upon the ideal of multiculturalism – even if the outward practises of that community appeared to favour European modes of behaviour. One such candidate for such a community is the people known as the Malungeons.
The first mention of the Malungeons appears to be in 1690, when French tradesmen came across what they termed as a strange or odd settlement of diverse people that at that time had no known direct connection with any established European colonial presence. Certainly the French tradesmen active in the Southern Appalachian area – which is now known as Eastern Tennessee, South-West Virginia, and Eastern Kentucky – had no knowledge of any European groups that had ventured this far away from established European centres, and were unable to fully explain their presence. However, as some of the French had traded in the past with North Africans, they assumed that these people – many of whom had black hair and various shades of dark skin (although some looked European) – were probably ‘Moors’ who had somehow settled independently in the Americas. What the French found peculiar was that this obviously multicultural community lived in peace and harmony, in what appeared to be through a European-type culture. Their clothing looked European, their social organisation and farming techniques resembled European cultural patterns, and they lived in well-built log cabins, and yet they remained ‘outside’ of the official colonial European presence in the Americas.
The language of the Malungeons appears to have been a ‘mixed’ tongue when their community was first discovered and noted in 1690. There were elements of Elizabethan English, Turkish, French, Portuguese, Native American (Cherokee) and even what is assumed to be African languages. This is why the Malungeons were able to communicate with Europeans – although they remained culturally disinterested in activities beyond the borders of their settlement, and were certainly not complicit in slavery or European racism. This purposeful multiculturalism and ‘detached’ attitude, certainly distinguished the Malungeons from all other ethnic groups at the time. Certainly, nearly 100 years later in 1784, the Malungeons were encountered yet again by frontiersman John Sevier. He described encountering ‘Europeans’ with dark skin, who described themselves to him as being ‘Portuguese’. The fact that the ethnic make-up of the community exhibited many distinct groupings suggests that even if the original settlement (or even part of it) were Portuguese, then certainly by 1690, something radical had occurred to change the nature of the group.
The problem with a wholly ‘Portuguese’ origin is that of religion. As both Spain and Portugal had been tasked with conquering the unknown world by the Vatican for Roman Catholicism, it is interesting to note the complete lack of any Christian symbolism. The early Europeans who encountered the Malungeons make no references to any religious symbolism observable throughout community, or make any mention of religious belief being espoused by the Malungeons themselves (although they were sometimes referred to as ‘Christianised-Moors’, this meant they behaved in a generally European manner, rather than actively professing or promoting any particular faith). In other words, despite a well-built and functioning community, there were no churches or crosses to be seen, and no obvious expressions of community-based religion. This is equally problematic if the Malungeons were Islamic Moors, as there was no obvious presence of Muslim worship – no mosque and no prayer mats. Of course, this does not mean that this community had no spiritual belief, or appreciation of nature, but rather that the usual ideal of European social cohesion being established around an obvious theistic religion was not present, or even required to ensure a continued Malungeon civilisation. The fact that their minds operated through an obvious ‘logical’ and ‘scientific’ mode can be seen by the quality and cut of their (home-made) clothing, boots and shoes, and the perfect architecture of their log cabins. The fact that they did not starve to death demonstrates a sophisticated grasp of agriculture, which is matched by the observation that Malungeon society was entirely free of crime. As everyone appeared to adhere to a non-specified moral code (that shared and protected life and property), there were no obvious legal or criminal structures or establishments – no police, no courts or prisons.
There are rumours today in the USA that the mother of Abraham Lincoln – Nancy Hanks – was of Malungeon descent, and that even the celebrity Elvis Presley may have also been related to these people. However, during the 1800’s, it is recorded that the European colonialists practised racial discrimination against them. The term ‘Malungeon’ may be an old English word meaning ‘guile’ or ‘deceit’, but another theory suggests that it might mean ‘mixture’ from the French word ‘Melange’. More exotic interpretations suggest the Angolan word ‘Malungo’ meaning ‘shipmate’, or even the Turkish words ‘malun jinn’ meaning ‘damned spirit’, etc. Whatever the case, the Malungeons were seen as ‘dirty’ race-mixers, and were often ascribed with every negative stereotype European colonial culture could imagine. As time progressed, and the European colonial influence spread across North America, the Malungeon people eventually became assimilated into the general population, although it is believed that marrying outsiders was discouraged as late as 1900. Today, the genetic distinctiveness of these people is still observable in the area of their origination, but of course, many Malungeon people have now spread into other areas and populations. Could it be that the Malungeons formed the world’s first successful Socialist community in North America? Finally, there is a theory that the Malungeons might have been the survivors of the lost early English colony of Roanoke (established in 1584) who had ‘mixed’ with Indians and Africans into a distinct (and irreligious) community practising equality and tolerance, or that the Malungeons might be the descendants of Ottoman-Turks brought to the Americas by the British Sir Francis Drake (probably around 1586) – who is believed to have captured them from a Spanish ship. Whatever the case, and despite often conflicting or contradictory evidence, these unusual people sometimes referred to themselves as ‘Portuguese’, but also more commonly by the word ‘Malungeon’, which no-one else could understand.