Long Journey Home

She was just a child—not yet 10 years old—taken from her home in
West Africa to a strange and distant land. Now, 250 years later, an historian, a filmmaker, and an eighth-generation descendant of that same little girl are completing a remarkable journey. This is Priscilla’s story.

 

 


A mid-18th century map shows “Bense” Island deep in the harbor of the Sierra Leone coast.

 

 

This spring, Thomalind Martin Polite (pictured with daughter Faith), will travel to Sierra Leone to visit the home of Priscilla and her ancestors.

 


Ancient methods for pounding rice are still used throughout the West African
country.

une 1756. The South-Carolina Gazette is brimming with announcements of vessels laden with books from England, silk from France, and sugar from Barbados arriving in Charles Town. There is also news that the ship Hare has arrived from Sierra Leone with a cargo of “Likely and Healthy Slaves, to be sold upon easy Terms” by merchants Austin & Laurens.

 

During the early decades of the 18th century, the arrival of a slave ship in Charleston was as commonplace as a vessel bringing Madeira from Portugal. In the five years between 1735 and 1740 alone, some 12,500 African slaves were brought into South Carolina to support the burgeoning rice and indigo trades. Slaves were the plantation’s backbone; the muscle behind Lowcountry wealth and prosperity. In fact, in rice planting areas, the population was a solid 90 percent black majority.

 

However, this intense importation of slaves had waned considerably in the 1750s, thus the Hare’s arrival was likely met with excited anticipation by plantation owners seeking to add to their workforce. One purchaser was Cooper River rice planter Elias Ball, II, the brother-in-law of Henry Laurens, leading partner of Austin & Laurens. Ball would later make this note in his record book: “I bought 4 boys and 2 girls—their ages near as I can judge: Sancho =9 years old, Peter =7, Brutus =7, Harry =6, Belinda =10, Priscilla =10, for £600.”


Ten-year-old Priscilla, one of six children purchased for £600, was taken to Elias Ball’s Comingtee Plantation, where she would live out her life. She was a long, long way from home.

 

July 2004. Joseph Opala, an anthropologist on fellowship at Yale who is writing a history of Bunce Island, the major Sierra Leone slave station during the period of transatlantic slavery, has made a startling discovery about Priscilla’s life. In the archives of the New York Historical Society, he has located the records of a slave ship that operated between Sierra Leone and Charleston in 1756. Finding such primary documentation is rare indeed.

Originally from Oklahoma, Opala first visited Sierra Leone in the 1970s on a mission with the Peace Corps. He fell in love with the country, living and teaching there for almost 20 years before he was forced to evacuate when a civil war erupted. He is now a leading expert on the Sierra Leone slave trade and that country’s close connection with the Gullah people—the Lowcountry descendants of the rice-growing slaves. Through his research, Opala has made some unprecedented breakthroughs and has substantiated important historical links between the two places.

 

“Edward Ball, author of Slaves in the Family, found that one of his ancestors, Elias Ball, II, purchased a little girl named Priscilla from the slave ship Hare in June 1756,” says Opala. “Using family records, Ball was able to link Priscilla to her direct descendants, a family named Martin from Charleston.” Opala has since been in contact with the Martins, and along with Charleston filmmaker Jacque Metz has recently begun a documentary on Bunce Island. “We’d like to end the film with Priscilla’s direct descendant, Thomalind Martin Polite, retracing what were likely Priscilla’s last steps on African soil, walking down the jetty at Bunce Island to the last place she stood before being loaded aboard the slave ship.”

 

In the 1980s, Opala became involved with the SCETV production Families Across the Sea, the first documentary to explore the Lowcountry-Sierra Leone connection. He also spearheaded the award-winning documentary The Language You Cry In, which follows the exciting discovery of an ancient African song preserved by the Moran family in coastal Georgia. Opala and his colleagues were able to link the song to the Mende, a Sierra Leone tribe. In a poignant reunion in 1997, the Moran family visited Sierra Leone and the village where the song is still sung.

 

According to Opala, the Hare’s voyage to Charleston in 1756 is one of the best-documented slave voyages in history. Within the ship’s records at the New York Historical Society, he also discovered that the vessel was not a British ship, but a Rhode Island slaver out of Newport, the largest slave port in North America. The ship’s owners, William and Samuel Vernon, were two of the richest merchants in colonial Newport, and among the Hare’s records were seven dispatches written by her captain in Sierra Leone to the ship’s owners in Newport.

 

But for Opala, the best is yet to come. “I’ve been meeting with community leaders in Rhode Island. For them, the story of Priscilla, exiled from her home in Africa by a Rhode Island slaver, is a perfect vehicle for bringing the issue of that state’s involvement in the slave trade to the public.” Residents in Rhode Island are currently raising money in a grassroots effort to send Thomalind to Sierra Leone and then bring her to Rhode Island afterwards. “In fact,” says Opala, “the Northern debut of our documentary will be in Rhode Island, so our film on Bunce Island will not just link Sierra Leoneans and Gullahs, but also Gullahs to the Rhode Island community.”

 

Worlds Apart
Most of the Africans sold into slavery are anonymous, their names unrecorded and fates unknown. Not so for Priscilla, whose story has defied the odds. Now, 250 years later, her name is bringing new life to the study of this important—and often misunderstood—part of American history.

 

Between 1530 and 1870, an estimated 12 million Africans were sold into slavery across the Atlantic Ocean. Only some 500,000—approximately four percent—were brought into what is now the United States, yet almost half of this number came through the port of Charleston. What makes Priscilla stand out is that, unlike most of the others, we know her name and where she came from.

 

The exact circumstances of how Priscilla came to be captured are not known. She was likely taken when her village was raided—not by the English or Americans, but by Africans involved in the business of slavery. It worked like this: European slave traders established what might be termed a “trade agreement” with the African kings who ruled the countries of the West African coastline. In return for cloth, guns, and rum, the kings provided the Europeans with slaves. The Europeans set up trading centers along the African coast—places like Bunce Island called “castles” or “factories”—which they leased from the African kings who ruled that particular territory. The African slave traders would bring the captured persons to these “factories” where they were sold to the Europeans, who eventually loaded them onto ships to be sold in the West Indies, Brazil, and the North American colonies.

 

In a way, those like Priscilla, who ended up on a South Carolina rice plantation, were the lucky ones. As historian Daniel Littlefield wrote in his landmark book, Rice and Slaves: Ethnicity and the Slave Trade in Colonial South Carolina, the average life expectancy of a slave in the West Indies or South America was between four and seven years. Because of South Carolina’s patriarchal system and the premium prices paid for slaves—especially those from the West African Rice Coast—the attitude was that a slave had only just begun to pay for himself after four years. Therefore, a slave on a South Carolina plantation could perhaps live a full lifetime. Priscilla lived to be approximately 55 years old, dying in 1811.

 

A Shared Past
Although separated by a thousand miles—not to mention enormous historical and cultural differences—Newport, Rhode Island, settled in 1639, shares many similarities with Charleston. Like the Holy City, it became a haven for people seeking religious freedom. Original Rhode Islanders included those escaping the intolerance of the Puritans: Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal, Huguenots from France, and one of the largest Quaker populations in America. By 1720, Newport was the fifth most prosperous seaport behind New York, Charleston, Boston, and Philadelphia.

 

One thinks of whale oil and spermaceti candles in the holds of Newport vessels, not the human cargo aboard ships like the Hare. Yet Rhode Island was a key juncture in the “notorious triangle” of the colonial slave trade. Newport vessels made more than 900 voyages to Africa, carrying an estimated 100,000 slaves to the West Indies and North America. Moreover, one of Rhode Island’s chief colonial industries was the production of rum, which was traded to the African kings for slaves, who were sold in the Caribbean for molasses and sugar, which were, in turn, sold to rum distillers in Rhode Island.

 

Historian Keith Stokes, president of the Newport County Chamber of Commerce, is currently involved with “Project Priscilla: Bringing Rhode Islanders Together in an Act of Remembrance.” Stokes, who lectures nationally on early African and Jewish American history, is providing the historical context of Rhode Island’s participation in the slave trade as well as the Vernon brothers’ business of transporting slaves from West Africa to Charleston. “What I find especially exciting,” Stokes explains, “is that Priscilla offers a presentation of the true origins of the American slave trade, which, during the colonial period, was primarily a New England trading economy. In fact, more slave ships (smaller sloops, usually loaded with 30 to 60 slaves) left Newport than any other American port during that time. Rhode Island had a larger percentage of slaves in its population than any northern colony.”

 

Revisionist history notwithstanding, it has long been thought that the South bears the brunt of guilt when it comes to the issue of slavery. “Like so many other early American cities,” says Stokes, “Newport and Charleston share a history that very few are willing to publicly recognize—that much of the economic and cultural wealth has come either directly or indirectly from the labor of Africans as slaves.

 

“With Priscilla,” Stokes continues, “we put a human face to the tens of millions of African slaves who were transported to the New World. Priscilla is a real person, not simply a ghost of the historical past. This is a rare opportunity to strongly identify with a person of African descent who had a defined culture, heritage, and language well before she was captured. This type of public presentation has not occurred since Kunta Kinte and Roots during the 1970s. More to the point, her story is true, not fictional. Priscilla is not simply a black history story, but an American history story.”

 

Stranger in a Strange Land
When Priscilla debarked from the Hare, her first step onto American soil was the shore of Sullivan’s Island. It was required that all slaves brought into port spend at least 10 days in the island’s lazaretto.

 

Located at the lower tip of the island, the purpose of the lazaretto—also called the “pest house”—was not solely to separate African slaves (some European immigrants also were quarantined there), nor was the island ever an auction block where slaves were sold. Instead, like latter-day Ellis Island, it was established to prevent the importation of virulent epidemics into the colony. These pestilences (thus the name “pest house”), particularly smallpox and yellow fever, could sweep the city with a lethal ferocity. At times, even imported goods were warehoused on the island so the stock could “air” and be cleansed.

 

The Sullivan’s Island pest house was disbanded in the late 18th century. When Moultrieville was established in the early 19th century, the structure was rebuilt as Grace Church, the first Episcopal church on the island—ironic considering the building’s earlier use. Today, a plaque near Fort Moultrie recalls the island’s singular role in the history of American slavery. Priscilla was one of an estimated 200,000 Africans who would pass through the island on their way to slave auctions.

 

It was Edward Ball who first lifted Priscilla’s name from obscurity and brought it into the present. To write Slaves in the Family, which won the 1998 National Book Award, Ball spent four years researching his ancestors, who were among the original Charles Town colonists and, eventually, among the wealthiest. The Ball family are “old Charleston” personified. They comprised an elite group of planters, patriots, and statesmen of rare accomplishment. And, like others of this class, they owned slaves.

 

From the late 17th century until 1865, the Ball family owned 25 plantations worked by some 4,000 slaves. By Edward Ball’s educated estimate, there are now between 75,000 and 100,000 people descended from Ball family slaves. He was able to reconstruct the genealogies of these slave families, from the first African captives down to the present. He also traveled to Sierra Leone, and, with Joe Opala, toured Bunce Island and interviewed Sierra Leoneans whose ancestors were involved in the procurement of slaves.

 

“I wanted to tell a black and white story—not a black story, not a white one—but a shared tale,” Ball explains, describing how he traveled all over the United States to meet descendants of Ball slaves. “I met with about 100 people whose ancestors lived on Ball plantations. They are the people I wrote about. They belong to about 15 families and are middle class and wageworkers, educated and illiterate, light- and dark-skinned, Christian and Atheist—a true cross-section of black Americans.”

 

The first person Ball interviewed was a man named Thomas Martin. “Mr. Martin was a very dignified, soft-spoken man… intensely curious about his history,” says Ball. “He knew about his family’s life after emancipation, but he knew nothing about his family in slavery. I knew about his family in slavery and nothing about his family after slavery. So we had something to share. That exchange characterized the encounters I had with all the black families.”

 

Thomas Martin was Priscilla’s seventh-generation descendant. Within 10 years of arriving at Comingtee Plantation, Priscilla had a partner named Jeffrey. By 1770, she had three children, and upon her death in 1811, she had 30 grandchildren. Her descendants would live on Ball family plantations until early 1865, when Charleston was taken by Federal troops. One of Priscilla’s descendants, Henry, would be freed from William Ball’s Limerick Plantation on the Cooper River’s east branch. He was Thomas Martin’s grandfather.


Completing the Journey
Thomalind Martin Polite is a cheerful woman with hardly a trace of a Southern drawl, much less “Charlestonese” or Gullah. In fact, she readily admits that she hasn’t even heard much “true” Gullah, nor can she speak it. Her introduction to the language of her ancestors was through hearing storytellers at the library as a child. She now has a master’s degree in speech pathology and audiology and works with the Charleston County School District. She is following in the family footsteps; education is in the Martin family blood.

 

Teaching as a career for the Martins began shortly after the Limerick slave, Henry, was emancipated. In 1866, Henry—now remembered as Peter Henry Robards Martin—received his first formal education in the one-room Nazareth Church School in Pinopolis. He himself would teach there before moving to Charleston, marrying, working as a carpenter, and finally answering the call to become a preacher. In the latter part of his life, he moved back to the country where he built a church and taught his parishioners’ children until his death in 1931.

 

With his wife, Anna Cruz, he had 10 children. Son Peter Henry, Jr., born in 1886, prospered as a roofer. Peter Henry, Jr.’s son, Thomas Poyas Martin, born in 1933, was the soft-spoken man Edward Ball met. A career educator who taught English, Thomas Martin—Thomalind’s father—eventually became assistant principal of Charleston High School before he retired. He died last year.

This April, Thomalind—bright, talented, and energetic—will return to the land of her ancestors. “I can hardly describe it,” she exclaims about her upcoming trip. “I’m ecstatic. I feel fortunate to be the one chosen to go. I wish my father was still alive, because he should have been the one to go. But with Priscilla at the beginning of the family line and me at the end, I guess it’s only fitting.” She pauses for a moment and adds thoughtfully: “Still, it’s not like I’m just taking a vacation to see a foreign land. I’m actually going back to where Priscilla was born; to where it all started. It’s an amazing feeling—an honor. I guess I feel like I’ll be going home.”

 

Home. Back to the land of her forefathers. Yet for most African Americans, family history is a genealogical void, a line severed by slavery. Being able to trace Priscilla’s lineage is such a rarity that it is, like Thomalind’s upcoming trip to Sierra Leone, a truly historic event. Moreover, for the people of Sierra Leone, Thomalind’s arrival is being anticipated with such enthusiasm that she’ll be heralded as a national hero. They’re calling it “Priscilla’s Homecoming.”

 

In July 2003, the Martin family received a letter from the Sierra Leone government formally inviting them to their ancestral home. The invitation reads in part, “Your visit will promote a greater understanding of the family ties that link the Gullah people of South Carolina and all Sierra Leoneans and help further the bonds of friendship between Americans and Africans in general. I can assure you that your visit will be well-publicized here before you arrive and that thousands of our people will be anxious to greet you, their long-lost family come home from South Carolina.”

 

When Opala was in Sierra Leone in October, he gave a speech on Priscilla’s Homecoming at the U.S. Embassy. “I spoke to a packed house, people from the arts, education, the government—all areas of the community,” he says. “In my speech I said, ‘We know that this little girl lost her family. She thought of her family every day. And she thought of her home every day until she died.’ After I said that, the audience was completely silent. I looked up to see everybody nodding their head in agreement, ‘Of course, of course.’

“Because you see,” continues Opala, “in Sierra Leone, family is everything. Home is everything. They lost people. Hundreds of thousands of their ancestors were taken away by slavery. To have Priscilla’s descendant come back is almost like Priscilla herself returning. To the people of Sierra Leone, this is considered incredibly good fortune—a true blessing. When Thomalind arrives, she’ll be greeted by complete strangers joyously calling to her, ‘Pree-SEE-la! Pree-SEE-la!’”

 

Remembering A Life
Jacque Metz is the Charleston filmmaker who, with Opala, is producing the documentary on Bunce Island. They filmed in Sierra Leone last year.

 

“When you see Bunce Island in person, even though it is overgrown and in ruins, the enormity of what happened here really hits,” Metz explains. “You can still follow the path down to the wharf, worn bare by the footsteps of those thousands of men, women, and children who were put aboard the slave ships. They were taken away in shackles, never to return.

 

“Priscilla’s story is all about healing,” she continues, “about the gut-level need to connect with one’s family and heritage. There are still many things about slavery we need to confront and understand.”

Priscilla’s story vividly demonstrates the creative survival of those who spent generations in enslavement. “By virtue of its rarity, the Priscilla saga is a remarkable story,” Metz concludes. “But most of all, like Thomalind’s visit to Sierra Leone, it’s a celebration. A reconciliation. A true homecoming. Hopefully, this will be just a beginning, the first door of many to open as all of us, on both sides of the Atlantic, find ways to reconcile with this powerful past.”