Slave Girl's Story Revealed Through Rare Records

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
June 8, 2005

Nearly 250 years ago a 10-year-old African girl was kidnapped and transported to South Carolina, where she was renamed Priscilla and sold into slavery.

Unlike the ancestors of many African Americans who were brought to North America as slaves, Priscilla left a paper trail that tells her story and connects her to her living descendants.

Thomalind Martin Polite is Priscilla's seventh-generation granddaughter. At the invitation of the Sierra Leone government, the Charleston, South Carolina, speech therapist recently visited her ancestor's homeland. There, Polite met with other descendents of Priscilla during a celebration last week.

"What makes Priscilla's Homecoming so special, and likely not to be repeated, is that Thomalind can trace her ancestry literally from the day the slave ship left Sierra Leone on April 9, 1756, to the present moment," said Joseph Opala, a historian at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. "We're dealing with a 249-year paper trail."

That paper trail includes correspondence, a ship log, financial accounts, and plantation records.

"For an African-American family to have all of these records forming an unbroken chain is probably unique," said Opala, who is working on a documentary about Priscilla's story. "It's like lightning striking twice in the same place."

Priscilla's Journey

More than 12 million Africans were forced from their homelands and transported across the Atlantic between 1530 to 1880. Of these, around 500,000—roughly 4 percent—were brought to North America.

It's impossible to say where Priscilla lived prior to being kidnapped, or where she was sold. The African slave trade was aided and abetted by African kings, who sent men into the interior of their countries to capture men, women, and children. These captives who were later traded to European slave traders for guns, beads, cloth, rum, horses, and other goods.

Ship records reveal that Caleb Godfrey, captain of the Newport, Rhode Island-based ship the Hare, traveled up and down Africa's "Rice Coast" collecting captives. The West African region stretched from Senegal in the north to Benin in the south and had a rice-growing tradition stretching back thousands of years.

Denizens of the Rice Coast were highly prized as slaves by slave owners in South Carolina and Georgia during the 18th century.

Priscilla left Africa from Sierra Leon's Bunce Island, site of one of about 40 European slave-trading castles along the coast of West Africa. The voyage began on April 9, 1756, with the Hare carrying 84 slaves. Records indicate that 16 people died on the ten-week journey to Charleston, South Carolina.

Continued on Next Page >>


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