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."
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.
Elias Ball II, a wealthy South Carolina rice plantation owner, purchased four boys and two girls for 600 pounds. He estimated their ages and gave each an English name.
The newly named ten-year-old Priscilla was taken to Ball's Comingtee Plantation, where she lived the rest of her life.
Plantation records unearthed by Edward Ball, a descendant of Elias and the author of the recent prize-winning book Slaves in the Family,show that Priscilla eventually married a man named Jeffrey. The two had 10 children, at least four of which reached adulthood. Priscilla died in 1811, leaving 30 grandchildren.
Rhode Island Connection
The remarkable documentation of Priscilla's journey provides a fresh opportunity to examine slavery in the United States. Priscilla's story has fostered a number of public-awareness projects.
In addition to the Sierra Leone celebration and Opala's documentary, Yale University's Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition has developed an extensive Web site about Priscilla's Homecoming.
Meanwhile the New-York Historical Society, which owns the records of the slave ship Hare,is planning a traveling exhibit on Priscilla and the ship's voyage.
Although the onus of slavery in the United States is frequently placed on the South, several Rhode Island groups are using Priscilla's story to educate the public about the role of northern states.
"Newport, Rhode Island, was one of the major ports in colonial times for the industry of African captivity," said Valerie Tutson, director and co-founder of Rhode Island Black Storytellers.
More than 900 ship voyages originating in Newport made the trip to Africa, ultimately delivering an estimated 100,000 people into slavery in the West Indies and North America.
Tutson is also co-director of Project Priscilla, a Rhode Island group seeking to draw attention to Newport's role in the slave trade. She traveled to Sierra Leone with Thomalind Martin Polite. Upon her return from Sierra Leone, Polite planned to travel to Rhode Island as part of the project's on-going educational effort.
After years of lobbying, historical plaques are being placed around Rhode Island as remembrances of the state's role in the North American slave trade. Presentations are being made to schoolchildren, and Brown University, in Providence, recently held a three-day seminar on the subject.
"Slavery is our great wound here in this country. It's ugly, and it hurts," Tutson said. "Priscilla's story allows people to acknowledge the past and also look at what we can do in the present day. This project is allowing a lot of things to come together."