Charles Ball (1781? – 1840s?) was born on a tobacco plantation in Maryland, eventually purchasing his legal freedom and serving as a naval officer in the war of 1812. Ball spent much of his live laboring and being sold and resold—and captured and re-enslaved—on plantations in South Carolina and Georgia, before resigning himself to Pennsylvania to escape recapture. While in South Carolina, Charles witnessed and participated in a funerary ritual brought from Africa. Since almost all enslaved Africans took death and funerary rites seriously, dedicating funds toward and undertaking such rites as community affairs, the funerary ritual Charles observed has therefore wider significance for understanding the continuity and transformation of African cultures in the Americas.
Based on the details on Charles’s account, the “priest” he describes probably originated from the Gold Coast of West Africa. European merchants stationed on the Gold Coast described local funerary rituals, which correspond to the one Charles observed. On the Gold Coast, the Akan peoples, a Lutheran pastor observed, after preparing the grave, would place “the tools with which the deceased earned his living in this life, as well as what he needs for daily domestic use. In particular it is on no account forgotten to place large pots of palm wine, dishes of milie [corn or wheat], palm oil and all kinds of local fruits on the grave, so that the deceased may lack neither food nor drink.... They also make male and female figures out of clay and paint them red and white. These are supposed to represent the deceased.” These peoples believed, according to European observers, “immediately after death, they go to another world, where they live off the offerings of provisions, money and clothes, their relations left behind make for them after their decease.... [T]he dead are conveyed to a famous river... [where] their god enquires into their past life…. If so, they are gently wasted over that river into a country where there is nothing but happiness.” The deceased son of the “priest” in Charles’s account would have been well served by the tools of manhood (“a small bow, and several arrows” and “a small stick, with an iron nail”), tools for his likely trade as fisherman and for the journey home (“a miniature canoe... and a little paddle”), food for the journey (“a little bag of parched meal”), and protective symbols or figures (“white muslin, with several curious and strange figures painted on it in blue and red”) coded in a language that “his relations and countrymen would know” in Africa.
In the end, the “priest” gave part of himself (“a lock of hair”) as his ultimate gesture of sacrifice, bond, and mourning. This “priest” was well positioned to communicate the trans-Atlantic meaning of his spiritual culture with his “relations and countrymen” and “the God of his country,” witnessed by his wife Lydia and Charles Ball. The funerary ritual would have resonated with the healer’s kin and community in Africa and would not have presupposed a shared memory of the slave ship; similarly, African cultures in the Americas were the result of transfer and continuation and the transformation of specific cultural content to meet new needs, registering in the African diaspora and within Africa. Ultimately, the most profound statement made by such rituals was the reconstitution of family, both in the flesh and in spirit.
All the people on the plantation [in South Carolina] did not live as well as our family did, for many of the men did not understand trapping game, and others were too indolent to go far enough from home to find good places for setting their traps. My principal trapping ground was three miles from home, and I went three times a week, always after night, to bring home my game, and keep my traps in good order. Many of the families in the quarter caught no game, and had no meat, except that which we received from the overseer, which averaged about six or seven meals in the year.
Lydia, the woman whom I have mentioned heretofore was one of the women whose husbands procured little or nothing for the sustenance of their families, and I often gave her a quarter of a [raccoon] or a small opossum, for which she appeared very thankful. Her health was not good--she had a bad cough, and often told me, she was feverish and restless at night. It appeared clear to me that this woman's constitution was broken by hardships, and sufferings, and that she could not live long in her present mode of existence. Her husband, a native of a country far in the interior of Africa, said he had been a priest in his own nation, and had never been taught to do any kind of labour, being supported by the contributions of the public; and he now maintained, as far as he could, the same kind of lazy dignity, that he had enjoyed at home. He was compelled by the overseer to work, with the other hands, in the field, but as soon as he had come into his cabin, he took his seat, and refused to give his wife the least assistance in doing anything. She was consequently obliged to do the little work that it was necessary to perform in the cabin, and also to bear all the labour of weeding and cultivating the family patch or garden. The husband was a morose, sullen man, and said, he formerly had ten wives in his own country, who all had to work for, and wait upon him; and he thought himself badly off here, in having but one woman to do anything for him. This man was very irritable, and often beat and otherwise maltreated his wife, on the slightest provocation, and the overseer refused to protect her, on the ground, that he never interfered in the family quarrels of the black people. I pitied this woman greatly, but as it was not in my power to remove her from the presence and authority of her husband, I thought it prudent not to say nor do anything to provoke him further against her. As the winter approached, and the autumnal rains set in, she was frequently exposed in the field, and was wet for several hours together: this, joined to the want of warm and comfortable [woolen] clothes, caused her to contract colds, and hoarseness, which increased the severity of her cough. A few days before Christmas, her child died, after an illness of only three days. I assisted her and her husband to inter the infant--which was a little boy--and its father buried with it, a small bow, and several arrows; a little bag of parched meal; a miniature canoe, about a foot long, and a little paddle, (with which he said it would cross the ocean to his own country) a small stick, with an iron nail, sharpened, and fastened into one end of it; and a piece of white muslin, with several curious and strange figures painted on it in blue and red, by which, he said, his relations and countrymen would know the infant to be his son, and would receive it accordingly, on its arrival amongst them [(see diagram below)].
Cruel as this man was to his wife, I could not but respect the sentiments which inspired his affection for his child; though it was the affection of a barbarian. He cut a lock of hair from his head, threw it upon the dead infant, and closed the grave with his own hands. He then told us the God of his country was looking at him, and was pleased with what he had done. Thus ended the funeral service.
As we returned home, Lydia told me she was rejoiced that her child was dead, and out of a world in which slavery and wretchedness must have been its only portion. I am now, said she, ready to follow my child, and the sooner I go, the better for me. She went with us to the field until the month of January, when, as we were returning from our work, one stormy and wet evening, she told me she should never pick any more cotton--that her strength was gone, and she could work no more. When we assembled, at the blowing of the horn, on the following morning, Lydia did not appear. The overseer, who had always appeared to dislike this woman, when he missed her, swore very angrily, and said he supposed she was pretending to be sick, but if she was, he would soon cure her. He then stepped into his house and took some copperas front a little bag, and mixed it with water. I followed him to Lydia's cabin, where he compelled her to drink this solution of copperas. It caused her to vomit violently, and made her exceedingly sick. I think to this day, that this act of the overseer, was the most inhuman of all those that I have seen perpetrated upon [defenseless] slaves.
Lydia was removed that same day to the sick room, in a state of extreme debility and exhaustion. When she left this room again she was a corpse. Her disease was a consumption of the lungs, which terminated her life early in March. I assisted in carrying her to the grave, which I closed upon her, and covered with green turf. She sleeps by the side of her infant, in a corner of the negro grave-yard, of this plantation….
Sources: Charles Ball, Slavery in the United States: A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Charles Ball, a Black Man, Who Lived Forty Years in Maryland, South Carolina and Georgia, as a Slave Under Various Masters, and was One Year in the Navy with Commodore Barney, During the Late War (New York: John S. Taylor, 1837), 263-266; Adam Jones, German Sources for West African History, 1599–1669 (Wiesbaden, Germany: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1983), 258; Jean Barbot, “A Description of the Coasts of North and South-Guinea,” in Awnsham Churchill, A Collection of Voyages and Travels . . . (London: Messrs. Churchill, 1732), V: 282, 307; Kwasi Konadu, The Akan Diaspora in the Americas (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), esp. chap. 6.