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.
Toward the end of the seventeenth century, marabout Nasir al-Din launched a religious movement against transatlantic slaving but for the Islamization of the Senegal valley. French colonial official Louis Chambonneau, stationed at the French outpost of St. Louis at the mouth of the Senegal river, was an eyewitness whose reporting of the events to his superiors remains one of the best first-hand accounts Nasir al-Din’s movement. Nasir al-Din was born in the southern Sahara to an elite family of the Traza Moors (so-called “Berbers”). Chambonneau referred to the movement as Toubenan (from the Wolof tuub, “conversion”). Chambonneau and many after him agreed the success of the Toubenan religious movement, though Nasir al-Din was killed, was due to the negative effects wrought by transatlantic slaving.
An African Muslim from Bornu who would later convert to orthodox Christianity in Czarist Russia, and renamed Nicholas Said, Mohammed Ali ben Said spent much of his captivity in Africa, not the Americas. In a significant proportion of his account, Mohammed focused on the encounters between Islam and indigenous spiritualities in Bornu as well as the wider Sudanic region of Africa. In the selection below, Mohammed provides his own view of the Sudan before Islam and the destruction left in the wake of its encounter with indigenous cultures.
Amilcar Cabral (1924 – 1973) was an anti-colonial thinker and freedom fighter, and leader of the PAIGC that fought for the liberation of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde. After studying agronomy in Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, Amilcar Cabral founded the Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde or PAIGC (African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde) in 1956. As Secretary-General of the PAIGC, Cabral and his comrades liberated much of the Guinean countryside and distinguished himself among the bevy of African freedom fighters as both theorist and tactician.
The excerpt below chronicles his observations of the three belief systems that shaped African history, namely indigenous African spiritualities, Islam and Christianity, as they played out on Africa’s Gold Coast
Understanding how complex societies developed in Africa can be as challenging as how to tell the histories of Africa. These interconnected issues are true for scholars who sort through equally complex evidence, but also for teachers and students who rely on scholarly interpretations of the past. In many instances, social and political complexity was achieved with centralized authority and a ruler, but also with collective rule based on pacts between lineages, ritual specialists, and autonomous settlements. Nowhere was the mixture of environment, nature’s resources, and the economies and relationships that flowed from them clearer than in pre-1600 West Africa.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Mohammed Ali Ben Said settled in Alabama, where his narrative and the paper trail for his life ends, but where the research for my Transatlantic Africa book began. Transatlantic Africa: 1440-1888 retold the story of transatlantic slaving through the lived experiences and intellectual history of Africans who lived through it. In that way, uncovering Mohammed’s story was fortuitous because Mohammed was an African, a Muslim, and an enslaved or indentured person for most of his remarkable life. For all these insights Mohammed’s extraordinary story provided, it left an equal amount of questions. These questions became the legs of my research, conveying it along an exploratory journey.