Joseph Opala

More and More Specific…

I first heard about Priscilla on a boat trip. It was 1997, and Edward Ball had come to Sierra Leone to research his book Slaves in the Family. Ed asked me to take him to Bunce Island, the British slave castle, and as we cruised upriver he told me about his ancestor — Elias Ball II — the South Carolina planter who purchased a little girl he called “Priscilla” from a slave ship that came from Sierra Leone. Amazingly, Ed had managed to link Priscilla to her modern descendants, a black family still living in Charleston today. Now, he was taking his research back to Africa to the home Priscilla lost forever.

By then, I had lived in Sierra Leone for 17 years teaching at the university and doing research on Bunce Island. Cutting back the vegetation covering the ruins, I had identified the castle’s various structures: the fortification, “factory house,” offices, storerooms, watchtowers, and slave prison. Drawing on historical records, I had also learned that the castle shipped many of its captives to South Carolina and Georgia. Now, walking through the ruins, I showed Ed the various buildings in a conversation that later appeared in his prize-winning book.

My greatest pleasure, though, was sharing my historical findings with Sierra Leoneans. Years before Ed’s visit when I first announced that had I traced some of the slaves taken away from Sierra Leone to a particular place in America, people were ecstatic. Sierra Leoneans never dreamed of finding their lost family, and the response was so strong I was taken aback. Suddenly, every newspaper and radio station in the country wanted to interview me, and many schools and community groups wanted me to speak. Everywhere I went the questions tumbled out: How did you trace the slaves? Where were they taken? Why were they taken there? What are their descendants like today?

Tracing Sierra Leone’s lost people was possible because of one thing — rice. Rice was South Carolina and Georgia’s staple crop in the 18th century, and rice planters in the “lowcountry” region of those colonies were willing to pay high prices for Africans brought from the “Rice Coast,” the traditional rice-growing area stretching from what is now Senegal and Gambia down to Sierra Leone and Liberia. Lowcountry planters even knew about “Bance Island,” as it was called then. I found auction notices in US archives advertising slaves from “Bance Island” and “Sierra Leon.” When rice planters saw those words, they understood the meaning — Africans with rice-growing skills.

Modern Sierra Leoneans still identify themselves as “rice-eaters,” and they were amazed to learn that the “Gullah” people, the African Americans living in coastal South Carolina and Georgia today, have preserved many cultural traits from their part of West Africa. Sierra Leoneans asked me when they could meet the Gullahs, and in 1989 I helped organize a “Gullah Homecoming.” Thirteen Gullah community leaders came to Sierra Leone for a week, attending a state dinner in their honor, touring a rice farm, and visiting Bunce Island. Sierra Leoneans were so overjoyed at having their lost family “back home” that their guests said the public attention made them feel like “movie stars.”

The Gullah Homecoming was such a big success I thought my work was done, but soon afterwards Sierra Leoneans began asking me if I could arrange another, more specific homecoming. They were delighted to meet the Gullah community leaders who came to their country, they said, but they pointed out that their visitors had no specific link to Sierra Leone other than the fact that some of their ancestors had likely come from the Rice Coast. They wanted to know if I could identify a specific family whose ancestors came from Sierra Leone.

At first, I doubted such a direct connection could be made, but the answer soon came in a form I never expected. I discovered that in 1931 a linguist named Lorenzo Turner found a Gullah woman who could sing a song in the Mende language of Sierra Leone, a song passed down in her family for generations. Locating Turner’s recording in a music archive in the US, I played it in one Mende village after another in Sierra Leone. Many people told me they recognized their language in the song, but not the song itself. Then, in the village of Senehun Ngola a woman named Bendu Jabati began singing along. “My grandmother taught me that song,” she said; it’s the oldest song we know.

Excited by finding Bendu in Sierra Leone, I traveled to the US with my research colleague, ethnomusicologist Cynthia Schmidt, to search for someone who might still know the song in America. In Harris Neck, a tiny village on the Georgia coast, we met Mary Moran, 69, daughter of the woman who sang the song for Turner in the 1931. Mary remembered her mother’s song, and was stunned to learn that a woman in Africa could also sing it. Then, seven years later during a lull in Sierra Leone’s terrible civil war, I arranged for Mary and her family to come to Africa. On a bright dry season day in 1997 they flew by helicopter to Senehun Ngola and met Bendu Jabati. Sierra Leoneans followed the “Moran Family Homecoming” avidly on their local radio and TV.

Edward Ball arrived in Sierra Leone just a few weeks after the Moran Family Homecoming, and as he told me about Priscilla, I realized that he had done what I could never do working mainly on the African side. Sierra Leoneans were already asking me to organize yet another even more specific Gullah homecoming: Could I go beyond a family? Could I identify a specific person taken from Sierra Leone during the slave trade and find his direct descendants in America? Ed told me about Thomas Martin, Priscilla’s modern descendant, in Charleston. I wondered if Mr. Martin wanted to come to Africa. I knew that if Sierra Leoneans heard about him, they would certainly want him to come.

But Sierra Leone’s civil war erupted once again, and I was forced to flee the country. Then, six years later while living in the US, I returned to Sierra Leone after peace was restored to tell the government about Edward Ball’s discovery and to obtain a letter of invitation for the Martin family. Working on a documentary video on Bunce Island with filmmaker Jacque Metz, I hoped the Martins would come to Sierra Leone as part of our film project. Sierra Leonean officials were excited at the news, and gave me a warmly written letter. Thomas Martin had passed away by then, but traveling to Charleston in 2003, I presented the letter to his daughter, Thomalind Martin Polite. She was delighted.

Then, a year later while doing research for our documentary film, I found what I never expected see — the original records of the Hare, the slave ship that took Priscilla to America. Sitting in the ornate reading room of the New-York Historical Society I held the dispatch Captain Godfrey sent from Sierra Leone on April 8th, 1756, the day before he sailed for Charleston, and another he wrote on June 25th soon after arriving in America. Then, to my utter astonishment, I was holding the actual records of the sale of the Africans from the Hare. Running my eyes quickly down the list of buyers, I saw it: “Elias/St. John’s/Ball — 3 boys — 2 girls.” There was Priscilla: one of the two little girls.

But the Hare’s records held yet another surprise — the ship’s homeport. Edward Ball had concluded that the Hare was a British ship owned by Bunce Island, but the records showed that while the Hare stopped at Bunce Island and conducted some of its business there, it was actually a Rhode Island vessel owned by Samuel and William Vernon, wealthy merchants in Newport. The foremost center in North America for ships engaged in the Atlantic slave trade, Newport sent nearly 1,000 voyages to Africa and exiled almost 100,000 people to bondage in the West Indies and the Southern Colonies.

I knew that some Rhode Island community leaders had been trying to tell the story of the Newport slave trade for years, but were meeting resistance. I was sure that the story of Priscilla — the story of just one little girl exiled by a Newport ship — would be the best way to get the message across, and so I shared my findings. Community leaders soon established “Project Priscilla” with the goal of raising one dollar each from 10,000 Rhode Islanders to send Thomalind Martin Polite to Sierra Leone and then bring her up to their state after she returns. Project Priscilla aims at joining together all three communities — Rhode Island, Sierra Leone, and South Carolina — in an “act of remembrance.”

When Thomalind goes to Sierra Leone this year, and then later to Rhode Island, I think my work finally will be done. After all, I don’t see how it can get more specific than this.