J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, May 14, 2023

Kongo, “Angolans,” and the Stono Region

Another mystery of the article about early American fossil discoveries that I quoted yesterday was why the author identified the enslaved people who recognized elephantine teeth as coming from the “Kingdom of Kongo.”

The main source on that historic episode, the naturalist Mark Catesby, didn’t mention where in Africa those workers had come from.

However, that discovery occurred in the Stono region of South Carolina around 1725. The same region was the site of a significant uprising by enslaved people in 1739.

As this P.B.S. description says, white slaveholders identified the initial leader of that rebellion a ”an Angolan named Jemmy.”

The History Bandits website states:
The leaders of the initial insurrection were reportedly “Angolans” and suspected to have connections with Spanish Florida. They spoke Portuguese, which many South Carolinians understood to be “a dialect of Spanish, such as Scots is to English” and demonstrated certain adherences to the Catholic faith. One South Carolina planter around this time complained that “many Thousands of the Negroes profess the Roman Catholic Religion,” having learned its tenants [tenets] in Africa before being brought to the New World.
The period term “Angolan” appears to have been a misnomer:
In the early eighteenth century, however, most actual Angolan slaves were shipped directly from the Portuguese colony across the southern Atlantic to Brazil. When South Carolinians employed the term “Angolan,” they were more likely referring to the coast of West Central Africa, which British ship captains called the “Angolan Coast.” The port of Kabinda, near the mouth of Zaire River, served as the main point of embarkation for the slave trade in the region . . .

the slaves themselves came from the vast African interior. Distinguishing actual identities and backgrounds of African slaves is often impossible. Given that the leaders of the Stono Rebellion spoke Portuguese and practiced Catholicism, it seems likely that they came from the Kingdom of Kongo, the only region of West Central Africa with a long history of exposure to both the Catholic Church and Portuguese traders.
Thus, while it appears to be an assumption that the people who identified the mammoth teeth were from Kongo, there’s solid historical reason for making that assumption. That would be consistent with a knowledge of elephants. In Fossil Legends of the First Americans, Adrienne Mayor noted that the Congo region was the home of “living Loxodonta elephant species.”

However, there were also elephants in the Senegambia region and other parts of western Africa, home to most people shipped to North America. The slaveholders of the Stono region appear to have seen the “Angolans” as a troublemaking fraction of the people they claimed, not typical. Thus, while the people who saw the resemblance between mammoth and elephant teeth could well have included captives from Kongo, I don’t think that was the only possibility.

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