A Pan-African Archaeology of Black Radicalism in the Atlantic World

Lena Delgado de Torres

Question and Answer
Durban, Birmingham,
Cape Town, Atlanta
Johannesburg, Watts
The earth around,
Struggling, fighting,
Dying – for what?
A world to gain

Groping, hoping,
Waiting – for what?
A world to gain
Dreams kicked asunder,
Why not go under?
There’s a world to gain.
But suppose I don’t want it,
Why take it?
To remake it.

-- Langston Hughes (1902-67)

Black Americans intimately contributed to the social and economic development of the United States, both during and after the antebellum period. Recognition of this fact accompanies the realization that we cannot fully understand the economic and cultural development of the Americas without taking into account the African or black experience (Gilroy 1993:70; Singleton 1999:1). The archaeology and history of the African Diaspora, rather than being simply the salvaging of a disenfranchised peoples’ heritage, is an essential component to understand modernity in the Atlantic world.

In order to contextualize my discussion of Colono Ware marked bowls, a ceramic type found extensively in the southeast regions of the United States, I will briefly sketch South Carolina’s history of slavery and resistance. Each slave-holding region of the United States was characterized by a different pattern of slavery. It is generally believed that a high concentration of blacks and, consequently, a relatively high rate of African cultural survival marked the region of the South Carolina lowcountry, in comparison with other regions of the United States. Documentary evidence indicates that during the mid 18th century, the majority of South Carolina’s slaves came from Central Africa, particularly the Angola-Congo region, and were largely Bantu speakers (Holloway 1990:6). Many historians and archaeologists believe that Kongolese cultural practices may have remained more intact in South Carolina during the18th and 19th centuries than in other parts of the United States (Ferguson 1992; Holloway 1990; Wilkie 1997).

South Carolinian historical records attest to the limited contact between whites and blacks prior to the Revolutionary War, a factor that inhibited the “acculturation” process (Wheaton and Garrow 1985:242). The South Carolina lowcountry was characterized by a very large percentage of blacks over whites. By 1720, blacks composed almost two-thirds of the population and in some parishes, there were seven or eight blacks to one white (Weir 1983:174). Rice was the staple of the South Carolina lowcountry during the 18th and 19th centuries. Many rice plantations were situated near the numerous rivers and marshes that run through coastal South Carolina, as the wet, marshy soils were well suited for the cultivation of rice (Ferguson 1992:xxiv). Many of the planters were “absentee” or partial absentee owners, in that they spent the malaria-ridden, hot and uncomfortable summer months away from the plantation (Lewis 1978:102). This left only the white overseers, black drivers and slaves on the plantations for months at a time (Jones 1990:33).

South Carolinian slaves did not passively accept their lot in life but resisted exploitation in numerous ways. Religious practice, identity formation and outright revolt were several of many paths that this resistance took during the 18th and 19th centuries. As Antonio Gramsci notes, two methods may be employed to rebel against a repressive government. The first is confrontational, open revolution and the second is a “passive revolution or war of position” in which political and cultural agents struggle for control through a cultural or discursive process (Kurtz 1996:109). The role of religion and ethnicity in slave rebellion is analogous to a discursive or cultural mode of resistance, or, to use Michel Rolph-Trouillot’s (2002) terminology, petit marronage. During the early 19th century, Charlestonian blacks used the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) as a forum to develop alternative political discourse reflecting the common experiences of Afro-Carolinians as a whole. At the same time, secret religious societies organized around African ethnicities composed an integral sector of resistance and identity formation (Pearson 1999:62). In fact, African Diasporic religious societies figure prominently as loci of organization and recruitment for black rebellions throughout the African Diaspora (Aptheker 1963; Fick 1990; Franco 1963, 1977; Holt 1992; Howard 1998; Paquette 1988). Members of these cultural-religious organizations maintained a “hidden transcript” of radical political discourse protesting the enslavement of blacks (Scott 1990:18).

As James Scott writes, the “most explosive realm of politics is the rupture of the political cordon sanitaire between the hidden and public transcript” (Scott 1990:19). This rupture occurred several times during South Carolina’s antebellum history, one of the most notable episodes being the Stono Rebellion of 1739. This uprising originated in the rural area of St. Paul’s parish and was the culmination of a series of insurrections representing a “brief but serious groundswell of resistance to slavery” (Wood 1974:309). It is estimated that almost 1,000 black residents of St. Paul’s parish had lived in the Angola region less than ten years before the rebellion, supporting the claim that its leading conspirators were Angolan-born slaves, continuing to adhere to their Kongolese identity (Wood 1974:302). Michel-Rolph Trouillot also points to the role of Kongolese slaves in the Haitian Revolution (1995:31).

The seeds of black radicalism were sown in the Atlantic World during the 18th and 19th centuries, forged through resistance to slavery, associated culturally with Africa. The early strains of a Pan-African political consciousness are clearly manifested by the actions of Denmark Vesey, an early 19th-century revolutionary leader from Charleston. Vesey drew inspiration from the Haitian Revolution, an important symbol of black independence, and was influenced by African Diasporic religion and ethnicity (Robertson 1999). The rebellion of 1822 led by Vesey, a self-educated free black, was another major episode in South Carolinian slave resistance. This time, the uprising erupted in the cosmopolitan setting of Charleston, a port city, as opposed to the rural environment of the Stono rebellion. This represents a qualitative shift in South Carolinian slave resistance. While the Stono rebellion was a mass movement within the countryside, Vesey was an “organic intellectual” revolutionary leader, to borrow Gramsci’s term (Kurtz 1996; Pearson 1999:18), who organized a collective of free blacks and slaves, drawn from the urban environs of Charleston. The secret African Diasporic religious societies figured prominently in the organization of this rebellion, and it is known that Vesey recruited some of his leading conspirators from these societies (Pearson 1999:62). These societies provided a locus for cultural/political unity and a means for clandestine organization of Vesey’s rebellion. Vesey was influenced by the African Diasporic religion of Vodun during time spent in Haiti, where he was enslaved prior to the purchase of his freedom in later years. His plan for revolution included fleeing with his followers to the independent black republic of Haiti (Pearson 1999:25), and it is this fact that links the Vesey rebellion to a series of rebellions throughout the Americas occurring during this time period, known to some historians as the Age of Revolution (Childs 2001; Franco 1963, 1977; Geggus 1997, 2001; Scott 1986, 1991). We see that Vesey was part of a transnational movement of commodities, culture and political ideology. The African Diaspora grows out of this transnational flow of people, things and ideas.

A pattern emerges between the cultural realm of African Diasporic religion and ethnicity and the political activity of resistance in which each is in a dialectical relationship with the other (Aptheker 1963; Childs 2001; Fick 1990; Franco 1963, 1977; Holt 1992; Pearson 1999; Robertson 1999; Scott 1986, 1991). This relationship can be traced throughout the Diaspora and Africa itself during the colonial period and provides the foundation for 20th century traditional Pan-Africanism (Drake 1982:453). Although this pattern is certainly common and can be seen in diverse parts of the Diaspora, it was not the sole manner in which slaves dealt with their situation; rather it was one mode among many (Drake 1982:481). We see here the development of an early political and cultural Pan-African consciousness articulated through cultural resistance, political revolution and international links between peoples of African descent in the Atlantic world. There are clear connections between religious/ethnic organizations as forums for the development of the hidden transcript and the outright rebellion that resulted from this development.

The Kongolese Presence in South Carolina

A strong Kongolese presence in South Carolina during the 18th century supports Ferguson’s (1992) hypothesis and his methodological approach using analogy. Thomas (1995) advocates employing multiple lines of evidence when illustrating an archaeological case with ethnography. To this end, I am using a secondary source on Kongolese history written by David Birmingham (1966). Birmingham’s account is derived from a variety of sources, including original 16th century colonial documents. He claims that the kingdom of Kongo, which was an early attraction for European colonialists, was centered at the city of Mbanza Kongo (Birmingham 1966:1). The kingdom of Kongo, according to colonial documents, was divided into six provinces under a monarch. The central province, called Mpemba, was governed by the king and was home to Mbanza Kongo, the royal capital (Birmingham 1966:2). Most historical sources, including BaKongo oral history, indicate the 14th century as the date of the establishment of the Kongo kingdom.

Diogo Cao, a Portuguese explorer, arrived in the Kongo region in 1482, according to an inscription on a pillar erected on Cape St. Mary (Birmingham 1966:21). He encountered a kingdom whose political influence extended over about 300,000 square kilometers (Van Noten 1982:80). Early Portuguese-Kongo relations have been described as “friendly.” Still, trade in slaves was initiated early on and captives were obtained by the Kongo kingdom through raids against their neighbors or trade with adjacent polities. The Kongo kingdom exchanged slaves for European cloth and metal-wares (Birmingham 1966:21-5). During the middle 17th century, the Portuguese began to struggle with the Dutch for control of the Kongo slave trade (Birmingham 1966:104). The Kongo kingdom preferred trading with the Dutch, as they paid better prices and used higher-quality goods (Birmingham 1966:117). The Kongo army was defeated by the Portuguese in 1665 and, by the late 17th century, the Kongo kingdom had become decentralized into several autonomous polities with rival claimants to the throne. Kongo itself became a significant source of slaves during this period (Birmingham 1966:122-3). Herskovits (1941:37) notes that Kongo/Angolan slaves “figured largely in the trade” to the area of the South Carolina Coast.

It is interesting to note that Colono Ware is prevalent at African-American sites dating primarily from the 1670’s to the early 1800’s (Wilkie 1997:98). These dates correspond with the break-down of the Kongo kingdom and the exportation of Kongo slaves to the New World attested to in colonial history. Based on historical records, Holloway claims that Kongo slaves comprised a majority during the mid 18th century (1990:6). This is also contemporaneous with the break down of the Kongo kingdom and the period of deposition of Ferguson’s marked bowls. All of these phenomena suggest that Kongo ethnicity was strong in South Carolina and that Kongloese slaves were the main participants in the Stono rebellion. It is also plausible that slaves influenced by Kongolese cosmology may have produced the marked bowls, making it methodologically sound to use BaKongo ethnography in order to understand its “creolization” in the New World. The time depth of the Kongo culture, evidenced by colonial documents dating to before the 18th century, suggests that the modern-day BaKongo may be related to this early culture. However, in order to ascertain whether the BaKongo are culturally continuous with the early Kongo, it is necessary to employ archaeological lines of evidence.

Colono Ware Marked Bowls: A Pan-African Archaeology?

My discussion will now move to Colono Ware marked bowls, an important archaeological problem in the scholarship aimed at elucidation of the African-American past. The ceramic form is found over a large area, extending from Virginia to South Carolina, and it appears in archaeological contexts beginning in the 1670's, peaking during the 18th century and declining in the early 19th century (Ferguson 1992; Mouer et al. 1999). As Singleton and Bograd (2000) point out, archaeologists should examine the use, appropriation and transformation of Colono Ware artifacts and in this way, the pots become the catalyst “for understanding identity formation, cultural interaction and change under colonialism” (9). Colono Ware’s primary use was quotidian and utilitarian; however, archaeologist Leland Ferguson suggests a secondary usage, ritualistic in nature, of Colono Ware bowls. Certain Colono Ware vessels were repeatedly found in underwater contexts, at the bottom of rivers located near South Carolinian plantation sites (Ferguson 1992:11). Many of these pots had marks that resembled a cross or “X”. The symbols only appeared on Colono Ware bowls, not on cooking jars or imported European wares, although African-American slaves used both. The symbol always was inscribed on the bottom of the bowl, either on the inside or outside. The marks were most often found on bowls with ring bases rather than rounded or flattened bases. Ring-based bowls account for a small portion of Colono Ware, suggesting that they were specifically selected for this secondary usage. Most of the marked sherds were recovered from underwater proveniences (Ferguson 1992:113-4). All of these factors point to repeated and intentional practice—again, most likely ritualistic.

Ferguson’s analysis of Colono Ware in South Carolina revealed a total of 28 vessels or vessel fragments from nine sites exhibiting a cross mark, dating to the mid-18th and early19th centuries (Ferguson 1999:121). This small sample size points to the fact that the creation and deposition of these bowls was an aberration in the archaeological record, an anomaly that requires explanation. Ferguson’s observations emerged during an intensive investigation of vessels and fragments from South Carolinian archaeological collections. These collections were given to the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology by “non-professional archaeological divers” who, unfortunately, were not concerned with documenting provenience or “collecting representative samples” of the marked bowls (Ferguson 1999:121).

The marks do not appear to be decorative or ‘maker’s marks’ but rather exhibit characteristics that suggest their use in a ritual capacity involving water. Ferguson divides the marked bowls into three categories based on design, two of which are relevant to my argument. One category contains three bowl fragments found in the west branch of the Cooper River, a stream that runs near the Mepkin plantation in South Carolina. The vessels were burnished while in a leather-hard state and, before firing, the potter(s) incised a large cross through the interior. The cross divides the bowl into quadrants, which Ferguson asserts is a Central African cosmogram of the BaKongo ethnic group (see plate 5), located in the region of modern-day Angola. A second category includes the largest number of ceramic specimens, which exhibit “straight lines and/or arcs of a circle,” that Ferguson also relates to the Central African cosmogram (Ferguson 1999:122). He refers to ethnography of the BaKongo in order to illustrate these unusual artifacts.

The fact that the majority of South Carolina’s slaves were from the region of Angola-Congo underwrites Ferguson’s claim. During the mid-18th century, the same period during which the bowls were deposited, 70 percent of South Carolina’s slaves were Angolan (Holloway 1990:6-8). The prevalence of this ethnic group makes it more than possible that Angolan-born slaves continued to practice their indigenous Kongolese religion within the South Carolina context, meanwhile influencing creole-born and slaves of other ethnic groups to do the same. The historical pattern depicting the dialectical relationship between religion, African ethnicity and slave resistance suggests that the bowls may have been part of the discursive or cultural process of resistance that formed lowcountry slaves’ hidden transcripts.

Colono Ware marked bowls are an example of Trouillot’s “petit marronage,” (2002) in which African-American culture is expressed on the “edges” of the plantation, the primary site of resistance. In this case, the rivers and streams in which the bowls were deposited are literally found on the edges of lowcountry plantations. The bowls are an expression of African-American cultural practice and according to Trouillot’s definition, they are a form of everyday cultural resistance. Alongside this petit marronage, we see the “epic” examples of outright revolution, the Stono and Vesey Rebellions, which Trouillot would consider “grand marronage.” These two forms of resistance are part of a continuum, and reflect the Kongolese presence in 18th and 19th century South Carolina.

Ethnographic Evidence: Religion and Resistance in the Atlantic World

Ferguson’s methodology involves the linkage of the archaeological material to ethnographic data of a contemporary Central African ethnic group, the BaKongo. He uses ethnography of the BaKongo dating to the 1970’s in order to suggest models upon which early African-American religion of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries was based. While the latter methodological approach will be discussed later in this paper, I find it helpful to outline Ferguson’s ethnographic correlates in order to contextualize the archaeological data.

Ferguson associates the cross mark with the BaKongo, who reside in the southern most portion of Congo along the Angolan border. BaKongo cosmology includes the prevalence of an “X” shaped cosmogram that symbolizes the circularity of life and the domains of heaven and earth. Thus, the cross symbol actually represents a circle, or circularity. BaKongo religion is strongly associated with water spirits and medicinal, healing qualities. BaKongo medicinal containers can include ceramic vessels and Ferguson hypothesizes that the Colono Ware marked bowls exhibiting the “X” cosmogram were intended as dedications to water spirits, thus their underwater provenience (Ferguson 1992:111-14).

Ferguson’s work is based on contemporary ethnographic and oral historical accounts of the BaKongo, principally drawn from cultural anthropologists’ research. The cultural anthropologists whose work is sampled by Ferguson, and by Robert Farris Thompson, include Wyatt MacGaffey and John M. Janzen. Their work includes transcriptions of reports by BaKongo religious leaders and oral historians (Janzen and MacGaffey 1974). BaKongo oral history asserts that during the 13th century A.D., the founder of Kongo civilization built Mbanza Kongo, the capital of the ancient Kongo kingdom in antiquity (MacGaffey 1970:3). Mbanza Kongo is presently the location of San Salvador, a modern city in northern Angola. From MacGaffey’s account we can pose the question of whether the BaKongo culture exhibits considerable time-depth, at least dating to 15th century Portuguese accounts of a Kongo kingdom in the region of modern-day Angola. This time-depth would support Ferguson’s hypothesis that African slaves taken from this region during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries were indeed practicing the Kongo religion. Nevertheless, it is clear that the BaKongo ethnic group was not static and later responded to disturbances caused by colonialism and that this may effect their contemporary oral histories. In addition, BaKongo practices may have changed throughout the centuries due to various disruptions, in which case we could not assume a static transmission from past to present.

In order to understand the religious cosmology that Ferguson claims African slaves brought to South Carolina and the rest of the New World, I will outline research by Fukia kia Bunseki, a contemporary BaKongo author (Janzen and MacGaffey 1974:31). Fukia writes, “the BaKongo believe and hold it true that man’s life has no end, that it constitutes a cycle . . . ” (Janzen and MacGaffey 1974:34). This cycle is symbolized by a cross or “X” symbol, thus the cosmogram to which Ferguson refers. Interestingly, Fukia adds, “contrary to what many students have said, the sign of the cross was not introduced into this country and into the minds of its people by foreigners. The cross was known to the BaKongo before the arrival of Europeans, and corresponds to the understanding in their minds of their relationship to their world . . . ” (Janzen and MacGaffey 1974:34). We see that the BaKongo themselves, according to Fukia, recognize considerable time-depth and originality in their religious tradition, especially regarding the “X” symbol. Fukia’s emphasis on cultural originality, in the face of European colonization, suggests that the cross symbol and BaKongo cosmology were forms of cultural resistance. This evidence supports Ferguson’s assertion that the Colono Ware cross is an African symbol with enough time-depth to have been part of the slaves’ cosmology. It is important to note again, however, that BaKongo culture was not static and responded to colonial disruption, thereby limiting our ability to infer rigidly 18th century BaKongo culture from 20th century ethnographic and oral histories.

An element of BaKongo religion that relates to Ferguson’s argument is the prevalence of Minkisi, or sacred medicine. Nsemi, a BaKongo author writing shortly after the turn of the century, demonstrates the coherent nature of BaKongo cosmology dating at least to the early 19th century (Janzen and MacGaffey 1974:34). The Minkisi originate in Nzambi or God. Nsemi writes:

Nkisi (singular form of Minkisi) is the name of the thing we use to help a man who is sick and from which we obtain health; the name refers to leaves and medicines combined together. When an individual is sick, he will be healed by another who collects plants, mixes them together, and gives the sufferer to drink of the mixture (Janzen and MacGaffey 1974:35).

The Minkisi would have been placed within a container; according to Ferguson, this is the purpose for which the marked bowls were used.

An additional feature of BaKongo cosmology is the river cults or Simbi. These spirits were formerly honored through public cults that corresponded to political domains. The public cults were disrupted after the destruction of the indigenous political system by colonial forces at the turn of the century. However, the Simbi are still the focus of numerous private cults associated with specific lineages (Janzen and MacGaffey 1974:77). The Simbi spirits are seen to reside in certain pools or streams (Janzen and MacGaffey 1974:78). The BaKongo belief in river spirits is, according to Ferguson, the reason why African-American religious practitioners deposited marked bowls containing sacred medicine, or Minkisi, in rivers. Ferguson cites Melville Herskovits’ assertion (1941:106) that the river cults were “among the most powerful” of the tribal priestly groups (Ferguson 1992:115). Based on Dahomean documentary evidence, Herskovits claimed that many rebellious priests of the river cult were sold into slavery in order to quell their intransigence. Thus, the river priests were both significant and important members of the African and slave communities, evidence that Ferguson marshals in order to support his hypothesis.

African religion was instrumental in maintaining cultural and discursive resistance against the colonial regime. Comaroff and Comaroff (1997) find parallels between Christian missionization and the colonization of African peoples. Religion was used by the British to assimilate the Tswana and, conversely, the Tswana used religion as a means of discursive resistance. Religion can be a double-edged sword within the process of colonialism; it can function as a hidden transcript (Scott 1990) when appropriated by the subaltern. This theme is played out in numerous African locales, the Harrist churches of the Ivory Coast and Ghana being a second example, in which Christianity became Africanized, comparable to the development of Charleston’s A.M.E. Church (Walker et al. 1979).

The BaKongo were no exception to the Diasporan pattern linking religion and political resistance. The Kimbangu religion of the Bakongo was thought to be “xenophobic, anti-colonial and a threat to the peace,” and was repressed throughout the 1920’s by the Belgian government (Janzen and MacGaffey 1974:33). During the 1950’s, nascent political nationalism encouraged the reemergence of Kimbanguism as well as other prophetic religions. This evidence suggests that political resistance, ethnic nationalism and religion were closely linked in the continental African as well as the North American context. That the BaKongo recognize their ties to North American blacks is revealed through myths describing the slave trade in which “we (the BaKongo and American blacks) are one flesh and blood” (Janzen and MacGaffey 1974:39). Like their African-American counterparts, the BaKongo attribute the degeneration and destruction of their peoples and culture to the arrival of Europeans and the exploitation that characterized colonialism and slavery (Janzen and MacGaffey 1974:48). For these reasons, it is possible to make connections between BaKongo and African-American histories of oppression.

Ferguson also includes slave narratives in his analysis, as there are many oral reports that elucidate the occurrence of the marked bowls, associating them with religious resistance. These oral histories date to the early 20th century and record the experiences of African-Americans who were enslaved throughout the mid-19th century, just prior to the Civil War. Although 50 years elapsed between the recording of these narratives and the deposition of the marked bowls, they offer intriguing hints of slaves’ symbolic uses of vessels. When interpreting slave narratives, I was particularly interested in references to water, vessels, religious or leisure-time activities, which were often analogous (Cade 1935:327). I found religious uses of water and vessels described by the following ex-slaves living in Louisiana. These ex-slaves were interviewed by members of the Extension Department of Southern University during the 1930’s (Cade 1935:295). Roan Barnes reported, “If dey (slaves) had a prayer meeting dey would turn a wash-pot down to ketch de sound to keep de marsters from hearing um” (Cade 1935:329). Nancy Young said, “Slaves were not allowed to have church, but they would have prayer meetings secretly. They would place pots in the door to keep the sound in the house to prevent their masters from hearing them” (Cade 1935:329-30). Mrs. Channell reported:

On this plantation, there were about one hundred and fifty slaves. Of this number only about ten were Christians. We can easily account for this, for religious services among slaves were strictly forbidden. But the slaves would steal away into the woods at night and hold services. They would form a circle on their knees around the speaker who would also be on his knees. He would bend forward and speak into or over a vessel of water to drown out the sound . . . .(Cade 1935:331).

The methods of concealment described by these ex-slaves can be taken literally, if one embraces a non-materialistic philosophy, and gives agency to the ex-slave telling this story. They can also be viewed non-literally, as a transition between the functional and symbolic uses of vessels of water. Shad Hall of Georgia recalls, “My grandmother Hester said she could remember the house she lived in, in Africa. She said the roof was covered with palmetto and grass, and the walls were made of mud . . . I remember some pots and cups that she had made of clay, she brought these from Africa” (Ferguson 1992:1). Shad’s grandmother could have transported the ceramic vessels from Africa or she could have carried the knowledge to produce the bowls. Without traveling all the way to Angola for our ethnographic evidence, we can find North American accounts that link vessels, water, Africa and surreptitious religious resistance and/or practice. The narratives support Ferguson’s argument that the slave-manufactured bowls were deposited during ritual practice, associated in many ways with Africa.

The Critique of Ferguson’s Method

Ferguson’s methodology involves the reliance on contemporary African ethnographic records to illustrate 18th century African-American ritual. Various authors criticize this technique on several fronts. Brian W. Thomas (1995) addresses this methodological problem as it relates to African-American archaeology. He critiques the use of analogy in which an appropriate source, a society that is historically related, or occupies a similar evolutionary stage, is used to explain archaeological material without critically analyzing the way this analogy is applied. Thomas’s criticisms of the research of historical archaeologists such as Ferguson focus on three difficulties in this type of analogy-building. The first is an assumption that Africa is culturally homogeneous and the second is that African societies are “traditional” and remain unchanged throughout time (Thomas 1995:153). For these reasons, it is crucial to interrogate the African archaeological evidence, which neither Fergsuon nor Wilkie consider, and to examine how the ritual use of the cross symbol shifted to become “creolized” in the American setting. In order to strengthen Ferguson’s case, I undertake this task in the next section.

Is there an underlying principle that allows Ferguson to use BaKongo ethnography? Ferguson uses the direct historical approach as a connecting principle, one based on historical connection rather than a comparable evolutionary stage. As I have stated already, the strong presence of Kongolese slaves in the South Carolina region supports his methodology; however, it is not clear whether 18th century Kongo culture was culturally continuous with early 20th century BaKongo culture, at least in terms of the cross symbol. In order to interrogate this point, Thomas (1995:151-4) suggests that archaeologists compare multiple lines of evidence such as colonial documents, modern ethnographies, archaeological sites and slave narratives in order to assess interpretations.

It is equally important to take a global and/or Diasporic research approach to questions of African-American slave resistance, not only in order to avoid methodological pitfalls, but to construct a more general and concrete paradigm of resistance within the world-economic system of power formed by modern colonialism, Atlantic slavery and race. When the archaeologist adopts a Diasporic view of African-American culture, as do Aaron Russell (1997) and Terry Weik (1997), one may avoid the trivialization which comes from focusing on the material evidence at individual sites. When we look at African-American archaeology in a Diasporic sense, with consideration of material culture from all of the Americas as well as Africa (Posnansky 1999), the scholar seeking to theorize resistance gains a broader sense of African-American culture in all its forms, what binds them together and distinguishes them.

Archaeology of the Zaire Basin: Sanga and Katongo

Archaeological studies of the Zaire basin during the 15th to the 18th centuries are limited. This is because African archaeologists have emphasized sites that fit into the progressive developmental model of human history. The interest in Iron Age studies flowered as a response to African decolonization and nation-building initiatives; it ushered in the study of cities, urbanism, trade, metallurgy and state formation. So-called “civilization” and its trappings became the favored example of social complexity. This approach unfortunately fit into the mold of the progressive developmental model in which social complexity is measured by certain markers, effectively “winnowing” variation in archaeologists’ understanding of Africa’s past (Stahl 1999:44). Certain communities and sites perceived as “neolithic” remnants of earlier archaeological phases or in the wrong evolutionary stage were ignored. In addition, political upheaval in Central Africa put an end to research in this region, although archaeologists continue to interrogate the scant information that is known.

In this case, archaeological material from the Zaire basin is particularly useful as an independent line of evidence, in order to avoid “essentializing” (or rendering static) BaKongo culture. My main questions when analyzing this material are whether the cross symbol that appears on the marked bowls has time depth within the Kongo-Angola region of Central Africa, and how the context in which it appeared changed from Africa to the Americas. In the savanna of southeastern Zaire, at the site of Sanga, the archaeological picture is quite rich. Sanga, in the Shaba region of Zaire, is a very well known Iron Age site (Maret 1977:321). Pierre de Maret (1977) and Terry Childs (1989) conducted excavations at Sanga, located near the site of Katongo on the coast of Lake Kisale, during the 1970’s and 80’s. In the 1950’s, Professor J. Hiernaux, Mr. J. De Buyst, and Professor J. Nenquin carried out excavations at Sanga. Hiernaux and his colleagues discovered fifty-six graves that they attributed to three cultures, the Kisalian, Mulongo, and Red Slip. Radiocarbon dating initially placed the Kisalian graves, which were believed to be the oldest at the site, in the 8th century A.D. (Maret 1977:321-2). New samples submitted by de Maret for radiocarbon dating point to more recent dates of the 9th - 11th centuries A.D. For Ancient Kisalian burials (Maret 1977:326). The Kisalian funeral rituals were considered to be very complex and in the majority of graves, the skull was oriented between the north and northwest (Maret 1977:322). There appeared to be a relationship between age and funerary ritual such that adults were buried deeper than children, and children deeper than infants (Van Noten 1982:90). Mortuary objects included copper, iron and ivory jewelry, weapons, tools and faunal remains. The Mulongo and Red Slip burials at Sanga can be distinguished from the Kisalian in terms of ceramic style, orientation of the skull towards the south, and the abundant presence of copper ingots molded into the form of crosses, known as “croisettes”. These croisettes were also found in two Kisalian burials at Sanga. It is commonly believed by Africanist archaeologists that the croisettes were used as copper currency (Childs 1989; Maret 1977:323). Thus, we find the presence of croisettes or cross symbols at Iron Age sites such as Sanga and Katongo in the Zaire basin dating to the 15th century A.D. And later (Maret 1977:334; Van Noten 1982).

Professor Hiernaux concluded that Sanga was a dispersed village, dependent on hunting and fishing rather than farming. The economy included highly specialized craft production in ceramics, ivory and metallurgy. The lack of uniquely rich and elaborate graves indicated the absence of a chief and perhaps points to the existence of a heterarchical organization where society was horizontally stratified according to craft specialization. It was originally thought that the Mulongo-Red Slip burials, in which we find the croisettes, were evidence of a minority group at Sanga that was possibly exploiting copper resources located 300 kilometers from the site (Maret 1977:324). De Maret has written, however, that the oldest copper crosses in the area, dating to the 9th – 12th centuries A.D., come from Kansanshi and Kipushi, on the Zambia/Zaire border. These two sites are located near copper mines, and de Maret considers that the crosses may have been made there and later transported into the Lake Kisale region. He suggests that this may have been a result of trade expansion, political centralization and the use of copper currency during the 15th century (Maret 1977:335).

Pierre de Maret’s recent work (1999) on the Kabambian A (13th – 15th centuries) and Kabambian B (16th – 18th centuries) periods reveals more about the use of the copper crosses. The older crosses from Kipushi and the Upemba Depression were larger but during the Kabambian period they became smaller and standardized in size. Although they increased their appearance in graves, the amount of copper used in each cross was smaller. As the Kabambian progressed, the crosses were increasingly found in graves near the hips and the hands as opposed to the chest. Judging from this evidence, Maret suggests that the crosses were at first a prestige good that was “restricted to a few mostly social exchange spheres,” but that later the crosses were used as currency (Maret 1999:159).


All archaeological, ethnographic and documentary evidence substantiates Ferguson’s claim that the cross is a Central African symbol that became “creolized” in the New World setting. It is reasonable to suppose that the cross symbol does possess considerable time-depth within Lower Zaire and that its use coincides with the period of deposition of the marked bowls in South Carolina. The symbolic importance of the cross symbol in antiquity is supported by the mortuary and ritual context of the croisettes at the sites of Sanga and Katongo. The presence of the croisettes at Central African sites dating earlier than the 18th century suggests that the cross was an indigenous Kongolese symbol that Africans retained in the New World setting. The crosses were no longer molded out of brass and buried in graves but etched into clay and deposited underwater. In this sense, a Kongolese religious practice became “creolized” under new circumstances. Ethnographic evidence from South Carolinian ex-slaves points to the ritual use of vessels and water and gives us further hints of how the cross was re-interpreted in this new context. Ethnographic evidence from the BaKongo, although it is contemporary, highlights the use of Minkisi, bowls for the mixing of sacred medicine, in which a cross is painted on the bowl or the ground. In the Afro-Diasporic religions of Palo Monte and Vodun, we also the find the drawing of crosses on the ground and the placing of bowls holding sacred substances, suggesting that this is a widespread ritual based on practices found in Central Africa and throughout the Americas. We can conclude that the cross, the circularity concept and minkisi are deep grammatical principles of African-American religion that were “creolized” from Kongolese practice, in a context of domination and resistance in which power was rearranged, subverted and negotiated.

The prevalence of Kongolese slaves in South Carolina during the 18th century, their involvement in the Stono rebellion, the ethnographic evidence depicting religious resistance, the ritualized deposition of marked bowls and the occurrence of the cross symbol in early Central African sites lend credence to Ferguson’s interpretation and methodology. Throughout this chapter, I attempted to strengthen Ferguson’s analysis and to interrogate his use of analogy through the investigation of a wide range of historical, ethnographic and archaeological evidence. I have found that Ferguson’s interpretation is quite plausible and that the marked bowls may have been deposited in ritualized acts of resistance, associated with Kongolese cosmology. These depositional events reflect the pattern of religion, ethnic identity and resistance that characterizes Africa and its Diaspora. The history of European colonialism and slavery and the African response to it unequivocally links these two regions, despite their local particularities. The two regions are not isolated, evolutionary types but share a common although divergent history, range of experiences and set of memories.

The evidence marshaled in this paper, including older BaKongo oral history, colonial documents, Central African archaeology, South Carolinian history and slave narratives, supports Ferguson’s hypothesis of an African origin for the cross symbol. My interventions strengthen Ferguson’s case, and substantiate the hypothesis that the practices associated with the cross symbol were based on deep grammatical principles of the African Diaspora involving the interconnections between water spirits, cross symbols representing a cosmology of the world, and the use of bowls in a ritualistic manner. In addition, I highlighted the social relations of power in Ferguson’s study by analyzing the bowls as part of a global continuum of cultural resistance formed in the context of two major slave rebellions in South Carolina. The construction of an African Diaspora including the Caribbean, Latin America, Africa and the United States is possible, based on common cultures and practices found in the context of African-American religion. Such an archaeology can help in this quest through its attention to everyday practice and the long-term development of cultures.

AfricaResource: The Place for Africa on the Net