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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 November 2005, 05:25 GMT
Priscilla: The story of an African slave
By Leslie Goffe
BBC News, New York

Using a rare and unbroken document trail, scholars have succeeded in tracing a 10-year old girl from her kidnap in Sierra Leone 249 years ago to her life on the plantation in the United States where she was taken, forced into slavery, and re-named Priscilla.

Thomalind Martin Polite in Sierra Leone
Thomalind Polite travelled to Sierra Leone, where her ancestor was kidnapped
Most amazing of all though, researchers have identified one of Priscilla's modern day descendants, great-great-great-great-great granddaughter, Thomalind Martin Polite, 31, who lives in South Carolina, not far from the plantation where her ancestor was a slave.

Priscilla's extraordinary story is featured in a major exhibition currently showing at the New York Historical Society, Finding Priscilla's Children: The Roots and Branches of Slavery, which can be seen until 5 March, 2006.

Earlier this year, Priscilla's descendant, Thomalind, a speech therapist, made an extraordinary "homecoming" journey to Sierra Leone at the invitation of that country's government.

She met President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah and other top national leaders, and was given an African name in a moving seaside ceremony.

Sierra Leone's most popular music group wrote a song in Ms Polite's honour: "Rush with the message, go tell it to the people, open the gates, Priscilla's coming home."


Ms Polite also visited a castle on Bunce Island where it is likely Priscilla was kept captive before being placed on the slave ship that took her to the US.

Ms Polite says she knows her ancestor must have suffered greatly.

For an African-American family to be a able to trace their ancestors to Africa from the day the slave ship left is a one in a million chance
Joseph Opala, historian
"You feel helpless," she said. "I'm sure she felt helpless. I'm sure she cried for them [her family] every day and longed to see them again."

Very few African-Americans can trace their family history back 250 years, and even fewer can identify a specific ancestor from Africa.

American historian Joseph Opala discovered that the archives of New York City┐s first museum, the New York Historical Society, held detailed records of the slave ship, Hare, which took Priscilla to America.

These records, which scholars say are among the most detailed in the history of the Atlantic slave trade, show that the Hare┐s captain, Caleb Godfrey, on arrival in South Carolina turned Priscilla over to the ship┐s owner, Henry Laurens, one of the richest planters in America.

Reclaiming history

When the ship arrived in South Carolina in 1756 with Priscilla aboard, Mr Laurens, who later became famous as a leader in the American war of independence, sold the 10-year-old Sierra Leonean girl, and three other African children, to Elias Ball, a wealthy rice planter.

Priscilla was strong and resilient to have survived and produce people who made contributions to society
Thomalind Martin Polite
Priscilla remained in slavery on one or other of Ball's plantations for the rest of her life.

She gave birth to 10 children and died in 1811 aged about 65.

Mr Opala, who spent more than 17 years living in Sierra Leone studying the links between the country's people and their descendents taken into slavery in South Carolina and Georgia in the United States, helped uncover the Priscilla story.

"For an African-American family to be a able to trace their ancestors to Africa from the day the slave ship left is a one in a million chance," says Mr Opala.

"Every African-American looks at a story like this and thinks: 'Good for them'. All of us want to do that and at least one family had a chance to do that, to reclaim their history."


Thomalind's "homecoming" was an event for her and also for the people of Sierra Leone.

Elias Ball
Priscilla worked for Elias Ball for most of her life
Many Sierra Leoneans believed she was bringing back Priscilla's spirit and establishing a new bond between Africans and African-Americans, says Sierra Leone's Ambassador at the United Nations in New York, Joe Robert Pemagbi.

"It's like Priscilla herself going back," he said. "It brings back to memory the sad days of slavery, and Priscilla symbolises some kind of spiritual bridge between Sierra Leone and the African-American group."

As for Thomalind, she is thrilled to have traced her roots back to Africa.

She says if she could talk to her great-great-great-great-great-grandmother she would tell her that the family she started, as a slave in the US, is doing fine.

"I have sadness to think of a 10-year-old being taken from her family," Ms Polite said. "But joy in being able to show the people of Africa and everywhere that Priscilla was strong and resilient to have survived and produce people who made contributions to society."

10 things about British slavery
03 Aug 05 |  Magazine
Goree: The slave island
08 Jul 03 |  Africa
Country profile: Sierra Leone
18 Nov 05 |  Country profiles

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