A Perfect Babel of Confusion

page 7 of 10

They had a chief, — Old King Charley. The old settlers said Charley was a prince in his own country, and was supposed to have been one hundred and twenty-five years old at the time of his death. On these festivals old Charley was dressed in a strange and fantastical costume; he was nearly barelegged, wore a red military coat trimmed profusely with variegated ribbons, and a small black hat with a pompon stuck on one side. The dances and antics of the darkies must have afforded great amusement for the ancient burghers. As a general thing, the music consisted of a sort of drum, or instrument constructed out of a box with sheepskin heads, upon which old Charley did most of the beating, accompanied by singing some queer African air. Charley generally led off the dance, when the Sambos and Phillises, juvenile and antiquated, would put in the double-shuffle heel-and-toe breakdown. These festivals seldom failed to attract large crowds from the city, as well as from the rural districts.”

Dr. Eights, of Albany, wrote still further reminiscences of the day. He said that, strangely enough, though all the booths and sports opened on Monday, white curiosity-seekers were, on that first day, the chief visitors to Pinkster Hill. On Tuesday the blacks all appeared, and the consumption of gingerbread, cider, and applejack began. Adam Blake, a truly elegant creature, the body-servant of the old patroon Van Rensselaer, was master of the ceremonies. Charley, the King, was a “Guinea man” from Angola, — and I have noted the fact that nearly all African-born negroes who became leaders in this country, or men of marked note in any way, have been Guinea men. He wore portions of the costume of a British general, and had the power of an autocrat, — his will was law. Dr. Eights says the Pinkster musical instruments were eel-pots covered with dressed sheepskin, on which the negroes pounded with their bare hands, as do all savage nations on their tom-toms. Their song had an African refrain, “Hi-abomba-bomba-bomba.” Other authorities state that the dance was called the “Toto Dance,” and partook so largely of savage license that at last the white visitors shunned being present during its performance.

These Pinkster holidays became such bacchanalian revels in other ways that in 1811 the Common Council of Albany prohibited the erection of booths and all dancing, gaming, and drinking at that time; and when the negroes could not dance nor drink, it was but a sorry holiday, and quickly fell into desuetude.


:: Previous Page :: Next Page ::

Books & articles appearing here are modified adaptations
from a private collection of vintage books & magazines.
Reproduction of these pages is prohibited without written permission. © Laurel O'Donnell, 1996-2006.