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May 8, 2011


Pinkster: Afro-Dutch Syncretization in New York City and the Hudson Valley

SHANE WHITE University of Sydney, Australia

Pinkster came across to America with the 17th-century Dutch settlers. The term was originally related to the Dutch name for Whitsuntide or Pentecost -- Pfingsten in German ( Epstein 1977 :66- 67). Initially the holiday was a Dutch and not a black festival, similar in many ways to the English Boxing Day where the servants were given a day off after the Christmas holiday. By the 19th century, however, the holiday was primarily black and associated most closely with Albany, though it was also observed in other places where there was a strong Dutch presence -- along the Hudson Valley, on Long Island, and in East New Jersey. Historians have previously been forced to rely on antiquarian accounts of Pinkster that were written decades after the event and per- meated with a sense of the quaintness of things past and no longer relevant. By contrast, the following brief analysis of Pinkster in Albany at the turn of the century is taken largely from the first known contemporaneous description, a letter originally published in the Albany Centinel and reprinted in the Daily Advertiser, 29 June 1803.

In the week preceding Pinkster there was a gradual buildup to the festival "during which, the negroes patrol the streets in the evening more than usual, and begin to practice a little upon the Guinea drum." The slaves also set up an encampment on Pinkster Hill which was to become the "theatre of action [emphasis in original]." A series of arbors were constructed by setting stakes in the ground and then weaving through them branches from a shrub growing on the adjoining plain to create a series of "airy cottages" that were "impervious to solar rays." These shelters, arranged to form an amphitheater in front of the royal arbor, were filled with fruit, cakes, beer, and liquor.

On the Monday after Pinkster, which corresponded to the Episcopal Whitsunday, a large part of the Dutch population, even those not normally religiously inclined, attended church. At the same time blacks and whites from miles around formed a "motley group of thousands" on the hill awaiting the appearance of the king. The principal character in the festival was an "old Guinea Negro" called King Charles, "whose authority is absolute, and whose will is law during the Pinkster holidays." After parading through the town, King Charles arrived on the hill and sat through a welcoming ceremony.1 He then proceeded around the encampment and collected one shilling from every black man's tent and two shillings from every tent occupied by a white. If any individual refused to pay, the King directed that his tent be "instantly demolished."

For the next three or four days and nights a variety of sports and activities occurred. The most important of these, indeed the apparent highlight of the festival, was Toto, or the Guinea dance. This took place in the amphitheater in front of the royal arbor. There sat the "chief musician dressed in a horrid manner -- rolling his eyes and tossing his head with an air of savage wildness; grunting and mumbling out certain inarticulate but hideous sounds" as he beat upon a Guinea drum. On either side of this character were two imps, "decorated with feathers and cow tails," performing similar "uncouth and terrifying grimaces" while playing on smaller drums and im itating "his sounds of frightful dissonance." Meanwhile, males and females danced but, as "there is no regular air in the music, so neither are there any regular movements in this dance." In fact, the dancers placed their bodies "in the most disgusting attitudes" and performed the "most lewd and indecent gesticulation, at the crisis of which the parties meet and embrace in a kind of am orous Indian hug, terminating in a sort of masquerade capture, which must cover even a harlot with blushes to describe."

Unfortunately our observer was silent on the other activities and sports that occurred, con tenting himself with the tantalizing comment that these were scenes which "Raphael the master of painters could not delineate, not Milton, the biographer of devils, describe." After the final ceremony, in which the King descended into Albany, the festival ended. Slaves spent the rest of the week going home and "in getting sober so that by the beginning of the subsequent week, the city gets composed and business goes on as usual."