Music, Dance, & Recreational Activities

  • Stick Fighting, Dominica, West Indies, 1779

    Caption begins This plate (representing a cudgelling match between English and French Negroes in the island of Dominica) is humbly dedicated.... Stick fighting was widespread in the West Indies, and called, for example, Stick Licking in Barbados and Jamaica, Kalinda/Kalenda in Trinidad. The scene in this illustration is identical to the illustration negres jouant au baton published in Nicolas Ponce, Recueil des vues des lieux principaux de la colonie Francaise de Saint-Domingue (Paris, 1791), fig. 26; see image NW025-b on this website. Another version of this print was published in London in 1810; a copy is owned by the Barbados Museum. Agostino Brunias (sometimes incorrectly spelled Brunyas, Brunais), a painter born in Italy in 1730, came to England in 1758 where he became acquainted with William Young. Young had been appointed to a high governmental post in West Indian territories acquired by Britain from France, and in late 1764 Brunias accompanied Young to the Caribbean as his personal artist. Arriving in early 1765, Brunias stayed in the islands until around 1775, when he returned to England (exhibiting some of his paintings in the late 1770s) and visited the continent. He returned to the West Indies in 1784 and remained there until his death on the island of Dominica in 1796. Although Brunias primarily resided in Dominica he also spent time in St. Vincent, and visited other islands, including Barbados, Grenada, St. Kitts, and Tobago. See Lennox Honychurch, Chatoyer's Artist: Agostino Brunias and the Depiction of St Vincent, for what is presently the most informative and balanced discussion of Brunias and his romanticized and idyllic paintings of West Indian scenes and slave life (Jl of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society, vol. 50 [2004], pp.104-128); see also Hans Huth, Agostino Brunias, Romano (The Connoisseur, vol. 51 [Dec. 1962], pp. 265-269).
  • Musical Instruments, Brazil, 17th cent.

    Caption, Negers speelende op kalabassen (Negroes playing upon calabashes); shows a man and a woman, latter with a tambourine. Also published in A. Churchill, ed., A collection of voyages (London, 1704), vol. 2, facing p. 146 and other editions of Awnsham and John Churchill (compilers), Collection of Voyages, e.g., London, 1732, with article Mr. John Nieuhoff's remarkable voyages and travels to Brazil.
  • Dance, Lynchburg, Virginia, 1853

    Captioned, Lynchburg-negro dance, this water color shows two couples dancing to the music of three musicians; they are playing the fiddle, banjo, and bones (usually cow ribs). The women wear long dresses and jewelry.
  • Batuca [Batucada] Dance, Brazil, 1830s

    Caption, danse batuca [Batucada]; men and women dancing in rural (plantation?) area. The dance is very much Afro-Brazilian. For an analysis of Rugendas' drawings, as these were informed by his anti-slavery views, see Robert W. Slenes, African Abrahams, Lucretias and Men of Sorrows: Allegory and Allusion in the Brazilian Anti-slavery Lithographs (1827-1835) of Johann Moritz Rugendas (Slavery & Abolition, vol. 23 [2002], pp. 147-168).
  • Capoeira Dance, Brazil, 1830s

    Caption, jogar capoera ou danse de la guerre (capoeira play or war dance); men and women onlookers; drummer on right. Capoeira is a Brazilian martial arts-dance form whose origins are obscure: it may have originated in Africa or in the slave quarters of Brazilian plantations. In any case, it is a uniquely Brazilian practice, and the term can signify an individual who engages in the athletic pastime of the same name, in which the participant armed with a razor or a knife, with rapid and characteristic gestures goes through the motion of criminal acts (translators note in Gilberto Freyre, The Masters and the Slaves [New York, 1956], p. 48, note 120). A more recent view and detailed analysis stresses The capoeiras organized public contests for entertainment. They played capoeira in military and religious processions and scorned and derided public officials. Their performance was accompanied by music, dance, and interaction with the spectators. Although public officials attempted to brand the capoeiras as dangerous and violent hoodlums,the masses admired and respected the performers (Maya Talmon-Chvaicer, The Criminalization of Capoeira in Nineteenth-Century Brazil, Hispanic American Historical Review, vol. 8 (2002), p. 525). For an analysis of Rugendas' drawings, as these were informed by his anti-slavery views, see Robert W. Slenes, African Abrahams, Lucretias and Men of Sorrows: Allegory and Allusion in the Brazilian Anti-slavery Lithographs (1827-1835) of Johann Moritz Rugendas (Slavery & Abolition, vol. 23 [2002], pp. 147-168).
  • Festival of Our Lady of the Rosary, Minas Gerais, Brazil, 1830s

    Caption, fete de ste. rosalie, patrone des negres (Festival of Our Lady of the Rosary, patron [saint] of the blacks); shows large group in procession, dancing, costumed; musical instruments. For an analysis of Rugendas' drawings, as these were informed by his anti-slavery views, see Robert W. Slenes, African Abrahams, Lucretias and Men of Sorrows: Allegory and Allusion in the Brazilian Anti-slavery Lithographs (1827-1835) of Johann Moritz Rugendas (Slavery & Abolition, vol. 23 [2002], pp. 147-168).
  • Divination Ceremony and Dance, Brazil, 1630s

    Men, women, and children dancing; group with various musical instruments, including drums, sitting on tree trunk (left). Of this illustration, Wagener/Wagner writes When the slaves have carried out their arduous duties for weeks on end, they are allowed to celebrate one Sunday as they please; in large numbers in certain places and with all manner of leaps, drums, and flutes, they dance from morning to night, all in a disorganized way, with men and women, young and old; meanwhile, the others drink a strong spirit made with sugar, which they call 'garapa'; they spend all day like that in a continuous dance . . . (vol. 2, p. 194). Wagener was a German mercenary for the Dutch West India Company; in 1634, at the age of about 20, he went to northeastern Brazil and stayed there for 7 years. James Sweet identifies this scene as depicting a calundu, a divination ceremony that involved spirit possession, and notes that several of the Africans appear to have already been possessed by ancestral spirits. In particular . . . the man with the crest of feathers on his head and the woman at the center of the painting. The feathers indicated possession by a powerful ancestral figure, perhaps a former chief or king. Also . . . the man on the far left, imbibing what may be the ceremonial drink alua from a clay jar ( Recreating Africa: Culture, Kinship, and Religion in the African Portuguese World, 1441-1770 [University of North Carolina Press, 2003], pp. 144, 150).
  • A Carolina Rice Planter

    This image depicts a rice planter playing a banjo standing up with one leg on a log in Carolina. It accompanies an article by T. Addison Richards called "The Rice Lands of the South" (pp. 721-38). Thomas Addison Richards (1820–1900) was a British landscape artist, who migrated with his family to the United States in 1831. The family first settled in New York, then South Carolina and finally Georgia by 1837. Richards made a career of sketching Georgia’s scenery. Harper's Magazine (also called Harper's) is a monthly magazine of literature, politics, culture, finance and the arts.
  • Cock-Fighting

    This image depicts a crowd of black and white spectators gambling around a cock-fighting ring in North Carolina. David Hunter Strother (1816–1888) was a successful magazine illustrator and writer, popularly known by his pseudonym, "Porte Crayon." He rose through the ranks of the union army to brevet brigadier general.
  • Group Singing, Virginia, 1840s

    Caption, Plantation Slave Singers. This illustration appears in a chapter titled Life in Ole Virginny Fifty Years AgoóPlantation Scenes and Negro SongsóLife among Black Slaves. Livermore describes going on a picnic with the white children who she taught and supervised. She and her charges were returning from their outing at the end of the day, and a number of field slaves followed their carriage as it went up the drive. They began singing. It was the end of their work day.
  • Festival, South Carolina, 1852

    A festival held on the plantation in honor of the return of one of the white masters. Some people are shown dancing. The band leader is seated on top of the hogshead playing a fiddle; others are playing the banjo, bones, and drum and were seated around their leader, some on the ground and some on rude benches brought from the cabins (pp. 113-114). The author travelled through the U.S. South, but Buckingham Hall may be a fictitious name.
  • Batuca Dance, San Paulo, Brazil, 1817-1820

    Caption: Die Baducca, in S. Paulo, shows men and women dancing; a man playing a large rasp (left) and another a balafon/marimba-type instrument. Onlookers include a female hawker with her goods and small child as well as a European soldier. A somewhat modified version of this image was published in Alcide Dessalines d'Orbigny, Voyage pittoresque dans les deux Amèriques (Paris, 1836), facing p. 211, fig.1.
  • An African Work Song, Barbados, ca. 1770s-1780s

    This one-page manuscript, also shown on the Gloucester Archives website, is described as: An African Song or Chant,--taken down in notes by G.S. from the information of Dr. Wm. Dickson, who lived several years in the West Indies, & was secretary to a Governor of Barbadoes. A Single Negro (while at work with the rest of the gang) leads the song, and the others join in chorus at the end of every verse. This work song incorporates the widespread African musical feature of call-and-response. William Dickson lived in Barbados for about 13 years from 1772, was well acquainted with slavery and slave life in Barbados and authored two well-known books on the island. He later joined the British abolitionist movement and became a leading member of that movement in Scotland. The G.S. in the manuscript is Granville Sharp, a prominent British abolitionist. The wider context of this song in the musical lives of the enslaved is discussed in J.S. Handler and C.J.Frisbie, Aspects of Slave Life in Barbados: Music and its Cultural Context, Caribbean Studies 11 (1972): 5-46. The linguistic features of the text are discussed in J. R. Rickford and J. S. Handler, Textual Evidence on the Nature of Early Barbadian Speech, 1676-1835. Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages 9 (1994): 221-255.
  • The Break Down

    This image shows an enslaved man dancing in front of a crowd at an unidentified place in the U.S. South. On the left, a man plays a banjo. Harper's Weekly: A Journal of Civilization was an American political magazine based in New York City and published by Harper & Brothers from 1857 until 1916. It featured foreign and domestic news, fiction, essays on many subjects and humor, alongside illustrations. It covered the American Civil War extensively, including many illustrations of events from the war.
  • Enslaved Musicians and Dancers, Barbados, 1807-08

    Detail from engraving shown in image reference Waller-1 which gives more information on the source. This detail shows dancers and musicians with the rattle and drum; clapping was also a form of instrumentation. For a discussion of the musical life of the enslaved in Barbados, see J. S. Handler and C. J. Frisbie, Aspects of Slave Life in Barbados: Music and its Cultural Context, Caribbean Studies (Vol. 11, 1972), pp. 5-46.
  • Akan Drum, Gold Coast, early 18th cent.

    An Akan-style wooden drum (approximately sixteen inches high), originally from the southern Gold Coast, West Africa. It was transported across the Atlantic, probably on a slave ship, and collected by a Reverend Clerk in Virginia. Evidently, the drumhead was reskinned (likely with the American white-tailed deer) in America before Clerk sent the drum in the 1720s or 1730s to Sir Hans Sloane, a prominent English physician and naturalist. Upon Sloane's death, the drum became part of the founding collection of the British Museum in London (where it is still housed). Initially misidentified in the museum's collections as an Indian drum (suggesting that it may have been collected from a Native American group), the object was correctly identified as African in 1906. Drums were the most common musical instruments used on eighteenth-century British slave ships when captive Africans were forced to dance for exercise, and this drum may have served that purpose. Aside from archaeological specimens of African origin (e.g., Newton Plantation Cemetery images on this website) this is one of the oldest known ethnographic objects of African origin that migrated to North America via the transatlantic slave trade. For details, see the British Museum website ( and Devorah Romanek, To the Beat of the Drum, British Museum Magazine (Autumn 2010), pp. 28-29. Thanks to John Davy of the British Museum for his help in interpreting this object. For drums on slave ships, see Handler, The Middle Passage and the Material Culture of Captive Africans, Slavery and Abolition (Vol. 30, March 2009), pp. 1-26.
  • Plantation Dance, South Carolina, ca. 1785-1795

    Arguably the best known visual depiction of African American life during the 18th century, this small (approx. 12 x 18) watercolor depicts what appear to be plantation slaves dancing and playing musical instruments. The artist did not name the painting, but former owners gave it the arbitrary title The Old Plantation by which it is now commonly known. The painting is unsigned, undated and not given a provenience. Recent research by Susan Shames, the decorative arts librarian with CWF, has identified the artist as John Rose, a South Carolina plantation owner. The painting was probably made around 1785-1790, and may depict a scene somewhere on the Coosaw river, in the area of Beaufort. The central male figure holds a long staff or walking cane. The two women in the center are dancing with what appear to be scarves or bandanas, but in fact may be African musical instruments -- gourd rattles enclosed in a net into which hard objects such as shells or bones have been woven. On the right a man plays a 4-stringed banjo; another uses sticks or bones to play a small drum, possibly an inverted earthen ware vessel or a gourd /calabash. Except for the head ties (head kerchiefs) and bare feet, the male and female clothing conforms to late 18th colonial working class styles, regardless of racial group. Some of the men wear earrings and several seem to be depicted with beards, both common among enslaved South Carolinians. Three containers in the lower right foreground include a brown jug, probable stoneware, and a glass (wine?) bottle; the third object could be an English white salt-glazed stoneware jug or an English creamware jug. Whether all of these items would have been found at an actual dance and placed in this manner is problematical. The background shows a river with two canoes (?), and a group of larger buildings, including the manor or mansion house, outbuildings, and a row of seven (presumed slave) cabins at a short distance from the former. The cabins appear to have wooden or clay chimneys, features that sometimes appeared on slave houses in later 18th century South Carolina plantations. The two structures in the foreground suggest the scene represents a dance in the slave quarter. A male on the extreme left appears to have his hand over the breast of the female sitting next to him, and a man on the right (behind the banjo player) may be leering at the adjacent woman. Although there has been a great deal of speculation as to what the dance scene is supposed to represent, nothing can be said about it with certainty or what was in the artistís mind when he painted it, including the sexual references. It is likely that the scene represents a composite view of activities, behaviors, and objects the artist had observed from time to time. In any case, the picture of slave life conveyed in this painting is bucolic and idyllic, surely masking the grim, severe and often brutal life of plantation slaves in 18th century South Carolina. The history of this painting at CWF and the identification of its probable artist are discussed by Susan Shames, The Old Plantation: The Artist Revealed (Williamsburg, VA, 2010); for other details, see Jerome Handler, The Old Plantation Painting at Colonial Williamsburg: New Findings and Some Observations (the African Disaspora Archaeology Network Newsletter, December 2010 .
  • Dance at Plantation, Trinidad, 1836

    Caption, Negro Dance. A plantation dance, probably held on a weekend, and musical instruments. Bridgens stresses the importance of the dance and dancing in the life of the enslaved, and how people normally dress in their best clothes. The instruments include a drum, made of a barrel, covered at one end with a piece of dried goat's skin, and a . . . shak-shak, formed of a hollow calabash, in which some shot or stones are enclosed (Bridgens). The Library of Congress has a colored lithograph (shown here); in other copies of the Bridgens book, it is in black/white. A sculptor, furniture designer and architect, Richard Bridgens was born in England in 1785, but in 1826 he moved to Trinidad where his wife had inherited a sugar plantation, St. Clair. Although he occasionally returned to England, he ultimately lived in Trinidad for seven years and died in Port of Spain in 1846. Bridgens' book contains 27 plates, thirteen of which are shown on this website. The plates were based on drawings made from life and were done between 1825, when Bridgens arrived in Trinidad, and 1836, when his book was published. Although his work is undated, the title page of a copy held by the Beinecke Rare Book Room at Yale University has a front cover with a publication date of 1836, the date usually assigned to this work by major libraries whose copies lack a title page. Bridgens' racist perspectives on enslaved Africans and his defense of slavery are discussed in T. Barringer, G. Forrester, and B. Martinez-Ruiz, Art and Emancipation in Jamaica: Isaac Mendes Belisario and his Worlds (Yale University Press, 2007), pp. 460-461. Bridgensí life is discussed extensively along with discussion of his drawings and presentation of many details on slave life in Trinidad in Judy Raymond, The Colour of Shadows: Images of Caribbean Slavery (Coconut Beach, Florida: Caribbean Studies Press, 2016). Raymondís book, which is an essential source for any study of Bridgens, also includes a number of unpublished sketches of Trinidadian slave life. See also Brian Austen, Richard Hicks Bridgens (Oxford Art Online/Grove Art Online).
  • Dance, Saint Domingue, late 18th cent.

    Engraving by Ponce for Moreau de Saint Mery, Loix et Constitution des Colonies Francais (Paris, 1784, 1790). Caption, danse de Negres; shows costumed men and women dancing, drummer and other instrumentalists. Compare this with image NW0156 this website.) For biographical details on Brunias, see image NW0016.
  • Stick Fighting, Saint Domingue, late 18th cent.

    Reversed version of print originally published in London in 1779, based on painting by Agostino Brunias (see stick fighting, Dominica, 1779 in this website). The present engraving by Ponce for Moreau de Saint Mery, Loix et Constitution des Colonies Francais (Paris, 1784, 1790). Caption: Negres jouant au baton; men stick fighting in the middle of a crowd. For biographical details on Brunias, see image NW0016.
  • Recreational Activities, U.S. South, ca. 1840s

    The Sabbath among slaves depicts various activities, e.g., dancing, playing banjo, wrestling, in a romanticized picture of American slave life. Bibb describes this scene: The Sabbath is not regarded by a large number of the slaves as a day of rest . . . . Those who make no profession of religion, resort to the woods in large numbers on that day to gamble, fight, get drunk . . . . This is often encouraged by the slaveholders. When they wish to have a little sport of that kind, they go among the slaves and give them whiskey, to see them dance . . . sing and play on the banjo. Then get them to wrestling, fighting, jumping, running foot races, and butting each other like sheep. this is urged on by giving them whiskey; making bets on them; laying chips on one slave's head, and daring another to tip if off with his hand . . . (pp. 21-23). One of the most celebrated of the North American slave narratives. Bibb was born of a slave mother in Kentucky in 1815, escaped from slavery in 1838, and ultimately became a leading figure in the fugitive slave community of Canada.
  • Carnival, Brazil,1816-1831

    Caption, scene de carnaval [carnival scene], featuring masked dancer and onlookers in urban setting. The boy in the lower right hand corner is shown spraying some substance at a well-dressed person and appears to be enacting a special ritual in carnival known as entrudo. According to Mary Karasch, What made the entrudo attractive to some slaves, especially the young, and to free women was that this was the only time of the year in which they were permitted to attack or trick their parents, relatives, spouses, or friends. It was a socially sanctioned method of releasing tensions and aggressions without challenging the social structures in the city. During the entrudo slaves armed themselves with tin syringes filled with water with which they squirted other slaves, especially girls and women. Others gathered on the beaches or around fountains and dunked each other in the water . . Those armed with wax fruits pelted their friends and enemies with perfumed or dirty water (Mary C. Karasch, Slave Life in Rio de Janeiro, 1808-1850 [Princeton, 1987], p.250. Thanks to James Sweet for his assistance). The engravings in Debret's book were taken from drawings he made during his residence in Brazil from 1816 to 1831. For watercolors by Debret of scenes in Brazil, some of which were incorporated into his Voyage Pittoresque, see Jean Baptiste Debret, Viagem Pitoresca e Historica ao Brasil (Editora Itatiaia Limitada, Editora da Universidade de Sao Paulo, 1989; a reprint of the 1954 Paris edition, edited by R. De Castro Maya).
  • Stringed Musical Instruments, Jamaica, 1687-1688

    Hans Sloane, the celebrated English physician and naturalist, lived in Jamaica for 18 months during 1687-1688. Reporting on the musical practices of the enslaved, he writes they have several sorts of instruments in imitation of lutes, made of small gourds fitted with necks, strung with horse hairs or the peeled stalks of climbing plants or withs [branches]. These instruments are sometimes made of hollowíd timber covered with parchment or other skin wetted, having a bow for its neck, the strings tyíd longer or shorter, as they would alter their sounds (Sloane, pp. xlviii-xlviv). Sloane illustrates some of these instruments: three stringed instruments made of plant materials are shown. The Latin caption identifies the front (1) and center (2) instruments as lutes of the Indies and Negros constructed from various gourds, their hollows covered by hides/skins. The smaller instrument (2) is identified with the Negros, and banjo historians believe it is the earliest visual depiction of the early gourd banjo -- an instrument of West African derivation -- in the New World. The item illustrated from the Indies (1) is apparently shown for comparative purposes. Item 3 is a harp-lute or bridge harp of West African design, constructed from hollowed out wood and covered with hide; it is uncertain if Sloane actually observed this instrument in Jamaica. (Thanks to Zachary Matus for help with the Latin and to Ken Bilby and Laurent Dubois for assistance in instrument identification.) See also, Richard Rath, African Music in Seventeenth-Century Jamaica, William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 50 (1993).
  • Slave Song, Jamaica, 1687-1688

    Musical notations and lyrics, perhaps the earliest known recorded slave music from Anglo-America. On feast days, Sloane wrote, the enslaved dance and sing; their songs are all bawdy and leading that way (p. xlviii). Hans Sloane, the celebrated English physician and naturalist, lived in Jamaica for 18 months during 1687-1688.
  • Festival of Our Lady of the Rosary, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, ca. 1770s

    Shows elaborate clothing styles of female slave participants in the festival; they wear high heeled shoes with buckles, necklaces and other jewelry. Two of the women carry silver trays filled with coins which they begged from spectators. The group follows a small boy wearing colorful clothing adorned by feathers, holding a piece of wood and a small ax. Born in Italy ca. 1740, Juliao joined the Portuguese army and traveled widely in the Portuguese empire; by the 1760s or 1770s he was in Brazil, where he died in 1811 or 1814. For a detailed analysis and critique of Juliao's figures as representations of Brazilian slave life, as well as a biographical sketch of Juliao and suggested dates for his paintings, see Silvia Hunold Lara, Customs and Costumes: Carlos Juliao and the Image of Black Slaves in Late Eighteenth-Century Brazil (Slavery & Abolition, vol. 23 [2002], pp. 125-146).
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