Gullah Jack

Gullah Jack Pritchard, African American folk hero and insurrectionist, began his American experience as a slave in the ownership of Zephaniah Kingsley. Acquired in 1806, Zephaniah Kingsley described him as a priest in his own country and stated that Jack kept a small conjure bag with him always. This fact demonstrates the consistent transference of African religious traditions to America, and provides more evidence to the theory that Zephaniah Kingsley allowed his slaves to worship as they saw fit rather than impose western religious beliefs on them. Zephaniah Kingsley sold Jack to South Carolinian Paul Pritchard in the same year of 1806 where Jack became a caulker in the Pritchard ship yard for much of his time in Charleston, South Carolina.
Gullah Jack's role in the attempted Denmark Vesey slave revolt made him infamous to South Carolinians of the mid-1800s. Described as a man of small stature with a massive beard of unkempt whiskers, Jack was known to have inspired both fear and respect in his fellow slaves as a result of his perceived powers to manipulate the spirit realm. He instructed his fellow rebels to keep crab claws with them and to only eat parched corn meal and a peanut butter-like mash before the rebellion. These measures were believed to protect against harm and capture through supernatural means. The insurrection failed and many of the participants were jailed and executed. Gullah Jack, for his role in the insurrection, was hanged and made an example of by the government. Though Gullah Jack Pritchard until recently has been maligned by history, he was a man willing to risk great danger in order to have freedom for both himself and fellow enslaved African Americans.

Research continues and we are constantly reevaluating, and learning more about the past. Interestingly the most recent research draws new conclusions about Gullah Jack. The following excerpt comes from The Enslaved Communities on Fort George Island
A Special History Study for Timucuan Ecological & Historic Preserve
By Amani T. Marshall, Ph.D.

In his Treatise, Kingsley claimed to have carried Gullah Jack from Africa to Florida. “I purchasedhim a prisoner of war at Zinguebar. He had this conjuring implement with him in a bagwhich he brought on board the ship and always retained them.” For nearly two decades,Kingsley transported thousands of Africans across the Atlantic and sold them into slaveryin the Americas. It is rather remarkable, and questionable, that he would so clearly rememberthis one man twenty-two years later. If Kingsley did in fact purchase Gullah Jack, hewould have carried him across the Middle Passage in the Gustavia, which docked in Charleston in April 1806. Although some scholars have assumed that Kingsley brought Gullah Jack to Laurel Grove and that he was among the Africans captured by the Seminoles, Daniel Schafer argues that he sold him in Charleston. Schafer presumes that Paul Pritchard purchased Gullah Jack aboard the Gustavia in 1806, however, he does notcite a bill of sale or other documentation which would corroborate Kingsley’s statement.32

At any rate, by 1818 Gullah Jack was working in Charleston as a caulker and hewould become one of Vesey’s principal officers, using his conjuring to embolden enslavedAfricans to fight against their owners. Explaining Gullah Jack’s significance in the plot, David Robertson writes that he “could speak the language and use the religious symbolism of those among Charleston’s slaves who did not profess Christianity, or who practiced asecond religion in addition to the white people’s Christianity.” Vast numbers of the rebels believed that he was a conjurer with powers which made him invincible. One Black witness described him as “the little man who can’t be killed, shot or taken.”33 Not only did the Africans believe that he was invincible, they also had faith in the charms he distributed tomake them invulnerable. An enslaved man testified that Gullah Jack gave them a crab claw to hold in their mouths, which would prevent them from being wounded.34

Kingsley claimed to respect Gullah Jack’s beliefs and cultural practices, by nottaking his conjuring bag from him, which is in line with the level of African spiritual beliefs practiced at Fort George, as evidenced by the archaeological findings.
31 Egerton and Paquette, eds. The Denmark Vesey Affair, 74–75, 295.32 Kingsley, Treatise, 13 n13; Daniel Schafer, Zephaniah Kingsley, 32, 80–1; Egerton and Paquette also presumethat Pritchard purchased Gullah Jack aboard the Gustavia, stating that Prichard testified that he had owned Jackfor 16 years. Prichard’s testimony is included in the volume’s documentary evidence; however, he made nomention of how long he owned Gullah Jack. The Denmark Vesey Affair, 17, 200.33 Robertson, Denmark Vesey, 48; Lois A. Walker and Susan R. Silverman, eds. A Documented History of Gullah Jack Prichard and the Denmark Vesey Slave Insurrection of 1822 (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 2000), v.34 Egerton and Paquette, eds. The Denmark Vesey Affair, 173, 196–8.46 Community and Culture noted Gullah Jack’s influential role in using traditional African spiritual practices to embolden Africans to support the conspiracy, yet it was Afro-Christian beliefs that Kingsley viewed as particularly dangerous. As Kingsley aptly noted, preachers routinely
served as leaders of enslaved people’s uprisings. Black preachers like Denmark Vesey encouraged enslaved women and men to reject the teachings of enslavers who used Christianity to encourage docility and compliance. While white ministers preached from the book of Ephesians, “servants obey your masters as you would obey God,” Black preachers focused on equality under God. Identifying with the Israelites’ escape from bondage in Egypt, enslaved African Americans viewed God as a redeemer and liberator. They refashioned Christianity to fit their needs in slavery, fusing Old Testament law withAfrican spiritual practices to create a theology of liberation which served as the basis fortheir resistance movements. 35 Kingsley observed that once his enslaved laborers were introduced to Christianity,their attitudes toward slavery changed. He noted that after relocating to Fort George, he“purchased more new negroes” (enslaved people brought directly from Africa). “A man,calling himself a minister, got among them. It was now sinful to dance, work their corn orcatch fish, on a Sunday; or to eat cat fish, because they had no scales; and if they did, theywere to go to a place where they would be tormented with fire and brimstone to all eternity.They became poor, ragged, hungry and disconsolate.” They were doing more, however,than simply asserting their new religious identities and refusing to work on the Sabbath.For enslaved people, refusing to work is in itself a significant act of resistance. Even more importantly, they were also challenging the notion that they should have to labor throughoutthe week for Kingsley’s profit and then work on their day off to feed themselves. Kingsley noted that after studying Christianity they came to see that “to steal from me wasonly to do justice—to take what belonged to them because I kept them in unjust bondage.”36 Their religious teachings inspired them to challenge Kingsley’s ownership of their bodies and labors and to assert their right to the fruits of their labor.

Last updated: May 26, 2022

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