Wednesday, April 26, 2017


Pinkster, or Pinxteren as the Dutch called it, was an annual rite of spring that accompanied the celebration of Pentecost.  In New Netherland, references to Pinkster appeared as early as 1628, and as the colony grew, so did the size and scale of Pinkster celebrations.  For instance, on May 9, 1655, a tavern owner in Beverwijck received permission from the Court of Fort Orange to hold a Pinkster celebration featuring a traditinal game of "shooting the parrot".  In this game, armed participants took turns shooting at the figure of parrot that was affixed to the top of a pole.  The 1655 celebration in Beverwijck turned into a raucous and boisterous affair though.  Dutch West India Company authorities reported on extensive property damage associated with the festival, and Peter Stuyvesant himself chastised the Pinkster merry-makers for "much drunkenness and other insolences" as well as "unnecessarily wasting poweder" for the firearms.

Despite its Dutch origins, Pinkster became the most important holiday of the year for enslaved Africans and African Americans living in New Netherland and New York during the 17th and 18th centuries.  By the early 1800s, Pinkster was still being celebrated in Albany on Pinkster Hill, the current site of the NYS Capital.  But by then it had become a distinctly African American celebration.  Historical descriptions of Albany's Pinkster celebrations have survived to reveal a clear pattern for the festivities.  First, in the weeks or months before Pinkster, enslaved people would have negotiated and probably insisted on receiving time off to travel to Albany and join the celebrations, which could last as long as a week.  African Americans made other preparations as well, including gathering and crafting items to be sold and traded at the festival.  A witness to Albany's 1803 Pinkster festival took note of a hastily assembled bazaar where Pinkster attendees sold food, alcoholic beverages, as well as essential ingredients in various folk medicines including sassafras bark, roots, and herbs.

Pinkster began on Pentecost Sunday, which was filled with religious ceremonies and events for children.  On Monday, the atmosphere became more festive.  The day opened with a parade featuring a "Pinkster King," who was elected from within the enslaved community.  After the parade, the designated grounds were given over to music and dancing, all presided over by the Pinkster King.  A spectator named James Eights specifically commented on the music and dances that followed the Pinkster Monday parade in 1803.  According to Eights, women and men spontaneously joined in singing with the performers.  African drumming dominated the musical stylings, and Eights identified the lead drummer as a man named Jackey Quackenboss, probably one of the nine enslaved people "owned" by Hendrick Quackenbush, who resided in the Quackenbush house on Broadway in Albany, which still stands today.

Pinkster Festival at Philipsburg Manor

In the past, historians tended to see Pinkster as a "safety valve" for slavery.  Those historians claim that by allowing even a small amount of liverty around the Pinkster holiday, slaveholders actually made it easier to perpetuate enslavement and to prevent all-out uprisings and resistance.  But a new book by the historian Jeroen Dewulf entitled The Pinkster King and the King of Kongo challenges that "safety valve" notion.  Dewulf and other historians point out that the enslaved participants on Pinkster HIll essentially prganized the festival themselves, and they did so in a very specific way.  In music, dance, food, and even in the election of Pinkster King, a number of West African traditions informed and shaped the way revelers celebrated.  The Pinkster holiday was more than a break from lives of forced labor; it was a major way that enslaved men and women preserved culture through the generations.

Just as importantly, Pinkster was also a political demonstration showcasing the effective methods of organization and resistance within the enslaved population.  Every spring, hundreds of enslaved people in various locations in the upper Hudson Valley started negotiating, possibly even arguing with their enslavers in order to be granted time to travel and celebrate Pinkster.  Also, the Pinkster King was also politically significant since he was elected by the slave community and not as a mere figurehead.  The Pinkster King was usually an enslaved man selected for his leadership abilities, especially his capacity to negotiate with his enslavers and gain significant concessions from them, including time off for holidays, visits to his family members in other areas, even promises of emancipation in exceptionally rare cases.  The Pinkster King was also usually a physically imposing man, capable of defending himself and others.

Pinkster Festival at Philipsburg Manor

In 1804 the Common Council of the City of Albany severely restricted Pinkster celebrations.  Then in 1811, they banned Pinkster altogether, citing the boisterous and raucous elements that had been part of the festival from the very beginning.  It was only in 2011 that Pinkster ban was officially repealed.  On April 22nd, Crailo's Pinkster Festival marked the first time that Pinkster has been celebrated in the Upper Hudson Valley in nearly two centuries.  More importantly though, the event commemorates the lives of the Pinkster celebrants, who preserved and defended their culture, humanity, and political traditions in the most difficult circumstances imaginable.

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