A Double-Edged Drum: The Power of the Drum from Africa to America

Akan Drum
Unknown creator, Ghana, c. 1735
Carved wood and deer skin.
The British Museum

PROVENANCE: Thought to have been made by the Akan people of present day Ghana; brought to America aboard slave ship; obtained in Virginia by the Rev. Clerk on behalf of British Collector Sir Hans Sloane; part of founding collection of The British Museum, 1753.

This drum originated from West Africa in the Akan region of Ghana and was brought on a slave ship to the Virginia colony c. 1735. It is one of the oldest surviving African-American objects. While the carved wood is from the cordia africana, a tree from West Africa, the deer skin is North American. This indicates that the drum was used in its new home.

Drums have played a central role in Africa throughout history. Generally the sound of the drum was an announcement, such as declarations of wars or celebrations. In his autobiography The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings the formerly enslaved African Olaudah Equiano described Africa as a nation of dancers and musicians and emphasizes the use of drums. Within a community where everyone speaks the same drum language drums can have rhetorical impact. Since drum language is specific to a community and only accessible to ‘in-group’ members, drumming contributed to the formation of personhood and group identity.

Slavers were likely to lose up to one-half of their human ‘cargo’ during the middle passage. It was in their economic interests to keep the slaves alive and healthy. The Akan Drum was likely used in the practice known as ‘dancing the slaves’. Ship doctors believed nostalgic melancholy was the cause of diseases and recommended dancing as an antidote.

The threat of violence under which slaves ‘danced’ turned music and dance into tools of subjugation. Slavers made the dancing into a form of entertainment for personal enjoyment. The ship captains’ declarations that ‘white men’ had to be obeyed enabled the slavers to use the rich legacy of African drum-dance culture to create and image of blackness and whiteness, in which blacks were the subjugated and whites the subjugators.

Female slaves were kept on the main deck of the ship where they were vulnerable to the sexual predation of the slavers. The forced dancing became a twisted form of foreplay for rape. Refusal to participate resulted in severe punishments. A young African girl on the slave ship Recovery was tortured and killed for refusing to dance. In the complete annihilation of the ‘cargo’ the slavers went against their economic interests. The girl denied the slavers power and pleasure by rebelling against the racial script of subordination they had written for her. The slavers had to destroy her in order to take back control of her body.

The use of African music, dance, and instruments on the slaves ships allowed slaves to preserve homeland traditions. Dance became an integral part of the daily lives of slaves in North America. During Saturday night dances slaves would dance to the beat of the drum and talk about the freedom they had possessed in Africa. Dance practices of the slaves became intertwined with resistance and survival.

Music and dance culture of the slaves contributed to the formation of group identity and self-esteem. This threatened the system of slavery, which relied on the complete oppression of slaves. Masters’ fear of the communicative power of drums was confirmed by the Stono rebellion of 1739 in which rebels used a drum to signal each other. Slaves were subsequently banned from using drums.

The same drum which beat for subjugation could beat for rebellion. Slavers manipulated the culturally vital African Drum to subjugate black slaves through dance. The power of an instrument like the Akan Drum to communicate and unify persisted from Africa to North America. The drum became a double edged sword which slavers used to subjugate slaves and slaves used to rebel against the system of subjugation.


Akan Drum. Early 18th Century. Carved wood and deer skin. The British Museum, London. November 13, 2018. http://www.teachinghistory100.org/objects/about_the_object/akan_drum

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Blassingame, John W. The Slave Community. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Bokor, Michael J. K. “When the Drum Speaks: The Rhetoric of Motion, Emotion, and Action in African Societies.” A Journal of the History of Rhetoric Vol. 32: No. 2 (2014): 165-194.

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“Dance among Slaves.” Gale Library of Daily Life: American Civil War. Encyclopedia.com. November 16, 2018. https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/dance-among-slaves

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People with Crowns Ate Fruits with Crowns: The Royal Pineapple

Charles II Presented with a Pineapple
Unknown painter, Britain, c. 1675-80
Oil on canvas.
96.6 x 114.5 cm
Royal Collection Trust

PROVENANCE: Presented to Queen Mary by Lady Mountstephen in 1926; formerly in the Bredalbane collection.

This oil painting’s subject is Charles II, King of Great Britain (1630-85). A kneeling man, possibly the royal gardener John Rose, presents Charles II with a pineapple in front of a large garden and house. The king is depicted wearing the typical fashionable clothing of the 1670s, which is unusual because he is normally painted wearing ceremonial robes or armour. Although in casual dress Charles II is presented with a symbol of royalty, the pineapple.

Out of the many fruits encountered in the ‘New World’, the pineapple was of special interest to European travelers due to its unusual form, taste, and qualities. Upon his first encounter with the fruit Spanish explorer Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo declared it to be the unrivaled prince of all fruits. Even King Ferdinand gave the pineapple his highest praise. The pineapple became associated with royalty in Europe. The leaves on the top of the fruit are called the crown, so the pineapple certainly functions well as a symbol for kings. These royal connotations are incredibly illustrated by the Dunmore Pineapple, the ancestral home of the Earls of Dunmore built in 1761 with a fourteen meter tall pineapple crowning the building. The structure was designed to represent wealth and power and the royal symbolism of the pineapple was used to achieve this.

The pineapple presented to Charles II was claimed to have been the first pineapple grown in England. Although pineapples were later grown in Europe using hothouses, the date of the painting c. 1675-80 makes it is more likely that the pineapple pictured would have been imported. A certain parallel emerges between the pineapple and King Charles II beyond the royal status both enjoyed. In the painting a king who was both home grown and imported is presented with a royal symbol which is likewise home grown and imported.

Charles II’s father Charles I was beheaded in 1649 at the climax of the English civil war. The war, which lasted from 1642-1651, included wars in England, Scotland, and Ireland and become so intertwined largely due to Charles I himself. The Rump House of Commons created The High Court of Justice to try Charles I for treason against England for using his power to pursue personal interest rather than the country’s welfare. The court placed command responsibility on the shoulders of Charles I, holding him responsible for all the terrible things which had occurred during the wars. Despite Charles I’s refusal to recognize the court’s authority he was declared guilty and beheaded.

Although Charles II was declared king shortly after his father’s execution, he was unable to assume rule because England entered into the period known as the English Commonwealth. The country became a de facto republic headed by Oliver Cromwell. Charles II fled to mainland Europe after being defeated by Cromwell in battle. The dethroned king spent nine years in exile in France, the Dutch Republic, and the Spanish Netherlands. A political crisis following the death of Cromwell in 1658 resulted in the restoration of the monarchy. In 1660 Charles II was received in London as king.

Similar to the pineapple he was presented with in the painting, Charles II also had the dual identity of being homegrown and imported. He was homegrown because he was born and grew up in England while his father ruled and he was imported because he was returning to rule England after being in exile for nine years, a significant portion of his life. This is a moment where pineapples not only symbolize kingly qualities, but symbolize kings themselves.


Charles II Presented with a Pineapple. c. 1675-80. Royal Collection Trust, Britain. Accessed October 12, 2018, https://www.rct.uk/collection/406896/charles-ii-presented-with-a-pineapple.

Kishlansky, Mark A, and John Morrill. “Charles I.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, September 23, 2004. Accessed October 12, 2018, http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-5143.

Okihiro, Gary Y. Pineapple Culture: A History of the Tropical and Temperate Zones. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

Oviedo, Gonzalo Fernandez de. Historia General y Natural de Las Indias. 1535. Book 7, Chapter 14.

Seaward, Paul. “Charles II.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, September 23, 2004. Accessed October 12, 2018. http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-5144.

“The Pineapple.” National Trust for Scotland. Accessed October 12, 2018. https://www.nts.org.uk/visit/places/the-pineapple.