Ball Play at Pinkster

The wild azalea, or pinkster

The wild azalea, or pinkster

As promised in my previous post, “Did African American Slaves Play Baseball?” (, I learned a lot about the long-gone holiday of Pinkster (mourned by oldtimers of the 1840s), and particularly ball play at this time among the slave population, North and South.  Caveat lector: if you care only for history as it relates to baseball, you might be well advised to proceed no further.

Robert Henderson opened his classic Ball, Bat and Bishop with these words: “It is the purpose of this book to show that all modern games played with bat and ball descend from one common source: an ancient fertility rite observed by Priest–Kings in the Egypt of the Pyramids.” Moving forward some three millennia, he added:

The testimony of Beleth and Durandus, both eminently qualified witnesses, clearly indicates that in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the ball had found a place for itself in the Easter celebrations of the Church.” In fact, Beleth and Durandus had both opposed the practice, seeing it as the intrusion of pagan rites into church rites. “There are some Churches in which it is customary for the Bishops and Archbishops to play in the monasteries with those under them, even to stoop to the game of ball” [Beleth, 1165]. “In certain places in our country, prelates play games with their own clerics on Easter in the cloisters, or in the Episcopal Palaces, even so far as to descend to the game of ball” [Durandus, 1286].

What does this have to with bat and ball and the fertility rites of spring, you ask? Not to put too fine a point on it, but the bat and ball are symbolic male and female forms. Like the dance (ballet) and the ballad, the game of ball (all derived from ballare, the Greek for ball), was regarded as sublimated sex. The Oxford English Dictionary records usages of the word “game” to mean amorous sport or lechery as early as 1230; to illustrate a perhaps more familiar instance, Shakespeare wrote, in Troilus and Cressida in 1606, “Set them downe For sluttish spoyles of opportunitie; and daughters of the game.” In recent memory, a television advertiser touted its hair coloring product as a way for graying men to “get back in the game.” Early prohibitions, especially against games involving bats or balls, tended to the extreme: in England ca. 1635, Richard Allen’s preaching at Ditcheat convinced a parishioner that “a maypole was an idol, and setting up of him [!] was idolatrie” and that ‘it was a greater sin for a man to play at Bowles on the Sabboath daie, then [sic] to lie with another mans wiffe on a weeke daie.” In this context, I invite you to think of ball play–even baseball–at Pinkster as a longing for freedom.

From "The World Turned Upside-Down," 1809

From “The World Turned Upside-Down,” 1809

The Pentecostal Dutch holiday of Pinkster (Pinksterfeest or Pinxter, a sort of azalea flower) was celebrated on the day after Whitsunday (seven weeks after Easter, and thus the gateway to summer). In New York City Pinkster Monday was celebrated in City Hall Park and at Chatham Square, but in Albany it was a week-long Saturnalian revel for slaves of the prominent old Dutch households. In 1800 Gorham A. Worth wrote: “Albany was indeed Dutch, in all its moods and tenses; thoroughly and inveterately Dutch. The buildings were Dutch – Dutch in style, in position, attitude and aspect. The people were Dutch, the horses were Dutch, and even the dogs were Dutch.” This, from “A Glimpse of an Old Dutch Town,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Volume 62, 1881:

New-Year’s Day was devoted to the uni­versal interchange of visits. Every door was thrown wide open, and a warm wel­come extended to friend and stranger. It was a breach of etiquette to omit any acquaintance in these annual calls, when old friendships were renewed, and family differences amicably settled. And here came the famous New-Year cake. The Paas eggs were the feature of Easter. The Pinkster festivities commenced on the Monday after Whitsunday, and now be­gan the fun for the negroes, for Pinkster was the carnival of the African race. The venerable “King of the Blacks” was “Charley of Pinkster Hill,” so called be­cause he was the principal actor in the festivities. [Pinkster Hill was another name for Albany’s Capitol Hill.] Charles originally came from Africa, having in his infancy been brought from Angolo, in the Guinea Gulf; and when but a boy he became the purchased slave of one of the most ancient and respectable merchant princes of the olden time, Volckert P. Douw, of Wolvenhoeck. Charles’s costume as king was that of a British brigadier—ample broadcloth scar­let coat, with wide flaps, almost reach­ing to his heels, and gayly ornamented everywhere with broad tracings of bright gold-lace. His small-clothes were of yellow buckskin, fresh and new, with stockings blue, and burnished silver buck­les to his well-blacked shoe. And when we add the three-cornered cocked hat, trimmed also with gold-lace, and which so gracefully sat upon his noble globular pate, we complete this rude sketch of the Pinkster king.

Dutch Rowhouses Albany 1789

Dutch Rowhouses Albany 1789

Both he and his followers were cov­ered with Pinkster blummies—the wild azalea, or swamp-apple. The procession started from “young massa’s house” (82 State Street; where now stands the large seedstore of Knickerbocker and Price), and went up State Street to Bleecker Hill, on the crown of which was the Bleecker Burying-ground. In front of the king always marched Dick Simpson and Pete Halenbeck, the latter the Beau Brummel of his time. The last parade was in 1822. The king died two years later. During Pinkster–day the negroes made merry with games and feasting, all pay­ing homage to the king, who was held in awe and reverence as an African prince. In the evening there was a grand dance, led by Charles and some sable beauty, to the music of Pete Halenbeck’s fiddle.

On the day following Pinkster (Pentecost or Whitmanday) the Negroes of Albany held revels on Pinkster Hill, the approximate site of the present State Capitol. Gradually the celebration extended far into the week until in April of 1811, the Common Council of Albany passed rules aimed at “boisterous rioting and drunkenness”—rules which were the knell of the Pinkster holidays with their African folk dances and beating on the Guinea Drum, as it was called in the Albany Centinel of June 17, 1803:

a log of about four feet in length, and twelve or fourteen feet in diameter, burnt out at one end … and covered with a sheep skin. On this one thumps with his fists a kind of barbarous ill composed, or uncomposed, air, which is accompanied with a harsh sort of grunting , a bawling and mumbling, which on any other occasion than Pinkster, would disgrace a savage.

Am I Not a Man and a Brother?

Am I Not a Man and a Brother?

While clucking about the savagery of the slave celebrations to come, the writer attests to a poignant truth. “This reminds the citizens,” the Centinel continued, “of the approaching anniversary, wakes into anxious expectation juvenile curiosity, and kindles the latent spark of love for his native country and native dance, in the bosom of the African. In the mean time, preparations are going forward on the [Pinkster] hill, which the ensuing week is to become the theatre of action.”

Also from 1803, an Albany pamphlet offered an ode “Most Respectfully Dedicated To CAROLUS AFRICANUS, REX: Thus Rendered in English: KING CHARLES, Capital-General and Commander in Chief of the

A Pinkster Song

When leave the fig tree putteth out,
When calves and lambs for mothers cry,
When toads begin to hop about,
We know of truth that summer’s nigh.

So after Pos [Pas, or Easter] when hens do cluck,
When gawky goblins peep and feed,
And boys get fewer eggs to suck,
We know that Pinkster comes indeed. […]

Rise then, each son of Pinkster, rise,
Snatch fleeting pleasure as it flies.
See Nature spreads her carpet gay,
For you to dance your care away.
“Care! what have we with care to do?
“Masters! Care was made for you.
“Behold rich free-men-see dull care
“Oft make their bodies lean and spare. […]

Ill-omen’d stars! malignant shone,
When Demons dragg’d thee from thy throne!
Afric with all her gold was poor,
When thou vast wafted from her shore.
Ah! when will Heaven, in justice drest,
Avenge the wrongs of the opprest!
Or will Heaven’s Lord in vengeance swear,
Tyrants shall never enter there!
But-hush-now Charles the King harangues,
A hundred fiddles cease their twangs.
“Harken, ye sons of Ham, to me;
“This day our Bosses make us free;
“Now all the common on the hill,
“Is ours, to do what e’er we will.
“And let us by our conduct show,
“We thank them as we ought to do.

“While Demo hot and fiery Fed,
“Boast who for freedom most have bled;
“Let us, each woman, man and boy,
“Strive, who call freedom most enjoy;
“While on hot politics they sup,
“And mostly drink a bitter cup;
“Let us with grateful hearts agree
“Not to abuse our liberty.
“Tho’ lordlings proud may domineer,
“And at our humble revelsjeer,
“Tho’ torn from friends beyond the waves,
“Tho’ fate has doom’d us to be slaves,
“Yet on this day, let’s taste and see
“How sweet a thing is Liberty,
“What tho’ for freedom we may sigh
“Many long years until we die,
“Yet nobly let us still endure
“The ills and wrongs we cannot cure.
“Tho’ hard and humble be our lot,
“The rich man’s spleen we envy not.
“While we have health, whence pleasure springs,
“And peace to purchase fiddle-strings,
“Let’s with united voice agree
“To hail this happy jubilee.
“Behold for as green lawns are spread
“O’er graves of British heroes dead.
“Behold for us the vernal field,
“A thousand blooming pleasures yield.
“Zephyrs which play on bosoms fair,
“Will wonton on our woolly hair;
“While every bird on every tree,
“Proclaims our happy jubilee:
“Let us be jovial be as they,
“All on this holy holiday.”

Thus spake King Charles, when all the crowd,
Roused full strong, long and loud,
And thank’d kind Heaven on bended knee,

For this, their short-lived liberty. […]

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