She moves through the night woods on leopard feet, vanishing and reappearing. Her night vision guides her unerringly to the frightened people hiding among the sweet gums, or scrunched down inside a mudhole, aquiver for the sound of dogs or horses, coming after them. The leopard, osebo in the language of the
West Africa, the leopard is a powerful dreamtime ally. Up to the present day, there are tales of the abakwa, the sorcerer who can shapeshift into the body of a leopard, and is greatly feared because of the leopard’s stealth and delight in the kill.
In my dreams of her, Harriet Tubman was not confined to the human sensorium. She could not only fly like a bird; in the swamps and forests of the
New World, she could sense and move with the grace and precision of an African night hunter.
Is this idle fancy?
Franklin Sanborn, writing in 1863, described her as “the grand-daughter of a slave imported from
Africa” with “not a drop of white blood in her veins.”
Many years later, a reporter for the New York Herald called up these memories in an interview: “The old mammies to whom she told dreams were wont to nod knowingly and say, ‘I reckon youse one o’ dem Shantees, chile.’ For they knew the tradition of the unconquerable Ashantee blood, which in a slave made him a thorn in the side of the planter or cane grower whose property he became, so that few of that race were in bondage.”
Memories of gossip heard in childhood are not evidence that Harriet had
blood, but the story suggests that the Ashanti were known where she grew up, and she was associated with them in people’s minds. The Ashanti , a warrior people of the Gold Coast (modern-day Ashanti ) built a powerful kingdom after 1680 with a standing army of 80,000 men, half equipped with firearms. Their chiefs, called “masters of firepower” or simply “big men”, took slaves from enemy tribes and sold them to the Europeans in the trading ports via Hausa middlemen; they boasted that no Ghana could ever be made a slave. Nonetheless, it is likely that some Ashanti were captured and sold by their enemies. Ashanti
The shipping records of the
slave trade suggest that Harriet’s ancestors were brought to Chesapeake from this part of America West Africa. Nearly all of the slaves brought to ports came direct from Maryland Africa, and the vast majority came on big vessels that picked up their cargoes along the Gold Coast or from London Upper Guinea. planters were constantly asking for slaves from the Gold Coast; they had a reputation for strength and stamina and craftsmanship. Maryland
West African slaves brought to
’s Maryland Eastern Shore did not lose their identity and traditional practices overnight. Recent archeology shows the survival of key elements of West African culture under slavery in North America: in the miniature boats and other items placed in graves, in the bones and carved objects used in divination kits. When Minty Ross was growing up, the Christianization of African slaves had barely begun.
Harriet said she inherited special gifts – including the ability to travel outside the body and to visit the future – from her father, who “could always predict the future” and “foretold the Mexican war”. [Sanborn, also
Bradford, Scenes 79-80]. She spent a lot of time with Ben Ross in the timber gangs, splitting and hauling wood for the schooners. In their quiet times in the woods, maybe they revived something of the atmosphere of the Chesapeake of the Sacred Forest , and the practice of West African dream trackers accustomed to operating outside the body, sometimes in the forms of animals. Ashanti
We have an interesting source on
dreaming in Robert S. Rattray, a British “government anthropologist”. A few months before the New York Herald announced Harriet’s “Shantee” roots, Rattray was rowed ashore to the sweaty, dusty coastal city of Ashanti , on his way to the Accra homeland.. Rattray became a passionate student of the Ashanti , who called him “Red Pepper” because of his blazing red hair. He was a Scot who went native in a big way, dancing as wildly as a woman possessed (according to one of his critics) and also “chasing after” African women (according to another). Though sometimes baffled by the mobility of consciousness among the West Africans he interviewed, he did his best to record Ashanti dream practices in a weighty 1927 study titled Religion and Art in Ashanti . Ashanti
mind,” Rattray explains, “dreams are caused either by the visitations of denizens of the spirit world, or by spirits, i.e. volatile souls of persons still alive, or by the journeyings of one’s own soul during the hours of sleep.” In the Ashanti language, “to dream” is so dae, which literally means “to arrive at a place during sleep” – implying travel. Ashanti
, what happens during these dream travels are real events. If you sleep with another man’s wife, for example, you are held to be guilty of adultery and may be punished for it. Ashanti
Flying is a common experience in
dreams. “If you dream that you have been carried up to the sky…and that you have returned to the ground…that means long life.” This certainly held true for Harriet Tubman, who lived to be ninety-one. Ashanti
Rattray describes an
practice for disposing of a “bad” dream by confiding it in a whisper to the village rubbish dump, which may also be the communal latrine. Ashanti
His account of the practices of
dream hunters may have direct bearing on our understanding of how Harriet Tubman dreamed. One of his informants described how his dead brother guided him on the hunt. “I often dream of my brother who was a hunter, and he shows me where to go. Any antelope I kill, I give him a piece with some water.” Ashanti
The same man’s dead uncle gave him dream prescriptions. When a child was ill in the house, his deceased uncle showed him some leaves to administer as part of the medicine; “I did so and the child recovered.”
Like other indigenous peoples, the
believe that if you are not in touch with your dreams, you are not in touch with your soul. “If one does not dream for eighty days, it means that one will become mad.”
Drawing: "Harriet Tubman with Guides" by Robert Moss (2003)
For more on Harriet Tubman and how she used dreaming to guide escaping slaves on the Underground Railroad, please read The Secret History of Dreaming by Robert Moss, published by New World Library.