Chesapeake Clay Tobacco Pipes and Cultural Resilience

For my final research project I decided to look at how we can observe African cultural resilience in the new world during the 17th century through the use of Chesapeake clay tobacco pipes. To do this I first explored the pipe making traditions and decorative traditions of West Africa. I then compared this to the various styles and designs of Chesapeake clay tobacco pipes.

Tobacco was introduced to West Africa in the 16th by Europeans returning from the New World. However, prior to this pipe making industries and the cultural practice of smoking was widespread in We

st African states thanks to the medicinal, spiritual and recreational use of cannabis. Following the introduction of tobacco it quickly gained popularity and spread throughout the region. The pipe making industries responded by producing pipes for the sole purpose of smoking tobacco. By the mid-17th century the cultural practice of smoking tobacco and making tobacco pipes was well established in West Africa. Therefore, by the time Europeans began transporting slaves to the New World smoking was very much part of several West African cultural identities.

From left to right: Kwardata, Double Bell, Hanging Triangles and Cattle motif(Emerson, 1988)

In comparing West African cultural traditions with Chesapeake pipes it becomes clear that a number of the motifs used on the pipes have clear connections to West Africa. I focused my analysis on 4 such motifs: The Kwardata, the Double Bell, Hanging Triangles and the Cattle motif.  The Kwardata motif can be linked back to the Ga’anda people of Nigeria. The motif commonly found on beer vessels that were used in ceremonies that marked the transition between boyhood and manhood. The Double bell motif can be linked back to the Nsibidi language of the Ejagham people from South western Cameroon and Northeastern Nigeria.  This language is a unique form of ideographic writing that consisted of signs that encapsulate many powers including the essence of all that is valiant, just and ordered. The Hanging Triangle motif can be linked back to the decorative traditions of Ga’anda people. Finally the cattle motif can be linked back to the economic and religious importance of cattle in the pastoralist societies of Nigeria.

The presence of all of these motifs is a clear indication of the continuation of various West African cultural and religious practices. For example, despite not having the traditional objects for their ceremonies they members or descendants of the Ga’anda people were able to place the Kwardata motif on pipes and use it in place of beer vessels for their religious ceremonies.

Thanks for reading. If you want to know more about this topic I would highly recommend reading the article “Decorated clay tobacco pipes from the Chesapeake: An African Connection” by Matthew Charles Emerson.


Emerson, Matthew C. “Decorated Clay Tobacco Pipes from the Chesapeake.” University of California,Berkeley, (May), University of California Berkeley ,1988.


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