To a considerable extent, the old man slave of Chamoiseau's story is a mysterious figure. One might argue that this is intentional on the author's part, as the old man is meant to stand as a symbol for slaves in general and their experiences of enforced labor and captivity.
That being the case, the old man, like so many slaves, has been separated from his past, cut off from the wellsprings of an ancient civilization. And yet, despite his enslavement, the old man still retains what the author describes as "illiterate traces" of the gods of the Before-land, the land of his ancestors, the continent of Africa. His slave masters may be able to control his body, but they can't control a mind and spirit still suffused with fragments of a distant past.
Whenever the old man sees a new slave ship come into harbor, he is profoundly affected by what he sees. He no longer knows if he was born on the plantation or perhaps in the hold of a slave ship, but what he does know is that each swaying ship that comes into harbor stirs up a "primordial rocking within him."
The old man's mind is peopled with the “[c]rackings and snappings” and “muddy shadows” of the slave ships; befuddled with “slimy algae,” the old man's mind is steeped in the sea and the ships who sail upon it. This would appear to indicate that the old man was born at sea rather than on the plantation.
The very fact that he doesn't know for sure is a further indication of just how much control the slave masters exert over his identity. Though, as we've seen, they cannot completely control his mind and spirit, they can still keep him in ignorance of his past.