African and African-style cultures in the Caribbean

AFRICAN STUDY

‘African and African-style cultures in the Caribbean’ is the continuation of an African study titled ‘Africa In The Caribbean‘ – By Dennis R. Hidalgo. A historical overview of the African Diaspora in the Caribbean.

Caribbean planters kept track of what they believed were the African ethnicities of their enslaved people because they saw certain types suited for specific kinds of work. However, the ethnic labels Africans received from traders were often inaccurate. Usually labels merely described the port where traders had purchased an individual, who might have originally lived hundreds of miles away.

Negro Dance, Richard Bridgens' 'West India Scenery', 1836

Negro Dance, taken from Richard Bridgens’ ‘West India Scenery’, 1836.

Nevertheless, planters had little interest or respect for the cultures of the people they enslaved. Even after emancipation, Caribbean elites—whites but also people of African ancestry—continued to see African cultures as liability; they attached more value to individuals who had better absorbed European cultural values. This was so even in Haiti, where African-born blacks had been essential to overthrowing the colonial regime. Haitian intellectuals in the 1800s, from POMPÉ-VALENTIN VASTEY to ANTÉNOR FIRMIN, attacked anti-Black racism, but believed that New World Blacks, not native Africans, would one day regenerate the African continent.

The traditional explanation assumed that since Africa had insignificant cultural development, the captives would have lost their modest culture in the Middle Passage. This belief supposed that enslaved Africans were a sort of blank slate when they arrived in the Caribbean and that their music, family patterns, languages, or religions were flawed attempts to emulate European colonists.

This thinking would predominate until the 1920s, when cultural movements like Negritude would embrace African roots of local culture [see, FERNANDO ORTIZ, LYDIA CABRERA; AIMÉ CÉSAIRE; JEAN PRICE-MARS] This intellectual drive marked a shift away from considering enslaved Africans as passive victims. Black Caribbean cultures were evidence of the many ways enslaved and free Blacks have shaped their own lives.

Broadly speaking, since the 1930s scholars have described the general impact of African cultures on the Caribbean in two ways.

The first way, retention, stresses how captives in the Caribbean reconvened in new locations around ethnic groups from similar African origins. This allowed for the dissemination of African cultural and religious traditions. But perhaps the clearest evidence of cultural transmission is the role of African ethnicities in rebellions against slavery. [see SLAVERY, RESISTANCE AND REVOLUTION]

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Until at least the 1770s, African-born leaders led most of the largest uprisings in the Caribbean. In the 1730s, hundreds of experienced warriors were sold into slavery in the Caribbean as part of a civil war among the Akan-speaking people in what is today the nation of Ghana.

Akan-speaking people, who the English called Coromantees, may have had a hand in the 1701 Christmas uprising in Antigua, the 1675 revolt in Barbados, and in the 1673 revolt in JAMAICA. But the 1730s saw these Africans mount an even greater challenge to the slave system, with the SAINT JOHN SLAVE REVOLT OF 1733 and the ANTIGUA SLAVE REVOLT OF 1736. Coromantees were also active in the TACKY’S REVOLT in Jamaica in 1760.

After about 1770, leaders born in the Caribbean became more conspicuous, heading many of the region’s slave rebellions, including the HAITIAN REVOLUTION [see TOUSSAINT LOUVERTURE; BUSSA’S REBELLION]. And yet, one of the key elements in the success of the Haitian Revolution is now thought to be hundreds of veteran warriors from civil wars in the Kongo region. The military tactics and royalism of many groups of rebel warriors in the Haitian Revolution appears to be directly linked to the fighting styles and political ideologies of the Kongo.

Another aspect of slave resistance in the Caribbean directly linked to African ethnicities was the creation of maroon communities – escaped slaves who found ways to live permanently outside of bondage, often in villages in remote mountains or deep in the rainforest. CUDJOE, the founder of one of the most important groups of MAROONS IN JAMAICA, was said to have been a Coromantee.

The clearest connection between the Caribbean and specific African cultures is perhaps most perceptible in Cuban history because the slave trade continued there until 1866. Spanish authorities had allowed Blacks in the 1500s to organize confraternities and self-help associations along African cultural practices. Whites supervised these guilds, called cabildos de nación, but blacks elected their own leaders and organized their own processions, dances and fund raising.

The sugar boom of the 1800s brought new waves of captives from Yoruban lands in modern-day Nigeria today into Cuba, bolstering the Afro-Cuban tradition. Blacks from this region, known as Lucumí to Cuban slave holders, recreated a secret society known as Abaukuá modeled on the Ékpè Leopard Society they had known in their homelands. The Abakuá was highly secretive, and was perhaps involved in the APONTE SLAVE CONSPIRACY of 1812 and the ESCALERA CONSPIRACY of 1844. As early as 1836 its members included island-born blacks, Africans from the Congo region, and even Whites.

These and other organizations provided a setting in Cuba in which SANTERIA, PALO AND OTHER NEO-AFRICAN RELIGIONS flourished with specific African elements. For example, Cuban orishas, or spiritual beings in Santería, connected with expressions of Olodumare [divinity] in the Yoruba traditional religious systems. Similarly, the musicians in these organizations modeled their instruments, especially in percussion, on musical instruments used in Africa. These instruments also entered Cuban popular music.

An example of this is the ―conga‖ drum, which became important in Cuban popular music after the 1940s when ARSENIO RODRIGUEZ appropriated it from the Santiago Carnival into his son band. [see TRADITIONAL MUSIC; CUBAN MUSIC AND DANCE; MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS: PERCUSSION]

Yet this analysis claiming that blacks rebuilt specific pieces of African culture in the Caribbean leaves much of the Afro-Caribbean unexplained. A second approach, which Sidney Mintz, Richard Price and Andrew Apter pioneered, is the concept of CREOLIZATION also described as syncretism.

Creolization stresses the ways in which black Caribbean people influenced each other with innovations and adoptions of various cultural influences to create cultural practices that we today describe as neo-African. It asserts that culture mixing is universal. This approach argues that what is considered to be an original Caribbean or American manner of creating new cultures is actually also very African.

It shows how enslaved Africans deposited in different places learned and invented new ways of speaking, worshiping, eating, and living just to communicate and live. These include the many religious, musical or artistic traditions that appear to be African, but which have no clear African antecedents, since they evolved in the Caribbean differently from anything in Africa.

The Yoruba diasporic communities that have moved between Havana in Cuba and Lagos in Nigeria have shown examples of this process of creolization. They have created religious and cultural identities that have fluctuated between Cuban and Nigerian affiliations. They have also developed cultural markers that are neither exclusively Cuban nor Nigerian.

The Antillean Waltz is another model of this transformation. It began on Curaçao, and then spread to the rest of Netherlands’ Antilles. [see ARUBA, BONAIRE, AND CURAÇAO] Like all neo-African cultural expressions, it reflects these islands’ entangled history of colonization and slavery. It is a mixture of Indian, African and European musical elements forged during the time before and after emancipation.

Historians have found its origins among eighteenth-century Curaçao blacks — Africans called manquerons, who the colony’s slave merchants had decided were unsellable. Many worked for the local elite, playing European music. Gradually, black musicians included African aesthetics in the form of small drums, off-beat phrasing and occasional polymeter, accentuating and embellishing the European music they were forced to play. The fluid social context and strategic locations of the Dutch Caribbean had put these musicians in contact with diverse cultural currents, which also found their musical expressions in what today we know as the Antillean Waltz.

Similar examples of exchange and recreations are clearly perceptible in Caribbean food, language, identity and other aspects of culture. Moreover, recently, James Sweet and other scholars are leading a neo- Herskovitian revival that revises the Mintz-Price approach. Their efforts center on Africa as they search for the African origins of diasporic communities in Brazil and Caribbean regions.

Coming up Next: Africa and Resistance Following Emancipation

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