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The African Diaspora In the New World


The study of cultures in the African Diaspora is
relatively young. Slavery and the trans-Atlantic slave
trade brought numerous Africans, under forced and brutal
conditions, to the New World. Of particular interest to
many recent historians and Africanists is the extent to
which Africans were able to transfer, retain, modify or
transform their cultures under the conditions of their new
environments. Three main schools of thought have emerged in
scholarly discussion and research on this topic. Some argue
that there are no significant connections between Africans
and African American communities in the Americas. Others
argue that Africans retained significant aspects of their
cultures. Similar to this argument, some have argued that
Africans, responding to their new environments, retained
and transformed African cultures into new African-American
ethnic units.
Detailed research done on slave communities in Surinam,
South Carolina and Louisiana allow us to look deeper into
the stated arguments. Having recently addressed the same
issues using Colonial South Carolina as a case study, I
will focus largely on some of the arguments and conclusions
drawn from this study. The evidence from South Carolina,
Louisiana and Surinam supports the second and third
arguments much more than the first. The third argument,
that of cultural transformation, is the argument I find to
be most valid. 

John Thornton's analysis of this issue is extremely
helpful. He addresses the "no connections" arguments in
chapters 6, 7 and 8. He outlines the claims made by
scholars Franklin Frazier, Stanley Elkins, Sidney Mintz and
Richard Price. Frazier and Mintz believe that the extreme
trauma and disruption experienced by Africans during the
process of enslavement and the middle passage minimized the
possibility that they maintained aspects of their cultures
in the new world. They argue that this process "had the
effect of traumatizing and marginalizing them, so that they
would became cultural receptacles rather than donors"

Mintz and Price have argued the slave trade had the effect
of " permanently breaking numerous social bonds that had
tied Africans together..." (153). Another element of the
"no connections" argument claims that Africans did not
receive enough associational time with each other or with
those of similar ethnic backgrounds to ensure survival of
cultural practices. Drawing largely upon the study of
Anthropology, Thornton attempts to outline conditions for
cultural survival and transformation. He contends these
arguments stating that opportunities existed for viable
communities to be formed, that there were prospects for
passing on "changing cultural heritage to a new generation
through training of offspring" and that there existed
opportunities for Africans to associate with themselves
(153). Thornton finds much more evidence for cultural
transformation than cultural "transplantation." He notes
the tendency of researchers to focus on specific
"Africanisms" rather than the cultural totality and
stresses the fact that "cultures change through constant
interaction with other cultures..." (209, 207).
I agree with Thornton's analysis. As stated in a passage
from our paper: 

It would be naïve to think that after being enslaved and
transported across the sea to a foreign continent African
slaves were able to physically transplant their cultures in
this new environment. It would be equally naïve to believe
no elements of African culture made their way to this
region... Africans were interacting with Europeans and
other Africans of different ethnic groups, adapting to the
realities of their new environments and transforming
elements of both old and new into their own
African-American culture. (Bright & Broderick 10). 

Evidence exists that shows Africans were allowed enough
associational time to form viable communities, that they
maintained strong family structures and that they exercised
a large degree of control in the raising their own children.
An example for the argument of significant retention of
Africanisms could be that of the Maroon communities in
Surinam. In the film I Shall Molder Before I am Taken, we
saw examples of African descendants separated from European
masters, living largely isolated in the Jungle in a similar
manner to that of their ancestors. The community was
strikingly similar to the Asante communities described in
the film Atumpan . There was much ceremonial detail in
addressing the chief or headman of the village. Just as
with the Asante, citizens and visitors had to address the
headman through an interpreter. Leadership was also
determined through matrilineal lines as in Akan societies
of Ghana. In felling a tree, the Saramaka would explain to
the spirits how the tree was necessary for their survival
and would be used wisely. They concluded by thanking the
spirits and the forest for the tree and leaving an offering
for its taking. The Saramaka also used mediums such as
song, dance and stories to recreate and teach important
elements of their history and culture. All of these
practices can be almost directly traced to their previous
African societies. 

Still, the Saramaka Maroons lend sufficient proof to the
argument of cultural transformation. Even after hundreds of
years of isolation in the jungle, the Saramaka showed
significant examples of cultural adaptation and borrowing.
As witnessed in the Price Literature and Film, "everything
from botanical medicines to basketry and fishing techniques
was learned from the Native Americans" (Jason &
Kirschensteiner 9). Inquiring about the plants used by the
medicine man to treat tendinitus, Price found that much of
the treatment of disease and knowledge of medical plants
was learned through Indians. The Maroon Creole language,
consisting of a mixture of English, Portuguese, Dutch and
African languages, is also symbolic of the cultural
transformation that had taken place.
Colonial Louisiana also provided opportunities for viable
African maroon communities. The geographic environment of
Louisiana with its bayous, thick swamps and intricate river
system, contributed to the ability of Africans to evade
capture and move about with relative freedom. Gwendolyn
Hall depicts how Africans created a network of "secret"
communities in the cypress swamps surrounding plantations.
These Maroons would hide out "for weeks, months and even
years on or behind their master's estates without being
detected or apprehended" (Hall 203). Hall describes the
creolization of Africans and Europeans in Colonial
Louisiana: "Conditions prevailing...molded a Creole or
Afro-American slave culture through the process of blending
and adaptation of slave materials brought by the slaves..."
(159). Lower mortality rates among slaves, levels of
freedom gained through escape and survival in the swamps
and a relatively small white population led Hall to
characterize Louisiana as creating "the most Africanized
slave culture in the Untied States" (161). Creole culture
came out of a consolidation of African, European and Native
American cultures. The dominance of African linguistic and
cultural patterns made this culture predominately an
Afro-Creole culture. 

Providing compelling evidence for the argument of
transformations of African culture is the study of slave
life in Colonial South Carolina. Africans contributed
tremendously to the successful settlement of the Colony and
adapted and retained elements of their roots into unique
African American communities. These communities included
unique family and religious structures. Before the Stono
Rebellion of 1739, slaves were allowed a considerable
amount of freedom to associate among themselves. They were
also encouraged to have families and allowed to exercise a
large degree of autonomy in raising their children. As
noted by Peter Wood, slave families; similar to African
families, would serve an important function in passing down
cultural heritage to the young. In accordance with African
tradition, South Carolina slaves relied on folk tales as
the primary vehicle for education of young. Slaves modified
these tales to fit their situation and environment in South
Carolina. The traditional "trickster", recurrent in West
African folk tales, was replaced by the rabbit. 

In religious worship Africans adapted old traditions to
their new situation. Many slaves in Colonial South Carolina
became Christians. This was not done without adding
elements of their previous beliefs systems. "Africans in
Colonial South Carolina worshipped their new Christian god
with 'the kind of expressive behavior their African
heritage taught them was appropriate for an important
deity' " (Bright & Broderick 11). Slaves also used African
forms such as dances, chants, trances and spirit possession
in their practice of Christianity. The call and response
pattern characteristic of West African music was adapted to
this new religion. Sundays were designated as free days for
South Carolina slaves and this day was often devoted to
family, religious and community activities. 

In this process of transformation there was also an element
of rebellion. After having gained elements of community and
family ethnic identity and freedom, slaves in Colonial
South Carolina would not become totally accepting of their
condition and would resist attempts to limit those freedoms
they did have. An element of African culture that was
modified for the purpose of rebellion was the use of
poison. In the tradition of the West African Obeah-man,
powers could be used to cure or to punish enemies. In this
respect, poison could be used in a negative capacity. The
use of poison as a form of rebellion is visible in both the
examples from Colonial South Carolina and Jamaica. Cases of
death by poison in Colonial South Carolina leading up to
the Stono Rebellion led to its inclusion in the Negro Act
of 1740. The Act made poisoning a felony punishable by

In conclusion, both significant African retentions and
transformations took place in the early European settlement
of the Americas. More recently, there has been a tendency
to overemphasize or even romanticize the "Africanisms."
While acknowledging "Africanisms" did make their way into
the Americas, I find the evidence from accounts of early
slave cultures and the Anthropological background provided
by Thornton on cultural transformation and change
persuasive in suggesting the formation of Afro- American
rather than "Afro-centric" communities. This approach to
the slavery and the slave era is relatively young and will
have to be developed. A conclusion that is clear after
studying works of Peter Wood, Gwendolyn Hall and Richard
Price, is that the early arguments suggesting no connection
of African heritage to the Americas are entirely invalid. 
Response to Question 3
The settlement and establishment of the Freetown peninsula
as a colony for freed slaves would come to represent one of
the most unique settings for coalescence of African and
European cultures. The majority of Freetown Africans had
gone through the unusual experience of being enslaved in
their home countries, sold to be sent abroad and then; by
chance and circumstance, they were captured by the British
manawars and unloaded in what was to become a bold
experiment in Africa's colonial history. The Africans
described in Phillip Curtin's book are an example of the
diversity in background of those settled in Freetown. Ali
Eisami, a Muslim, was captured in the Fulbe uprisings in
Bornu in 1808 and made his way to Freetown after witnessing
much of the fall of the Oyo empire. Samuel Ajayi Crowther
was captured in Yoruba land, shipped for Brazil, and sent
to Freetown after the slave vessel was intercepted. He
would later become a well known Anglican bishop. Joseph
Wright would end up in Freetown as a result of Egba crisis
and defeat in the 1820's. He would later become a prominent
missionary for the Wesley-Methodist Missionary Society.
This African diversity, coupled with European
administration of the company and eventual colony, would
prove to be a source of conflict in the Freetown Peninsula.
The principal competition of cultures would come over the
practice of religion. The Peterson chapter and the group
project by Ms. Brewer, Mr. Keenan and Ms. Doerr outline
this conflict well. The main source of conflict and
competition was between the British Church and Wesley and
Methodist Africans, and between Muslims and both of the
former groups. Peterson comments on early religion in
Sierra Leone: "There persisted within the church of Sierra
Leone a strong element of prior, non-Christian belief which
tended to fuse with the religion of the European. In
addition, Islam was to be found flourishing in the villages
and in Freetown" (230). The British movement to free slaves
also had a paternalistic element: "to the Briton...the
conversion of the heathen was as much a part of the
settlement's collective purpose as was the wish to civilize
the so-called barbarian" (230). Many of the Africans on the
Freetown peninsula did not embrace Christianity and most of
those that did committed to Wesley or Methodist faiths
inherited by the Nova-Scotians. 

The British authority did not welcome any of these
religious practices; instead, they sought to have a church
"monopoly" of Africans practicing the "proper" faith. In
1822, angry with the second class status given to them
within the church structure, Nova-Scotian settlers broke
with the British church and formed their own dependent
church called the West African Methodist Society (232). The
Society, led by Anthony O'connor, quickly grew to include
2,000 members and forty-three preachers. The new church
would eventually gain endorsement form the British Colonial

Of particular concern to many British Christians and
colonial administrators was the integration of traditional
African beliefs and ceremonies with Christianity and the
practice of Islam in Freetown and surrounding villages.
There are a number of documents of British missionaries
voicing their concern over the use of such things as wake
ceremonies, belief and use of gri-gri charms and the
offering of libations to deceased by African Christians.
One Revd. J.F. Schon even went so far as to attempt to halt
a wake ceremony only to be rebuffed with the response, "We
born in another country, this fashion we learned from our
fathers. What they did we do" (237). The use of wakes by
African Christians prompted the attempt to outlaw them by
creating the punishment of expulsion from the Wesley church
by any member found participating or attending a wake.
Despite the attempts of the British, African forms of
Christianity persisted. 

Both the British and African Christians clashed with
Muslims. Muslims in Freetown were often treated as second
class citizens and generally lived in separate sections of
town. The Colonial Government attempted to suppress Muslims
in the 1930s. The Governor, Richard Doherty, expressed his
dislike for Muslims and a desire for a policy of
"discrimination for recaptives" (240). He claimed he was
"offended by their polygamy and wanted to break up their
communities and have them pushed beyond the colony borders"
(Brewer, Keenan & Doerr 10). In the late 1830s the Foulah
town Mosque was destroyed by fire. This discrimination is
one of the reasons Muslims tended to withdraw themselves to
separate areas in Freetown or to the surrounding villages.
Missionaries also expressed their disliking for Muslims and
some of this transferred to African Christians. This enmity
would change though and association between African
Christian and Muslims would lead to the permanent
establishment of a unified, diverse Creole culture with the
formation of the Creole association. Begun in 1889, the
movement was a call to unify against increased concern for
conflict with Africans of the interior. The association was
made up of both Christians and Muslims and had traces of
African nationalism. At one meeting Muslim leader Mohammed
Sanunsi announced that "both Mohammedans and Christians of
this country are of one race..." (248). At another meeting
a speaker made a call for the "redemption of Africa" and
called for all to "unite for the Salvation of Africa..."
(Peterson 248). From this point on Muslim and Christians
would be integrated into a distinct Creole society. This
society exists still today. 

In relation to African-American communities, the emergence
of Creole culture was similar in that it too was formed out
of interaction among various African cultures with
themselves and Europeans. Liberated Africans on the
peninsula, as in the Americas, found themselves living with
both members of their own African ethnicity and others of
different origin. Similar to African American communities,
Creole culture in Freetown created its own distinct
language, and religious structures reflecting both African
tradition and European influence. They also showed strong
community ties as evidenced in the prevalence and practice
of benefit and welfare societies.
Sharp differences in the emergence of these communities
would come inevitably from structure. Excluding British
Colonial paternalism, Liberated Africans of Freetown were
free of the control, restrictions and brutality of slavery.
In the development of mixed cultures the amount of freedom
for voluntary association becomes important. Liberated
Freetown Africans had more opportunity for cultural
interaction and associations and the development of their
communities was often encouraged. They were safe to develop
their communities and cultures with a great deal of freedom
and personal control as opposed to African American
communities that were often forced to develop in secrecy
and seclusion. They were also in an African environment. 

The most significant difference in the development of these
communities was the that of education. Education of
Africans, largely along European lines, was encouraged and
supported in Freetown. Fourah bay was one of the first
Universities established in West Africa and by the end of
the 1830s it was already producing teachers such as Samuel
Crowther. The British Government established schools in
villages "with the purpose to educate re-captives..."
(Brewer, Keenan & Doerr 4). This stands in contrast with
the Americas were education of slaves was discouraged and

All of these factors gave Liberated Africans on the
Freetown peninsula much more freedom in developing their
Creole communities. Compared with African American
communities, this development took place with more
independence and structure and within an African


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