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
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" (152). 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 death. 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 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 Government. 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 outlawed. 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 environment.