More than 200 years ago, the ominous enslavement and trade of Africans was booming. Ships, under the control of metropolitan powers, docked at African seaports to load their cramped ship holds with chattel to be brought to the Caribbean and Europe, forming the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
It all began with the re-discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus on his mission to find a shorter route to India. Docking on Caribbean shores, he thought he had reached India due to the presence of Amerindian tribes, calling her the West Indies. His last voyages to the West Indies were geared at establishing Spanish colonies, where Amerindians were enslaved and forced to cultivate the land; however due to the punishment and diseases brought by the Spaniards, arduous labour, suicide and infanticide, the Amerindian population was decimated.
After the British captured Trinidad in 1797, the metropole turned to Africa for a cheap, viable source of labour to work on tobacco and later sugarcane fields. They were seen as savages, heathens, a lesser people, but physically equipped to withstand the harshness of the environment. Warring tribes and the capture of African villages made the sale of chattel much more cost-efficient to the Europeans.
Loaded onto ships, hailing from several villages, new cultures were crossing the sea to merge into one heritage on these Caribbean isles. Though several did not survive the voyage, chained and laying in the filthiest of conditions with little to no sunlight, the majority did. Upon arrival and baptised with a new name, practices were lost, families forcefully separated, chained and oiled to be sold off in the sweltering sun, a new people, a new culture was about to be born.
Whipped, beaten, tortured, chained, lynched, raped and murdered; the spirit of Mother Africa remained ever present. Their spirituality was hidden behind Catholic devotion and done in the dead of the night. Their languages were silenced and English forced-fed to them; their songs, dances and drumming outlawed; they faced acculturation, yet aspects of their original heritage were preserved and became ‘creole’. Though broken in the body, they remained resilient in spirit, joining forces from plantation to plantation, island to island, and rebelled, fighting for what was rightfully theirs- freedom.
In 1834, after many years of abolitionists and humanitarians lobbying parliament and influencing the public, they finally succeeded in bringing an end to the tyranny of slavery. On 1 August 1834, now freed, Africans and their descendants danced the streets with drumming and singing, mocking the planters for they were enslaved no longer.
Their spiritualities of Ifa Orisha and by extension Rastafarianism still survive in Trinidad. Manifestations and the offering of libations in honour of the ancestors and Orisa are still observed; together with the beating of bongos and djembes, birthed tamboo bamboo instruments and today, we have the steel pan. Ole mas’ carnival celebrates the practices of the ancestors and their mysticism brought to Trinidad such as stick fighting or Canboulay derived from the words ‘cannes brulées’ meaning burnt sugarcanes and ‘moko jumbies’ or the spirit of judgement, represented by masqueraders dancing on stilts. Our folklore embodies African mysticism highlighting the spirit of the water ‘Maman de L’eau’ and Bo Anansi of our childhood stories.
Wakes and post funerary customs of a reception/ banquet after interment are also reminiscent of African practices. Tasty coo coo made from cornmeal and callaloo made from cooked spinach and other vegetables are a treat. Chilli bibi consisting of parched corn, sugar and cinnamon, along with accra- cooked saltfish in fried dough tantalise the taste buds. The soothing and entertaining songs of calypso and kaiso invoke the memory of the story-tellers or chantuelles of the enslaved African societies in Trinidad who guarded their history and heritage. Not forgetting the spread of Yoruba, Swahili and other languages, the propagation of clothing and ancestral jewellery are all on the rise once again.
Though we stand upon the blood, sweat and tears of our African ancestors, we are proud to fly their banners of freedom upon this land.
Happy Emancipation Day!