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January - April,  2007

     The Experience of the Slave Trade and Slavery: Slave Narratives and the Oral History of Grenada, Carriacou and Petite Martinique , Final

By David Omowale

Cugoano has described the cruelty on the plantation as he experienced it in Grenada. He writes of ‘seeing my miserable companions often cruelly lashed, and as it were cut to pieces, for the most trifling faults…For eating a piece of sugar cane, some were cruelly lashed, or struck over the face to knock their teeth out.’

Such cruelty inspired resistance that took the form of running away and armed rebellion. In the documented history of Grenada we have numerous incidences of running away recorded. Some of the runaways established marron communities in the mountain fastnesses of Grenada. This is also documented, for example, in letters between Governor Melville and the Lord Commissioners. In Carriacou, the oral history records incidences of resistance such as running away and marronage. We have already cited the case of Louisa and her lover running away, attempting to escape back to Guinea and finding themselves barred by the sea that surrounds the island. We have also the case of Derika who ran away and hid in the woods and whose mother is both lamenting his running away and communicating to him her love and encouragement in song.

Julien Fedon, a mulatto plantation owner and his lieutenants Stanisclaus Besson, Jean Pierre La Vallette and Charles Nogues led the second most successful, both in terms of its duration and accomplishment, uprising in the history of the Americas, second only to the Haitian Revolution. The insurrection that they started in March 1795 resulted in a general uprising of the enslaved and they managed to seize all of the country, except the fortified port-capital, St. George’s, and hold it for fifteen months before they were finally defeated by overwhelming force from Europe in June 1796.

The slave trade replenished the number of Africans born in Africa on the plantations and maintained a connection with the continent. New arrivals brought news of home, of what was current. With the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807 fewer Africans arrived on the plantations in British colonies such as Grenada, Carriacou and Petit Martinique. This meant that a source of information about what was happening at home dried up and the Africans on the plantations turned to flights of fantasy. Through out-of-body experience or actual bodily flight the African was supposed to return to Africa at will and return with news; some chose to remain in Africa, according to the myth. As Lorna McDaniel puts it: ‘The imagination that bestowed humans with the ability of flight eveloved from the desire for freedom.’

In Carriacou the Igbo was often associated with this ability to fly and it is recorded in the oral history of the Big Drum. In response to a song about the ability of the Igbo to fly, which had by then become associated with superstition, an indignant Igbo responds:

He says Igbo fly
He flies better than the Igbo
Nothing can harm the Igbo

This myth about the ability of the African to fly to Africa endured in Grenada well into the twentieth century. As a child, the author grew up hearing such stories. The ability of Africans to fly was explained by the absence of salt in their diet. The myth is widespread in other parts of the Caribbean and inspired Earl Lovelace novel, Salt.
Apart from the songs and dance that preserve some of the oral history of the enslaved, most of it coded, there is the demonology/mythology and the local folklore/ folktales. The loupgaroux/sukaya/soucouyant mythology/demonology was a caricature of the enslaver before it became a label for poor old men and women suspected of witchcraft. In the mythology the loupgaroux/sukaya cast a spell on its victims (the brainwashing of the slave system and later of colonialism, resulting in mental slavery) in order to suck their blood (the exploitation of the victims labour) and thereby nurture itself (become enrich with the wealth created by the enslavement of the victims). It is significant that the loupgaroux/sukuya must first shed its skin before it attacks the victims. The shedding of the skin was an allusion to the pale skin enslaver whose skin represented raw flesh. It is also significant that in order to escape the loupgaroux/sukuya or overpower it, one first had to break the spell (emancipate one’s self from mental slavery) or place salt or sand at the doorway so that it would be compelled to count every grain until daylight reveal its true identity (light represented truth and truth will set the victim free and exposed the true nature and identity of the enslaver/exploiter). The loupgaroux/sukuya mythology/demonology may have been inspired by the syncreticization of the French mythology of the werewolf and the Fula/Soninke sukuyadyo mythology (in Twi it is abayfo) which also involves a witch or wizard ‘tying’ people, sucking their blood, changing their skin and hiding it under a pot or mortar. On the slave plantations of the Caribbean the enslaved and colonized reinterpreted the symbolisms of these old world mythologies to give them new and coded meanings and as a record of the exploitation of plantation slavery and colonialism. Again, these are not mere superstition.

Similarly, the folk tales that have survived do contain coded messages about the slave trade and its impact on Africa and Africans. I will cite only one such tale because of the restrictions of space. In the tale about Mini Mini, Mini Po and Mini Matilda, the three beautiful daughters of a bias mother is seduced by the devil who learns to sing like their mother and carry them away whilst the ugly daughter whom the mother despises, Crocodile, is spared and is all that the mother has left. The story may be simple but it contains layers of meaning and symbolism. The beautiful daughters were taken into slavery and the ugly daughter remained in Africa. The devil represents the slave trader and his imitating the mother’s voice represents the slave trader learning the dialects of Africans to conduct trade with them, often in fellow Africans as commodity. Beautiful in this case is more than its literal meaning; it also represents physical and mental fitness or physical and mental perfection. The slave trader rejected the imperfect – those with rotten teeth, venereal diseases, disabilities, diseases, slow witted individuals and the like (the ugly ones or Crocodile) and purchased those with strong limbs, perfect teeth, quick of wit. They inspected their mouth, tested their muscles, hefted their penises, examined their vaginas, and licked their skin to taste the salt. Moreover, some African ethnic groups retreated into the bush or uglified themselves through scarification and deformation to escape the depredations and attentions of the slave traders. Similarly, African writers have used the term beautiful to mean integrity and vision and incorrigible leadership. This is how, for example, beautiful is used in Ayi Kweyi Armah’s novel, The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born, a protest against the ugliness and corruption that the government of Kwame Nkrumah had deteriorated to at the time of his writing as well as a protest against ugly and visionless leadership all over Africa, then as now.

The slave trade ended in 1807 and slavery ended in 1838. We were taught in school the contributions of Thomas Clarkson, Granville Sharpe and others in the movement to abolish the slave trade and were made to feel grateful to them alone. What we were never taught was that the resistance, passive and active, of Africans themselves contributed to the struggle for abolition and that Africans like Cugoano and Olaudiah Equiano fought for the cause.
Equiano managed to purchase his freedom in Virginia, after first landing in Barbados, and worked closely with James Clarkson and Granville Sharpe in the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. He was also an active member of the London Corresponding Society, a political society that campaign for universal adult suffrage. He worked closely with its secretary, Thomas Hardy. He was a public speaker and spoke out passionately against the slave trade and slavery. He petitioned George III to abolish the slave trade but failed to persuade him. He was also actively involved in the programme to resettle freed Africans in Sierra Leone.

Equiano and Cugoano were friends. They both belonged to the London Black Community. They were both active in the abolition movement and Equiano helped Cugoano to write his anti-slavery treaties. Cugoano was an active member in the Sons of Africa, an abolitionist movement, and became one of the most outspoken members of that group. Like Equiano, he was a radical public speaker, condemning the slave trade and slavery and arguing that slaves had a duty to escape slavery by any means necessary. He was, in that sense, a forerunner to Malcolm X, who is also connected to Grenada. He worked closely with other abolitionists like Granville Sharpe. These are the things they do not teach in our schools when the topic of abolition and abolitionists arise.
It is the hope of this writer that others will be inspired by the rich oral history bequeathed by our ancestors to rewrite the history of the slave trade and plantation slavery from the experience of our ancestors who were the victims and which they recorded in ring game songs, work songs, nation dance, mythologies, folktales and the Big Drum tradition.


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