The following is taken from a work-in-progress. I will
like to hear from anyone who knew King Canute.
Please contact me at:Bigdrum@justice.com
..Stories of Flying Africans punctuated the childhood of Avey
Johnson, the African-American protagonist in Paule Marshall's
1983 novel "Praisesong for the Widow". These stories were told
by an aunt, who took the young Avey to a place called Ibo
Landing where one such flight famously began.
Many years later, Avey would revisit these childhood
stories in a series of dreams that occured while she was doing a
Caribbean cruise ( an annual ritual) with two girlfriends. The
dreams seemed to have induced physical and psychic illness and
as a result Avey Johnson decided to cut-short her trip and
return to the United States .In fact, Avey abandoned the cruise
when her boat stopped at Grenada. But before she left
Grenada for the States, Avey ran into a Legba -like Big Drum
( he even walked with a limp) named Lebert Joseph. Lebert, a
Kayak who ran a "grog shop"- Rock Haven Bar- on the "mainland",
invited Avey to accompany him to Carriacou where he was going to
celebrate an annual Big Drum event; Avey accepted after some
initial hesitation. The trip to Carriacou, aboard the Emmanuel
C,was harrowing experience that in some small way put Avey in
mind of what her African ancestors might have suffered during
the infernal Crossing. Avey was sick throughout.
She landed in Carriacou and was immediately put in the
care of Lebert's daughter, Rosalie Parvey, who gave Avey a bath
( introducing the visitor to the cultic use of water) 'nointed
her and brought her into a new spiritual life. Avey eventually
went back to Grenada , where she caught a flight back to the
During the course of one of his conversations with
Avey, Lebert Joseph disclosed that he was "Chamba": "I's a
Chamba! From my father's side of the family", he said. Assuming
that all black people were aware of their specific ethnic
identities, Lebert turned to Avey and asked: " What is your
nation?" Is you Arada? Cromanti maybe?" Yarriba? Moko?" Is
you a Manding like my mother, maybe?" Avey was African-American;
African nationhood as conceived in Lebert's Carriacou meant
nothing to her. And this came as a great shock to a man who
lived on a small island where every one knew his / her ethnic
origins. In Carriacou one is Arada (Rada), Banda, Chamba, Congo,
Cromanti, Manding, Moko (Ibibio), Temne or Ibo(Igbo).
These nations form the Big drum, the central rite of Carriacouan
society. Big Drum is a community of communities; a concept of
African nationhood. It is worth nothing that this sense of
nationhood was forged in ceremonies for the dead.
Sterling Stuckley points to this fact in his 1987 book, Slave
Culture: Stuckey writes: The burial ground provided an
ideal setting, under the conditions of enslavement , for
Africans from different ethnic groups to relate to one another,
to find shared religious values that must have been an enormous
source of satisfaction as they struggled to prevent their number
from being smaller as a result of ethnic allegiances.
The constituent nations of the Carriacou Big Drum come from the
Guinea Coast and West Central Africa, the regions that provided
nearly all of the twelve million Africans who were extracted
from their homes and brought to the Americas to work as slave
labourers. The Arada (Radas) got their name from Allada,
the ancient capital of Dahomey (Benin), the cradle of
Vodou .The Aradas very probably drawn mostly from Aja, Fon
and Nago (Yoruba) communities of Dahomey. The Banda people
constitute roughly 30 per cent of the population of the Central
African Republic. What the Haitians call "Banda drumming" is
known in Grenada. Banda style drumming is/was practiced only in
the Paradise area by masqueraders who call themselves juju (apache)warriors.
Chamba people are found in Nigeria and Cameroon.
Congo (Kongo) was a generic name for Africans who were exported
from Congo (Zaire) and Angola. The Kongo groups included Bakongo,
Mbata, Mbamba and Mondongo. Some Congos came to the Americas
with knowledge of Catholic Christianity, which was brought to
West Central Africa by the Portuguese during the latter years of
the fifteenth century.
In the Congo Catholic missionaries and priests found it
necessary to acknowledge as Christian the mani Kongo cult of the
Manding (Mandingue) came mainly from the Upper Guinea region ,
modern day Senegal and Gambia. Some Manding people were Muslims
and it might be worth looking to see whether they and other
Muslims have left Islamic footprints on the Big Drum. The
word saraka is derived from the Arabic "sadaka".
The Moko came for southeastern Nigeria. Perhaps these people
gave us the term Moko jumbie (nzambi), Moko spirit or god.
The Cromanti come first in the ritual order of the Big Drum. The
word "Coromanti" is derived from Cormantine, the name of a major
slave port in the Gold Coast, now known as Ghana.The
Coromantis were Akan peoples, the bearers of the Anansi stories.
The Temne come from the country now known as Sierra Leone.
The Ibos came mainly from southeastern Nigeria. Ibos were also
known as Calabars, and this was because they were shipped from
the Niger Delta port of Calabar. Ibo figure prominently in the
stories of flying Africans The thought of Ibos- flying or
otherwise- reminds this writer of "Canute" Emmanuel Caliste, the
Carriacou artist and artisan whoclaimed an Ibo ancestry. How did
Canute know that he was Ibo? Did he just choose to be Ibo? And
if he did choose, was he at all influenced by the
stories of flying Ibos? Having been born in 1914, Canute would
definitely have heard stories upon stories about Iboes and other
Africans who flew back to Africa. But was flight a euphemism for
suicide? It is believed that there was a high
incidence of suicide among the Ibos. Commenting on this
phenomenon the noted American anthropologist Melville Herskovits
has this to say: Their [the Ibos] despondency, noted in
many parts of the New World, and a tradition of suicide as a way
out of difficulties has often been remarked , as, for example in
Haiti where the old saying "IBOS pend' cor' a yo-- The ibos hang
themselves is still current".
Suicide was certaily a way of hastening the return to Africa.
Young Canute would also have heard the story of the Ibo king,
"King Jaja", who came to Grenada on June 8, 1888. Jaja was in
fact "sentenced" to the West Indies for defying the British in
his Ibo Nigerian homeland. The news that a real African king was
a prisoner aboard a ship in the St George's angered many
Grenadians; many left their homes and made their way to Town to
see for theyself; and on their way to Town, these Grenadians
voiced their disapproval of the high- handed British treatment
of one of their own. The reaction on the part of the Grenadian
people was said to have startled the authorities, and was
perhaps the reason why the British took King Jaja to nearby St
Vincent, where he remained until he was removed
to Barbados in March 1891. The Bajans masses welcomed the king
with open arms; crowds gathered whenever he went. An ailing King
Jaja was allowed to leave Barbados in May of that same year.
Jaja, who died on his way back to Africa, is remembered in a
It is a song young Canute might also have heard and sang. Ibos
are very fond of singing, dancing and storytelling .Canute
excelled in all three areas and , indeed, his paintings have the
dramatic quality of Ibo storytelling............
© 2006 C.Taylor