African Culture Retention in the Caribbean
The Caribbean culture is among the most diverse cultures of the world, composed of a blend of European colonialists, Africans, Indians, and the native indigenous tribes. Culture is among the least retained facets of human life. It is easily lost through hybridization and acculturation as people from different societies interact in their daily lives. In the Caribbean, for example, scholars have identified the emergence of new philosophies from as early as the 1930s during the slave trade era (Gerloff, 2006). Although the French, Spanish, and British colonial principles have greatly influenced the Caribbean society, the oppressed Africans have always been able to retain several aspects of the practices of their tradition. The African culture has persisted in Caribbean history to an extent of defining the region’s custom. This paper will explore the cultural retentions and their effects on the Caribbean people.
The structures of Caribbean art, music, and literature are a manifestation of historical and geographical features. Several territories and Islands have a unique philosophy depending on their colonial power as well as the pre-colonial occupancy. The Caribbean Islands were colonized by different colonies hence the much difference in their cultural compositions. Some territories have completely adopted the traditional lifestyles of their colonial masters while others have retained their pre-colonial customs. For example, Barbados’s values are mainly dominated by the British practices while Aruba, which was once a Dutch Colony, has retained little or no Dutch inspirations. Others, such as Jamaica have managed to withstand the colonial impacts by maintaining their pre-colonial principles.
In some Islands, occupants were brought in as slaves and carried with them their respective traditional practices. The slave trade is estimated to have brought in excess of 5 million Africans to the Caribbean, where they settled even after the end of slavery (Walcott, 19740). For example, it is estimated that 80% of Jamaicans can trace their roots to African slaves. This explains why the African culture dominates some parts of the Caribbean today along with the European beliefs. According to Walcott (19740), the oppressions that African slaves were subjected to in the Caribbean were enough to destroy their culture, however, their endeavors to fight slavery are among the factors that have led to its retention to date. In Jamaica, for example, the practices that were used to deliver messages to the oppressors have remained a focal point among the Jamaicans.
The adopted official languages in different Caribbean Islands are the languages of the respective colonial power. There are, therefore, four major languages, namely; French, Spanish, Dutch, and English, corresponding to the major colonial powers (Premdas, 1996). In addition, other creole languages were formed to enable communication between people from two different language backgrounds. Languages, such as the Haitian Creole that emerged as a link between the French and African slaves and the Papiamento- emerged from Spanish and Portuguese speakers are also accepted as official languages of different Islands. However, these creole dialects are adopted as the official languages along with one or more of the major languages in the Caribbean. Besides the official languages, there are also several local patois and indigenous creoles that are used informally among the Caribbean people.
Language is among the major features that the oppressed people in the Caribbean have retained over time. Although the African languages are not listed among the official languages, their remnants are prevalent in most of the Caribbean dialects. According to Premdas (1996), the African terms and phrases have found their way in both French and English languages spoken around the Caribbean. For example, the West African dialects’ lack of distinction between the ‘he’ and ‘she’ pronouns has remained in Caribbean French where ‘e’ has replaced both ‘he’ and ‘she’ pronouns. Different Caribbean creole has also included certain phrases from all over African countries. For example, the words ‘mumu’ and ‘Bubu’ are common terms in most African countries that have remained in Caribbean creoles, referring to dumb and deaf people respectively. Further, there are other borrowed words that are used with slight changes in meaning and pronunciation. For example, the word ‘lahay’, which means worthless in the Caribbean is corrupted from the Congolese word ‘laha’ that describes a street beggar.
The Caribbean is a religious dynamic region due to the high number of immigrants who brought with them their religious practices. The most prevailing religious practices are the African and European christens values; however, the Caribbean people have incorporated beliefs from both divides to establish their own (Premdas, 1996). Religious faith, just like language, is spread across the Caribbean Islands depending on their respective colonial masters. For example, the Spanish and French colonial Island inherited the Roman Catholic faith, while the British colonies are dominated by the Protestants faith. Despite the impacts of the Colonial Masters, Africans have managed to retain their religious practices and have influenced other religious groups to adopt their religion. Today, particular aspects of African religious practices are present in almost every religious group in the Caribbean. Although the Africans have also borrowed some religious characteristics from the European and Asian communities, over 80 percent of their beliefs have originated from Africa.
One of the major faiths that have proven the oppressed people’s ability to hold on to their culture despite the colonial influences has been the Rastafarian. Having emerged in Jamaica in the 1930s, Rastafarian’s main ideology was to raise the African- precisely Ethiopian – consciousness in the Caribbean. Their faith was centered on the oppression against them while they were serving as slaves. They believed that Haile Selassie, the then Ethiopian emperor, was equivalent to their god and would one day repatriate the Africans back to the promised land, Ethiopia. There are different sects of Rastafarian believers, followers of distinct indigenous preachers. However, they all share the basic tenets, which differentiate Rasta from other religious faith. For example, they all believed that their slavery condition in the Caribbean was hopeless since it was a form of punishment for their transgressions (Gerloff, 2006). They also believed that the whites are wicked and that someday, the black people will overthrow them.
Although the Rastafarians have relinquished most of their traditional beliefs, certain aspects of their faith are evident, not just in Jamaica but also in the rest of the Caribbean Islands. For example, Gerloff notes that the long twisted hair has been their mark to identity ever since the emergence of the revolution (2006). They also have particular color identities, which are a combination of red, green, gold, and black. The Rastafarian’s conviction that the black race is the preferred person God has kept them waiting for the day that their race will take the utmost position in the society. In the modern-day, Rastafarian has spread in numerous parts of the world, including the United States of America. However, the contemporary Rastafarians have dissected some elements of their indigenous faith, for example, the death of Hailes Selasie has seen many followers question his mighty place in the religion.
Rastafarian is the most popular Caribbean religion of African descent, but it is not the only one. As explained by Premdas (1996), there are other small African-related religions, such as the Cuban Santeria, the Voodoo, and the spiritual Baptist, among others. Each of these sects has lent some degree of African practices from different parts of Africa. For example, the Cuban Santeria is inspired by the Nigerian Yoruba traditional practices, such as chants and animal sacrifices. The Caribbean Santeria has, until to date, offered fresh blood sacrifices on a sacred stone to mark major ceremonies. This is a replica of the Yoruba traditional rituals that African slaves passed to the Caribbean people. Other traits of African religious beliefs that have survived in the Caribbean include the belief in the power of that deceased relatives’ spirits and the importance attached to dreams.
Throughout the history of the Caribbean including colonization and the slave trade, religion has been a focal point of life. Gerloff describes how it was used by the Europeans to justify their operations against the African slaves as well as the Africans in resisting slavery (2006). From the Europeans point of view, the story of the cursed biblical Ham, the son of Noah, rationalized enslavement as it portrayed Africans and their descendants as ‘natural slaves. Nonetheless, the European underlooked the biblical excerpt that later glorifies the son of Ham to be a great emperor in ancient Jerusalem. On the contrary, the Africans applied their traditional beliefs to counter the white man’s mischief. In addition to Rastafarian movements and anti-slavery messages passed in the form of music, the Africans also believed in Obeah- the use of spiritual and magical powers against the enemy. African religious leaders also played key roles in organizing guerilla warfare to protest enslavement.
Music and Other Forms of Arts
Rastafarians’ reggae music is one of the African traditional characteristics that has not only survived through the generations but also spread across the globe. Originally, the oppressed Africans used music as a social-political weapon against their oppressor and to popularize the Rastafarian. Similar to the legend Caribbean reggae, modern music from the regions are aimed at communicating the issues that directly affect daily life. The use of traditional drums and cow horns was a significant cultural identity among the oppressed people. Although the modern Caribbean has embraced technological musical instruments, some of them are derived from the African setups. Apart from the drums, instruments, such as tamboo bamboo have been developed from the Congolese ‘ntambu’ and thumb pianos that are common in the Caribbean today are borrowed from Africa.
Food and Cuisine
Retaining one’s culture has been proven difficult due to influence from the surrounding; conversely, traditional cuisines are least lost from intercultural mingling. In the Caribbean, for instance, various groups have kept to their traditional foods, resulting in one of the regions with the most diverse cooking techniques. According to Wilk (1999), Caribbean cuisine has been influenced by indigenous traditions, the European colonies, African slaves as well as the Indians and Chinese immigrants
. The introduction of modern crops and hence additional ingredients have also shaped the traditional Caribbean cuisines. The fusion of various groups in the Caribbean has seen the groups add to their traditional cuisine without denouncing their original practices. For example, in addition to the western foods that the Africans have adopted, they have retained the African foods, such as yams, cassava, and bananas from Nigeria, sesame seeds from Guinea among others.
Caribbean cuisine has a peculiar feature that is not present, at least not to a large extent in language and religion; the Chinese influence. Following the abolition of slavery in the 1800s, the Africans were not willing to take jobs from their former masters, which forced the white settlers to import labor from China (Gerloff, 2006). This saw the Chinese bring with them their local cuisines that have remained evident in Caribbean cuisines. The Chinese were initially held in servitude, despite having willingly moved to the Caribbean. Among the persisting Chinese cuisines in the Caribbean, today include the Chow mein, a popular Chinese dish made from noodles and stock (Wilk, 1999). The Caribbean has also maintained the Chinese legacy by celebrating the Double Ten Day, a Chinese holiday that is marked by the preparation of red meats.
Cultural retention in the Caribbean is not limited to Africans only, but to every other traditional group. However, some groups, such as the Spanish, Dutch, and British have, to a larger extent, predisposed other groups to adopt their own ethos. Cultural retention has played an important role in the Caribbean people through maintaining distinctive identities across the groups. This Unique identity serves as a strengthening bond that keeps the society united. Through cultural retention, numerous groups are able to learn from each other’s principles and strongholds. Interaction of several cultures leads to a different yet cohesive community.
Patently, the Caribbean is a multicultural territory that blends both western and African values. Although it is incomprehensible to preserve traditional beliefs in multicultural regions, the oppressed Caribbean had always held on to their practices. Cultural retention has been evident in language, religion, and traditional cuisines. Inter-culture relationships have led to the creation of creole cultures that combine traditional elements from different backgrounds. However, certain social features are completely lost in the process. Cultural retention is important to the community as it preserves their identity, thus enhancing its cohesion. Social groups should, therefore, enact conscious measures to ensure that their views, norms, and values survive through the generat
Premdas, R. R. (1996). Ethnicity and identity in the Caribbean: Decentering a myth. Helen Kellogg Institute for International Studies. Retrieved from http://kellogg.nd.edu/publications/workingpapers/WPS/234.pdf
Gerloff, R. (2006). The African diaspora in the Caribbean and Europe from pre-emancipation to the present day. World Christianities C. 1914–c. 2000, 219. Retrieved from https://www.glopent.net/iak-pfingstbewegung.aspx/Members/RoswithGerloff/african-diaspora.pdf
Walcott, D. (1974). The Caribbean: culture or mimicry. Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs, 16(1), 3-13. Retrieved from http://otherenglishes.pbworks.com/f/Walcott_cultureasmimcry.pdf
Wilk, R. R. (1999). “Real belizean food”: Building local identity in the transnational Caribbean. American Anthropologist, 101(2), 244-255. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/198183748?accountid=1611