Thursday, 17 November 2011

Slave Songs


“A very messy scene” as she described it. The slaves covered their faces with flour and put flour in their hair, calling out “Look at he white face and he white wig”. This form of role reversal is echoed with white people dressing as black gardeners, blackening their faces in the Carnival mask “Neg Jardin”.
The French philosopher and statesman of the 16th century Michel Chevalier wrote: “He who views the events of the past with the eyes of his time is very much exposed to a chance of error. Many a time it is a panorama in which the objects are dim, because one is placed beyond the point of view.”
This particularly so when attempting to understand the relationships between the white slave owners and the African slaves, especially so in that the history of these years were not taught to succeeding generations. Instead, the events of slavery were heavily politicised by the colonials on one hand, who tended to act as apologists - “Well, you know, slavery in Trinidad was short-lived. Slaves were expensive - would you destroy an expensive tractor because it would not start?” or “The French were not absentee owners. They had nowhere to return to because of the revolution and as such were paternalistic.” On the other hand, politicians upon independence, themselves the descendants of slaves, promoted the idea of terrifying, nightmarish conditions on the estates in which slaves were brutalised, murdered and raped out of hand.
The evidence, however, shows a mixture of conditions, reflective of the human condition and the nature of the times. The times themselves were brutal. Some slaves were dangerous, murderous men and women, whether in these islands or in Africa. Some performed heroic feats of bravery to save white people. Exactly the same yardstick may be applied to the Europeans, human nature being universal.
There was, however, one substantial difference, which was, of course, personal freedom. Lionel M. Fraser, historian of the late 19th century, reported the words of this song, perhaps dating from the 1790s and probably the first local song noted in history:
Pain nous ka mangé,
C’est viande beké
Di vin nous ka boué
C’est sang beké
Hé, St. Domingo,
Songé St. Domingo

(The bread we eat is the white man’s flesh,
The wine we drink is the white man’s blood,
He St. Domingo, remember St. Domingo.)

John Crowley remarks on this song: “For the ‘Supreme Tribunal’ the connection of these ‘allusions’ with a plot for insurrection was overwhelming, as was a ceremony held four times a year that was said to be ‘a profane and blasphemous parody of the Christian Sacrament’.”
The other song, perhaps the second ever noted by history, came from Mrs. Carmichael’s diary and dates from the 1830s. She writes:
“I heard some of the young negroes singing, as I thought, rather a singular song. I asked J. to sing it for me; he hesitated and said: ‘Misses, it no good son’. Why do you sing it, then? ‘Cause, misses, it a funny song, and me no mean bad by it’. At last I prevailed on J. not only to sing the song (which turned out to be an insurrectionary song), but to explain it. The words are these:
Fire in da mountain,
Nobody for out him,
Take me daddy’s bo tick (dandy stick)
And make a monkey out him.
Chorus:
Poor John! Nobody for out him, etc.
Go to de king’s gaol,
You’ll find a doubloon dey;
Go to de king’s gaol,
You’ll find a doubloon dey.
Chorus:
Poor John! Nobody for out him, etc.

The explanation of this song is, that when the bad negroes wanted to do evil, they made for a sign a fire on the hillsides, to burn down the canes. There is nobody up there to put out the fire; but as a sort of satire, the song goes on to say ‘take me daddy’s bo tick’ (daddy is a mere term of civility, take some one’s dandy stick, and tell the monkeys to help to put out the fire among the canes for John (meaning John Bull). The chorus means that poor John has nobody to put out the fire in the canes for him. Then when the canes are burning, go to the gaol and seize the money. The tune to which this is sung is said to be negro music; it is on a minor key, and singularly resembles an incorrect edition of an old Scotch tune, the name of which I do not recollect.”

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