Tuesday, 6 December 2011

The Rada Community


The movement of the ship was more than he could stand. It overwhelmed the fear, the disorientation and the certainty that his life was now forever altered. The movement of the ship dominated his thinking. It affected him with the terrorising sensation of perpetually dying. The motion of the ship formed the central aspect of an association of ideas that remained with him all his life, whenever he smelled vomit, unwashed bodies, and odours emitted by humans when they are convinced of their own imminent death.
This permanent alteration of his life had occurred without warning. This itself was highly unusual, inasmuch as he was albeit his young age a highly respected member of the society of diviners.
The circumstances leading to his capture by the merchant Ahmed Abdou had arranged themselves as the result of his preoccupation with clandestine encounters with the merchant’s great niece, which had turned into an obsession. The indignity of his capture and subsequent sale to the Portuguese slaver had now placed him in this perilous box, the ship, upon this vast and mindless ocean on a journey of no return. In the midst of never-ending motion, explosions not dissimilar to thunder cracked the sky. The slaver was being attacked by a British Man-o-War! The shackled slaves were marched up onto the heaving deck and with kicks and curses loaded into long boats that were bobbing and spinning upon this ever shifting body of water to be taken to another, even more enormous ship.
Already, the Portuguese slaver was dropping to the stern of the British Man-o-War, seeming smaller by the second on the vast bosom of wetness. The British ship now set its sails for Trinidad.
Several hundred Africans were thus liberated on the high sea by Great Britain during the 1850s, when that country ran a blockade against the Portuguese slave traders. The slave trade had been abolished by the English in 1807, and the slaves had become fully set free in 1838. Now, it became an economic necessity for the British to force other nations to do away with slavery as well, since sugar and other imports from slave territories like Brazil were flooding the market at much cheaper prices than from the British colonies.
Amongst the hapless Africans, one stood out and proceeded to make his mark on the lives of many in Trinidad. He took the name of Robert, or Jean Antoine. He was, however, known as Papa Nannee or Mah Nannee. A significant leader, he created a new home for his tribe, the Rada people, who had found their way to this island. They were in the majority from Dahomey in West Africa (now Benin), and most of them had been liberated from Portuguese slave ships just like himself.
Papa Nannee was not a priest, however. He was a diviner. He had been born at Whydah around the year 1800 and upon arrival on this island, he was sent to work at an estate near to Champs Fleurs. By the 1860s, he had saved sufficient money to purchase lands in the Belmont valley, and there founded a compound dedicated to the worship of Dangbwe, Serpent, God of Dahomey. He named the compound Dangbwe Comme (House).
Nannee possessed an extraordinary knowledge of the supernatural, and as he grew older, was much sought after for his advice and healing powers.
He gathered around him a trained priest and two male ‘voduns’, or people who are possessed by the Gods. The compound created by him in Belmont Valley Road consisted of a chapel, called a vodunkwe, a covered area for dancing and several shrines, one of which was dedicated to Papa Legba and another to Ogun, both deities of the Dahomean people.
Within a few years, the lives of many in the Belmont Valley Road area were touched by  the work of this remarkable good and selfless man. Other African people settled there to be near to him and compounds for Ibos, Congoes and Mandingoes (all African tribes) took root and grew. Newspapers of the day, such as the “Chronicle”, described the Rada people as industrious men and women who saved their money and ran a private bank to provide funds for those in need.
During the 1870s, the colonial authorities felt the need to monitor and in fact put pressure on this group of activists. Charges of obeah and the practice of black magic were brought against members. In one case, Quervee, Papa Nannee’s brother, was convicted of obeah and had been given to 20 strokes for the offense. He appealed and won the case, receiving $10 for each lash in compensation. He was represented by the eminent barrister of the day, Charles Warner.
The Rada compound was so successful that it not only attracted the suspicion by the authorities, but also the envy of other religious organisations. As such, it was raided by Catholic priests, who took away religious objects, drums and costumes used in rituals. Dr. Bridget Brereton observes:
“The Rada were practicing the ancestral beliefs of their homeland. But to the authorities, there was no distinction between obeah practices for money and the Rada ceremonies. Any ‘African worship’ was automatically classified as obeah, and the practice of obeah had been made an offense by the 1868 Ordinance, punishable by jail and flogging.”
Papa Nannee himself was also arrested at age 86 and sentenced to six months and 36 lashes. He too appealed. Represented by the distinguished Q.C. Vincent Brown, he was acquitted. To the Creoles, African practices, religious or otherwise, were barbaric and obscene, in fact dangerous. To the Europeans, it was objectionable and alien. For the coloureds, it was a little too close for comfort, hanging on as best they could to respectability and in perpetual pursuit of acceptance in white circles. They liked to put a great distance between themselves and obeah!
Notwithstanding, in time of trouble, in fear of the death of loved ones, or in desperate need, the coloured middle class often found their way back to their African roots. Sometimes a black relative of their own, or a friend of the family, had access to people of power, invoking the old deities and bringing comfort to the African aspect of the soul of the coloured people.