In my research of narratives to use for this unit as well as give a more accurate perspective, I came across the story of Esteban Montejo. From his narrative we receive some insight into enslaved people in the Caribbean. In part of his biography, he described life for escaped slaves. Research also revealed the back-and-forth discussion about his voice as an author and someone who was translating or assisting in the writing of the biography vs. autobiography.
The validity or accuracy of the voice of the enslaved is impacted by the editor –in some instances it removed the focus from the enslaved and refocused it to the editor. Montejo’s story is nonetheless told, and he describes two kinds of escaped slaves. Those who lived together in what described as “thriving maroon communities,” also known as palenques. The palenques were known as being of African decent living in heterogeneous groupings living in areas located on the coast regions of the Caribbean. On the opposite end, there were those escaped slaves who lived alone. Called cimarrones, which means runaways, castaways this word has a more direct tie to the old colonial Spanish definitions which mean thicket or wild brush. The cimarrons lived alone for fear of being betrayed by other escaped slaves and sold/recaptured or deported back into slavery.
Giving insight into the lives of those captured West Africans who meshed and intermingled with the Cuban people and indigenous people who learned to speak the language of their captors. Rare is it in the United States history that African slaves spoke other languages, although it may depend on the generation and time period, Michael Gomez discusses this in his work on the Gullah -Geechee located in South Carolina and Georgia in Exchanging Our Country Marks. It was a necessity for survival and so they adapted. Not as to say that they were weak but, that they needed to remain alive so that other generations might survive and even escape. The view that the African heritage was denounced or had given up because it was less than is not accurate.
Many of the enslaved African people were originally from the west-central coast of African countries like Angola, Senegal, and Gambia. According to The Sacred World of Mary Prince, a book written by Jon Sensbach the lives of Caribbean slaves and cultural practices did not cease even though they had been stolen from their lives, families, and homelands. “Disciplinary ledgers reflect congregants’ consultation of African spiritual adepts, flouting of church regulations, and mockery of Christianity,” Sensbach states in chapter 11. There was a struggle for Mary Prince to honor and keep her religious beliefs and practices. However, she did keep them.
Prince’s narrative talks about her cultural-religious practices and beliefs against what was practiced by her captors. She was “engulfed in a multi-layered religious culture at odds with her providential narrative of redemption,” Sensbach suggests based on Prince’s narrative.
Authentic Voices of the Enslaved Lost
While many of the Caribbean narratives were dictated to others who then translated, at times the original meaning and “voice” and flavor of the enslaved persons who shared their stories were altered or lost. In some cases, the editors or translators were sympathetic abolitionists who wished to share the horrible cruelty that enslaved people experienced. In turn, the language and terminology of the editor was in forefront of the narrative. Throughout the narrative texts the editor interrupts the narrative to “assist the authority” of the enslaved – reinforcing stereotypes that the enslaved cannot speak for or take care of themselves. Thus, diminishing the voice of the enslaved. Those same beliefs and practices continue today.
According to the website, gilderlehrman.org, between 1877 and 1920, private generational wealth began to explode for those who did business in the United States via trade with the Caribbean. There are great differences between Africans who were captured and made slaves to work to in the United States as opposed to Africans enslaved in the Caribbean. According to the Early Caribbean Digital Archive (ECDA) curated by Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts a key distinction between the two is the American enslaved Africans lost touch with the African roots due to separation from newly arriving enslaved Africans on a more consistent basis. The use of narratives would be helpful in giving an accurate voice – as much as possible to- to their life stories.
Another vital part of this scenario is the fact the mortality rates amongst the enslaved Africans in the Caribbean was far higher—thus the need to replenish the slave population/human capital increased and occurred on a more frequent basis according to a comparison of their written/transcribed narratives. The African slaves from the Caribbean often discussed or demonstrated a tighter link to their heritage and culture as well as richer experience and African connection. According to ECDA their “Africanness was constantly being rejuvenated, creating a more African culture within the slave community.”
According to the appendix of David Eltis’ The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas, sex and age characteristics exist for 111,323 Africans carried across the Atlantic or close to more than one-tenth of all Africans who left for the Americas on British ships between 1663 and 1714. The only record of slavery that gives clear data about the beginnings of slavery in the United States is what happened at Jamestown in 1607. This date falls more than 100 years later than the slavery occurring in the Caribbean. For example, from the 1500s – 1540s four main ethnic groups coalesced in Cuba: the Lucumí (Yoruba), Congo (Angola) Carabalí (Calabar region and the Arará).