Culture is defined as a total lifeway for a society including: kinship, political structure, language, literature, art, music and dance and religion. In West Africa society there was a reasonable degree of unity of traditional cultural practices. Religion, mysticism, magic and political and family organization were amplified into one complex code. Music, dance, art and oral tradition were the concrete, tangible expression of this culture, seminal in the cohesion of society and facilitating communication and effective interaction.
No doubt that every aspect of the Caribbean slave regime worked against the stability of the slave family. Among the slaves in the West Indies, the retention of certain key facets of their traditional culture, in conjunction with the creation of unique cultural forms out of their new environment, was a crucial element in the self-preservation of the slave community. Although West Indian slaves lived under more extenuating physical circumstances than their kindred in the American South, they were not subjected to as great a degree of paternalism and cultural deprivations. As such, they were able to preserve many of their African traditions. When planters, fearing subversion, tried to ban various cultural manifestations such as drumming, dancing or funeral ceremonies, the slave became highly secretive. Because of their numerical supremacy and relative autonomy of action within their communities, West Indian slaves were thus able to channel their cultural beliefs into various areas of resistance against dehumanization.
The slave system disorganized patterns of family and kinship organization of the slaves, particularly in the separation of kin by sale and transfers; this situation, coupled with the authoritarian role of the master and overseers, most obviously symbolized by sexual intervention served to severely deprived individual slaves of a domestic life. At the same time there is evidence of a strong family bond within the slave community, suggesting that no environment, no matter how appalling the quality of life, can destroy family and community bond. Where kin was absent, bonds were formed with shipmates or people from the same tribes, and a sense of community developed, based on a well-defined code of morality and order; slaves did not become promiscuous or existed only in a chaotic and unstable social environment. Black female promiscuity was a myth created by the whites. Wherever possible they recreated a meaningful family life based largely on their African cultural heritage. Respect for parents and veneration for the aged were strong evidence for the kinship link to Africa in slave society. It is long recorded of Africans having "a strong attachment" to ancestors.
Kinship, Language, and Political Structure
Depending on the arrangements on individual estates, slaves were often assigned a quarter for themselves, ranging from a substantial village (Negro Yards) in the sugar plantation in the West Indies. These houses were often a distance from the residence of the owner of the estate, and large or small, they formed the basic unit of residence for daily life, and were often responsible for a significant portion of daily subsistence. They were not ethnically homogeneous, slaves of several African nations living in each. In the time when most slaves were Africans, the condition undoubtedly caused substantial cultural and
especially linguistic differences among the slave community.
Whatever barriers there might be to communication among its members, they could not help but become a community. Living together, suffering under harsh conditions of life and laboring daily for the master and for themselves, where cultivating grounds provided to them was required of permitted forged a bond that was strong and meaningful. Africans clung to their nations socially because they provided a surrogate family, but there were strong forces that made second -generation Africans less likely to view the nation as a useful organization. In part this was because creoles probably did not have the commitment of a native speaker to the language of the nation. Consequently, creoles often considered themselves part of a nation of their own.
In terms of kinship and family, the plantations provided the fundamentals for a community identity among slaves. This identity was even further reinforced by the development of a distinctive means of communication among the slaves. Within the plantation villages Africans were forced to learn a lingua if there was not enough native speakers of their own particular African language. This Lingua Franca was usually of pidgin speech taken largely from the dominant European language. Overtime, pidgin speech would evolve into a more complex creole language -- with its rich nuances, doubles entendres -- and was used effectively in the struggle against oppression. The use of such creole was a vital aspect of cultural preservation (still relevant to black identity in the Caribbean Islands today) for it protects the rich linguistic traditions of Africa. Over time, pidgin speech would evolve into a more complex creole language. But the syntactic structure remained largely Indo-European and most of the basic vocabulary was shared by the whites.
Equally important for the development of a community was the creation of a coherent belief system that would provide slaves with a sense of community, and there place in the larger cosmological order. The growth of a belief system would be a hard and slow task giving the lack of any ability for self-governance. As in any peasant village, they were inevitably interpersonal conflicts among the slaves over the practices that bound the community together. These conflicts sometimes involved garden lands, personal effects, conflict of potential spouses, sexual fidelity or just personal clashes. These, plus the common problems of curing and divination, all led to emergence of part-time specialist in witchcraft and curing.
Giving the importance these crafts had within Africa, it was inevitable that African influence would emerge prominently. It was usually older and single males and females who provided the white or black magic that was an indispensable part of any community structure. Such individuals prepared herbs for curing and for influencing desired emotional or physical states in given subjects. They also provided recourse to a system of rough justice, which guaranteed a limit to the amount of personal violence that a community could afford in fights over resources. Aggrieved adults who could not directly confront their opponents often had recourse to witchcraft to harm their rivals. This use of witchcraft and the knowledge that it was effective kept conflicts within acceptable limits within communities that had little policing powers of their own of any type of communal self-government.
These beliefs and uses of witchcrafts, while African in origin, did not evolve from any single African source or completely elaborated set of known rituals, rather they tended to be an ad hoc mixture made up of many strands of different African beliefs. This was to be expected in colonial societies where such knowledge was not available in the highly coherent and structured form that specialists had developed in Africa. The link between religion and healing was rooted in African beliefs in the supernatural origins of disease. Both "Bad" and "good" medicine exited. Bad medicine was the province of sorcerers and witches who had control over the "crises of life and death" or the knowledge of substances of producing "an unusual effect," either good or evil. In Jamaica blacks consulted such "witches" or obeah practitioners.
As in West Africa in the cultural life of the slave religion was a fundamental, unifying bond. Whites worked harder to change the slaves religious practices than any other area of slave culture yet some of the strongest African survivals , even in modern West Indian culture, are embodied in Afro-Caribbean religions. Slave religion in its various forms, from myalism to later Afro-Christianity, played an important role in organized slave revolts, but it was crucial in preserving the individuality of slaves. It provided them with a strong sense of group autonomy and the will and strength to survive.
Among the rite de passage of the slaves, funeral held a pre-eminent position. European and African attitude to death and the respective funeral ceremonies differed considerably. Slave funerals were viewed as riotous by whites and were banned, ostensibly for their pagan content, but probably on account of the fact that they attracted large numbers of slaves and planters feared their potential for subversion. Cultural defiance was often expressed through language and song. Slave songs were usually African in structure, built on a statement and response pattern. Entertainment in the slave villages were often provided by the voices of female slaves, sometimes accompanying themselves with primitive instruments. "Play" (art) was highly popular, combining verbal dexterity, music and dance. According to John Stewart, the music on these occasion generally consisted of the goombay, of drums, several rattles and the voice of the female slaves. Who is John Stewart? Read our most current Newsletter dated October 2013 and be further enlightened.
From the general cultural perspective, the slaves were prominent in all areas of resistance against the dominant white culture. Undeterred by the often harsh penalties of whites to change their culture, they preserved and defended the African cultural and religious tradition of the slave community. These formed the essential basis of the unique Afro-Caribbean culture which developed on the slave plantation.; and which traditions their ancestors brought to Panama. (See separate pages on music and dance.)