Because liberated African immigrants were both enslaved and wage laborers, coerced and voluntary migrants, they had acute memories of the slave trade, the genesis of Guyana’s liberated African community. The narratives they bequeathed to their descendants suggest that the trade was a turning point in their history as well as a formative, motivating force in their lives. Separation from family and the journey into slavery are therefore major sites of memory and ritual.
Two categories of historical narratives spring from this experience. The first, like the story of Jungu related below, are actual experiences of named Africans, personal historical narratives, developed scenarios whose episodes unfold in a meaningful manner, protected from improvisation by their recitation in a circle of knowledgeable relatives or friends who serve as sounding boards for the narrator. They are authentic accounts of enslavement and migration to Guyana, the “First-Time” of a specific immigrant family, describing candidly the role of Africans, even of relatives, in the narrators’ enslavement. Immigrants transmitted such life-transforming experiences to their children as a precious legacy, possibly the narrators’ sole valuable possession, to be safeguarded and passed on to posterity.
In nineteenth-century West Central Africa, the availability of European goods on credit encouraged many people to borrow, pledging children as security. The forfeiture of a child to discharge a family member’s debt was therefore a common occurrence, a transaction that an uncle usually undertook.61 Such was the fate of an anonymous London Missionary Society (LMS) deacon from the village of Overwinning, Berbice, the twenty-first and youngest child of a family from Boma, the Congo River entrepot. According to the deacon, he had been surrendered to Portuguese slave traders to pay a family debt and with fifty to a hundred men and boys led in chains to a ship, in whose hold they they were placed like “bags of rice . . . one upon another.” In about a week's time, the British Navy rescued and escorted them to Sierra Leone where he attended a school for liberated African orphans. Between 1843 and 1845, when Guyanese and West Indian agents were permitted to recruit immigrant labor from the schools he and his schoolmates agreed to emigrate against the governor's advice.62 In the same decade, two or three African children from a group of 77 juveniles from Cabinda, rescued from a Spanish schooner found drifting off the Essequibo coast, described a similar method of enslavement.63
The conservation of such personal, factual accounts of enslavement has been discounted owing to a growing scholarly interest in other, coded or allegorical stories about enslavement. These preserve collective memory through a process of “mnemonic streamlining” whereby “whole groups of traditions . . . abraded to anecdotes, are set up and contrasted so that in every account details are sharpened, altered or left out to imprint the mark of their association to other accounts.”64 They draw on stock African tales about migration, repatriation and occult powers that interweave cosmology and history, probe the deeper meaning of enslavement, exile, and exploitation, and thus “define what they [enslaved or liberated Africans] are and clarify their options for their future.”65
The existence of allegorical communal narratives should not blind us to the likelihood that individual Africans also deliberately passed on distinctive personal experiences of enslavement. Nor does it strain belief that children protected this precious inheritance from any “intergenerational crafting,” as the concrete experience of a diaspora family founder, as his or her personal history. Historian Michael Gomez affirms that in North America “[t]ransported Africans and their progeny [my emphasis] were intimately acquainted” with the facts of African complicity in enslavement and he particularly cites the case of enslaved children landed in 1858 Georgia who “were careful [my emphasis] to mention that uncles were sometimes the ones who pawned the children. If the debt went unpaid, the children became the creditor’s property and were subject to sale into the Atlantic trade.” Gomez’ penetrating deconstruction of Afro-North American parables of enslavement as a selective, symbolic discourse on the deeper meaning of servitude has so captured the scholarly imagination however, that his carefully considered analysis is now portrayed as a sweeping denial of the existence of any reliable factual enslavement traditions.66
In the twentieth century, Guyanese Central Africans continued to relate both empirical and allegorical enslavement narratives. An example of the former is the detailed story which Jungu (d. 1933) related to his youngest daughter, Mrs. Mavis Morrison, who became became its custodian. Like the 1858 Georgia slaves mentioned by Gomez, Jungu identified his own uncle as his seller, carefully explaining to his daughter that his uncle handled the transaction because in his society, adult brothers were responsible for each other’s children.67
Jungu’s Narrative of Sale by An Uncle
[T]he big brother responsible for the small brother home, you get it? And the small brother responsible for the big brother home. . . . they can order anyone to go with him anywhere. So the uncle is the small brother brother take the small brother child the son and they always go on Friday, go hunt.
Jungu’s uncle convinced him that they were going hunting, but instead led him to the waterfront and delivered him to a slave merchant.68
But one day, the big brother came and ask for him [the nephew] to go. . . . As usual, he asked to go with him. He say, “Boy, come we go take a walk today.” Not tell the father nothing, where he carry him. He take a walk, but not in the farm, but he tell he is the farm they going. When they go . . . they get past the farm. So he asked the question, he say, “How far you going? He say, “Just 'til I meet” in their language – “Just 'til I meet.” And when they go, go so till the boy see a boat, a big boat in the middle of the sea. He say he never see none [before]. . . . [He] ask he uncle, "That is what, uncle?" He say, "Is a boat." He say, "What 'e doing there?" He say, "Come let us go, you going [to] know is what." Well, in the place, they make a place like a platform, they stretch like a I going say stelling. [Guyanese word for dock]. Well, he see when he walking up, walking up, he see some people, and standing at this place, so he know he ask the question, "What they doing there?" He say, "You come along, we going."
Jungu believed that coming from a society where commerce involved barter, his uncle wanted to acquire some cash. “But they do not know ’bout money,” Mrs. Morrison stated. “The first time the uncle will get money in his hand is the boy they do not know ’bout money. They do [know] ’bout swapping. And after he hear about this thing, and he want to see money, he carry the boy with him.” This explanation was probably surmise on Jungu’s part, however. A child might not have been aware of any family debt, and his uncle and the merchant conducted their transaction at a distance and out of earshot.
When they meet [arrived], he see some people hand tie, there one side. . . . Yes, woman and man, sometimes little girls, little boys. . . . Eh, eh, well, he see the man come up to he [the uncle] . . . well, they leave the boy here, and he go stand a little further, and he [the uncle] just go to the man. He aint know what the man give he [the uncle], he say, but he see the man come and put a chain in his hand, a chain to he.
Jungu described the scene at the shore, his boarding of a small boat which ferried him to a ship waiting offshore, and his anguished parting from his uncle.
Well, was time for the boat to leave, is a small boat there a’ stelling side, and the big boat there a’ the ocean. They put he inside there. . . . Enough of them, plenty of them. They take them out to the side, ’cause the boat can’t come in inside. He say that he watch, he cr y y, all he cry, he crying, he crying, he crying. "Uncle, how you go, ow uncle. Well them a fool he, coax he, coax he, coax he until they get to the boat. Well, get into the boat, all of them one one they come out -- so they [were] chain[ed] on their hand chain. He say they get this chain in their hand, they chain them to the post, in the steamer boat. They chain them to the post, and when they chain them there, ahm, they can't get to jump overboard. You understand?
“No slave was ever released from his (or her) arm irons within sight of land,” according to Miller. In addition to chains, Jungu described a type of restraint that is not mentioned in slave ship narratives -- the seating of Africans in wet tar spread on the deck to prevent their jumping overboard.69
But when he went to the boat, he say . . . he see enough ladies and gentleman sit down flat. And where they sit down, [it] is tar. You know? Well, he don't know what is it. But when, later on, he say he come, he say they say that them is the one who want to jump over the boat. They chain their hand, and still and still they wrench their hand to jump over. You know, they don't want to go. So they throw some tar and then put their biti there. They got to dirty, pee right there because they can't get up.
Well, then, now, they started to, the boat started to leave, he started to cry, that he leaving home. But when they meet a certain place, the place named St. Helena. When they meet a certain place, he hear they get freedom.
With the mention of St. Helena and Demerara, the narrative becomes somewhat confused. It hints that the slave ship collected slaves at other places after Jungu boarded it, and this process becomes conflated with the voyage to St. Helena, the discovery of their freedom, and the subsequent journey to Demerara. One needs to remember the “half-bewildered condition of . . . Africans landed . . . on a strange shore [St. Helena], and kept in a sort of bondage.” Jungu’s insistence that “they didn’t loose them” immediately is therefore accurate.70
During the chase and capture, Jungu and the other slaves would have been in the ship’s battened hold oblivious of seizure by the British Navy. His daughter explained,
They in the boat, you know. And they, the head one, all of them, they say they freedom. The morning when they wake they tell them about freedom, everybody get freedom, but they didn't loose them. . . . They didn't loose them. The freedom, them have to meet at Guyana, where, every place they call in, they [were] sold. . . . But he and his friend[s] and his companions, them, who all live a’ one place, they meet in Guyana. Where they going, they picking up people from certain place, he say not Africa alone, no. . . . After then, he says that coming down, they meet in Georgetown. But they get their freedom in boat, but they didn't loose them there.
Like many recaptives, Jungu did not accept the British explanation of indenture as a legitimate reimbursement of transportation costs to Guyana, so he described their acquisition as a sale.
When they come there, now, after they go so far, they [the planters] have to get back their money what they sell this people for -- what they buy this people for. Well, when he come now, he say he come to a manager, Elliott ['s] estate.
That was Ogle, now a residential suburb of Georgetown, the capital of Guyana. Some of Jungu’s shipmates were hired with him. Louisa, Uncle Keke, Uncle Dallah, Auntie Mafuta and Auntie Rose (pronounced Laws with a lisp that Mrs. Morrison mimicked and described as typically Kongo) moved away when they became adults, but they kept in touch with each other. After four years, Jungu became technically free, but the Ogle manager kept him on, claiming he was too young to be on his own. He gave Jungu some clothing, money, and a room in a long “range” (the typical Guyanese single story sugar workers’ barracks). “Boy, you must behave yourself good, and every morning you must come and see me.” Jungu attended school half days71 and worked first in the manager’s house and then with the estate’s mules which pulled the sugar cane punts along the estates’ canal system, eventually becoming head mule boy.
“They say Kongo like rum,” Mrs. Morrison mused, and to celebrate his freedom, Jungu and “he mati Kongo they a tek they snaps [rum]. He . . . come home drunk, and . . . people a call them ‘Kongo tar ass,’ come here a’ drink rum.” The epithet referred to the traces of tar from the slave ship that some Central Africans still bore on their bodies after arrival in Guyana. “Tar ass” resembled the “salt water” nickname attached to African newcomers during slavery, meaning “bumpkin” or “uncivilized.” When the tipsy Jungu struck a pregnant woman for calling him “Kongo tar-ass,” the blow killed her, but her baby was delivered and survived. Jailed for twenty-one days, Jungu escaped trial for murder because his employer argued that “he is a indentured, he na know better.” He never drank rum again.72
“A first class drummer,” Jungu owned three drums: the rondel, the tampalin, and the sassi (nzazi?) suziana, a small drum with a high, rapid staccato sound.73 Jungu left Ogle and “roamed from Georgetown . . . ‘til Mara [a Berbice River plantation which employed many Africans]. He get children all about. . . . all about he get children, over West Coast, he get children.” Finally, at the age of fifty, he married Mavis’ mother, Elizabeth King (d. 1966), the twenty-five-year-old daughter of an African woman and a man from Buxton. Eventually Jungu settled at Annandale estate village. The last of his children by his wife was Mavis (Mamatch). She claimed that both parents died at advanced ages – her father at 115 years old in April 1933 and her mother at 105 years of age in 1966.
Sense Man and Ruler Collaborate with Slave Traders
In 1985 at Seafield on the West Coast of Berbice, three Kongo descendants, Mr. Carmichael, Mr. Scott and Mr. Pere, gathered together by a respected Guyanese elder statesman who also introduced me to Mrs. Morrison, reminisced about the old Kongo immigrants and their own life experiences. Mr. Carmichael related how in Africa, the nganga, the sorcerer/magician, played a role in tricking people into going down to the seashore where Spanish slave traders were waiting to seize them. This is a variant of numerous slave narratives that relate not only that white men tricked Africans into captivity with displays of consumer goods ranging from red cloth to trinkets, but also implicate an African middleman.74 All stylized, allegorical narratives, therefore, do not disregard “African agency and collusion.” As the following Guyanese tale relates, the village nganga, or priest assisted Spanish slavers in entrapping their victims:
Mr. C: And another thing again, which I know that I've heard, that we came here our foreparents You know, a village always have Sense Man [Mr. P: *Gango, man, gango!] and the Sense Man he flying We came here by Spanol. When the Spanol they go to Africa, they try and intermingle with the Sense Man, and the Sense Man go in the village a big man, you know and they talk to you, come and say, come let we go a seashore, or you change a certain thing a seashore, and they allow you to go, or you allow yourself to go with them. When they go to Spanol they just hold you. . . . And put you inside the ship. So we came here. . . . Yes, trickery through the Sense Man.
*i.e., nganga, magician or priest.