Mr. Carmichael’s narrative took an occult turn when it described slaveship conditions. Magical powers of escape came into play as he touched on a common theme about people who found slavery intolerable and were able to fly off the ship because they had observed a salt taboo despite the distribution of salted fish and meat on slave ships. This short narrative, along with the lengthier “Carrion Crow” which follows it, exhibits many stock elements of other Caribbean and Guyanese deliverance tales. These include unbearable slave ship conditions, hard labor,75 nostalgia for home, fidelity to African customs, ritual singing, ring dancing, drumming and salt avoidance (believed to make the body light76), and transformation into a bird, often a vulture (Carrion Crow in Guyana, John Crow in Jamaica) which was associated with occult powers. Missing is the counter “science” of slave ship captains, slaveowners or employers who understood the deadly nature of salt and deliberately plied Africans with it to destroy their occult powers. This is implied, however, by emphasis on some slaves’ deliberate abstention from salt.
Flight from A Slave Ship
Mr. C: In coming in the ship, as far as I understood, it was very agering [haggarding? i.e, exhausting?]. It wasn't sweet. They packed like sardine in the ship. And some of the, even the slave, they didn't know the sat [?]. And some of them just [Mr. K: they need magic!]. Yes, magic. And some of them just fly away and they go right back. . . . They knew their little thing, yes, and they fly away. Mr. S: They say they didn't eat salt at the time, they didn't eat salt yet. So they are light [laughter].
Carrion Crow’s Flight to Africa
In Mrs. Morrison’s tale, “Carrion Crow,” the employer and the work environment appear only fleetingly in the description of the protagonist as a bad worker who frightened his employer.77 Also missing in “Carrion Crow” is the ascension site’s proximity to water and trees where spirits of the dead lurk, and the necessity of talking or “cutting” language prior to ascension.78 Furthermore, the protagonist, Carrion Crow, is a more ambiguous figure than the heroes of most ocean-crossing tales. As portrayed by Mavis Morrison, following her father’s account, Carrion Crow was a mysterious, imperious and anti-social Obeah man, a “sky-pilot,” as a Guyanese might have referred to him, who traveled on the same ship as Jungu.79 During the voyage he kept to himself, sitting silently and staring into space. He kept his country’s customs, even though his neigbors found them repellent. “He na eat nothin'. He don't eat salt. . . . But . . . he kept in Guyana the same rule as they have in his country. . . . He don't eat salt, he don't eat too much of flesh, but he want play boss of them.” People found his deliberate flaunting of Guyanese etiquette offensive, a sign, perhaps, of a wild, unsocialized force in their midst. As a guest at wedding feasts, for instance, “he nah take knife, he nah tek fork, he tek he teeth feh cut de meat [like a vulture?]. And you got to eat it. . . . if you refuse, you dead tomorrow morning. . . . he always put head ’pon de table [to eat?], he cut with he teeth, he tek he hand an’ put plantain and put rice. You got feh eat and you boss[ed].” Children who encountered Carrion Crow, died, it was believed. “He was a wicked man, me daddy say. He wicked.” Every day people were burying a child. Everyone, even the estate manager, feared him, and he was a bad worker.
Carrion Crow has affinities with the North American King Buzzard, an African ruler who sold people to white slave traders who decided to enslave him as well. When the ruler died, neither heaven nor hell wanted him, and he was condemned to wander alone forever “in de form of a great buzzard . . . known to all de sperrit as de King Buzzard.”80 Carrion Crow also bears a resemblance to a nineteenth century slave dealer, Daaga (Donald Stewart), the adopted son of the ruler of [Grand?] Popo. After he sold a group of Yoruba captives to the Portuguese, the ship’s crew lured him aboard “under pretense of paying him,” but placed him in irons instead. Reproached by his Yoruba victims, Daaga promised to liberate them and, in a possible reference to occult powers, he threatened to eat the first white man who fell into his clutches. When the British Navy liberated Daaga, he and others enrolled in the First West India Regiment in Trinidad. In 1837 he led a mutiny of Popo and Yoruba recruits who fled to Trinidad’s east coast hoping to return to Africa but were captured and court martialed.81
One day, Carrion Crow called Jungu, “‘Bro Jungu, me wan’ go home. . . . This country too hard for me.’” So he sent invitations to all the Kongo from Georgetown to Berbice to attend a farewell dance. They were happy to see him go. On the day before the dance, he dug a long ditch (“hole”). Among the Kongo, some rituals require a trench to define the boundary between this world and the next, to indicate “the possibility of passage.”82 The trench obviated the necessity of a river or other body of water.
He buy 2 yards [of cloth?] . . . and he tie he waist, tie up all he waist, he tek out [i.e., painted?] he skin, he tek out he toes and he face mark so, all over. At five a.m., he tek a chime [gong], and ‘bong-bong-bong-bong-bong.’ He come out and he say ‘Well, today is my last day.’ And he say he want a little food 'til [at?] twelve o'clock. And from twelve you have to sing until six. You going eat breakfast [Guyanese lunch] and come out back again. . . . He beat the drum and said: ‘This drum got to knock so ’til me meet where me a’ go.’
Carrion Crow set the time of departure for six o’clock. Next he roped off a dance ring or ganda from which spectators were barred. Like the trench, the ganda was a microcosm. The drumming started in the morning. Everyone there danced. At noon, Carrion Crow went inside, ostensibly for a quick lunch. He returned with his body painted, “[H]e skin get red, white and blue and black and you know like a’ paint. Nobody no paint am,” the story goes. Mrs. Morrion thought it must be a jumbi. The colors indicate Carrion Crow’s preparedness for a journey to the other world, Africa. White was the other world; black was this world; red, associated with blood, birth, death, sunrise, and sunset, marked the transition between white and black.83 He commanded: "throw rum right round, throw rum, throw rum! I going away now, now, now! He a go ’way.” As the men and women sang,
This man a dance, he dance . . . from there up to that hole [ditch], and da man jump in the hole. When Carrion Crow jump in that hole, when everybody a’ knock and dance at the corner -- nobody can't go in a de ring, the ganda, they dance with they back up [back-to-back?]84 -- Carrion Crow come out in the ganda: Kumunge, kumunge. Carrion Crow say, ‘Jungu boy, I going now.’ Vupatap-vupatap-vupatap, three times jump in-a hole. . . .
Well them got for sing now. They take heavy rum you know. They sing, they sing, they sing, they sing. . . . when they look, they see . . . Carrion Crow in the air, in the air, this man get wing and this man go-o-o-one. If you hear this drum, if you hear this drum. . . . This man g-o-o-o-o-ne. This man g-o-o-o-o-ne. At six o'clock, [Jungu] say, he [Carrion Crow] hand [arm] swell so [sprouting wings?]. . . he ask what o'clock, they say six. One minute past six, he cut out. Everybody sit down and rest. That's how dey get rid out of Carrion Crow. . . . He is the onliest African [who] come at Guyana -- the only one [to] go back. He fly. Carrion Crow. Wing, I tell you, wing! He get de two foot, he get wing.”
In fact, 990 liberated Africans and Kru men have been documented as returning to Africa by 1856. In addition, between 1858 and 1864, an unknown number arranged their own passages, some, apparently, on a locally owned ship that sailed regularly between Demerara and the Gambia. The Guyana government continued to receive petitions for repatriation in the 1870s and 1880s.85 The great majority of liberated Africans remained in Guyana where disappointment produced a critical discourse on enslavement, immigration, working conditions and thwarted escape in the form of these flight narratives. They are part of a larger American, Caribbean and African discourse that has attracted scholarly attention.86
Such traditions are stereotypes or clichés that serve as mediums for popular social theories and cosmologies.87 The deliverance narratives' symbolism locates the slave and immigrant experience within a tradition of parallel worlds of the living and the dead, separated by water, which extraordinary people could cross. Any "socially significant event, any fresh, meaningful experience” -- the creation of the world, death, state building, the founding or expansion of a religion, international commerce, forced or voluntary migration -- is comprehended in terms of passage between the two worlds separated by a body of water. The parallel worlds are conceptualized in many ways – as two banks of a river, two shores of the sea, two halves of a calabash, opposite mountains, above or under water, forest and village, cemetery and village, two distant towns, night and day, Africa and Europe, Africa and America. As the list shows, the two worlds are associated with familiar geographical features. The concept of a permeable boundary of water separating the two worlds (e.g. Kalunga or the Nzadi (Zaire) River or Atlantic Ocean of primary importance for Africans’ efforts to understand their enslavement and immigration experiences.88 At one ans the same time migration across water connotes a journey to the other world and a journey into enslavement.89 It features in Caribbean flight narratives, in African thought about Europe and America, and in diaspora peoples’ idealization of Africa and their expectations of return. Guyana’s ecology with its complex of rivers and canals would have reinforced such conceptions of enslavement and deliverance. Central African descendants told Guyanese folklore researcher, Kean Gibson that the old Kongo used to perform rites at rivers in the hope of going back to Africa.90
Maintenance of contact across the cosmic divide represented by water or the grave seems to be the main point of the Komfo ritual in Guyana. In 1920, Vincent Roth watched an old Kongo man named Doom perform the rites in front of the Gold Office in Arakaka, a mining town. First Doom drummed and then waltzed jerkily down the road to the cemetery from which he later danced back waving large bunches of red croton leaves. He struck the drummers with the leaves and struggled with them until they seized the leaves. Then he dropped to the ground and crawled back and forth before resuming a circle dance. A month later the same ceremony occurred but with the added feature of dancing by a self-described Obeah man dressed in a white gown who moved “with very rapid short steps that were remarkable in that the movements of the limbs ceased at the thighs.” About fifty spectators followed Doom to the cemetery, running back in terror at whatever it was they saw there. Doom danced back as before, bearing croton leaves. Roth’s description of Doom as a village type, the “local ‘Congo-man,’” suggests that by 1920, such Central African survivors, possibly the only remaining Africans, were stock figures in rural areas.91
It is deceased persons who characteristically cross the barrier between the two worlds, but as with Carrion Crow, occult powers derived from salt avoidance, initiation, correct ritual and moral rectitude are believed to imbue some of the living with sufficient lightness of body to soar swiftly like angels or birds. The air or water, as Kongo waterside rites of return testify, are routes to what Fernandez, referring to Gabon’s Bwiti cult, calls the “spiritual Archimedian point,” the “original and final place” -- the land of white-looking water spirits, spirits of the dead.92 Central and West Africans believe that these water spirits are fabulously wealthy and technologically advanced, having access to swift forms of transportation. Their behavior can also be antisocial and deviant, however. Starting with the arrival of the Portuguese in the 1400s, water spirits were identified as Europeans who were thought to lower African slave laborers into the sea to weave cloth they sold in Africa.93 A Kongo-Guyanese tale of dealings with a water spirit may be understood as a parable of the unpredictable, dangerous nature of commercial transactions with European traders at the water’s edge. The story concerns a man in Africa who daily visited a pond behind his house where a water mumma delivered money to him on a golden plate. One day, however, the man failed to return from the pool, pulled underwater by the treacherous water mumma, consumed by his desire for gold like the Africans in Mr. Carmichael’s tale who were enslaved through their attraction to Spanish trinkets.94
The Afro-Caribbean discourse of deliverance from such treachery links it with witchcraft, expects rescue by an ideal king, and associates Africa with the Promised Land to which diaspora Africans are traveling. Such beliefs have inspired Caribbean millennialism, Ethiopianism, repatriationism and pan-Africanism.95
WITCHCRAFT & BOUNDARY CROSSING
Central (and West) Africans believe that wealth, health and social harmony are finite and can be achieved abundantly only at someone else's expense, through witchcraft or the misuse of occult powers. Thus the immoderate prosperity of a few people resulting from commerce with Europeans was equated with a loss of social equilibrium and blamed for social, medical and financial misfortune and death. In this view, the slave trade transformed Africans into commodities for consumption on both sides of the Atlantic. The slave trade was represented as witchcraft, cannibalism and vampirism. As witches and cannibals, slave traders were believed to steal souls, imprison them in containers, make them work, sell them or, in the case of European witches, transport them to toil in Europe or America. As an early seventeenth century Portuguese Jesuit reported, “In Angola some of our slaves said . . . we were going to make use of them up to the point of devouring their bones.” Europeans were described as “eating” Africans, dismembering and processing African body parts and blood to produce the goods (e.g. oil, cheeses, red wines, red military jackets, gunpowder and black shoe leather) they either consumed at home or exported back to Africa.96 Such stories were rife in the Sierra Leone Liberated African Yard. In 1844, for instance, Central African newcomers were convinced not to emigrate to Guyana on the grounds that they would be decapitated, their heads boiled to make medicine to boost white men’s intelligence, and their blood used to dye British soldiers’ coats to make them brave.97 A man clothed in African blood, feet shod in black African skin and shooting Africans with their own dried bones is a terrifying image of the predatory European. A group arriving in Trinidad from St. Helena in 1843 screamed because they thought they were about to be eaten. Luise White’s conclusion about vampire charges against Europeans in southern Africa is equally applicable to Africans’ explanations of enslavement: they were “specifically African, colonial discourses that identified new forms of violence and extraction.” Bloodsucking was and is “an idiom with which labor was debated.”98
So is the magical crossing and recrossing of the Atlantic Ocean. Magical migration (or expulsion) across rivers or the ocean is a common way to explain or legitimate pivotal events.99 In their search for meaning in enslavement, Africans were, in a way, the first Atlantic historians, and more. They manipulated the slave voyage and the crossing from this world to the next as a paradigm and a prophecy. Witchcraft led to enslavement across the water and either exceptional people (like Carrion Crow) could marshall occult power to recross Kalunga personally, or else a redeemer would lead Africans back to an idealized Africa identified with Zion, Jerusalem or Ethiopia.
Like Africans in 1768 Martinique who expected to be ransomed by an anonymous African monarch,100 liberated Africans and Afro-Guyanese in Guyana and the Caribbean looked to local or external leaders (including British monarchs) to protect or free them. With the failure of Marcus Mosiah Garvey’s Atlantic and Caribbean shipping line in 1926, the water-crossing cliché became associated with Haile Selassie, a sovereign African king crowned emperor of Ethiopia in 1930.101 His great appeal to people who had adopted the Bible as their personal deliverance text was his legitimacy as a supposed descendant of Kings David and Solomon, predicted by Psalm 68:31, "Ethiopia [i.e. Africa] shall soon stretch out her hands to God." Central Africans formed the nucleus of the Rastafarian movement that emerged around 1930 in eastern Jamaica. They propagated the idea of Selassie as King Zambi (KiKongo: kinzambi, God; formerly the most remote or “highest spiritual authority”), an apocalyptic World Emperor who would restore them to Africa and restore Africa to greatness. Selassie was expected to fetch his scattered subjects in a huge modern ship or a whole flotilla, either in 1934, the anniversary of slave emancipation, or in 2000. When Selassie’s ships failed to materialize in 1934, Rastafarians apparently planned to clear a path with their beards and walk across the sea to Africa. Selassie was also imagined as a “sky pilot” steering an airplane, as in the Revivalist and Rastafarian hymn, “When my pilot come, I’ll take an aeroplane ride, I will be happy with the King right by my side.”102 Guyana’s black nationalist Jordanite sect also revered Selassie. Like Jordanites, Jamaican Bedwardites, Garveyites and Rastafarians rejected white hegemony. They predicted the punishment of whites at the imminent end of time when blacks would either leave for Africa in ships or ascend skyward to Africa as Paradise.103
SALT AND SUBORDINATION
In Guyanese, Jamaican, Trinidadian and Carriacouan (but not North American) deliverance narratives, the ability to fly or walk back to Africa was believed to have been subverted by the misuse of occult power by masters or employers who sucked the life out of people and fed them the standard salted food of the slave ship and the plantation.104
You see . . . they [the African slaves] learn to fly, they know to fly. This flying business is to go ’way, but people [slaveowners] use it to suck. . . . the evil part of it is to suck.105
In order to return home to Africa, people must abstain from salt. Salt is a multi layered, ambiguous and sometimes contradictory sign, traits typical of symbols that express values about life. Such symbols are open-ended and therefore subject to reinterpretation.106 Since Europeans and Africans made similar associations between salt avoidance and witchcraft, and since Central and West African exposure to European folkways began in Africa, it is difficult to distinguish European from African beliefs about salt.107 Nevertheless, African attitudes to salt offer some help in explaining the belief that it prevented escape from slavery.
Salt can be used by Yoruba to “sweeten” human relations and to pay ritual respect to an orisha in Nigeria and Cuba.108 In this sense “sweet” can mean pleasant, peaceful, docile and submissive. A Guyanese flight narrative states, for instance, that once slaveowners realized that Africans had the power to fly away, “they say, ‘well look, the only thing can keep them sweet is to give them salt.’”109 Like abstention from sexual relations, salt avoidance was associated with strengthening rituals and the assumption of occult powers (such as witches possess) by Central Africans, Haitian Vodun initiates, and Suriname Maroons embarking on a difficult occult task. People also could protect themselves from witches by ingesting or applying salt, for witches also believed that salt would make them lose their occult powers, making them too heavy to fly. Thus they were said to avoid people who had been touched with salt. For this reason, the Kongo appear to have been attracted to the Roman Catholic baptismal rite, considering the application of salt on the tongue more significant than immersion or sprinkling with water. Despite missionaries’ condemnation of the belief in the mid-1600s, the preferred Kongo term for baptism until the early twentieth century remained kudia mungwa, “eat salt,” a loaded term which can mean to become like Europeans or to lose one’s power by associating with “ordinary,” or uninitiated people.110
Salt was a preservative of fish or meat in Africa and the Americas, and the deliverance narratives mention it in the form of heavily salted fish and meat fed to slaves. Central Africans associated fish with the dead and therefore with vulture and witch food. Many believed that the salted meat eaten and served to them by Europeans was actually human flesh. Since the slave trade was believed to provide African flesh for European witches, then to "eat salt," might have meant to eat inadvertently the same African flesh (but salted) which European cannibal witches were believed to relish.111 Over dependence on salted and dried diets contributed to Vitamin C deficiency or scurvy, a disorder that causes joint pain, bleeding gums, tooth loss, paralysis, and scaly gray or white skin and which killed nearly 15 percent of slaves in Postma's sample of Dutch slave cargoes.112 The deliverance narratives also associated salted slave food with sickness, lethargy and heaviness that prevent flight, and scholars have debated whether a connection existed between slaves’ salt-rich diet and hypertension.113 Salt has another association with the slave trade. As “probably the first commodity involved in long-distance commerce,” rock- and sea-salt were used as currency to buy gold, grain and kola nuts, horses and, in both West and Central Africa, slaves.114 The connection between salt and the slave trade could not have escaped Central Africans who went to Guyana in the nineteenth century. “Gone to fetch salt in . . . Boma,” the slave trade port, was a Kongo euphemism for death. Salt thus joined cloth and cowrie shells as currency and as symbols of colonial labor extraction and separation from Africa.115
Between 30 and 34 percent of enslaved Africans and over half of the liberated Africans taken to Guyana were from West Central Africa. Guyanese oral evidence attests to the persistence at the end of the twentieth century of a West Central African identity, historical memory and worldview. The analysis of enslavement based on the crossing and recrossing of boundaries between two incompatible parallel worlds -- Africa and America, this world and the next, heaven and hell – is a signal contribution to the conceptualization of African diaspora history. As Vansina wrote, the West Central African worldview was not static but “constantly influenced by practical situations” to which society responded by “ceaselessly alter[ing] the application and derivations of . . . [its] principles, changing as situations and evolving experience dictated.”116 Recognition of the extent of the West Central African presence in multicultural western hemisphere societies like Guyana should prompt historians to identify and analyze the changing circumstances and altered applications of their worldview.
CO Colonial Office
GNA Guyana National Archives
PP Parliamentary Papers
SLA Sierra Leone Archives
USPG United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel