Slave Trade, Plantation Life
and the Presence of African
Languages in the Caribbean
Nicole Scott
What are the principal regions of
origin of Africans in the Caribbean?
What are the cultural and linguistic
implications of the different regions of
Questions cont’d
What are the social contexts of
African language survival in the
What are the factors which
contributed to the emergence of
Creole languages in most, but not all
Caribbean societies?
Eltis, David & David Richardson
(1997) ‘West Africa and the
Transatlantic Slave Trade: New
Evidence of Long-run Trends’ in
Routes to Slavery: Direction,
Ethnicity, and Mortality in the
Transatlantic Slave Trade. David
Eltis & David Richardson (eds.)
London: Frank Cass, 16-35. [2
O/S; 1WIC]
References cont’d
Thornton, John (2000) ‘The Birth of an
Atlantic World’ in Caribbean Slavery in
the Atlantic Word: A Student Reader.
Verene Shepherd and Hilary McD
Beckles (eds.) Kingston: Ian Randale
Publishers, 55-73. First published in
Thornton, John (1992) in Africa and
Africans in the Making of the Atlantic
World 1400-1680 Cambridge: CUP, 1342. [6 RBC]
The rise of plantation – moved from the
cultivation of crops like ginger, cotton,
tobacco to the labour intensive sugar.
Shortage of labour.
The need to have labour unrewarded to
increase profits for plantation owners.
The supply of a source of labour
coerced and free.
Increasingly a reliance on African
Portuguese trading slaves from as
early as 1479
Spanish started in 1503
Dutch started in 1630’s.
English and French started in the 1640’s.
Trading was mainly done by private trading
companies (along the West Coast). For
e.g. Royal African Company’s trading post
was established in modern day Ghana at
Slaves were: Prisoners of war
Criminal offenders
Principal Regions of African Origin
West Africa
area bounded by Senegal River in the
North to contemporary Angola in the
Includes countries such as Senegambia
(Senegal and Gambia), Sierra Leone,
Windward Coast, Gold Coast, Bight of
Benin, Bight of Biafra, West Central
Map of West Africa
Historians do not have all the answers but
the hope is that in this course we will be
able assess patterns of cultural and
linguistic retention and adaptation. The
idea is for us to understand the ways in
which Africans shaped the Atlantic world
through agricultural innovations, belief
systems and cultural practices. Language
is very important to all these areas.
Principal Regions of Origin
Modern Senegal and Gambia
Largely dominated by the French after
the 1600’s.
Groups came from inland territories
(around upper Niger River).
Principal Regions of Origin –
Senegambia cont’d
Groups spoke mostly Bambara, Wolof
Mandingo slave traders brought them
down to ports and outposts
Slaves from interior preferred as they
were less likely to try to escape
Principal Regions of Origin –
Senegambia cont’d
General linguistic category – Mande
Very heterogeneous
Mostly Muslims and Animists
Principal Regions of Origin
Windward Coast
Trade along this part of the coast was
The dominant languages in the area are
those of the Kru group.
Principal Region of Origin
Gold Coast
Modern day Ghana
Trading post dominated by Royal African
Company. The largest trading post was
Dutch expelled the Portuguese in 1642.
Lexical items of Portuguese origin
survive in languages spoken there.
Principal Region of Origin—Gold
Coast cont’d
Main language groups –Ashanti,
Fante, Agni (all subsumed under the
name Akan)
Enslaved Africans from this area
would be more likely to form an ethno
linguistic grouping.
Principal Region of Origin
Slave Coast
Area particularly important in early slave
trade, especially 1700’s
Area dominated by French by 1730’s
Africans sold to mostly British and
French traders.
Principal Regions of Origin – Slave
Coast cont’d
Language groups—Ewe, Ga (subsumed under
Dominance of this area in Atlantic Slave Trade
waned in 1790
A relatively homogeneous culture (the Ewe) –
the main variety of which is Fon but the
languages are closely related to Akan
languages in Morpho-syntactic structure.
Principal Regions of Origin
Bight of Biafra
Bight of Benin
Collectively form the Niger Delta area
Modern day Benin and SE coast of
Nigeria respectively.
Main languages –Yoruba, Ijo, Ibo, Efik Kwa languages (to a lesser extent
Hausa, Fulani – West Atlantic language)
Principal Regions of Origin –Biafra
and Benin cont’d
Area dominated by the Yoruba in 17th
Le Page argues that this is an area of
fair linguistic diversity
Area became more important in the
latter part of the slave trade.
Principal Regions of Origin
West Central Africa
Modern day Cameroon
Main language— Kongo
Mostly Bantu languages. There are at least 300
Bantu languages (covering much of the continent
from Cameroon in the west to the tip of South Africa).
Became important to the Caribbean in the latter
part of trading.
Principal Regions of African
By even conservative estimates, there are
more than 800 distinct languages in Africa.
The largest, most far-flung family is NigerKordofanian.
Kordofanian includes pockets of little
studied languages in Sudan
Niger-Congo includes all the West African
Coastal Languages as well as the Bantu
Niger Congo Language Family
Niger Congo
Mande W/Atlantic
Principal Region of Origin
West Africa is the most populous area
and it also has the most languages.
Nigeria alone is estimated to have
over 300 languages
Regions of Origin cont’d
The Transatlantic Slave Trade –
largest long distance coerced
migration in history. As it relates to
the Caribbean, three regions
The Gold Coast
The Bight of Benin
The Bight of Biafra
Regions of origin cont’d
These areas tend to be seen as the
centre of gravity of traffic not just from
West Africa but from the whole SubSaharan Africa.
These areas had the largest
population densities on the sub
Regions of Origin cont’d
Greatest urban development.
Most sophisticated state structures
(Gold Coast and Bight of Benin)
Reasonably exclusive ethno-linguistic
homogeneity within their hinterlands.
Regions of Origin cont’d
Portuguese based in Brazil dominated
trade in the Bight of Benin
British were dominant in Gold coast
and Bight of Biafra
Dutch – second largest number of
voyages to the Gold Coast.
Regions of Origin cont’d
French – second largest group in
Bight of Biafra
After 1808 Cuban based Spanish
slave traders became the largest
group in the Bight of Biafra.
A Look at the Gold Coast
The pattern of West African arrival in
the Americas was far from random.
The major single destination of Gold
Coast slaves was Jamaica – 36% of
the arrivals. Many however went to
other parts of British Americas
Gold Coast cont’d
Two thirds of all slaves leaving the
Gold Coast went to the English
speaking new world.
Barbados – major 17th cent.
Jamaica – dominated the 18th cent.
Gold Coast cont’d
Akan cultural prominence in Jamaica
(Ahanta, Fanti, Akim and Asante
peoples among others) is well noted
in the slave trade.
Spanish America – second most
important destination for Gold Coast
slaves after Jamaica
Most from Bight of Benin went to
Brazil (6/10)
French Americas (2/10)
British Caribbean (1/10)
Gold Coast Languages
Akan - (Akwapem, Akim, Asante,Fante)
(to name a few were spoken from the
Ivory Coast to Nigeria)
Cultural and Linguistic Implications
of Regional Differentiation
The enslaved people were a
heterogeneous group.
Could linguistic dominance have been
established in spite of heterogeneity?
Cultural and Linguistic Implications
of Regional Differentiation
The people were not homogenous in
terms of nation but were they
culturally and/or linguistically
Culturally Homogeneous Areas
Gold Coast
Slave Coast
Niger Delta
Akan (Twi)
Ewe (Fon)
Yoruba until 17th C.
Linguistic Homogeneity
Niger-Congo Languages have
common features: Morpho-Syntax
Copula, Serial Verbs, Negative concord,
Isolating, Predicate Adjectives, Plurals,
Linguistic Homogeneity cont’d
Open syllables, especially the inhibition
of consonant clusters for e.g. JC wa
‘what,’ simit ‘smith’
Tone languages
Linguistic Homogeneity
Loan words
Semantic field (wood can refer to many
things in JC etc.)
Cultural and Linguistic Implications
of Different areas of Origin
Cultural --Upon arriving in the
Caribbean they would still be
enemies. Negated many efforts to
overcome oppressors by joining
Linguistic – some languages were
more closely related than others
Linguistic implications of different
regions of origin
There could have been
Lingua Franca at the trading posts.
Pidgin on Middle Passage
Social Context of African Language
Survival in the Caribbean
Retentions (full sentences) found
mostly in the African rituals/religious
practices. In Jamaica for example the
Maroons use(d) Kromanti to
communicate with ancestors (see
also Aub-Buscher pg7-8).
Dishes, amusements and customs.
Social Context of African Language
Past times. In TFC ninnin ‘riddle’ could
have come from Bambara nyini ‘to look for,
(Bazin 1906:470-1).’ Bèlè ‘a dance with
drums and singing’ from Nde, mbelése ‘I
Customs relating to economic life
Carrying load on head JC Kata. Kata in Twi
means ‘to cover.’
Pathner (Savings) TFC susu in Igbo is esusu
Social context of African Language
survival cont’d
Intimate, possibly taboo subjects such
as certain parts of the body: TFC
tutun, JC tuntun, in Bambaa tununin
which means ‘private parts’
Designations of people and their
characteristics. TFC béké ‘white man.’
This form is used in this sense in Igbo
Social contexts of African Survival
A few terms designating creatures.
Survival cont’d
Lexical items – taken as they are or
with slight phonological changes.
Calques (loan translations) –
JC for e.g. Gad Aas (the preying mantis)
can be found in Hausa Dokim (horse)
Allah (God). Yai waata ‘tears’
TFC dlo zyé ‘tears,’ zo tèt ‘skull’
Berbice Dutch….
Survival cont’d
Morphological features – maintained
morphological features but lexical items
were not retained for e.g. in Berbice Dutch
Creole the demonstrative is formed by post
posing the definite article to the noun as in
Nembe (Ijo).
mi wari mi
di wari
the house the
“this house”
Survival cont’d
Morphological features cont’d
Reduplication (lexical and/or
morphological) eg in JC poto-poto
‘muddy, miry, etc’ TFC toupatou –
everywhere but toupatou-toupatou ‘JC
aalbout aalbout’ Dou – sweet, doudou sweetheart
Compounding –JC kis-tiit, bata-bruuz
Socio-historic Context of Creole
Life in plantation societies
The impact of the Caribbean plantation
context on language: Nature of crops (labour intensive vs tobacco,
coffee, cocoa, annatto)
Black to White ratio
Presence of European indentured labourers
working alongside enslaved Africans
(compare Barbados with Jamaica)
Socio-historic context of Creole
Genesis cont’d
Nature of European presence (compare
absentee planters in the société de
plantation with homesteads in the société de
Size of holdings (acreage under cultivation
and the slave population required to
maintain that size holding) (related to types
of crops).
Stratification within the slave population
(again compare sugar with other crops)
Socio-historic Context of Creole
Ethnic and linguistic diversity (vs.
homogeneity) within slave population.
Extent of networking between slave
populations of different plantations.
Geography of the plantations:physical
separation of Europeans and Africans.
Geography of the wider terrain:physical
separation of plantations.
Socio-historic Context of Creole
Origins of enslaved Africans over
different periods of the slave trade
Origins of enslaved Africans from
different ports
Differences between slave-trading
Socio-historic Context of Creole
Direct arrivals vs transshipments of
enslaved Africans
Life expectancy/rate of renewal of the
enslaved population
Birth rate and child mortality
Internal population shifts (e.g. from
plantations to maroon communities)
Origins of European population.
The presence of the Africans in the
Caribbean increased the number of
languages present in the region. They
brought new languages and coined new
ones (Creoles). Issues relating to the
formation of Creoles must necessarily
examine the sociohistoric context of the
genesis, both life in plantation societies
and the demographics of the population in
each territory.

Slave Trade, Plantation Life and the Presence of African