Bush Blacks are RASTAS
Posted By: ankhkara
Date: Thursday, 10 January 2002, at 8:12 a.m.
The Bush Negroes (also called Refugee Blacks or Guiana Maroons) are the descendants of Black slaves brought as plantation laborers from
Africa to Surinam in northeastern South America, starting in the last half of the seventeenth century. (See Price 1976: fn. 2 on pp. 2-3,
for a discussion of the derivation and meaning of the terms "Bush Negro" and "Maroon.") The ancestors of the major Bush Negro tribes
escaped from the plantations of coastal Surinam to the forests of the interior in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.
There they developed distinctive societies reflecting a blending and adaptation to local conditions of various African sociocultural patterns,and incorporating strong Amerindian influences in their material culture
-- e.g. horticultural practices, hunting and fishing techniques, crafts such as basketry, the use of therapeutic plants, and so forth.
After a half century of guerrilla warfare against colonial and European troops, the Bush Negroes signed treaties with the Dutch colonial government
in the 1760s, enabling them to live a virtually independent existence until the past few decades. Their numbers increased markedly during
the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries so that the modern Bush Negro population is generally estimated to be somewhere between 25,000 and
47,000, probably closer to the latter figure. For the most part, they live along the rivers of the interior of Surinam. However, growing
numbers are now living in and around Paramaribo, the capitol of Surinam,and they also seem to be expanding eastward into adjacent French Guiana
(cf. Herskovits and Herskovits 1934: vii; Hurault 1959: 2; Kobben 1967: 35; Price 1972: 83; and Price 1976: 3-4, 21).
Today, according to Price (1976), there are six Bush Negro tribes.He divides them into two main groups on the basis of cultural and linguistic differences, as well as location: (1) the Eastern Tribes,consisting of the Djuka (Aucaner, Awka), the Aluku (Aluku nenge, Boni),and the Paramaka (Paramacca); and (2) the Central Tribes, consisting of the Saramaka (Saramacca), the Matawai, and the Kwinti (cf. the tribal distribution map in Price 1976: 5). The Djuka and Saramaka are the largest tribes, with estimated populations of 15,000 to 20,000 each. The Aluku, Matawai, and Paramaka are much smaller, with estimated populations of around 2,000 each. The smallest tribe is the Kwinti,with fewer than 500 people.
Three main creole languages are spoken in Surinam: (1) Sranan (Sranan Tongo, Taki-Taki), which was once the language of the plantation slaves and is now the "national language" of Surinam, spoken throughout the country as a lingua franca; (2) Ndjuka, spoken by the Djuka, Aluku,and Paramaka; and (3) Saramaccan, spoken by the Saramaka and Matawai.
It is not clear where the language of the Kwinti fits since it has not been adequately described. The Voegelins (1977) list a fourth language, Aucaan, but give no further information about it.
Both Price and the Voegelins agree that Sranan and Ndjuka are, with little effort, mutually intelligible; while Saramaccan is the most
distinct of the three languages and mutually unintelligible with Sranan.
(It is not specified whether Saramaccan and Ndjuka are also mutually unintelligible.) There is one key difference between Price and the
Voegelins with respect to the classification of these languages. The latter classify all of them as English-based creole languages belonging
to the Atlantic branch of the West Germanic group of Germanic within Indo-European. Price would presumably agree except in the case of
Saramaccan. If his estimate of the derivations of the Saramaccan vocabulary is correct (i.e., 50 percent African, 20 percent Portuguese, 20 percent
English, and 10 percent Dutch and Amerindian), then Saramaccan cannot be classified as an English-based creole. Furthermore, Saramaccan
is fully a tone language (cf. Price 1976: 35-36; Voegelin 1977: 142-44).
The modern Bush Negro tribes share a common cultural configuration,yet manifest important differences. As Price has stated (1976: 4),
"These societies, though formed under broadly similar historical and ecological conditions, nevertheless display significant variations
in everything from language, diet, and dress to patterns of marriage,residence, and migratory wage labor." Traditionally, the greatest
differences were between the Eastern and Central Tribes, but "the differential development of Suriname's interior by government and
mining interests is complicating this picture today." Price (1976:6-42) presents an excellent preliminary analysis of the historical
processes which may account for these major cultural variations. Although the details of his analysis will not be reviewed here, they deserve
the closest study by any serious student of the Bush Negroes.
Perhaps of greater immediate importance for our purposes are the broad sociocultural patterns shared by the Bush Negro tribes. Villages,
which average one hundred to two hundred residents, consist of a core of matrilineally-related kinsmen plus some spouses and descendants
of lineage men. Matriliny dominates descent ideology, with "matriclans" and
"matrilineages" ... forming the basic units of the formal social structure. Since the colonial government signed treaties with the
Djuka, Saramaka, and Matawai [an offshoot of the Saramaka] in the mid-eighteenth century, and placed the Aluku, Paramaka, and Kwinti
in "protectorate" relationships under these treaty tribes during the nineteenth century, a loose framework of indirect rule has obtained.
Each tribe, except the tiny Kwinti, has a government-approved Paramount Chief (gaama, granman) ... a series of headmen (kabiteni), and other public officials. Traditionally, the role of these officials in political and social control was exercised in a context replete with oracles,spirit possession, and other forms of divination ... In general, Bush Negroes enjoy an extremely rich ritual life, and the complex series
of shrines and cults serve as foci for groups of residentially dispersed kinsmen. Their economy has long been based on a combination of periodic
male wage labor on the coast and swidden horticulture and hunting and fishing ... Unusually skillful artists, performers, and orators, Bush Negroes in general exhibit a strongly aesthetic approach to life
[Price 1976: 4,6].
Specifically, the first, modern anthropological field research with any Bush Negro tribe started among the Djuka in 1961 with the work of Kobben, Thoden van Velzen, and van Wetering. These Dutch scholars have now published the standard ethnographic sources on the Djuka.
General ethnographic research among the Saramaka was conducted by Richard and Sally Price in 1966, 1967-68, and briefly in 1974 and 1975. Part of their data has been published, and other works are in preparation. Other anthropologists have recently done field research with the Paramaka, Matawai, and Kwinti. A discussion of all of this
research, and the relevant citations, may be found in Price's invaluable historical and bibliographical introduction to the Bush Negroes (1976),which contains 1,330 entries dating from 1667 to 1975.
Culture summary by Robert O. Lagace
BUSH BLACKS ARE RASTAS
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