By Evelin-Pierre Dumfries Msc.
Slavery was directly connected to many songs, dances and merriment that kept the slaves going with their pain, fear, enormous humiliation and struggle for freedom. The many sung songs and expressions of the slaves can still be seen today in the many “black African-American churches and the current Evangelical and Pentecostal churches. The current diversity of music and song was the closeness that connected slaves to their own language during the brutal inhuman labour which they had to carry out.
The songs that slaves sang were often about the events that expressed pain, faith, hope, courage and love. These ingredients were translated in the well-known Negro spiritual song, “We Shall Overcome”. The transatlantic slaves believed in a higher power and were often monotheistic, believing in one God. Many of the American spirituals dealing with slavery have their origins in biblical events. How can we relate to this fact while the slaves came from Africa with their own beliefs? Was this a form of acknowledgement of their true identity as human beings, as being partially a fragment of their ancestors’ tradition? Or were they all forced to convert to Christianity in order to survive?
Abrahamic religions dominant in the 15th – 18th century
The commemoration of the abolition of slavery on July 1, 1863, even today forces us to think about the precise identity of the slaves and their descendants, their African origins, their ancestors and their culture. This search in getting answers leads to a form of inner recovery and peace, anger and rage, and questions as to why this horrific form of economic gain with slaves. Research shows that several slaves in the Caribbean part of the Kingdom adhered to Protestantism and Catholicism and accepted that as their religion.
Even before transatlantic slavery started in the 15th century, the dominant religious movement on the (West) African continent was the so-called “Abrahamic religion”, originating from the famous Father Abraham, who is also called the forefather or “the progenitor of all nations”. This dominant religious movement consisted of the following religions: Christianity, Judaism, Catholicism and Islam, which may or may not have been present in a separate dominant form on the African continent in the various African countries. In addition to the strong belief in a monotheistic God, other smaller African religions were often found in the various African villages on the African continent. With the faith of these “Abrahamic” faiths, the transatlantic slaves were brought to the Caribbean. The slaves were mostly illiterate. Their faith was passed on to the next generation through an “elder of their tribe” or a priest or Iman.
Protestants and Catholics in the West Indies Colonies
Church history shows that the religion of the slaves of the Dutch colonies was Protestant and Catholic. For Aruba, little was known about the beliefs of the slaves until 1842. After 1842, it was known that most slaves belonged to Catholicism and a few were Protestant, after the abolition of slavery, because they adopted the religion of their slave owners.
Curaçao at that time was as a slave trading centre and was mostly Catholic until 1499, partially due to the fact that the Spanish explorers actively converted both the Indians and the slaves to Catholicism. It was not until 1634 that Protestantism entered the Caribbean colonies. Unlike the Catholics, the Protestants did not convert slaves, because that would be contrary to the “doctrine” of brotherhood and equality in the Lord as advocated by the Bible itself. This enormous “idea of separation of the people” and the racist colonial ideology, was the origin that Protestants discriminated against the Catholics, and against the slaves who were mostly Catholic. This treatment of Protestants and Catholics is still visible today in behaviour towards each other, and in dealing with each other. Statements, such as, “I am Catholic”, or “I am Protestant”, are still very common.
Contrasting above mentioned, in 1700 in Suriname, the Reformed Church was the state religion of the slave owners, who kept aloof from missionary work among the slaves. With the arrival of the Hernhutters in 1735, evangelization was allowed on the plantations among the slaves. The Moravian Brethren (Unitas Fratrum), whose members are also called the Hernhutters, were a pietistic revival movement. In addition to building schools and hospitals and providing aid to the poor, the counter-current to the abolition of slavery gradually gained momentum. With the evangelization, the conversation started about the atrocities that had nothing to do with Biblical teaching. At the time of abolition, the majority of slaves (some 56%) were members of the Hernhutters, the current Moravian Brethren Church EBG. Other slaves converted to Catholicism, which got active much later in 1840; while some slaves became members of the Reformed Church, which was the faith of their slave-owners.
The Slave Bible
The churches also played an important and huge role during the time of slavery – they kept what the Bible really taught a secret. They used the Slave Bible to control slaves, as it inspired them to discipline slaves and to limit their human rights. This was the native version of the original Bible that stripped away all passages of the Bible about the decent treatment of slaves. It was deliberately omitted from the Slave Bible that both the master and the slave have the same God and are to treat each other well. Passages were also missing that slaves can be free and can receive compensation if they were free. Besides that, the doctrine of the curse of Ham, the son of Noah, who saw his father naked when he was drunk, was invariably held. This Ham-doctrine was taught by both the slave owners and churches as the reason why the enormous “fate” had befallen the slaves and also remained an inescapable curse that has befallen the “black people”.
The slaves were allowed to read from this Slave Bible. This interpretation of the Bible still plays a role today in the treatment of descendants, that they are inferior and deserve fewer opportunities in society. The Slave Bible taught that slaves should be slaves, but consciously it did not teach that slaves should be treated equally and that they should be free from slavery, as the Bible tells us about escaping from Egypt, with the famous Spiritual: “Go down Moses, let My people go!” Slaves were not allowed to know the real story of this liberating exodus.
Emancipation Act July 1, 1863 “The Grace of God”
With the promulgation of the Emancipation Act, King Willem III wrote “by the grace of God” the recognition of a Higher Power based in the Protestantism of the Royal House. A law that ended the inequality, inhumanity and freedom of the total of 50,000 slaves on Aruba, Curaçao, Sint Maarten, Sint Eustatius, Bonaire, Saba and Suriname. A black page in Dutch history – the Bible was used as an approval to cause suffering that should never have been.
July 1, 1863, was the abolition of the idea that slaves cannot enter heaven because they are “black”, the abolition of the Ham idea and the abolition of the cruel punishments of slaves if they disobeyed. It was the abolition of punishments that had nothing to do with the Bible such as, for example, the recorded punishments for women if they would not listen, to throw their children or babies into the sea when mooring or a punishment of hanging a woman on a meat hook. There the grace of God should have been applied, especially to the transatlantic slaves with their “Abrahamic religious beliefs” – goodness should have been applied in how they should have been treated.
Winti was not the standard!
There is still much debate about celebrations and the ceremonies of the famous Winti Priestess during the annual Keti Kotie festival on July 1, which many descendants renounce. Many Afro descendants do not relate to this ceremony and do not recognize themselves in this and even waive this. Research shows that Winti practices were not part of the culture of all the transatlantic slaves and it did not apply to all of the multicultural African identity. Research shows that only a limited group of slaves and their descendants engaged in this form of spirit expression, with dance and rhythms with ancestor invocation. The Winti was also banned for a while under the Surinamese State under slavery. Also, masks were not allowed that symbolized the worship of ancestors and dead spirits.
On the Island of Curaçao, for example, the tambu with rhythms and the invocation of ancestor spirits and séances were also banned for a long time. Various Surinamese and Caribbean slaves and descendants were not born with this religion. And even when they grew up and lived under slavery or were previously manumission “freed” slaves, they did not accept or practice this religion. Unlike what is always presented under the appearance that this is the African culture and identity, neither the “Winti” nor the “Bruha” religion was a part of the prevailing norm of the slaves. Nor was it part of the belief or religion that all slaves adhered to as part of their African identity and culture. The vast majority came to the mainland with one of the Abrahamic beliefs.
The interpretation of ancestors and worship of the slaves was that the role of ancestors was appointed by God in the explicit context of “begging God” for protection as He did for the ancestors when they came out of slavery and when they had to flee. The realization was that as humans, they have a short period on earth like their ancestors, who passed away, or the memory of the ancestors when they had to choose which “god” to serve: The choice was either choosing a “god” who could neither see nor talk and was an image made by a man, or choosing God Himself. In addition, the libation of the “Abrahamic religion” of the slaves was about giving thanks to God Himself and not about ancestors who were dead.
All of this would serve to be the true celebration of July 1, 1863 – the “true broken chains” – a celebration where the descendants identify themselves in the celebrations as recorded in history.
July 1, 1863 – the abolition of slavery, Emancipation and Freedom – was pronounced in the churches with the slaves, in a church house as the Bible prescribes – a home for the slaves and their descendants, a home for recovery, but above all for forgiveness, hope and a new future for all generations of descendants that would follow. It was celebrated in the churches with thanksgiving and accompanied with gun salutations, flags, with celebrations in the streets with music and thanking for the governments that had given the slaves their true freedom.
Sources include: Armando Lampe: Christianity on Curaçao and Suriname; Journal Suriname Linguistics, literature and history volume 21 (2002) pg 15; Slaves without Plantation Luc Alofs 2013; Uncomfortable Heritage the Slave Bible; Rianneke van der Houwen-Jelles – The role of the Bible in the Dutch slavery past; Martijn Stoutjesdijk “the curse of Chamn gospel; Source of musical hope; and others: Historical and historians of slavery; African religion in the 14th, 15th century.