St. John’s Antigua- My reasons for not mentioning certain obvious quotations in my discussions about peculiar sayings from other island territories that have penetrated our culture and have threatened to become established here, is due to the fact that others have published booklets in which specific items have been highlighted.
However, even though I have mentioned that I would end discussions of this sort, after consultations with several of my friends, I have been persuaded to touch a topic that is a very sore one, among a larger percentage of people than is normally suspected.
The sensitive topic for future discussion is called Obeah. Belief in it and fear of its consequences are more deeply embedded in the psyche of the people that inhabit the archipelago that stretches in a rough semi-circle, from Guyana in South America to Belize in Central America.
To those of African origin who profess Christianity, it is thought that the origin of their contact with such strange beliefs may have begun with reading of King Saul’s encounter with the witch of Endor, or with the fascination of the Egyptians with magic or perhaps with the worship of Baal that dominated the Phoenicians that was manifest in Hannibal’s attempt to conquer the world in the Second Punic War.
It should also not be felt that Rome’s victory was rooted in a belief in a God who had any connection with our concept of Christianity. Both Carthage and Rome were steeped in Idolatry and the observance of Pagan rituals.
The observance of Baal and of any off-shoot cults may well have been influenced by northward movement of ideas that emanated from the areas occupied by peoples in the regions once occupied by the kingdoms of Benin and Ghana.
Whether these overlapped is irrelevant, for, out of these geographic locations came some of the slaves who were transported to the New World to carry out back-breaking labour. Any vestiges arising out of any attempts to Christianise those slaves on African soil or in the New World did not linger because of references either to King Saul or to any non-existent Egyptian military campaign that struck out westwards into the bight of Benin.
The practise of Obeah was rather the result of a cultural evolution that spanned thousands of years of West African existence and was transported wholesale from West Africa to the Caribbean and/or the New World. It is therefore impossible for any Social Scientist to utilise a social scalpel aided by a tweezer, and attempt to separate out, the familial or religious, from the economic or other social aspects of West African life that had crossed over with Slavery into the New World.
Belief in, or participation in Obeah, wholesale or in part, was the normal, standard fare. The singing of Benna or Bennah (whatever way you choose to spell it), was also standard fare. In order to “ease the anguish of a torturing hour” the slave-owners used to allow their slaves to go to Benna Tents and amuse themselves in song.
My interpretation is this. Along comes a fellow named King Court and he plans a revolution that would wipe out all the white people in Antigua. The slave-owners find out and all hell breaks loose. A blood-bath follows and 88 slaves are slaughtered/executed. Some are sold to be sent overseas. Others are banished. The whole Benna business mash-up.
If they find more than two of you walking, they want to know why are you walking together? What you want? Where you going? Why you talking? What you talking about? Where you live? Who you belong to? You have your pass to walk ’bout? Tell us why you shouldn’t be arrested? When we ask you a question, remember to look down on the ground when you are answering!
The slave-owners wouldn’t stop the killing and the Parliament in London had to intervene and stop them from indulging in what seemed to have degenerated into a sadistic past-time. It must have been an ordeal of immense proportions to listen to the singing in a Benna tent and watch the slaves laugh and not understand whether they were laughing at you or with you!
Trinidadians have made Antiguans feel that they are the originators of tents eg Caiso tents. It is time for somebody to tell them that since seventeen something or other, we had tents – Benna tents operating among our slaves here. I can categorically speak about huge tents at Lyons Estate and at Parham. We should let the Jamaicans know that Ska, Rock Steady and Reggae, just come. Benna min yah, long, long time.
Antigua is the only place where there has been a reference to the Benna.
I can give an ironical joke. Once I flew to London to investigate the Moccho Jumbie, for I usually associated Benna with Moccho Jumbie. When I went into the offices of the Society of Oriental and African Studies, the young professor to whom I was referred, directed me to Port Of Spain, Trinidad out of which I had flown a few weeks previously.
You remember what Bold Face said ? “ When you no know you don’t know, and when you no know, you jus’ don’t know!”
Benna is our very own subben. It has been mixed up with everything but it is uniquely Antiguan.
You have to dig deep into certain specific archives to find any references to it. After the King Court attempt at revolution, the Benna was banned. Music was divided into two categories – Sacred and Benna. You were whipped at home for entertaining anything that savoured of Benna and songs that were regarded as being food for the soul were rigidly encouraged. The singing or humming of a Benna tune on a Sunday was a grave sin. But the human spirit cannot be conquered and, among the people of the Point, among the twists and turns of Booby Alley and in the ghettoes of Gray’s Farm and Green Bay it formed a strong sub-culture.