In our previous blog, we wrote about the harsh life of the enslaved Africans and their descendants who were forced to do back-breaking labor during the centuries after Columbus’ voyage. These men, women, and even children worked on the islands of the Caribbean and on the mainland settlements of Latin America.
Even if we try to imagine it we could never come close to understanding the brutality and terror they had to face every day—even the very small children. But sometimes they were able to find ways to make their lives more bearable and one of these ways was through music and dancing.
During the time of enslavement, the masters realized that the brutal ways they treated the Africans could cause the enslaved workers to rebel against them. There were many African and black or mixed-race creole (people who were born in the Americas instead of in Africa or Europe) men and women gathered together on plantations or scattered throughout the towns and cities. If they all decided to revolt against their enslavement at one time the white masters and their families would be in big trouble!
This was one of the reasons (there were others) that masters sometimes allowed their enslaved population to gather together to have some time to do what they wanted to do. These gatherings usually involved music and dancing. Enslaved Africans found ways to make drums and other instruments, and they danced in the styles they remembered from their homes or ways that they made up from watching other Africans dancing during the plantation gatherings.
The masters and their families were both drawn to these strange (to their eyes) gatherings and they were also appalled by them. Many whites thought that these dances—so different from their own European styles of dancing—were proof that Africans were just not as civilized as whites were. They did not know the long and amazing history of these people. They only saw them as slaves.
For the Africans, dancing and playing music gave them a very small moment when they could do as they pleased and their dances were more than just time to play. They were rituals that held important meanings for them. Their dances could tell stories, they could be forms of worship, they could heal, and they could be ways to say goodbye to their dead. Music and dance were very, very important to Africans and their children in the Caribbean and Latin America.
The image used in this post is entitled "Negro Dance on a Cuban Plantation". It is from a collection of slavery images called "Slavery Images: A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora". You can explore this website by clicking here.