Updated: May 29
“We learned in the Carriacou museum that the drums were used as a method to communicate with each other. ”
Carriacou, like many of the other southern Grenadines is an island very much in touch with its roots in African traditions brought by slaves. It also has the small island sense of community. We’ve got the bus many times and these mini buses often deliver packages; the drivers stop to chat to their friends out of the window and deliver people to their front doors and go off-route depending on where the passenger wants to go. Lots of people say “Good afternoon” to everyone on boarding the bus. As you travel through the countryside, people shout out greetings to the people they know as we pass. It’s a very endearing system. The sense of community has meant cultural traditions are passed down through festivals and community events and are also reinforced at school.
We took the bus to the village of Bogles to attend a maroon ceremony. The maroon ceremony is an agricultural tradition carried out in villages to honour the ancestors and bring the rain at the end of the dry season. Maroons were African descended peoples who had managed to escape slavery and built their own communities away from the slave owning plantations. This meant that preserving and continuing their African traditions was easier compared to peoples that remained enslaved who had to hide their traditional cultural practices. We were warmly welcomed by the community of Bogles. As part of the tradition, they sacrifice several animals and cook them; they also prepare coo-coo which is made from cornflour; and pigeon peas stew. These are cooked in huge iron pots on open fires and served communally along with drinks, including Jack Iron, 100% proof rum. Beers and soft drinks are also available! A proportion of the repast is donated to the ancestors by distributing it into the sea. This honours the kidnapped Africans that never made it to shore, but died in the horrific conditions on the slaveships on the way to the Americas. We arrived in daylight and met several people who were kind enough to explain the traditions to us, including Junie, a taxi driver and tour guide from the village.
Later on, as it got dark, the Big Drum dancing started. We learned in the Carriacou museum that the drums were used by slaves as a method to communicate with each other. During the ceremony, three drums, each playing at a different speed were played while community members took it in turns to grab two white cloths and dance to the beats. We met a Scottish woman and her husband and his friend, who are musicians from Carriacou who moved to Scotland as children. We were invited into their home, where the whole extended family were sitting out on their veranda watching the ceremony. They introduced us to Isabella, the matriarch of the family who is 93 years old, but looks much younger. We were very humbled to be so warmly welcomed and to have the island traditions explained to us. Later, we were put in touch with Rina Mills, a cultural and heritage tour guide who runs a very popular Youtube channel amongst other projects. We interviewed her for our next podcast which will be published next week. In the podcast, Rina explains all of the context and meaning behind the maroon ceremonies and really emphasised to us the deep and ongoing connection that Caribbean peoples have to Africa. Her channel is called Explore Carriacou and Petite Martinique and has many interesting videos if you are interested in learning more about the culture and traditions of Carriacou and Petite Martinique.
We arranged to meet Rina in her home village of Belair. Before meeting her we wanted to learn more about the context of Carriacou heritage so that we could ask better questions, so we paid a visit to Carriacou Museum in the main town of Hillsborough. The museum is run by the Carriacou Historical Society and housed in a restored cotton gin mill. The exhibits range from Amerindian artefacts from local archaeological digs to some African history and exhibits on cultural traditions, such as Big Drum and costumes from the carnival. One of the exhibits included photographs and information on the windmills in Belair dating from the time of the plantations. Knowing that we were going to meet Rina in Belair after she finished work, we decided to head there early to learn more about this history.
We arrived in Belair, the bus driver kindly going slightly off route to drop us right at the windmill. As usual for the historical and natural sights here, it was clearly labelled with beautiful hand painted signs. I believe these are all administered by the Grenada Tourism Authority. Now in ruins, the information told us that there were eight of these windmills in total on the island, which were used for processing cotton, corn or sugar during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Built by enslaved Africans, this particular mill was used to grind corn and process cotton. There was a second windmill as part of the Belair estate which was used to process sugar. But where could we find it? We asked a woman just outside her house. Taking me chummily by the arm, she warmly explained where to go to find it. We walked up the steep hill, deciding to take a shortcut through a forested hill. Eventually we arrived at a beautiful graveyard. The graves were set into the steep hillside. The dead eternally have the most beautiful view, high up on the hill. We looked out to see the light bounce off the water far below and we could see the tiny Grenadine islands dotting the sunlit sea. We walked on up and eventually came upon the looming second mill.
Goats bounded around, grazing on the grass behind the mill. Behind that were ruins, dark and sinister with fig trees growing, taking over. We thought about what this life must have been like for those people, forced to construct the mills and then forced to run them to make money for their cruel captors - literal slave drivers. We walked back down and met Rina. Rina was instantly warm and drove us up to where she lives. Changing out of her work shirt, we sat outside to do the interview, making use of the last of the light. Rina is passionate about the heritage of Carriacou and informed us that all of the villages, such as Bogles and Belair are actually all former slave plantation estates. This really struck me. Not only do people have to live with the imposing relics of their ancestors’ slavery dotted around, such as the windmills; but their very village communities are demarcated by the plantation boundaries. But perhaps this knowledge means the communities have that shared drive to remain rooted to the memories of their ancestors - the ones that didn’t make it and the ones that strove so hard to preserve their cultural traditions down the centuries. Rina told us that many wealthier people from Carriacou spend their money on a trip to Africa; this is a very deeply felt connection and it is an ambition that Rina herself has. They also continue some of the traditions from European colonial times, such as the string band. Please listen to the podcast for a much more in depth explanation by Rina of the cultural traditions of Carriacou. We were then lucky enough to meet Midnight, Rina’s two week old puppy, a gorgeous wriggling little thing and Midnight’s dad, Tommy. We were also introduced to her neighbours to see the food that had been left over from the Parents’ Plate, a food offering to the ancestors that is usually cooked during times of ceremony.
The next day we got the bus back to Bogles to hike the highest peak in Carriacou, the High North trail. As is often the case, we didn’t see a single other person, but as usual the Grenada Tourism Authority had done a really good job of signposting the route and providing signs labelling the different trees and at the top was information on all the different mammals, reptiles and plants living in the forest. As we sat and looked over the amazing panorama, we marvelled at how we were the only people here. Something like this in Europe would be teeming with people. Presumably a lot of it is due to Coronavirus. As we walked back down on the other side of the circular loop, we came across two tortoises. We had read that wild tortoises live in the forest, but never expected we would actually see them. They are called Red Legged Tortoises. Check out our video to see their red legs in (slow motion) action.
I hadn’t realised quite how strong the ties to Africa are here. I messaged Susan from Union Island, who you may have heard in last week’s podcast. I mentioned that we had been enjoying Carriacou and that it reminded me of Union Island in being so welcoming and community based. I mentioned we had attended a maroon ceremony and asked if they have them in Union Island too. Yes, they had just had two weeks of maroon ceremonies there as well. These traditions have been passed down for hundreds of years and help to bind the communities closely together. Coming from London I can’t deny that I love the diversity, anonymity and nonconformity that you have in a big city; but both Luciano and I have found that there is something very special about Carriacou and Union Island. The sense of community, of a shared heritage, of going out of your way to welcome and help others. These islanders have allowed us a human connection that is the highlight of our trip.
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