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Honouring those who brought us freedom

Building-BridgesI had the privilege last Saturday of watching the presentation From Bussa To Barrow And Beyond. I had eagerly looked forward to being there after having heard it being described so eloquently some weeks before.

Held at the historic Golden Grove Plantation in St Philip, it was very well attended.  The setting couldn’t have been better. All arranged outdoors under the trees and starlit night, the ambience helped to take the audience back 200 years to the time of Bussa.

It was between April 14 and 16, 1816, that General Bussa led a slave revolt to overthrow slavery and remove slave owners from power. At this 200th anniversary of the revolt, Barbadians were reminded of that struggle.

The play presented that revolt, and then weaved the story of Barbados throughout the decades that followed up to Independence. Congratulations to all those who worked hard to bring about such a presentation!

There are some in our society who question why we go back to the period of slavery and reopen old wounds. For me it is important and necessary that we use opportunities and anniversaries like these to review our history, relook at what transpired with earlier generations, and acknowledge what is responsible for shaping our psyche and our present circumstances.

Additionally, it is important that we recognize those who struggled valiantly in the pursuit of the freedom that all Barbadians enjoy and take for granted today.

Our history has to be viewed through our lenses; and often we adopt a narrative of our own history which is written through the lenses of others.

The former colonialists wrote a lot of the history we know, and so the research necessary and the correction of some of those myths have to be continued by our very own historians and researchers. I am glad to see they are being done.

I am sure that, under the white plantocracy, wiped from the records would have been the names of Bussa, Washington Franklin and Nanny Grigg –– rebels for the rulers in those days but heroes and martyrs for us today.

Slavery is a horrible crime against humanity, and the Atlantic slave trade was an even greater crime. Imagine being uprooted from your home, taken away from family, marched to the coast, branded, loaded aboard a slave ship, shackled naked to the floor, beaten, tortured, put to infernal work in degrading conditions in an unknown distressing world, and turned into slaves. These were victims of one of the most brutal episodes that ever took place on this planet. Not only was the body enslaved, but the mind as well shackled.

Revisiting such painful periods in our history is necessary, and fully understanding all aspects of that time through our own historians and researchers is even more important.  Further to understanding those times is getting the information and the true history out to as many people as we can. The presentation on Saturday did have a wide cross section of people and perhaps could even have been wider.

These performances must be repeated and especially have our younger generations view them. It is a history we should learn and acknowledge.

I took my entire family along, and for them it was an eye-opener. For the younger ones, much of the history was new to them and so a learning opportunity. And even for us older ones we were now coming to grips with some realities which we had only heard mentioned in passing.

I am committed to learning more. From my perspective, I would like to explore the presence of my faith and its impact on slaves in Barbados. Much research is now coming to light on the role of Muslim slaves and their resistance to slavery in the West Indies.

In a very recent article titled The History Of Muslim Resistance In The West Indies, the author Z.A. Rahman writes:

One in three, 30 per cent of those transported to the Americas, were Muslims. Many, if not most, of the slaves were from West Africa from the Mandinka, Fula, Susu, Ashanti and Hausa tribes, most of whom were Muslims. Few Africans have left personal testimonies of their life under slavery, but among those that did, there is a disproportionate number of Muslims.

These slaves were generally literate in Arabic, and many of them could write with great beauty and exactness the Arabic alphabet and passages from the Qur’an. It is through their writings and those of plantation historians and British travellers that we learn how these Muslims proudly and fiercely maintained their Islamic faith, identity, and continued to embody the spirit of resistance.

In fact, many of these Muslims who were from the Mandika people in Africa became leaders of revolts against slavery and against the slave masters . . . . Robert Madden, a settler magistrate in Jamaica, had a slave called Abū Bakr, a Mandinka slave who authored two autobiographical pieces written in Arabic, as the son of a learned family in Islamic Jurisprudence from the city of Timbuktu.

We learn that he acquired advance Qur’anic learning. So strong was Abū Bakr’s Islamic teaching that, even after 30 years of bondage in Jamaica, he still knew the Qur’ān “almost by heart”. Like hundreds of other African Muslim slaves, Abū Bakr had different masters and had been baptised as Edward Donellan, but he remained faithful to Islām. He is perhaps one of the very few who returned to Africa upon his manumission in 1834.

Madden wrote that, in the course of his stay in Jamaica, he met scores more of such African slaves who had been forced to adopt Christian names but secretly remained true to Islām. He also discovered an Arabic document –– Wathiqa –– circulating among the slaves “exerting the followers of Mahomet to be true to their faith”.

In his book Deeper Roots, Dr Abdullah Hakim Quick in Chapter 3, titled Slavery: Cultural Genocide, explores the presence of Muslim slaves among the Africans brought over by the Europeans to the Americas and their participation in slave revolts.  He writes: “Despite this inhuman form of slavery in the Americas and the forced separation from Muslim lands and culture, there are scores of reports of Muslim slaves maintaining a form of their faith. They also led slave revolts and, in some cases, succeeded in regaining their freedom and returning to Africa.”

He goes on to give these reports in his book.

At this juncture of our 50th anniversary of Independence and the 200th anniversary of the Bussa Revolt, we reflect and acknowledge our history, and all those who were part and parcel of the struggle to make us an Independent nation.

As Prime Minister Fruendel Stuart said on the occasion of the performance From Bussa To Barrow And Beyond, “it is not only a story of a quest for freedom. It is one that highlights that though physically captive, the minds of those who fought valiantly were emancipated to the point where, they wanted to control their own affairs. In this bicentenary of the 1816 Rebellion, we salute those who paved the way, both physically and psychologically, for us to achieve Independence and invariably reach this 50th anniversary milestone”.

(Suleiman Bulbulia is a Justice of the Peace, and secretary of the Barbados Muslim Association.

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