Friday, 28 July 2017

ST. SIMONS: Gullah Culture Full Of African Influences

The Gullah are the descendants of enslaved Africans from various peoples who lived in the Low country regions of the U.S. states of Georgia and South Carolina, in the area of both the coastal plain and the Sea Islands. They developed a creole ethnicity and language that is distinctive among Africans.

Descendants of enslaved Africans from the Gullah people also are a majority of the current inhabitants in The Bahamas, who share an almost identical dialect with their cousins.

Historically, the Gullah region extended from the Cape Fear area on North Carolina's coast south to the vicinity of Jacksonville on Florida's coast. Today the Gullah area is confined to the Georgia and South Carolina Lowcountry. The Gullah people and their language are also called Geechee, which may be derived from the name of the Ogeechee River near Savannah, Georgia.

Gullah is a term that was originally used to designate the creole dialect of English spoken by Gullah and Geechee people. Over time, its speakers have used this term to formally refer to their creole language and distinctive ethnic identity as a people. The Georgia communities are distinguished by identifying as either Freshwater Geechee or Saltwater Geechee, depending on whether they live on the mainland or the Sea Islands.

Because of a period of relative isolation from whites while working on large plantations in rural areas, the Africans, drawn from a variety of Central and West African tribes, developed a creole culture that has preserved much of their African linguistic and cultural heritage from various peoples; in addition, they absorbed new influences from the region. The Gullah people speak an English-based creole language containing many African loanwords and influenced by African languages in grammar and sentence structure.

Sometimes referred to as Sea Island Creole by linguists and scholars, the Gullah language is especially related to and almost identical to Bahamian Creole. There are also ties to Barbadian Creole, Belizean Creole, Jamaican Patois and the Krio language of West Africa. Gullah crafts, farming and fishing traditions, folk beliefs, music, rice-based cuisine, and story-telling traditions all exhibit strong influences from Central and West African cultures.

The origin of the word Gullah is unclear. Some scholars suggest that it may be cognate with the word Angola, where the ancestors of some of the Gullah people likely originated. They created a new culture synthesized from that of the various African peoples brought into Charleston and South Carolina.

Some scholars have suggested that it may come from the name of the Gola, an ethnic group living in the border area between present-day Sierra Leone and Liberia in West Africa, another area of enslaved ancestors of the Gullah people.British colonists in the Caribbean and the Southern colonies of North America referred to this area as the Grain Coast or Rice Coast.

Many of the tribes are of Mande or Manding origins. The name Geechee, another common name for the Gullah people, may derive from the name of the Kissi people, an ethnic group living in the border area between Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia.
Gullah people had ancestors among the Dyula ethnic group of West Africa. The Dyula civilization had a large territory that stretched from Senegal through Mali to Burkina Faso and the rest of French West Africa. These were savannah lands that were vast and had lower population densities. Slave raiding was easier and more common here than in forested areas with natural forms of physical defenses.

The word Dyula is pronounced Gwullah among members of the Akan ethnic group in Ghana and Cote D'Ivoire. The primary land route through which captured Dyula people then came into contact with European slavers, was through the Grain Coast and Rice Coast which is present day Liberia, Sierra Leone, Senegal,gambia, and Guinea.

The name of the Ogeechee River, a prominent geographical feature in coastal Georgia, may have been derived from a Creek Indian Muskogee language word.

According to Port of Charleston records, enslaved Africans shipped to the port came from the following areas: Angola (39%), Senegambia (20%), the Windward Coast (17%), the Gold Coast (13%), Sierra Leone (6%), and Madagascar, Mozambique, and the two Bights (5% combined). Windward Coast often referred to Sierra Leone, so the total figure of slaves from that region is higher than 6%.

Particularly along the western coast, the local peoples had cultivated African rice for what is estimated to approach 3,000 years. African rice is a related, yet distinct species from Asian rice. It was originally domesticated in the inland delta of the Upper Niger River.Once British colonial planters in the American South discovered that African rice would grow in that region, they often sought enslaved Africans from rice-growing regions because of their skills and knowledge needed to develop and build irrigation, dams and earthworks.

Two British trading companies based in England operated the slave castle at Bunce Island,formerly called Bance Island, located in the Sierra Leone River. Henry Laurens was their agent in Charleston and was a planter and slave trader. His counterpart in England was the Scottish merchant and slave trader Richard Oswald. Many of the enslaved Africans taken in West Africa were processed through Bunce Island.

It was a prime export site for slaves to South Carolina and Georgia. Slave castles in Ghana, by contrast, shipped many of the people they handled to ports and markets in the Caribbean islands.

After Freetown, Sierra Leone, was founded in the late 18th century by the British as a colony for poor blacks from London and black Loyalists from Nova Scotia, resettled after the American Revolutionary War, they did not allow slaves to be taken from Sierra Leone. They tried to protect the people from kidnappers. In 1808 both Great Britain and the United States prohibited the African slave trade.

After that date, the British, whose navy patrolled to intercept slave ships off Africa, sometimes resettled Africans liberated from slave trader ships in Sierra Leone. Similarly, Americans sometimes settled freed slaves at Liberia, a similar colony established in the early 19th century by the American Colonization Society. As it was a place for freed slaves and free blacks from the United States, some free blacks emigrated there voluntarily, for the chance to create their own society.

The Gullah people have been able to preserve much of their African cultural heritage because of climate, geography, cultural pride, and patterns of importation of enslaved Africans. Enslaved persons from the Central Western region of Africa, originating primarily from the Mende populations of what is today Sierra Leone, and transported to some areas of Brazil including Bahia, the enslaved Gullah-Gheechee people were traded in what was then Charlestowne, South Carolina.

Gullah culture developed as a creole culture in the colonies and United States from the peoples of many different African cultures who came together there. These included the Baga, Fula, Kissi, Kpelle, Limba, Mandinka, Mende, Susu, Temne, Vai, and Wolof of the Rice Coast, and many from Angola, Igbo, Calabar, Congo Republic, and the Gold Coast.

By the middle of the 18th century, thousands of acres in the Georgia and South Carolina Lowcountry, and the Sea Islands were developed as African rice fields. African farmers from the Rice Coast brought the skills for cultivation and tidal irrigation that made rice farming one of the most successful industries in early America.
The subtropical climate encouraged the spread of malaria and yellow fever, which were both carried and transmitted by mosquitoes. These tropical diseases were endemic in Africa and had been carried by slaves to the colonies. Mosquitoes in the swamps and inundated rice fields of the Low country picked up and spread the diseases to English and European settlers, as well. Malaria and yellow fever soon became endemic in the region.

Because they had acquired some immunity in their homeland, Africans were more resistant to these tropical fevers than were the Europeans. As the rice industry was developed, planters continued to import African slaves. By about 1708, South Carolina had a black majority. Coastal Georgia developed a black majority after rice cultivation expanded there in the mid-18th century.

Malaria and yellow fever became endemic. Fearing these diseases, many white planters and their families left the Low country during the rainy spring and summer months when fevers ran rampant. Others lived mostly in cities such as Charleston rather than on the isolated plantations, especially those on the Sea Islands.

The planters left their European or African rice drivers, or overseers, in charge of the rice plantations. These had hundreds of laborers, with African traditions reinforced by new imports from the same regions. Over time, the Gullah people developed a creole culture in which elements of African languages, cultures, and community life were preserved to a high degree.

Their culture developed in a distinct way, different from that of the enslaved African Americans in states such as North Carolina and Virginia, where the enslaved lived in smaller groups, and had more sustained and frequent interactions with whites and British American culture.

When the U.S. Civil War began, the Union rushed to blockade Confederate shipping. White planters on the Sea Islands, fearing an invasion by the US naval forces, abandoned their plantations and fled to the mainland. When Union forces arrived on the Sea Islands in 1861, they found the Gullah people eager for their freedom, and eager as well to defend it. Many Gullah served with distinction in the Union Army's First South Carolina Volunteers.

The Sea Islands were the first place in the South where slaves were freed. Long before the War ended, Unitarian missionaries from Pennsylvania came to start schools on the islands for the newly freed slaves. Penn Center, now a Gullah community organization on Saint Helena Island, South Carolina, was founded as the first school for freed slaves.

After the Civil War ended, the Gullahs' isolation from the outside world increased in some respects. The rice planters on the mainland gradually abandoned their plantations and moved away from the area because of labor issues and hurricane damage to crops. Free blacks were unwilling to work in the dangerous and disease-ridden rice fields.

A series of hurricanes devastated the crops in the 1890s. Left alone in remote rural areas of the Low country, the Gullah continued to practice their traditional culture with little influence from the outside world well into the 20th century.

In the 20th century, some plantations were redeveloped as resort or hunting destinations by wealthy whites. Gradually more visitors went to the islands to enjoy their beaches and mild climate. Since the late 20th century, the Gullah people—led by Penn Center and other determined community groups—have been fighting to keep control of their traditional lands.

Since the 1960s, resort development on the Sea Islands has greatly increased property values, threatening to push the Gullah off family lands which they have owned since emancipation. They have fought back against uncontrolled development on the islands through community action, the courts, and the political process.
The Gullah have also struggled to preserve their traditional culture in the face of much more contact with modern culture and media. In 1979, a translation of the New Testament into the Gullah language was begun.The American Bible Society published De Nyew Testament in 2005. In November 2011, Healin fa de Soul, a five-CD collection of readings from the Gullah Bible, was released.

This collection includes Scipcha Wa De Bring Healing,Scripture That Heals and the Gospel of John,De Good Nyews Bout Jedus Christ Wa John Write. This was also the most extensive collection of Gullah recordings, surpassing those of Lorenzo Dow Turner. The recordings have helped people develop an interest in the culture, because they get to hear the language and learn how to pronounce some words.

The Gullah achieved another victory in 2006 when the U.S. Congress passed the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Act; it provided $10 million over 10 years for the preservation and interpretation of historic sites in the Low Country relating to Gullah culture.The Heritage Corridor will extend from southern North Carolina to northern Florida. The project will be administered by the US National Park Service, with extensive consultation with the Gullah community.

The Gullah have also reached out to West Africa. Gullah groups made three celebrated homecomings to Sierra Leone in 1989, 1997, and 2005. Sierra Leone is at the heart of the traditional rice-growing region of West Africa where many of the Gullahs' ancestors originated.

Bunce Island, the British slave castle in Sierra Leone, sent many African captives to Charleston and Savannah during the mid- and late 18th century. These dramatic homecomings were the subject of three documentary films—Family Across the Sea 1990, The Language You Cry In 1998, and Priscilla's Homecoming.

African influences

- The Gullah word guber for peanut derives from the Kikongo and Kimbundu word N'guba.

- Gullah rice dishes called red rice and okra soup are similar to West African jollof rice and okra soup. Jollof rice is a traditional style of rice preparation brought by the Wolof people of West Africa.

- The Gullah version of gumbo has its roots in African cooking. Gumbo is derived from a word in the Umbundu language of Angola, meaning okra, one of the dish's main ingredients.

- Gullah rice farmers once made and used mortar and pestles and winnowing fanners similar in style to tools used by West African rice farmers.

- Gullah beliefs about hags and haunts are similar to African beliefs about malevolent ancestors, witches, and devils or forest spirits.

- Gullah root doctors protect their clients against dangerous spiritual forces by using ritual objects similar to those employed by African traditional healers.

- Gullah herbal medicines are similar to traditional African remedies.

- The Gullah seekin ritual is similar to coming of age ceremonies in West African secret societies, such as the Poro and Sande.

- The Gullah ring shout is similar to ecstatic religious rituals performed in West and Central Africa.

- Gullah stories about Bruh Rabbit are similar to West and Central African trickster tales about the figures of the clever and conniving rabbit, spider, and tortoise.

- Gullah spirituals, shouts, and other musical forms employ the call and response method commonly used in African music.

- Gullah sweetgrass baskets are coil straw baskets made by the descendants of slaves in the South Carolina Lowcountry. They are nearly identical to traditional coil baskets made by the Wolof people in Senegal.

- Gullah strip quilts mimic the design of cloth woven with the traditional strip loom used throughout West Africa. Kente cloth from Ghana and Akwete cloth from Nigeria are woven on the strip loom.

- A non-English song of unknown meaning, preserved by a Gullah family, was analyzed in the 1990s and found to be a Mende funeral song. It is probably the longest text in an African language to survive enslavement to present-day USA. This research and the resulting reunion between Gullah and Mende communities was recounted in the documentary The Language You Cry In 1998.

Rice is a staple food in Gullah communities and continues to be cultivated in abundance in the coastal regions of Georgia and South Carolina. Rice is also an important food in West African cultures. As descendants of enslaved Africans, the Gullah continued the traditional food and food techniques of their ancestors, demonstrating another link to traditional African cultures.
Rice is a core commodity of the Gullah food system: a meal was not considered complete without rice. There are strict rituals surrounding the preparation of rice in the Gullah communities. First, individuals would remove the darker grains from the rice, and then hand wash the rice numerous times before it was ready for cooking. The Gullah people would add enough water for the rice to steam on its own, but not so much that one would have to stir or drain it. These traditional techniques were passed down during the period of slavery and are still an important part of rice preparation by Gullah people.

Over the years, the Gullah have attracted study by many historians, linguists, folklorists, and anthropologists interested in their rich cultural heritage. Many academic books on that subject have been published. The Gullah have also become a symbol of cultural pride for blacks throughout the United States and a subject of general interest in the media.

Numerous newspaper and magazine articles, documentary films, and children's books on Gullah culture, have been produced, in addition to popular novels set in the Gullah region. In 1991 Julie Dash wrote and directed Daughters of the Dust, the first feature film about the Gullah, set at the turn of the century on St. Helena Island. Born into a Gullah family, she was the first African-American woman director to produce a feature film.

Gullah people now organize cultural festivals every year in towns up and down the Low country. Hilton Head Island, for instance, hosts a "Gullah Celebration" in February. It includes "De Aarts ob We People" show; the "Ol’ Fashioned Gullah Breakfast"; "National Freedom Day," the "Gullah Film Fest", "A Taste of Gullah" food and entertainment, a "Celebration of Low country Authors and Books," an "Arts, Crafts & Food Expo," and "De Gullah Playhouse".

Beaufort hosts the oldest and the largest celebration, "The Original Gullah Festival" in May. The nearby Penn Center on St. Helena Island holds "Heritage Days" in November. Other Gullah festivals are celebrated on James Island, South Carolina and Sapelo Island, Georgia.

Gullah culture is also being celebrated elsewhere in the United States. The High Art Museum in Atlanta has presented exhibits about Gullah culture. The Black Cultural Center at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana conducted a research tour, cultural arts festival, and other related events to showcase the Gullah culture.

The Black Cultural Center Library maintains a bibliography of Gullah books and materials, as well. Metro State College in Denver, Colorado recently hosted a conference on Gullah culture, called The Water Brought Us: Gullah History and Culture, which featured a panel of Gullah scholars and cultural activists. These events in Indiana and Colorado are typical of the attention Gullah culture regularly receives throughout the United States.

Gullah culture has proven to be particularly resilient. Gullah traditions are strong in the rural areas of the Low country mainland and on the Sea Islands, and among their people in urban areas such as Charleston and Savannah. Gullah people who have left the Lowcountry and moved far away have also preserved traditions; for instance, many Gullah in New York, who went North in the Great Migration of the first half of the 20th century, have established their own neighborhood churches in Harlem, Brooklyn, and Queens.

Typically they send their children back to rural communities in South Carolina and Georgia during the summer months to live with grandparents, uncles, and aunts. Gullah people living in New York frequently return to the Lowcountry to retire. Second- and third-generation Gullah in New York often maintain many of their traditional customs and sometimes still speak the Gullah language.

The art of coiled basket making was introduced to the Lowcountry in the 17th century by Africans taken from the present day Mano River Region, Senegambia and Angola-Congolesse regions of West Africa. Brought by white planters to cultivate rice, enslaved Africans brought basket making skills as well.

The early history of basket making parallels the rise of rice cultivation on the Southeastern coast of the United States. Enslaved Africans, usually men, made baskets for use on the plantation and for sale. On some plantations, basket making was a seasonal chore. On other plantations, enslaved Africans who were no longer able to work in the fields made baskets. Work baskets used in plantation households and in rice cultivation were made by men out of bulrush (or rush).

The Civil War and Emancipation brought a transformation in sweetgrass basket making. Women began making smaller baskets from sweetgrass for storing and serving food to be used in their own households as well as on plantations. Basket making evolved from an agricultural craft to an artform produced for sale.
The Mt. Pleasant (East of the Cooper) Community, just north of Charleston, where landed Black families began mass producing and selling show baskets made of sweetgrass, was central to this evolution. By the 20th century, basket makers were sewing for mail order catalogues and gift shops owned by white businessmen, many of whom were from the Northeast. Merchants and middlemen modified the basketmaking tradition by buying baskets attractive to tourists and other consumers.

Today, basketmaking is centered in the Mt. Pleasant community. Basket stands along Highway 17 North allow basket makers to compete with retail markets, establish a direct contact between themselves and their patrons, and develop new shapes from traditional baskets forms and ordinary objects. Basket makers can also be found in downtown Charleston, along Market, Broad, and Meeting streets.

Basket making has become an art form practiced and controlled by women who no longer perform domestic and other work outside of their homes. The economic independence the basket making allows professional basket makers to work in their homes and make baskets. Men remain the primary gatherers of sweetgrass and the other materials for basket making. Although the economic prosperity of tourism has been good for basket making, changes in ownership and use of land threaten the natural resources and human communities.

The Gullah are a distinctive group of African Americans whose origins lie along the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia, as well as the adjacent sea islands. They live in small farming and fishing units, having formed a tightly knit community that has survived slavery, the Civil War, and the emergence of modern American culture.

Due to their geographic location and strong sense of community, the Gullah have been able to preserve more of their African cultural heritage than any other group of African Americans: they speak a creole language similar to the Krio of Sierra Leone, are skilled in the creation of African style handicrafts and enjoy a rich cuisine based primarily on rice. The origin and traditions of this group are an important piece of South Carolina's historical puzzle. By exploring their history and development, one gains a fuller picture of South Carolina's past.

The origin of the Gullah people is connected to the transatlantic slave-trade of the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1670, the first English-speaking settlement was established in South Carolina. The area chosen by settlers was a stretch of coastal plain and swampland known today as the Lowcountry. Due to the area's semi-tropical climate and abundant rainfall, early colonists struggled to find a crop that would produce sufficient revenue for England. By 1700, however, settlers discovered that rice, an Asian import, was best suited for growth in South Carolina's valley swamps.

Early attempts to capitalize on this discovery failed due to the ignorance of the intricacies involved in rice cultivation among South Carolina's white planter population. White planters soon found that there was a great advantage in importing Africans from the traditional rice-growing region of West Africa to perform the arduous work. Realizing the growing demand for Africans from the "Rice" and "Windward" coasts — known today as Sierra Leone — slave traders made it a point to provide white planters in South Carolina with large numbers of captives from these areas for local markets.

These traders even capitalized on the high prices typically asked for these particular Africans by advertising their origins in auction listings and newspapers. The resulting boom in the slave trade and rice cultivation made South Carolina one of the wealthiest colonies in North America. Charles Towne (now Charleston) became one of the most fashionable cities in the American colonies and a crown jewel in England's colonial empire.

The development and preservation of the Gullah's distinct African culture was aided by their unique slave conditions. The climate of the Lowcountry, Georgia, and the surrounding sea islands aided not only rice cultivation but also the spread of various tropical diseases. Maladies like malaria and yellow fever affected all inhabitants in the Lowcountry, including enslaved Africans.

Whites were most vulnerable to them, and as a result, the white planters customarily vacated their farms and moved away from the rice fields during the humid seasons when disease was rampant. Due to their absence, plantations were generally run by a few white managers and trusted, enslaved Africans known as "drivers." The disease cycle kept the white population of South Carolina low while more and more Africans were imported each year.

By 1708, there was a black majority in the colony. The great influx of new Africans and the lack of English cultural influence upon their lives directly assisted the creation and preservation of a distinctly African set of traditions. These enslaved Africans, therefore, continued to share many parts of the languages, rituals and customs drawn from their ancestral communities in Africa.
Many Gullah arts and crafts are indistinguishable from those found in West Africa. For example, Gullah artisans skillfully create wooden mortars and pestles, rice "fanners," clay pots, and other pieces closely connected to Sierra Leone. Most importantly, tourists in South Carolina and Georgia can still bear witness to women continuing the tradition of basket making in local markets and roadsides. These beautiful pieces, known as sweetgrass baskets, are closely connected to the Sierra Leonean shukublay.

Gullah religious systems and beliefs, while derived from the Christianity practiced by their former white masters, are also evidence of a distinctly African tradition. While adhering to Christian doctrine, the Gullah practice a faith immersed in communal prayer, song, and dance. Many also continue to hold traditional African beliefs. Witchcraft, which they call wudu or juju, is one example that can be traced to the country of Angola.

Some Gullah believe that witches can cast a spell by putting powerful herbs or roots under a person's pillow or at a place where he or she usually walks. There are also special individuals known as "Root Doctors" that serve to protect individuals from curses and witchcraft.

Today, the Gullah people still live and practice their lifestyle in the areas that were once home to their ancestors. Despite encroachment of modern American traditions and increased expansion into their homeland, these special people continue to provide an important glimpse into South Carolina's past. When visiting our great city, visit our local museums and research centers and learn more about the traditions of the Gullah. By increasing awareness and education about the Gullah, we aid in the preservation of their unique heritage.

Tourism Observer

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