Pirates of the Caribbean and Junkanoo Goombay

By Jheri St.James

On a map, the islands of The Bahamas resemble southern Atlantic stepping-stones from Florida to Cuba. Nassau, the capital, was long a pirate headquarters; it is now a world-famous tourist resort.

An Ancient Castle Landmark

The Bahamas were originally inhabited by a group of Arawak Indians known as Lucayan. Originally from the South American continent, some of the Arawak had been driven north into the Caribbean by the Carib Indians. Unlike their Carib neighbors, the Lucayan were generally peaceful—more involved in fishing than agriculture and . . . cannibalism.

When Columbus reached the New World in 1492, he made his first landfall in the New World on either San Salvador or Samana Cay, in the Eastern Bahamas. After observing the shallow islands, he said, “baja mar” (shallow water or sea) and effectively named the area The Bahamas, or The Islands of the Shallow Sea. The Bahamas are a nation of some 700 subtropical islands and more than 2,000 islets or cays (about 30 of which are populated), extending about 600 miles (970 km) from the coast of Florida, southeast toward Haiti. Columbus and the Spaniards made no attempt to settle, but operated slave raids on the peaceful Arawak, depopulating the islands which were uninhabited by the time the English arrived.

In 1629 Charles I of England granted the islands to one of his ministers, but no attempt at settlement was made. In 1648 William Sayle led a group of English Puritans from Bermuda to, it is thought, Eleuthera Island. This settlement met with extreme adversity and did not prosper, but other Bermudan migrants continued to arrive. New Providence was settled in 1656. By 1670, the Bahamas were given to the Duke of Albemarle and five others as a proprietary colony. The proprietors were mostly uninterested in the islands, and few of the settlements prospered. Piracy became a way of life for many.

The pirate community was large and well established. Because of its location relative to the British colonies in North America, it became a convenient location for smugglers and pirates of every nation, and a major concern for the Crown. For this reason, the British set up a naval station to combat the pirate activities. By 1717, the colony reverted to the Crown and serious efforts were made to end the piracy. The first royal governor, Woodes Rogers, succeeded in controlling the pirates, but mostly at his own expense. Little money and military support came from England. Consequently, the islands remained poor and susceptible to Spanish attack. Rogers became an exceptional pirate hunter and negotiator. He offered pardons to pirates in an effort to get them to desist. While most were skeptical, they soon found him to be sincere and eventually 2,000 pirates accepted the pardons and made the Bahamas virtually pirate-free. Rogers was certain that many of the pardoned pirates would go back to their evil ways, so he wisely recruited men from among those pardoned to hunt down the back-sliders. The move was quite successful and eventually many of the brethren of the coast were “dancing the devil’s jig” on the gallows.

Privateers and pirates were essentially the same thing: privateers simply carried a government license called a “Letter of Marque.” Those whose ships were plundered made little distinction, and when potential gain increased, many privateers turned to indiscriminate piracy. For the most part, these marauders were beneficial to the Crown’s interests, as they often ransacked enemy merchant ships. However, once a rogue, always a rogue, and the Crown’s own ships became fair game when a convenient opportunity arose. By 1700, the pirates actually ruled Nassau (insofar as lawless riot and drunken revelry constitute rule), and chased off most of what remained of the law-abiding citizenry. Edward Teach, the notorious Blackbeard, took Fort Nassau as his residence and played cat and mouse games with the British Royal Navy. He made himself magistrate of the “Privateer’s Republic,” without laws or government until 1714, when Britain outlawed pirates. At this time the nation’s motto was born: Expulsis Piratis—Restituta Commercia (“Pirates Expelled—Commerce Restored”). He finally died in a legendary sea battle off the coast of Virginia in 1718.

For practical reasons, most pirates tried to avoid bloody close-contact fighting, so flags were an excellent tool of first choice to wage war from afar on the minds and emotions, weakening resolve and forcing a quick surrender, the fine line between fight or flight. The “Jolly Roger” was the term for a solid red flag flown by early pirates, which indicated that no mercy would be offered to the captured prey. The flag was called “Jolie Rouge” in French, meaning “pretty or beautiful red,” certainly a tongue-in-cheek reference of buccaneers and the like to blood. An equally colorful explanation is that the phrase came from the nickname given to the devil by pirates in the 1700’s of “Old Roger.” Jolly Roger grew in meaning to refer to all of the unique flags of the Golden Age of piracy. The skull and crossbones image may have either been taken from tombstones or from the popular crucifix in that time, almost always depicting a skull and crossed bones under the cross of Jesus. These were symbolic of the death, which He triumphed over, but also referred to the outcropping of the crucifixion site, called Golgotha in Greek, meaning “the skull.” This type of crucifix fell out of favor in the 1800’s, after pirates corrupted the intended meaning with their mass killing. Another well-known place to find the skull image was in a ship’s log next to any “departed” crewmember’s name. This flag in all its variety was only flown for around 20 years during the height of the Golden Age of Piracy and even then almost exclusively by pirates of British descent. Other examples of the death fixation in flag iconography were: a pierced heart, a heart with drops of blood, a dart or spear, a skeleton with or without horns, and a cutlass in a hand or empty fist. Blackbeard’s flag showed a muscular skeleton with horns holding an hourglass in one hand and spear in the other that is pointing to a heart letting out three drops of blood.

     Held for a few days by the U.S. Navy in 1776, and for almost a year by Spain in 1782-83, the islands reverted to England in 1783 and received a boost in population from loyalists and their slaves who fled the United States after the American Revolution. For a time, cotton plantations brought some prosperity to the islands, but when the soil gave out and slavery was abolished in 1834, the Bahamas’ endemic poverty returned. Two other periods of prosperity followed: the years 1861-65 when the Bahamas became a center for blockade runners during the American Civil War, and in 1920-33 when bootlegging became big business during the years of American Prohibition. But these were economic accidents. Not until the tourist industry was developed after World War II did any form of permanent prosperity come to the islands.
The need to secure political representation for the islands’ black majority led to the formation of the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) which was able to form a government in 1967. The POP worked to end racial segregation and secure independence for the islands, which was granted in 1973. Among the problems the government had to cope with after independence were drug trafficking in the Out Islands, and the illegal entry of many Haitian refugees.

     The Bahamas’ economy today is based on international banking, investment management, tourism, fishing, and the export of wood products, cement, salt and crayfish.

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     Many Bahamians have an artistic side, which they express through colorful art, infectious music or exuberant dancing. The traditional music of The Bahamas is “goombay,” which combines the musical traditions from Africa with those of the European colonists. Goombay, the Bantu word for “rhythm” also refers to the type of drum used to produce the rolling rhythm of this type of music.

     Rake and scrape bands have been playing goombay music since the time of slavery, when African slaves had few resources to create music. Typically, “rake and scrape” bands use a drum fashioned out of wood and goatskin, a carpenter’s saw scraped with a metal rasp, and a homemade bass violin (a washtub with a string in it, tied to a three-foot stick). Traditionally rake and scrape music was used to accompany the Quadrille and the Heel and Toe Polka dances—another example of how African and European influences blended together. Today’s rake and scrape bands use saxophones, electric guitars and other instruments in addition to saws and goombay drums. However, the music retains the original rake and scrape style. In a Jankanoo festival parade, the music is a louder, more exuberant version of goombay music, and the parade participants practice rushin’, a lively parade movement of two steps forward, followed by one step back. This creative musicality extends into the religious music of The Bahamas. Bahamian sacred music resembles American slave songs merged with American gospel and European classical harmonies in places where in all but the strictest churches, congregational singing is accompanied by clapping, rhythmic possession and spiritual dancing.

A Happy Festival Face

     Junkanoo is The Bahamas’ most famous festival, called “the centerpiece of Bahamian culture”. The event is hosted at various venues around Christmas and New Year, when streets and settlements resound with cowbells, whistles and goatskin goombay drums. Costumes at one time or another have been made of sponges, leaves fabric and shredded paper. Today crepe paper is meticulously placed on fabric, cardboard or wood and a headdress, neckpiece and skirt are the main garments, elaborate and brilliantly colored. It may take up to a year to produce the intricate creations. Costume design is tied to a theme and is a carefully guarded secret. Junkanoo costumes that may have once been discarded are now being preserved for posterity. The winning costume is placed in the Junkanoo Museum.

A Brilliant and Complex Junkanoo Costume

     The Bahamas are a colorful place of dramatic historical events and theatrical personal expression. Art plays a big part in the festival life of its inhabitants. The soil from The Bahamas, which was kindly collected by Brian Vitek of Laguna Niguel, California, has been the platform for Indian, Spanish, English, U.S. and pirate footsteps. And even though pirates are romanticized in literature and media, aren’t they after all just murderous thieves—similar to those who wage war everywhere on this planet for more real estate? Common Ground 191 proudly adds the special land sample of the Bahamas to its peace project.

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