Persisting connections

In today’s post on African indigenous languages, I will look again at translatlantic connections. It is not only the Portuguese who have left their imprint across the globe from the first wave of globalisation onwards, which started when they landed on the shores of the Upper Guinea Coast in the 15th century. As we have seen in my post on the Bran community in Peru, Africans who were deported to the Americas and the Carribean as slaves took elements of material culture, languages and cultural techniques with them and adapted them in interaction with their new environment, even though this was a risky endeavour. The linguistic influences from West Central Africa on the Creoles of the Carribean are well researched. Those left by inhabitants of the Upper Guinea Coast are not well known at all. A large contingent of slaves from this geographical area was transported to northeastern Brazil, to the state of Maranhão, in the 19th century. Although no research on linguistic vestiges of their origins has taken place, one prominent souvenir sticks out: it’s the signature dish of Maranhão, arroz con cuxá [kuʃa]. It consists of rice with a sauce made from Guinea sorrel, which, as its English name signals, comes from the Upper Guinea Coast. Its Mandinka word is kucaa [kuʧa:].

When I visited Maranhão, I was struck by the eery resemblances in architecture, topography and vegetation between Maranhão and the Upper Guinea Coast. Both feature Portuguese colonial buildings and landscapes with sunken coast lines, swamps and tidal rivers whose banks are overgrown with mangrove. What feelings may this have triggered in slaves who found themselves in new, hostile, yet utterly familiar surroundings after the middle passage? The photos below give you a glimpse of the similarities. The bottom one shows the harbour of Gorée island, in present-day Senegal (It was taken in 1995 when I visited the island for the first time). The one below shows the old town of São Luis, the capital of Maranhão.

The old town of São Luis in Maranhão, Brazil in 2017
The harbour of Gorèe in Senegal in 1995

From Brame to Bran

Today’s post on African indigenous languages looks across the Atlantic at Diaspora groups created by African slaves in the Americas. One such group is the Bran diaspora that formed in Peru in the 16th and 17th century when slaves from the Upper Guinea Coast were numerous among the African slaves transported there. Brans were West Africans who counted (a) language(s) from what is today called the Manjaku cluster in their repertoires. According to Portuguese sources, who called them, sometimes interchangeably, Brame/Buramos or Papel/Papeis, they inhabited a territory in Northern Guinea Bissau characterised by village-based societies with dense network and high multilingualism and multiculturalism. Upon arrival in Peru, their ‘casta’ was recorded. Often, slaves gave localities as their ‘casta’ (such as Cacheu or the island Pecixe), but in many cases, these self-identifications were overwritten in registers and collapsed into the category ‘bran’. Rather than being a retention of an ancestral identity, as is often imagined, Bran identity therefore was an adaptation to new conditions, and forged in interaction with slaves from other regions of Africa, indigenous Andeans and of course the identity concepts and constraints of slave societies. The ethnisiation of slaves went so far that, as typical in large parts of South America, they were given their ethnic designations as family names – Joan Bran, Andres Nalu, Francisco Biafara, Juan Angola, Anton Folupo…

Read more in this article:

O’Toole, Rachel. 2007. From the rivers of Guinea to the valleys of Peru: becoming a Bran diaspora within Spanish Slavery. Social Text 92, 25(3)