The history of the New World since Columbus re-discovered it is one of conquest, pillage, exploitation and forced migration of a people. For more than three centuries millions of people were forcibly transported from their homes in Africa, across the perilous Atlantic Ocean to the New World, where they were forced to labour on sugar plantations for the rest of their lives. This enslavement of a people continued until events in Europe changed the fortunes of the West Indian and North American colonies. Humanitarians started questioning the validity of slavery, there was competition from beet sugar producers in Europe, and the advent of the Industrial Revolution spawned the rise of a new group of influential men in the British Parliament who believed that slavery was no longer economically viable.

In 1833 Thomas Buxton presented The Emancipation Bill in Parliament. The Act was passed and came into effect on 1 August 1834. On that day, thousands of slaves in the British West Indies became free men and women.

One hundred and fifty one years later, on 1 August 1985 the government of Trinidad and Tobago declared Emancipation Day a national holiday to commemorate the abolition of slavery.


As early as 1441 the Portuguese had started trade with Africa – more specifically, West Africa. West Africa was part of a major trading network long before the arrival of Europeans in the 15th century. From ancient times there was a flourishing trade between the North and West of the continent. This led to the development of large cities and empires. By the time the first Europeans arrived in Africa the wealthy empires of Songhai and Benin dominated the area.

The Portuguese set up a trading post in Ghana and proceeded to trade in luxury goods and slaves. Later, when sugar became the main crop of the British colonies there was a great demand for labour which could not be met by the supply of white indentured servants. Since the Portuguese already traded in slaves it seemed logical to expand this commercial enterprise by supplying the colonies with slaves from Africa. As a result, for more than three centuries millions of people were uprooted from their homes, transported across dangerous waters, and forced to work without remuneration on plantations in the West Indies and North America.

Slavery existed in Africa before the arrival of the Europeans. However, it is believed that they were treated much more kindly than they would come to be treated by the Europeans. Slavery in many African societies was a temporary state, usually occurring as punishment for a crime or to pay off a debt. With the arrival of Europeans however, the face of slavery was changed forever. Slavery became an organized business. English slave ships would arrive on the West coast of Africa with a cargo of guns, alcohol, goods, beads and trinkets. These they would trade with the Africans in exchange for slaves. To assure a steady supply of slaves for the colonies, African tribes were encouraged by the Europeans to raid other tribes and capture their people.

These captives would be bound in iron neck rings and linked together with chains and forced to march to the coast, where they would be housed in barracoons (holding pens) in unhealthy conditions, until a slave ship arrived. The captain of the slave ship would then choose the slaves he wanted and exchange them for the goods he had brought. Usually young, strong, healthy slaves were selected, and usually more men than women were chosen. The slave captain would then sail with his human cargo across the Atlantic to the colonies in North America and the Caribbean. This three-step process in the slave trade – slave ships sailing from Europe to Africa and then to the Caribbean – was called the Triangular Trade. The trip from Europe to Africa was called the Outward Passage, the trip from Africa to the Americas was called the Middle Passage, and the trip from the Americas to Europe, in which cargoes of rum, sugar, tobacco and other produce bought with the proceeds of slave sales were shipped, was called the Inward Passage.

The Middle Passage was a horrendous ordeal for the Africans. Men were crammed below decks in handcuffs and leg irons. Women and children were not chained and were housed in separate quarters from the men. All, however, were treated with brutality. Slave captains packed the ships to capacity with human cargo. The journey lasted anywhere from six weeks to three months depending on the weather and the distance to be covered. In good weather slaves were allowed on deck twice a day for exercise. Below deck living conditions were appalling. There were no washroom facilities and slaves had to relieve themselves where they were. Many suffered from seasickness, dysentery and small pox. By the time they reached their destination many were ill and weak, and some died on board. In addition to the appalling physical conditions, there was also the mental stress. Many Africans became despondent and threw themselves overboard. Those who were rescued were beaten for trying to escape.


Slave traders paid little or no attention to the welfare of the slaves during the Middle Passage, but once the ship approached its final destination the slaves were bathed, shaved and oiled, in an effort to get a higher price for them. Once on land the slaves were put on the auction block and planters bid on them. The African slaves were treated as animals. Before they were put on the auction block they had to endure body inspections. Their lips were pulled back and their teeth examined, and their stomach, back and genitals were prodded and poked. The slaves were sold to different masters and hence were separated from their relatives and friends. There was a deliberate strategy by the whites to separate Africans of the same tribe because it was believed that if the slaves could not communicate with each other, then they could not plot against their masters. The slaves were branded with the mark of their owners and assigned Christian names. They were then transported to the plantations where they endured a life of exhausting work and unending cruelty.

Sugar dominated the Caribbean economy so the majority of slaves worked on the sugar plantations. Most of these slaves were field labourers and their tasks involved planting, harvesting and grinding the cane. The slaves worked year round. Those slaves not employed in the fields worked as domestic servants in the Great House. A few fortunate ones worked in the towns as artisans, and thus had a little more freedom of movement.

Slaves’ lives were controlled by the demands of their owners. Rules and laws governed every aspect of their lives. Along with these laws came harsh punishments for breaking them. Slaves were whipped for the slightest misdemeanor and sometimes a limb was cut off as punishment. Some planters believed that if they dealt harshly with them, the slaves would not have either the time or the inclination to rebel against their masters. In the British islands, those slaves that participated in rebellions were hanged or burnt.

Whatever free time the slaves had (usually on Sundays) they spent it with family and friends, and tending their small provision plots. This helped to supplement the basic food provided by the planters. They tried to hold on to their religious practices and cultural beliefs and continued to express themselves through song and dance. The common view is that the slaves in the Caribbean were discouraged from marrying and having children. However, this changed when the slave trade came to an end. The planters, realizing that their source of labour would dry up with the end of the slave trade, decided that having their slaves reproduce offspring would ensure a continuous supply of labour. For this reason they made an about face and encouraged slaves to marry and have children.

Their religious beliefs helped the slaves endure the cruelty and hardship of slavery. Even though they came from different regions of West Africa, the various religions had common features. They believed that the world was inhabited by good and evil spirits, and that their ancestors watched over them. In fact they had such a high regard for their ancestors that they worshiped them. Hence the expression Ancestor Worship.



For more than three hundred years, beginning in the 15th century, the slave trade grew into a huge and successful business. It transformed the lives of the Africans and Europeans forever. It brought untold misery to the Africans, and unprecedented wealth for the Europeans. It was particularly successful for the British who dominated the slave trade. Merchants, bankers, ship owners and planters all benefited considerably from slavery and the slave trade. The British West Indian planters enjoyed a monopoly in the British market for their sugar, as well as the superior status that wealth gave them.

In England during the 18th century, it was customary for wealthy West Indian planters to display their wealth when visiting England. Many of these planters were second or third sons who did not inherit their fathers' titles or wealth. Having gone to the West Indies to seek their fortune, they returned to England as wealthy men and did not hesitate to display their new-found wealth. This display took the form of having slaves attending to their every need. It became the fashion to have a retinue of slaves to accompany one on the streets of England. Very often the planters treated their slaves cruelly, and when the slaves became ill or infirm, they were abandoned on the streets and left to fend for themselves. It was atrocities such as these, that moved several persons to call for an end to the slave trade.

From 1770s onward, several influential pressure groups arose in England and France for an end to the slave trade and slavery. They became known as abolitionists. These abolitionists were religious humanitarians (Quakers, Methodists, Evangelical Anglicans, Baptists and Moravians), intellectuals, workers and a few former slaves. They mobilised popular opinion, using mass meetings and petitions. The most notable of the abolitionists were Granville Sharp, William Wilberforce, John Wesley and Thomas Buxton.

In addition to the abolitionists, there was the economist Adam Smith who argued that free labour was cheaper than slave labour, which he showed to be uneconomic.

In France and England the ideas of the Enlightenment and the French and American Revolutions also helped to fuel the demands to end slavery.

There was of course fierce opposition to the abolitionists. British planters, ship owners, merchants and bankers were in favour of continuing slavery. Their argument was that slavery was economically essential to Britain and her colonies.

Over time the abolitionists’ campaign gained momentum. William Wilberforce made several attempts to introduce a bill in parliament outlawing the slave trade. Finally in 1807 the Abolition Act was passed abolishing the slave trade. The law became operational on 1 January 1808. The abolitionists hoped that by ending the slave trade no more slaves would be coming from Africa and therefore slavery would gradually come to an end, but this was not the case. The planters continued to use slave labour on their estates.

When it became apparent that slavery was not going to end, the abolitionists tried another strategy, that was meant to make the life of the slaves less unbearable. It was called the Amelioration policy. Under this policy or law, female slaves were not to be flogged and slaves were not allowed to work on Sundays. Slaves were also to be allowed to give evidence in court as long as a Christian minister could vouch for the slave's understanding of what an oath meant. The Amelioration laws met with a lot of opposition, and when it became obvious that they would not be enforced, the abolitionists decided to try for the abolition of slavery. It took another twenty seven years after the abolition of the slave trade before slavery itself was abolished.


The end of the slave trade did not mean the end of slavery, nor did the conditions of the slaves improve very much. Granted, slaves were allowed to marry and have families, but this was for economic rather than humanitarian reasons.

In the 1820s the abolitionists began to campaign actively for the abolition of slavery. Once again they campaigned on moral grounds, but this time economic and political conditions helped their cause. It was the era of the Industrial Revolution and the economic face of Britain and Europe was changing. Adam Smith introduced the concept of Free Trade. This had a negative effect on British sugar profits. Slave plantations were inefficient, thereby making British sugar expensive. Furthermore, the only reason planters were able to sell their sugar was because Britain imposed taxes on non-British sugar. Adam Smith advocated that Britain should purchase sugar from the cheapest source available. This would make the British economy more successful. Many industrialists agreed with him. In France, beet sugar was being sold a lot cheaper than cane sugar, and the quality of the beet sugar was quite good.

In 1832 the Reform Act was passed. This act allowed members of parliament to be elected from industrial towns such as Manchester. These men wanted to see free trade established and slavery ended.

In 1833 Thomas Buxton, who succeeded Wilberforce, introduced the Emancipation Bill to parliament. The bill was passed and came into effect on 1 August 1834. Under the Act, 20,000,000 pounds sterling was to be paid to the planters as compensation for the loss of their slaves. However, with regard to the slaves, only slaves under six years old were free immediately. All slaves over six years old were obliged to serve a four to six year period of apprenticeship during which they would work for free for 40 ½ hours per week. The rationale for this was that the slaves required a period of transition so that they could get used to the responsibilities of freedom. The act did not specify how the 40 ½ hour week was to be divided and this created some confusion between the planters and the former slaves. The scheme caused such conflict that it was abandoned and on 1 August 1838, after which all British slaves were free.


Denmark abolished the slave trade in 1804, but this did not make much difference to the number of slaves transported to the Americas, since Britain and France were the most active participants in the trade. The first major victory therefore, was the abolition of the trade by the British Parliament and the US Congress.

The dates for the abolition of the slave trade are:

  • Denmark - 1804
  • Britain - 1808
  • USA - 1808
  • Holland - 1814
  • France - 1818

In 1817 Spain accepted 400,000 pounds sterling to abolish the trade in Cuba, Puerto Rico and San Domingo after 1820, but the slave trade continued to Cuba where the last recorded slave shipment was 1873.

After further protests and petitions in Europe and a spate of slave rebellions (Barbados 1816, Demerara/ British Guiana 1823, Jamaica 1831-1832), the British Parliament passed the Emancipation Act in 1833, to take effect on 1 August 1834. However all the British colonies except Antigua had a period of Apprenticeship, under which the former slaves were obliged to serve the planters from 1 August 1834 to 1 August 1838.

The years in which Emancipation took place were as follows:

  • Britain - 1834
  • France - 1848
  • Denmark - 1848
  • Holland - 1863
  • USA - 1863
  • Spain
    • Puerto Rico - 1873
    • Cuba - 1886
  • Portugal (Brazil) - 1888

On 1 January 1804 the Haitian Revolution ended slavery in Saint Domingue through the slaves' own efforts. They were led by Toussaint L'Ouverture. Haiti became the first free black republic in the Caribbean.


In August 1791, a massive slave revolt exploded in the French colony Saint Domingue, now known as Haiti. This civil unrest lasted from 1791 to 1804, and was a result of the conflicts between white planters, free coloureds, slaves and petit blancs. Other Caribbean islands experienced similar revolts but no other country was able to defeat the planters, free the slaves, and make a successful bid for independence.

The exceptional experience of Haiti can be explained by the fact that France, the colonizer, was also in a state of revolution from 1789. This lit the flame of revolution in Haiti. The principles of the French Revolution with its watchwords of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, served as an inspiration for the inhabitants of Haiti. The white planters saw it as an opportunity to secure independence from France, the free people of colour wanted full citizenship, the petits blancs wanted “active citizenship“ for all white persons, and the slaves wanted freedom. The conflict between the free coloureds and the grand blancs gave the slaves a perfect opportunity to fight for their freedom.

A slave rebellion in 1791 finally toppled the colony. Launched in August of that year, the revolt represented the culmination of a protracted conspiracy among black leaders. According to accounts of the rebellion that have been told through the years, Francois-Dominique Toussaint L'Ouverture helped plot the uprising. Among the rebellion's leaders were Boukman, a maroon and voodoo hougan (priest), Georges Biassou, who later made Toussaint his aide, Jean-Francois, who subsequently commanded the forces along with Biassou and Toussaint under the Spanish flag, and Jeannot, the blood thirstiest of them all. These leaders sealed their pact with a voodoo ceremony conducted by Boukman in the Bois Cayman in early August 1791. On 22 August, a little more than a week after the ceremony, the uprising of their black followers began.

The rebellion started in the most prosperous and densely populated part of the island which had over 40 percent of the island's slave population. The rebellion left an estimated 10,000 blacks and 2,000 whites dead, and more than 1000 plantations sacked and razed. In the midst of this Toussaint L'Ouverture emerged as one of the most notable leaders of the Haitian revolution. He organized armies of former slaves which defeated the Spanish and British forces. His ability to plough through defenses earned him the name L'Ouverture (the opening) by his followers. By 1801 he conquered Santo Domingo, present-day Dominican Republic, eradicated slavery, and proclaimed himself as governor-general for life over the whole island. He reorganized the government and instituted public improvements. He was devoted to the cause of his own people and advocated this in his talks with French commissioners.

In 1801, Napoleon Bonaparte dispatched General Leclerc, along with thousands of troops to arrest Toussaint, re-instate slavery and restore French rule. Toussaint was deceived and captured, and sent to France where he died in prison in 1803. Jean-Jacques Dessalines, one of Toussaint's generals and a former slave, led the final battle that defeated Napoleon's forces. On 1 January 1804, Dessalines renamed San Domingue under its indigeneous name Haiti, and declared the country independent, thereby making it the first black republic in the world and the first independent nation in Latin America and the Caribbean.


Trinidad was a late starter in the Plantation system. Prior to 1776 the population of the island was small, and until the 1780s there were very few African slaves living on the island. In 1783, in an effort to increase the population, and by extension the prosperity of the island, the Spanish government, which ruled Trinidad, decided to invite French planters to settle in Trinidad. A law, called the Cedula of Population, was passed to encourage migration to the island. Under this law, incentives such as free land and exemption from paying most taxes were granted. Many French settlers were willing to migrate to Trinidad. The Haitian revolution and the unrest in other French territories acted as additional incentives. Planters in Martinique, Guadeloupe and other French territories feared that what happened in Haiti could happen in those islands, and so they became afraid. They saw the opportunity to migrate to Trinidad as a blessing. As a result large numbers of French immigrants came to Trinidad complete with all their possessions, slaves and way of life. In the beginning they planted cotton, cocoa and coffee. However, by 1797 when the British conquered Trinidad, sugar had become the most important crop.

With the increase in the price of sugar in Europe more and more sugar plantations were set up to meet the increasing demand. This in turn fueled the need for more slave labour. In the beginning labour needs were met by the slaves who were brought to Trinidad with their French masters. These slaves were creole. That is, they were born in the Caribbean. As the sugar economy expanded, other slaves were imported directly from Africa via the slave trade, until eventually, the majority of the slave population were African born – Yoruba, Hausa, Congo, Ibo, Rada, Mandingo, Kromanti (Koromantyn) and Temne. By 1797 when Britain conquered the island, the slave population had risen to over 10,000. By 1802 this population has risen to about 20,000.

Tobago's experience was slightly different. When the British conquered Tobago in 1793 plantations were set up, and soon sugar became the main crop. Like other British colonies, Tobago became a slave colony. The majority of slaves came from Africa and the Tobago economy prospered. After the slave trade was abolished, however, the island's economy suffered.

The majority of Tobago's population was African - many of them from the African continent. The British white population was small, and many of the planters were absentee owners. Very few French people had ever settled on the island, and the Dutch and Courlanders had already left by the time the British took over.

Like slaves in other colonies, the slaves in Trinidad and Tobago lived in horrible conditions. Hard labour, poor food, disease and cruel masters were the order of the day. Through it all, the slaves still managed to create some sort of family life and maintain their culture. They also resisted their enslavement in several ways. There was open revolt. Slaves also ran away. They also broke plantation tools and equipment, they worked slowly, even though they were whipped for this, and they complained about their bad treatment whenever possible. The planter class retaliated predictably by flogging or torturing the slaves, or even putting them to death.

On 1 August 1838 full freedom was granted to the slaves. In both Trinidad and Tobago, many of the ex-slaves moved off the plantations. They did not want any reminders of their former masters. They set up villages close to the sugar estates, but not on the planters' land. Villages such as Belmont, Arouca, and Laventille were formed. Land was available and many of the ex-slaves bought or rented land and made a living by growing their own crops. Other slaves gravitated towards Port of Spain and San Fernando where they became artisans, craftsmen, builders and domestics.


As a means of maintaining absolute control, the slave masters tried to destroy every aspect of African cultural, social and religious traditions, and impose a Eurocentric value system on the slaves. Everything African was perceived as being heathen, backward and evil. In spite of these attempts to destroy an entire culture, some aspects of African culture have survived. Today the African influence is still present in music, dance, food, religion, language, handicraft and place names in Trinidad and Tobago.

While it is generally known that the French brought Carnival celebrations to Trinidad when they came in the 18th century, there are certain aspects of Carnival that can be traced to Africa and some of its festivals there. For example, the Egungun festival of Nigeria is reminiscent of the revelry, pantomime, street parades, music and masking that are seen in Trinidad and Rio de Janeiro carnival. Africans portray masks in their ceremonies, dances and festivals. The moko jumbie (stilt walker) and devil portrayal, and even the hat worn by the midnight robber are similar to characters played during the Nigerian festival of Egungun.


Music in African culture has a more important role than in Western cultures. In many African cultures music is used as a form of communication. It also plays an important role in religious events. Yoruba tribesmen worship the god of thunder in the Shango ritual. In Trinidad and Tobago music plays a pivotal role in African religions such as Orisha and Spiritual Baptist.

Musical instruments are varied and comprise drums, rattles, bells and any other items that can carry a rhythm. For example, the bottle and spoon are sometimes used as musical instruments at informal gatherings.

In Trinidad and Tobago African drums are used in churches, orchestras, dances and festivals. There are different types of drums such as the bougarabou, djembe, dun dun and talking drum. The bougarabou, which originated on the Ivory Coast, has a deep bass, rich full tone, and is played like a conga. It can carry the whole bass accompaniment. The dun dun is a double or single headed bass drum. It is played with sticks, wool covered beaters and the hand. The dondo or talking drum originated in West Africa. It is held under the arm and struck with a curved stick, while simultaneously squeezing the ropes to change the pitch.

The Djembe drum originated in Guinea, West Africa, and is played traditionally in countries such as Mali, Guinea, Ivory Coast and Senegal. It is considered a magical drum with powers to transport people into other worlds when played well. It is referred to as a healing drum because of its powers when played by master drummers. It has a wide variation of sound which has made it an important instrument in the percussion section of many bands. The djembe is always hand-carved from a solid piece of wood and headed with a goatskin. Originally, materials like cane, leather and wood were used for the rings and ropes, but today these are made from iron rods and synthetic rope.

The Kalimba or thumb piano (also called mbira or likembe) is a plucked idiophone unique to Africa. It is used widely throughout the continent, and is commonly played as an accompaniment to song, but in some areas it is used for purely instrumental music. Kalimbas are used in festivals, weddings and other major events, as well as daily life. After work in the evening, Africans sit in a circle, tell stories, sing and play the kalimba. The kalimba is also used to pass the time on long journeys on foot.

Rattles are commonly known in Trinidad and Tobago as “chac-chac” and, like drums, are used in churches, orchestras, dances and festivals. Rattles are mainly made from the gutted fruit of the calabash (gourd) tree which is scraped, sanded and varnished or painted. Beads and/or seeds are placed inside the instrument. It is these beads or seeds that make the rattling sound when the rattle is shaken. There are several types of rattles such as gourd rattles, round rattles, rattle sere ileke and shekeres.


The African influence can be seen in several of the folk dances of Trinidad and Tobago. Dances such as the Bongo, Kalinda, Shango and Limbo owe their roots to Africa.


The Bongo is performed at the house of the deceased on the night of the wake (the night before the funeral). The dance depicts the passing of a person from one world to the next. No costume is worn. Enclosed by a circle of people, the dancers move in the center while five or six qua-qua players are stationed at one side. The qua-qua is the musical accompaniment for the dance and is simply two pieces of bamboo struck or clapped together rhythmically by the players. The flat sound is struck in the tempo tack-tata-tack-tack, tack-tata-tack-tack.

Usually one dancer performs at a time, but several might compete by dancing together. The basic movement consists of dropping one foot behind the other which is kicked quickly, slightly forward, twice. The arms are outstretched or held slightly forward and upward. Both shake naturally as the hops and kicks are made. There are several variations on this dance.

The Kalinda is an African performance of dance, singing and stick fighting. Of these, stick fighting is the most prominent and can be seen in Trinidad and Tobago’s Carnival celebrations. Stick fighting is also called “Creole wood”, “Bois”, and “Bataille Bois”, and is performed by men only.

Normally, the stick fighting takes place in the open in a “gayelle (gayal)” or circle formed by the onlookers. The drummers squat on one side with their small keg drums: one “cutter” and two or three “foolay” men. Both hands are used in beating the drums. A small group of men consisting of a chantouelle and chorus sing the stick fight or Kalinda songs or “lam-wehs” to the rhythm of the drum. It is the chantouelle’s duty to egg on the fighters. The songs are in English and French Patois and boast of the prowess of the batonniere or stick fighter.

A “batonniere” may fight in his everyday clothes or in a special costume made of coloured satin decorated with beads, swansdown and tiny mirrors. On the chest and back are heart-shaped decorations. A head-tie is worn closely and tightly over the head with two long ends hanging on either side. Stockings and alpargatas complete the wear.

The stick, about one inch in diameter and four feet long, is a piece of cured poui or “a-ou-ray”. Some fighters “mount” their sticks. That is, they have prayers said over the stick in order to make the user invincible.

When the drumming starts, one batonniere would throw his stick inside the ring and the rival would accept the challenge by jumping in and waiving his stick. Both would dance a Kalinda jig and then move around making mock play motions with the stick. The fighters are egged on by jeers or praises. During the stick fight a blow might be made at any time. Blows are always made above the waist.

The Kalinda Dance step is a sort of jig. With body bent forward and arms, with or without stick, slightly upraised, the dancer performs rapid foot movements from side to side. Sometimes the dancer-fighter moves backward hopping on one foot while placing the other behind. All foot movements go in time with the drum beats. At the same time hands and sticks are moved about in a variety of positions.

The Shango is a religious dance of African origin and is performed in honour of the Yoruba god Shango. It is usually performed daily and nightly for three or four weeks of the year. People from far and near come to the ceremony seeking either to be cured from some sickness or to have a spell cast upon a lover or an enemy. Payment is usually in the form of donations of rum or animals such as a goat or a white fowl-cock.

The dance is performed in a tent covered with galvanized iron sheets and blocked around with coconut leaves. The audience sits around three sides of the tent on bamboo benches. Three or four drummers sit on the ground on the fourth side, while a flower-covered altar with burning candles stands in one corner. The singers, accompanied by the drummers, start off with a song of African derivation. The set of drums includes a “cutter” and one or two “foolays”, all made out of hollowed out gru gru wood and covered with dried goat skin. Each drum is beaten with the palm of one hand and a stick held in the other, or beaten with both hands.

One dancer starts off and is followed by others. The music and dance movements become increasingly frenzied until a dancer drops and writhes on the ground. At this stage the dancer is said to be possessed by the spirit. If a sacrifice is to be made, it is made at this stage.

The basic step of the Shango dance is in the rhythm. With body loose and hands raised or held behind the back, one leg with knee slightly raised, is moved forward. The foot lands flat for all movements except for the final step when the appropriate foot is pulled slightly backward. The first two steps are longish and the last three, very short. The body is allowed to move at will. The basic step is repeated all over the floor until the last stages when the legs, hands and body are flung rhythmically in all directions.

Limbo has its origins in West Africa where it was danced to train young initiates of the tribe in physical fitness. It was brought to Trinidad by slaves who practiced it at wakes during the Bong session.

Limbo is a competitive dance. Two men hold a stick horizontally while a third shuffles under it, moving forward towards the stick with the body thrown backwards. Participants compete with each other to see who could pass under the stick without touching it. Initially the bar is positioned at waist height but is lowered progressively after every set of competitors gets a turn at going under it. As the stick is lowered it becomes more difficult to get under. The victor is the person who moves under the stick at its lowest point without touching it. This is a test of strength and competitors must have supple waist lines and strong backs. Good dancers can pass under a bar as low as seven inches from the ground.

Traditionally, Limbo was found in fishing villages such as Carenage, Blanchisseuse, Mayaro, Toco and Cumana, but it became popular in the night clubs of Port of Spain during the mid-1940s, spread to other Caribbean islands and then to North America and Europe. In 1948 Limbo was taken out of the countryside and into the ballroom by Charles Espinet, Sub-editor of the Trinidad Guardian. The Youth Council of Trinidad and Tobago presented the “Little Carib Company of Dancers in Limbo” at the Overseas Forces Club in April 1948. That was the first time Limbo was presented theatrically, and since then other dance groups have included Limbo on their programmes, both at home and abroad.



The Africans were forced to learn the language of their slave masters. In doing so they developed hybrid languages in which African linguistic elements were maintained. Some places in Trinidad and Tobago were given African names. For example, Majuba and Sobo. Words such as obeah and the names of the orishas are also African words.

Also maintained were some of the folk tales that were handed down from one generation to the next in true oral tradition. The most popular of these is the story of Anansi, which originated in West Africa.

Even though the Judeo-Christian religion was imposed on the African slaves, they continued to observe their African forms of worship, sometimes in secret. Some of these rituals and ceremonies survived over the years and have been integrated with Christian practices to form two new religions that are indigenous to Trinidad and Tobago: The Orisha and Spiritual/Shouter Baptist faiths. The African traditions of music, song and dance form important aspects of these two religions.

The African people believed that the world was inhabited by good and evil spirits, and that their ancestors watched over them. Like other great civilizations, the Africans worshiped several deities. The names of these deities varied across regions, cultures and tribes. In Trinidad and Tobago some of these deities remain a part of the religious practices.

The Orishas – The spiritual powers. They possess special characteristics and govern natural forces such as thunder, lightning, rain, water, earth, wind and fire.

Shango – The god of thunder, fire and lightning.

Eshu – The messenger of the gods. He is the special relations official between heaven and earth.

Ogun – the god of war and iron.

Oya (Iyesan) – Goddess of wind, rain and storms. She is the favourite wife of Shango.

Osanyin or Orsain – The father of medicine and herbs.

Ifa – The Orisha of divination.



Slaves were fed salted codfish and pickled pork (imported from North America), and ground provision which they grew in their own small plot of land. They also planted other crops such as okra and corn (maize). The slaves were innovative and incorporated these and other foods into their diet, creating new recipes. From these innovations came dishes such as fish cakes, foo foo (pound plantain), black pudding, souse, callalloo, coo coo and oil down. Today, Caribbean cuisine is recognized for its distinctive style and flavour.



Black-eyed Peas
Maize (Corn)
Sweet Potatoes




Melegueta Pepper
Black Peppercorns
Pilau Mix
Curry Powder



The head wrap (head tie) that some women wear, and the cane row or corn row style of plaiting hair are the most obvious styles brought to Trinidad and Tobago by the Africans.


The Africans brought with them their skills in straw thatching and plaiting (braiding). Also their skills in building mud walls (tapia). However, modern methods of house building have replaced these traditional methods.

Other skills that are African in origin are carvings on handles of domestic tools, calabash etchings, carnival headpieces, and cocoyea brooms (brooms made from the mid-rib of coconut leaves).


The following is a small sample of male and female African names.


Name Meaning



Someone possessed through struggle (Nigeria)
Intelligent, uses reason (Swahili)
Male child or eldest child in the family
Strength and builder (Yoruba of Nigeria)
Prince (Swahili)
Handsome (Ethiopia)
Lion (Somalia)
Joy comes home
(Yoruba of Nigeria)
The joy of high status (Nigeria)
Of great love (Ethiopia)
Blessings from God (Ibo of Ghana)
Born on Friday
Born on Monday
Great king
Town Dweller
Wealth, prosperity (Nigeria)
Gift of God
Great one (Nigeria)
God's Gift (Hausa of West Africa)


Name Meaning
Afia (Effia)
Ainka (A-INK-KAY)
Aisha (I-EE-SHA)
Makeda (MA-KEE-DA)
Born on Thursday (Ghana)
Father's loving daughter
Born on Friday (Ghana)
The cherished one (Tonga)
She is life (Swahili)
Intelligent one who reasons
Strong African woman (Ghana)
Beautiful flower (Ethiopia)
Precious, gorgeous (Kiswahili, Somalia)
The beautiful (Ethiopia)
The happy one (Kikuyu of Kenya)
Angel (Kiswahili)
Queen (Kiswahili)
Sweet (Xhosa of South Africa)
God loves me
Born on Monday (Hausa of Nigeria)


1. African Cooking & Recipes. The Africa Guide. 1996-2005. 

2. African Treasures. 2005.

3. Alladin, M.P. Folk Dances of Trinidad and Tobago.
Maraval, Trindad: M.P. Alladin, 19-.

4. Brereton, Bridget and Gerard Besson (editors). 
The Africans, Slavery and Emancipation, pp. 99-107.
In The Book of Trinidad. Port of Spain: Paria Publishing, 1992.

5. Dookhan, Isaac. A Pre-Emancipation History of the West Indies
Harlow: Longman, 1971.

6. Duncker, Sheila. A Visual History of the West Indies.
London: Evans Brothers, 1965.

7. Elder, J.D. African Survivals in Trinidad & Tobago.
London: Karia Press, 1988.

8. Honychurch, Lennox. The Caribbean People, book 3.
Surrey Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1981.

9. Orie (Siddharta), Lester. A Dictionary of African Names:
Towards a New Consciousness.
 Princes Town, Trinidad: Siddharta, 1984.

10. Patterson, Patricia and James Carnegie. The People Who Came,
Book 2.
 Harlow: Longman, 1970.