The Journal of Caribbean History: Volume 39, Issue 1

Article 6
A Multi-Functional Space: The Uses of Rituals Among Enslaved and Freed Afro-Caribbean Peoples

Edwina Ashie-Nikoi


This article examines enslaved and freed Afro-Caribbean people’s utilization of ritual practices. It argues that rituals were a means by which Afro-Caribbean societies “remembered”, recalling their pasts as well as commenting upon and recording their present for the use of future generations. Rituals were also used for resistive purposes and fostered and strengthened a liberationist ethos. They were the mechanism by which Afro-Caribbean peoples soothed the pains of their collective present and built communities. Further, the article argues that within this process of healing and community building, rituals served as the locus of perhaps the most vital of New World inventions – the Afro-Creole identity. Ritual action galvanized the creation of an Afro-Trinidadian, Carriacouan, and Afro-Jamaican identity, among others. By proceeding on the premise that rituals such as Junkanoo, Carnival, Vodun, and Big Drum chronicled and visually illustrated the historical and social realities of Afro-Caribbean communities, this work identifies them as ritual lieux de mémoire, useful avenues through which the submerged historical voices of black subalterns may be excavated. The study of rituals is important to the recovery and understanding of any society’s past but is especially so in those, such as the community of enslaved persons in the Caribbean, that record(ed) their histories in nonwritten forms. Echoing the caveat that “anthropological means do not offer any infallible paths to historical ends”,1 this article proposes that a more nuanced reading of the Afro-Caribbean past is available through a critical examination of the region’s main rituals.