The Melungeons blog

Thursday, February 14, 2008


For the past 375 years Barbados has been anglophone. Due to its position as the most easterly island in the Caribbean, it was early recognised to be of strategic naval and military importance and with the popularity of sugar which was introduced to the island by the Dutch from Brazil, the tiny island loomed large as Britain's most prosperous colony. The spread of sugar plantations precipitated migration to the other colonies as those bondsmen who were to be paid in land at the end of their service were unable to secure the ten acres that was their due. May Lumsden states that from 1650 to 1680 nearly 30 000 of the 80 000 original settlers of Barbados moved on to the North American mainland or to other islands and credits this outflow to the North American colonies with the introduction of "ideas, capital, agricultural know-how, a gracious life-style, as well as a determination to work and prosper." [1] Today, many of the descendants of early settlers of America can trace their ancestry to Barbados so that as a foremost colony with unbroken records of its English speaking inhabitants since 1637, Barbados' history cannot be discounted in any study of the English speaking Americas and its peoples.

Familiarity with those records of Barbados settlers indicates that there were small endogamous groups of non-English peoples who anglicised their names. In comparing the oral history of my own family with that of the written records, I came to the conclusion that they had originally been Flemish and by 1715 had done what others were doing, and that was to bring their names in line with English domination of the island. This practice of accomodation by adjustment of surnames in Barbados is the precedent for the mystery to which Brent Kennedy points concerning Melungeon surnames and the Melungeon claim to be other than English.

In Kennedy's history of the Melungeons, there is a marked pattern, a parallel, to be found in Barbados, not associated so much with the love child who was incorporated into the plantocracy both in North and South America and in Barbados but with the ones who were referred to as "abandoned people", a name which aptly describes what Kennedy translates from Turkish as being "melun-can" - a lost soul. Together, "lost soul" and "abandoned people" convey the sense of dispossession and of alienation from mainstream society in a period of history when in this hemisphere persons were forcibly removed from their homelands and left to fend for themselves in unaccustomed environments. [2]

On the other hand, melungeon may be, as Kennedy also offers, simply the Portuguese word for mixed race and this would tie into their claims to be Portuguese, which then leads us to yet another group of unsettled people, in search of land, a new identity and acceptance and these would be persons connected with Jewish communities who had become conversos. Jewish emigres from Brazil migrated to Barbados in 1654. According to Shilstone by the end of the seventeenth century there were about 250 living on the island and "although mainly Portuguese, were gathered from all parts of the world". There was also reference to Jews in Barbados since 1628. This figure of 250 most likely can only apply to practising Jews. [3] Under the Inquisition Jews had been persecuted for their religious beliefs so that fleeing from Mexico and Brazil, some of their households would have accepted christianity as a protection and, in so doing, would have stressed their kinship with the Christian nations rather than with Judaism. Cromwell offered asylum to the Jews of Europe to settle in Barbados and a synagogue has been in existence in Barbados since 1664. Mixed race persons from Jewish households might therefore have found it preferable when removed to another colony to identify with the culture from which they had sprung. For instance, in 1729 Jacob Valverde made a bequest to his daughter of the "Indian Wench Sary" and to his son, "the negro Woman called Esparansa." Esparansa was no doubt an anglicisation of the Spanish 'Esperanza'. [4] When such mixed persons escaped to a better life it would have been more politic to stress their Spanish heritage to account for their darker skin.

Since Barbados was at the centre of English colonialism, in this article, therefore, I would wish to give a brief outline of Barbados history and draw the parallels between the Melungeons and the poor whites and poor coloureds of Barbados - the red people, because they are brothers in poverty and the love child is their sister.

Displacement and the Melting Pot:

In the midst of later conflicting evidence as to the number of persons settled by Sir William Courteen on the island of Barbados, the Sloan Manuscript 2441, recorded in the Journal of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society, sets out an Account of His Majesty's Island of Barbados and the Government Prepared about 1684 which describes the first ship load of settlers from England thus:
"In 1626 Courteen settled 1850 men, women and children - English, Indians and others." [5]

It is to those "Indians and Others" that historians and genealogists must now turn our attention as it demonstrates the genesis of the relegation of certain peoples to a non-existent status because even though there is some evidence of a lively slave trade between North America and Barbados in Native Americans taken from the American accounts unearthed by Jack Forbes and Barbara Olexer it has been the official position in Barbados that only a few Native Americans, mostly from South America, were enslaved here. Yet, as pointed out in Love Child, there are references to slaves whose names are re-echoed in North America. [6] Chief among these is Cumba/Coombah which Kennedy attributes to the Lumbee/Croatan of North and South Carolina. [7]

In Barbados, the term "abandoned people" was used to describe an endogamous group of poor, white-skinned people who were also called "poor backras or buckras", a name not far removed from the epithet "buck" used to describe male North American Natives and Natives of Guyana in South America. This reference to abandonment was used by the upper classes, the high whites and the high browns, and even though this community which has sister communities in the Grenadines and St. Vincent appeared to be Cauacasians they were yet called, by visibly African people, "red", the same term used to describe Native Americans, as opposed to the Europeans who were always referred to as "white".

Added to this mosaic were the victims of the African slave trade moving from Africa to Barbados and on to the American colonies together with the other hidden trade in Native American slaves moving from the colonies to Barbados and other islands which is yet to be fully documented; but it is crucial to understanding the history of those light-skinned persons who, having been born outside the pale, whether separate or of combined Native American, European and African origin saw a chance to remove themselves from the taint of slavery by transferring to the North American colonies, those among them who had the means being assimilated into frontier society and those without, being cast out.

Since the belief was cemented that there were few Indians enslaved in Barbados, Price took the trodden path that the name Red Legs and Red Shanks which applied in South Carolina to persons of Indian descent could not have the same meaning in Barbados but applied as he was told to kilted highlanders. [8] No one took the time to analyse the names in the slave inventories. For instance, in 1650 Colonel William Hilliard of Somerset leased Henley Plantation on the East Coast for 99 years to six gentlemen "... with all negroes Indians and other slaves with all cattel household stuff..." Six years later he deeded the plantation to his son in law "in consideration of marriage between Meliora daughter of the said William Hillyard" and one of the above lessees together "with all negroes Indians and others." [9]

Although the documents speak to Indians in the plural only one woman is singled out as being such. In the first deed, her name is given as Simmy and in the other as Syminige which name is phonetically the same as the Yoruba Sheminige. All other slaves are called "negro" and the Mareahs of the first document are spelt in the second in their Spanish form which is Maria. This tiny clue bears witness to a later statement by a Governor of Spanish Florida that the English were kidnapping mestizos - half-breeds. The Hilliard inventory therefore marks a sinister trend and that is that Native American ancestry was being officially erased or subsumed under the European or African partner's category.

A footnote to the Hilliard Deeds is the appearance of a paradox. Hilliard records that 23 new slaves who are obviously second generation since they have Christian names were brought to Barbados on the May Flower commandeered by Captain Hunte. It would be ironical if this is the same good ship the Mayflower which brought passengers to religious freedom in North America and alternatively brought others to be shackled in Barbados.

As for Moors in the Caribbean, Pere Labat left that record of them in the French islands. In the English colonies, the West African peoples of Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal were the ones who were highly favoured and the ones most likely to be chosen as overseers and, more importantly, to be given Native American wives before the influx of African women made it unnecessary. The first baptismal records of Barbados also indicate that several people were baptised without reference to their parents and, especially, without reference to their mothers, which leads to the very simple conclusion that these mothers were in fact non-Europeans. Stemming from Barbados, therefore, one could find a multi-racial group of people of varying hues who could claim an ancestor who was Portuguese, Dutch, English, Scotch-Irish, West African or Native American but who were themselves anglophone.

Parallel Surnames

Of the Barbados Census of 1680, David Kent remarks that among those of the Hebrew nation are people with Portuguese surnames but Lumsden further elucidates that many of the emigrants from Brazil had earlier had their abode in Amsterdam. This combination of Dutch and Portuguese speaking Jews may comprise a small part of the claim of some Melungeons to be of Dutch or Portuguese descent since the Jewish people were particularly versatile in adapting their surnames to suit their temporary abode, for example, Navarrh could have been derived from Navarrhoe, an early Barbados Jewish name. The names Gibson and Davis which feature in Kennedy's lists as being Redbones are re-echoed in Price's reference to transplanted Barbadian Red-Legs to St. Vincent and Bequia, neighbouring islands.

The history of Flemish ingenuity and their resistance to Spanish oppression by settlement in the Netherlands and in Britain is a key to understanding social relationships and inter-marriage patterns in Barbados and elsewhere because it shows that people who have been separated by nations often seek out their ethnic groups when they come into unfamiliar surroundings. By this period, the Flemish people had either become British like Sir William Courteen or were known as Dutch like Governor Groenewegen to whom Courteen's men resorted for assistance in setting up the colony.

In 1651, however, Sir George Ayscue with his fleet banished the Dutch from Barbados. So where did they go when thrust out of Barbados? The American frontier is the most likely place. The appearance of people on the mainland who have no previous record among the so-called white inhabitants of Barbados may be explained by the possibility that some persons had slipped abroad without licences to travel to another colony. By 1663, Barbadians were showing interest in colonising Carolina and many of the Melungeon names are to be found in Barbados.

Kennedy astutely pointed to the presence of Turkish artisans among the English and the possibility of gypsies being among early colonists, a hypothesis which is ably confirmed for the latter group by The Calendar of State Papers of 1679 which records the following proposal to the King and Council:
"to constitute an office for transporting to the plantations all vagrants, rogues, and idle persons that can give no account of themselves, felons who have the benefit of clergy, such as are convicted for petty larceny, vagabonds, gypsies, and low persons, making resort to unlicensed brothels, such persons to be transported from the nearest seaport, and to serve four years according to the laws and customs of those islands, if over twenty years of age." [10]

Slavery and Prejudice

The sense of superiority which naturally arises when one group takes control of another's destiny is no new phenomenon. It runs through the history of mankind and this is why this writer considers the Melungeon movement to be so important at this juncture in history as a force resistant to racist rhetoric so that persons who acknowledge the contribution of their multi-ethnic ancestors reflected in their own lives powerfully disprove charges of intellectual inferiority which the bigoted would like to see as inherent in any one people.

On one hand, the South Carolina courts [11] were in essence saying that a mixed race person with property and known association with whites could be deemed white with all the attendant privileges of that status but, on the other hand, a slave, no matter how far he was removed from his African ancestry, could have no such aspirations. In Barbados, the principle was the same, though strongly denied. The closeness that obtained between Barbados and the Carolinas and Virginia in particular with so many persons of the pioneer companies having proceeded from Barbados makes this phenomenon very understandable as the genesis for the need for isolation and the imparting of extreme prejudice to subsequent generations which, in Barbados, gave birth to a visibly white community yet known as Red, their original status.

Other Parallels

The Calendar of State Papers for 1657 gives the unique description of the labour policies on Barbados in which the Irish "were derided by the negroes as white slaves" and records that negroes were being employed at trades rather than the the English, Scotch and Irish. Two years before the official report it was recorded that the import of Irish people as labour was being resisted by the English because the Irish were wont to throw in their lot with the escaped slaves yet the written record on Barbados is that the Irish never intermarried with the escapees they joined forces with.

1) Isolation

Forbes came to the conclusion that many of the removed Native Americans were engaged in fishing activities. Early Barbados history confirms that the captured natives were being used as fishermen as well as house servants and coincidentally, pockets of white communities with a non-European culture were springing up being termed Red-Legs or Poor Backras marrying among themselves. Early photographs of Red-Legs show a marked resemblance to some of Kennedy's portraits of Native American and Melungeon families.

On Barbados, the Red-Leg community centred on the hilly, isolated areas of Irish Town and the Scotland District which has led historians to believe that they were an unmixed remnant of Scotch-Irish. The eating habits formerly ascribed to them of eating lice, crickets and bonavist, a type of bean, however indicates more than Irish origins. Impoverished through lack of opportunity these communities were referred to as "abandoned people".

2) Degradation:
The accounts of the Red-Leg during slavery is that of collaboration with slaves to steal their masters' goods and of care extended to them by slaves who were better clothed and fed. These accounts are at variance with that of an editorial written in the Barbadian newspaper of 1861 which stated that "they became the armed protectors of the proprietary againt the insurrection of the slaves." It is the same job description for Amerindians in Guyana and Indian trackers elsewhere. In that editorial, emphasis was loaded on their being descended from "gentlemen, clergy, officers of the army and navy, industrious families of the middle classes in England, sturdy English labourers..." [12] Though true to one extent, no reference was made to the mixed ancestry of the mates of these English persons.
Early accounts of their lifestyle of squalor, loose living and thievery were not explained except by the word "abandoned". Their poverty was accepted and even their education was limited by the plantocracy as being suitable for an underclass. Some Red Legs of Barbados, as the Melungeons of Appalachia, eventually removed themselves from European aggression and African infiltration but this is only half the story. The other half I attempted to cover in the story of the love child, the ones who were assimilated into European communities as they settled in England, the Commonwealth and North America.

In conclusion, the rediscovery of the history of the Melungeons, as related by Brent Kennedy, is of one people linked by our Native American ancestry throughout the Caribbean and the Americas. To be melungeon in today's world is to have the courage to acknowledge the mosaic of our ancestral heritage and to revel in the various aspects of those cultures which have formed us; but it goes further than that. I believe that it must rank as the start of a movement to uncover the truth of human history without racial bias because it is clear that if, within 400 years, the record of some peoples' existence can be so mangled that only a glossy official record remains, then what has been accepted as truth concerning ancient empires must be challenged so that there are no missing gaps; and that, I think, must be our mission.

Lila Salazar is a graduate of the University of theWest Indies
and is a genealogist. She has written a guide to the
social history of Barbados, titled Love Child.

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