African religions and Islam

Although today it is primarily church buildings that stand as monuments to the religious life of the past, for a long time the predominant worldview was not the Christian one, but the various African religions that the enslaved Africans had brought with them across the Atlantic Ocean.

Since they came from all over the West African region – from modern Senegal to Angola today – there were obviously many very different religions and worldviews, not all of which can be described under one heading. However, most of the religions that were taken to the Danish West Indies were characteristically based on three main ideas:

  • One pantheon of deities.
  • The notion of a spirit world in which spirits – including the ancestors – are present and affect the world of the living.
  • Notions that people were not only influenced by the spirits, but could also – indeed had to – influence them by performing religious rituals.

Some deities were linked to specific articles like certain rocks, trees or rivers. That these objects remained in Africa meant that they were reinterpreted or reinvented by Africans in the Caribbean. Others were not tied to concrete objects but to concepts like certain types of stone, trees or species of snake or the like which could more easily be brought over.

One example is the ‘gri-gri tree’ on the old map of St. Thomas, west of Charlotte Amalie. ‘Gri-gri’ means magic, and a large gri-gri tree is marked on several maps from 1716 to 1787. Perhaps it is shown as a landmark, but it is also probable it is an indication that this was a tree that Afro-Caribbeans recognized and worshipped as their god.

As new generations of Afro-Caribbeans were born, the boundaries between the different African religions dissolved. Although in the early generations many people got together with friends and partners of the same origin as themselves, this was not the case with all. The Africans and their children both formed networks across ethnic boundaries, which meant that the cultures gradually began to blend.

Simultaneously, more and more turned Christian, and an entirely new worldview was created. Thus there arose both a Creole culture, and presumably a more or less uniform religion based on a mixture of African and Creole culture; but gradually this was pushed into the background in favour of Christianity. We know very little of exactly how the changes happened. The mixture of religions took place over a long period, and the ethnic differences only broke down over time. A common feature of the African religions in the Caribbean was that they were not practised in fine buildings like Christian religions, so there are no buildings that relate to this side of religious life in the colony. There are sites linked to stories about African religion, and there are historical sources that speak of religious rites and where they were held.

The villages of the enslaved Africans on the plantations were one centre of religious life; the other was ‘the bush’; a term covering the forest, scrub and remote wilderness areas where Europeans did not go. In the enslaved African’s villages the common land was the centre for religious gatherings, where music and dance often played a significant role. Sometimes the religious community would assemble in the shelter of a home to perform religious rites of a more private nature, such as sacrifices to ancestors or personal deities.

In the bush similar rites were performed. But more sinister rituals associated with the religious sphere – such as harmful witchcraft – also took place there, away from the eyes of others.

It is important to point out that not everyone in the Danish West Indies placed the same rituals and religious beliefs within the same category. For most Afro-Caribbeans the negative aspects of spirituality were those that sought to harm others. Most Europeans were either indifferent to, feared or wished to stop anything associated with African religions that they could not understand. The space in which Afro-Caribbeans had to cultivate their own religions was therefore largely defined by the Europeans in power – the administration and plantation owners.

Some of the Africans who came to the Danish West Indies were Muslims. Islam was widespread in the Senegal-Gambia area and inland throughout West Africa, where the enslaved Africans were also abducted. Contemporary sources indicate that the Afro-Caribbeans included Muslims who practised their religion, but elsewhere in America, the concentration would probably been greater. There seems to have been no major Muslim community in the Danish West Indies of the kind seen elsewhere.

On the other hand, it is possible that the Muslims quickly identified one another. It is therefore also likely that some of them served as preachers, even though this is not indicated in the sources, and that they may have held religious gatherings, as we also know from secondary sources in Brazil.