Creolizing Currents: Bambara

West Africans Disembark from French Ships in Colonial Louisiana, 1719-1743

The first ship bringing captive African peoples to Louisiana arrived in 1719. In the next twelve years, another 5,561 African people were brought to French Colonial Louisiana. They came from West Africa — the Fon and Ewe from Dahomey, the Bambara from Mali, and the Wolof (Diaulauf in French), Fulani and Mandingo (Malinka) from Mali and Senegal. These new arrivals from Africa encountered a chaotic natural, religious, political and cultural setting. But from the very beginning, they contributed their own culture, skills and artistry that made Colonial Louisiana distinctive, a distinction that survives to this day in modem New Orleans.

That first two ships, the Duc Dumaine and l'Aurore, arriving from Whydah (Juda, Ouidah) in the Gulf of Benin, brought Fon peoples, but in addition, rice and "persons who knew how to cultivate it," according to the specific instructions of governor Bienville in Nouvelle Orléans. This variety of wet rice provided a stable, reliable source of food that sustained the colony even when rain and floods ravaged crops of corn and other grains. It was the African peoples who turned the swamps into rice fields, building dikes and valves to control the water. It was the Wolof people from Senegal who cooked the rice with okra and seafood to create jambalaya. And it was the Bambara of Mali who named a dish gumbo. The Bambara term for okra was gombo. Another food staple that is well known today with its origins in Africa is cous cous.

The African peoples were put to work clearing the land, digging canals, building and restoring levees, and planting and harvesting crops. But they were also called upon to share their skills and expertise in metalworking, boat building, river transport and navigation, and medicine. Indeed, their religious beliefs provided the basis for virtually all of the needs of a colonial society — healing, magic and art. Their effective use of herbs aided in curing and preventing diseases (their cure for scurvy was discovered, and disregarded, as early as 1734, involving the application of a paste of herbs and lemon juice). But this knowledge also informed the practice of magic using herbs, poisons and charms. This latter skill survives in contemporary Louisiana today, known by the African terms gris-gris, zin zin and wanga. Religion also filled the art created by the African people in Louisiana. The colors, patterns, designs, signs, numbers and ornaments of the art object all had religious significance. For example, the number 3 represented men, the number 4 represented women and the number 7 represented all people and god.

In Bambara life there was no separation between artisanship, artistic creation and religious observance; they were animists wherein they drew upon the world around them and its denizens, like antelopes, serpents, rabbits and turtles for their spiritual life. This exhibition contains examples of art and wrought iron work from three of the locations in Africa that were home to the peoples brought to French colonial Louisiana in the first half of the 18th century. Primarily, the masks, head dresses, locks and society sculptures are Bambara because two thirds of the people brought to Louisiana were Bambara from the country we now know as Mali. The ships' captains bought the Bambara from their then conquerors, the Mandingo or Malinka, who were Moslems. The Bambara captifs were brought to the Senegal coast via the Gambia River. Futa was the source of the Gambia and the trip to the Atlantic was seven hundred miles. The Gambia River, the most navigable waterway in West Africa, was a long-time highway for slave ships from the 1500s. The French ships that bought the slaves at Goré, Arguin or Port Louis had embarked at Brest, Nantes or Lorient in Brittany. The latter city became the capital of the French Company of the Indies, reorganized into a world-wide slaving and mercantile enterprise by John Law in the early 1720s.

The Bambara art, sculpture and wrought iron were left behind but they brought with them, and preserved, besides the tiny charms and symbolic jewelry, the culture of creativity and joyfulness. Since Bambara culture was an animist culture and their spiritual life emanated from nature and the animals and creatures around them, their griots told animal tales and their sculptors carved in Africa, but since griots and sculptors and iron workers were considered very special contributors to Bambara culture, they were not warriors and they were seldom captured or sold.

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The New Orleans African American Museum (NOAAM) is located in Faubourg Treme, at 1418 Governor Nicholls Street, phone (504) 566-1136.

Generous assistance provided by the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and Foundation.