The North African
Slave Trade Connection
To understand the origin of the banjo, one needs to look as far as the North African Slave Trade to recognize the great contribution that the African slave made in introducing to the white man, what has been called "America's instrument". As noted in Part I - Origin of the Banjo, the banjo was recognized and documented by Sir Hans Sloan observation of the enslaved African of the Caribbean.
Further connection to enslaved Africans has been found through countless documented interviews of former slaves who lived and worked on the southern plantations of the New World. The inhumane living conditions forced upon the enslaved Africans on these plantations, would leave even the strongest person demoralized. Yet, the slaves perservered through song and dance of their native customs and traditions. The earliest banjo, made of a gourd and consisting of three strings, was the focal point of these spiritual performances.
The following excerpt from "My Southern Home: or, The South and its People" documents the native customs of African tribes and the observance of the banjo player and one of the earliest forms of the instrument:
"THROUGHOUT the Southern States, there are still to be found remnants of the old time Africans, who were stolen from their native land and sold in the Savannah, Mobile, and New Orleans markets, in defiance of all law. The last-named city, however, and its vicinity, had a larger portion of these people than any other section. New Orleans was their centre, and where their meetings were not uninteresting.
Congo Square takes its name, as is well known, from the Congo negroes who used to perform their dance on its sward every Sunday. They were a curious people, and brought over with them this remnant of their African jungles. In Louisiana there were six different tribes of negroes, named after the section of the country from which they came, and their representatives could be seen on the square, their teeth filed, and their cheeks still bearing tattoo marks. The majority of our city negroes came from the Kraels, a numerous tribe who dwell in stockades. We had here the Minahs, a proud, dignified, warlike race; the Congos, a treacherous, shrewd, relentless people; the Mandringas, a branch of the Congos; the Gangas, named after the river of that name, from which they had been taken; the Hiboas, called by the missionaries the "Owls," a sullen, intractable tribe, and the Foulas, the highest type of the African, with but few representatives here.
These were the people that one would meet on the square many years ago. It was a gala occasion, these Sundays in those years, and not less than two or three thousand people would congregate there to see the dusky dancers. A low fence enclosed the square, and on each street there was a little gate and turnstile. There were no trees then, and the ground was worn bare by the feet of the people. About three o'clock the negroes began to gather, each nation taking their places in different parts of the square. The Minahs would not dance near the Congos, nor the Mandringas near the Gangas. Presently the music would strike up, and the parties would prepare for the sport. Each set had its own orchestra. The instruments were a peculiar kind of banjo, made of a Louisiana gourd, several drums made of a gum stump dug out, with a sheepskin head, and beaten with the fingers, and two jaw-bones of a horse, which when shaken would rattle the loose teeth, keeping time with the drums. About eight negroes, four male and four female, would make a set, and generally they were but scantily clad."
Digital Image Political Cartoon Used by Permission of
Fine Arts Museum, Harvard University.
1 Page 122-123 "My Southern Home: Or, The South And Its People.", By WM. Wells Brown M.D. Author Of "Sketches Of Places And People Abroad," "Clotelle," "The Black Man," "The Negro In The Rebellion," "The Rising Son," Boston: A. G. Brown & CO., Publishers, 28 East Canton Street. 1880. Copyright, 1880, By Anne G. Brown, Electrotyped And Printed By Duffy Cashman & CO., Fayetter Court, Boston