Monthly Archives: March 2022

Slave Talk and Dutch Creole in ‘Night of the Silent Drums'(1975)

During the weekly Zoom conversations between Gilbert Sprauve, Gylchris Sprauve, Peter Stein and me, about our project to present examples of Virgin Islands Dutch Creole to the people of the US Virgin Islands, It is not our goal to only show texts, but also to add historical and cultural context. There is a lot of textual material from the eighteenth century, however almost all of these texts were made by missionary translators. Only one ‘Farewell song’ by an enslaved person is known, the so called ‘E Samja-song’ which was published in Die Creol Taal (1996). There must have been more which for instance can be found in the records which are stored in Danish Royal Archives which are online available (here). Since the first mention of Virgin Islands Dutch Creole is form 1736, it is well possible that this language was used during the rebellion of the enslaved and maroons of St. Jan in 1733, which was one of the earliest and longest slave revolts in the America’s (Wikipedia).

With regard to this rebellion, Gilbert Sprauve reminded me to the novel Night of the Silent Drums, a narrative of slave rebellion in the Virgin Islands. It was written by John L. Anderson and was published in 1975. In The Netherlands, where I live, the work is very hard to find and so I ordered one from a bookshop on the other end of the world, Sydney, Australia.

Gilbert Sprauve obtained his copy in the 1970s from the author, and I hope he will tell me more about this contact. Because when my copy arrived, it appeared that it had a glossary of eight pages, containing words and expressions in Dutch Creole and Slave Talk. That’s strange, I never heard the latter with regard to the Dutch Creole of the Danish Westindies. In the text we quite often find words from Dutch or Dutch Creole, in italics or in roman, not only as the language of enslaved people or of the local colonists, but also als common words in the plantation community. For instance the word gut (Dutch Creole) for ‘Ranges in meaning form “gully” to “ravine”, like the arroyi of the American southwest and the wadi of North Africa.’ (Anderson 1975: 397), which is from Dutch goot ‘gutter, drain, ditch’.

The novel is a narrative about the run-up to and the story of the rebellion of the enslaved and maroons on St. Jan in 1733. A Wikipedia article about it can be found here. The reader follows several character, which are mentioned in a separate register. It was eye opening to read about these persons, whom I already ‘knew’ from the research of the censuses of the end of the 17th century for my article ‘Maternity visit to St. Thomas’ and the chapter about it in my Ph.D. dissertation: Van Stell, Stallart and Van Beverhout (Bewerhout in the novel). However it was even more interesting to get to know the enslaved ones by name and history. Although it is presented as a novel, the story of the rebellion comes to live when you know the characters are not fictional.

On the dust jacket, the editor presents some information about John L. Anderson and his relation to St. John.: ‘John L. Anderson first became interested in the story of this slave rebellion in 1935 when he and his wife spent theri honeymoon on the then little known island of St. John, Since that time, learning about the rebellion has been a hobby which has occupied much of his spare time. To do his research, he has had to learn to read nine different languages all in the 18th century handscript and he has traveled widely, discovering material in places from the Danish Archives in Washington D.C., in Berkely, California, to the Moravian Church Archives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to Copenhagen and the Library of the King of Denmark.’

This is interesting: I have never thought about Danish Archives in Washington D.C. to get to know more about the rebellion! Unfortunately, the sources Anderson used to write the novel are not mentioned in the book. The names of the inhabitants of St. Jan and those of the plantations, can be found quite easy, but what puzzles me is the source of the Creole texts Anderson presents.

In several occasions Dutch Creole or Slave Talk is used in conversations, but it is not clear (enough) to me which dialects of Creole are indicated by these names. For instance Hem sa rie ‘he shall ride’ is called Dutch Creole, while Ju slaaf sa rie? ‘Your slave shall ride? is Slave Talk. The sentences are not from eighteenth century sources I know and it is even unclear for me whether he had the possibility to use the wordlists of De Josselin de Jong and Hesseling. Did perhaps Gilbert Sprauve help Anderson? I will ask him during our next meeting.