2016 (Jerome S. Handler) “My Daddy was a Great Man in my Country”: Sibell, An enslaved African in Barbados relates her life story
Sibell was an “old” woman of African birth who, in 1799, narrated a brief account of her life to John Ford in Barbados. Ford’s identity is unknown though he was probably a white creole sensitive to the dialect (or the English creole language) of enslaved people on the island.
Ford’s transcription of Sibell’s account and another one by “Ashy of the Fantee tribe” ended up in the Bodleian library at the University of Oxford. The transcription came to Oxford sometime before 1893 — probably much earlier — but how it got there is not known. In July 1974, I consulted and transcribed both accounts. Details on the background and context of these accounts, including notes on the possible identity of the transcriber and various linguistic and African ethnographic references, as well as full transcriptions of the two accounts, can be found in my article, “Life Histories of Enslaved Africans in Barbados” (Slavery & Abolition 19 : 129-140; see this website for a copy).
Regardless of some possible inaccuracies in Ford’s transcriptions, the narratives apparently represent the enslaved Africans’ legitimate voices. A variety of linguistic features as well as African ethnographic data in the narratives argue for their authenticity. See John R. Rickford and Jerome S. Handler, “Textual Evidence on the Nature of Early Barbadian Speech, 1676-1835″ (Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages 9 : 221-55). These features make a strong case that the narratives reflect the actual speech of the enslaved individuals; they also express, however briefly and imperfectly, their genuine thoughts and feelings.
While I was in Coventry, England, in November 1999, I asked Marcia Burrowes, a Barbadian friend then doing doctoral studies at the University of Warwick, to read Sibell’s account in Bajan, the English creole or dialect of Barbados. She was asked to pretend she was an older/elderly woman (Marcia had earlier acting experience) and with a small hand-held tape recorder we recorded her reading of Sibell’s account. This unique recording is now placed before a wider audience which both Marcia Burrowes (now on the faculty of the University of West Indies, Cave Hill, Barbados) and I hope will be particularly useful to teachers on secondary and college-university levels.
Listen to Sibell’s account here (the listener is urged to follow along with the published transcription, below).
Massah! my Daddy was a great man in my country and called Makerundy, he have great many slaves, and hire many man – And one of my Budders was a great man in de fight in my country – my Daddy nebber want – he have ground two, tree miles long and hire as many man dat he put de vittles in large tubs for dem – When he cut honey, he fill tree, four barrel he have so muchee. When we want good drink in my Country we go and cut de Tree and de juice will run, and keep some time will make good strong drink. I bin veddy fond of my sister- and she went out of de house one Day and let me alone, and my Budder in Law come in, and take me up and say he going to carry me to see his udder Wife. he take and carry, carry, carry, carry, carry me all night and day, all night and day `way from my Country- in de way me meet a Man and de Man know my Daddy and all my Family – Ah! Budder (me beg pardon for calling you Budder, Massah) you see me here now but dere has bin grandee fight in my country for me, for he will tell my Family – As my budder in law carry me `long, me hear great noise, and me wonder, but he tell me no frighten – and he carry me to a long House full of new Negurs talking and making sing – But veddy few of dem bin of my Country and my Budder in Law sell me to de Back-erah’ people. Me nebber see de White people before, me nebber see de great ships pon de water before, me nebber hear de Waves before which me frighten so much-ee dat me thought me would die. My Budder in Law took up de Gun and de Powder which he sell me for and wanted to get `way from me, but me hold he and cry – and he stop wid me till me hold Tongue and den he run away from me – De sailors keep me in dere long time and bring down two, tree ebbery day till de long house bin full – Dere bin many Black people dere veddy bad man, dey talk all kind of Country and tell we all dat we going to a good Massah yonder yonder, where we would workee, workee picka-nee-nee and messy messy’ grandee and no fum-fum. Me no know nobody in de House, but ven me go in de ship me find my country woman Mimbo, my country man Dublin, my Country woman Sally, and some more, but dey sell dem all about and me no savvy where now. [At this point, the transcriber writes] “Here she burst into tears and could say no more.”