Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Sayfa Ar'ad and Solomonic Rulers

Tarik Amba is one of the better podcasts on Ethiopian history. Sadly, it has not been updated frequently. For our purposes, we wanted to share an episode on some of the Solomonic rulers in the medieval era. One of them, Sayfa Ar'ad, or Seife Ared, became a character representing Ethiopia (and Black Africa) in a romance of Sayfa b. Dhi Yazan in Mamluk Egypt.

Monday, May 29, 2023

The Savior of Bornu


J.R. Milsome's biography of Muhammad al-Amin al-Kanemi, El-Kanemi: the Savior of Bornu, was written for children within the first decade of Nigerian independence. Keeping those two facts in mind, it can excuse this biography somewhat. After all, would Muhammad al-Amin al-Kanemi have cared for Borno to be a part of the Nigerian nation? Does it really make any sense to consider him one of the makers of Nigeria? Only in the sense of promoting Nigerian unity after independence does this biography make even a little sense. As a book for children, Milsome was also able to take certain liberties and not cite any sources. Instead, he can create dialogue to add additional dialogue, details, or characterization to the the life of al-Kanemi. 

Unfortunately, Milsome gets some of the facts wrong and this book is far less useful than that of Brenner for a comprehensive biography of al-Kanemi. For instance, Milsome incorrectly labels al-Kanemi's Fazzani mother as a woman from Tripolitania. He also mentions Egypt as one of the places where al-Kanemi studied for years as a child. This could be true, but more reputable sources mention Tripoli. Furthermore, some of the most interesting episodes in al-Kanemi's political career are excluded. His early marriage to a local chief or ruler's daughter in the town he resided in before being called by the Sayfawas to liberate Gazargamo is omitted from this biography. Neither is al-Kanemi's frustrated ambitions to permanently reconquer Kanem or his "troubled" relations with Yusuf Qaramanli and the Fazzani appear. Nor, for that matter, did the tale of the disastrous Mandara expedition appear in Milsome's biography. 

The errors and omissions in this biography are rather shameful. Young adult readers could benefit from a more critical biography that contextualizes the life of al-Kanemi in a period of political and spiritual transformation in West Africa and the realpolitik of statecraft in the Central Sudan. It could also have, perhaps, through the eventual peace between Sokoto and Borno, been used to promote a model of Northern Nigerian coexistence or harmony. Nonetheless, the creative illustrations are a nice touch, even if the depictions of al-Kanemi do not match those found in Denham, Clapperton and Oudney.

Irving Rouse and the Tainos

 Although trying to catch up with the current trends in Caribbean precolonial history and archaeology is an ongoing process, Irving Rouse's The Tainos: Rise & Decline of the People who Greeted Columbus is more nuanced and relevant than we thought. As a towering figure in "Taino Studies" and Caribbean archaeology during the 20th century, Rouse's work is inescapable. However, we were under the impression that today's scholars are more skeptical of some of Rouse's framework and assumptions of "primitive" pre-ceramic indigenes in the Greater Antilles. However, after reading Rouse, one finds that he recognized the cultural complexity of the "Taino" peoples in his division of their societies into Eastern, Classic, and Western branches. Moreover, he acknowledged that migration should be not be presumed to be the major factor behind major changes in culture or ceramics in the Antilles. 

While he perhaps exaggerated by referring to the Saladoid expansion in the Antilles as the cause of a "genocide" of archaic, earlier populations in the Antilles, they undoubtedly were among the important ancestors of the people who went on to become known as "Tainos" by today's scholars. Studies of the ancient DNA samples and mythology also suggest a rather pronounced South American Amazonian origin for the population of the Antilles. The two earlier cultures identified by Rouse, the Casimiroid and Ortoiroid, undoubtedly helped shape the development of "Tainoness" in ways that younger generations of archaeologists can hopefully uncover. But the later "Saladoid" expansion through the Antilles does seem to have played a major role among the ancestors of the Tainos. The numerous interaction spheres across bodies of water that connected different parts of the archipelago and the South American mainland are also fascinating topics, pointing to how movement across maritime highways was the avenue for exchange. Caribbean people have always been on the move, between islands and between islands and the continent.

However, Rouse's study is somewhat outdated despite its recognition of the Taino cultural legacy in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. Despite acknowledgment of the cultural, linguistic, and biological legacy of the Taino in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, Rouse believed the Taino disappeared by 1540 or so. The full story of the disintegration of Taino communities and their role in shaping the colonial period is worthy of monograph-length study itself. Rouse did not do justice to this in the chapter on the fall of the Taino, and we are sure neo-Tainos would take issue with Rouse's description of it. In addition, a more detailed analysis of the rise of chiefdoms or more complex polities on Hispaniola and Puerto Rico could have been included in the chapters on the origins of the Classic Tainos to assist readers with understanding the origins and dynamics of political organization. If zemis, for instance, date back to the early Cedrosan Saladoid expansion in the Antilles, and evidence for conuco mound agriculture in the Cibao perhaps began in the 1200s or so, is it possible that some indigenous societies had reached the chiefdom stage earlier without conucos for yuca cultivation? What was the role of long-distance trade in this process?

Njimi, Kanem


A video on the work of archaeologists such as Carlos Magnavita and others who may have identified the ruins of Njimi, the capital of medieval Kanem (after Manan). We cannot wait for more published results from these excavations. Perhaps it will force us to rethink some of this blog's preconceived notions about Kanem-Borno urbanism before the Borno phase. It can also shed some light on medieval Kanem's relations with regions like Nubia and West Africa.

Sunday, May 28, 2023

Once in Puerto Rico

Although we had first learned of Pura Belpre several years ago, it is only recently did we develop an interest in her work collecting and disseminating Puerto Rican folklore for children. What is most intriguing about her work is the inclusion of multiple stories from or about the indigenous past of Borinquen. Almost half of Once in Puerto Rico consists of stories about the Taino past of the island or the early Spanish conquest and settlement of the island. Some of the tales must certainly postdate the Spanish arrival. For example, the tale of Guani involves an Indian boy who plays a flute to restore his flock of goats. With the help of Yukiyu, Guani saves his goats from a spell cast by an evil toad. This tale refers to a cemi, magic, and an animal that did not exist on the island of Puerto Rico until the Spanish introduced it to the Caribbean. 

Perhaps this tale does reflect a far earlier legend or tradition that was "updated" during the colonial period with animals of Old World origin? Other tales about the Indian past, such as that of Milomaki and "The Legend of the Royal Palm," appears to be a legend explaining the singing of a tall palm tree when the wind blows through its branches.  This tale, like the "Legend of the Hummingbird" endeavors to explain a natural phenomenon and relies on references to magical or supernatural events transforming people into plants, animals, or things. The tale of Amapola and the colibri, however, has a more tragic romance feel since the the former is not allowed to have a relationship with a Carib male, eventually causing both to transform into a flower and a bird.

Other tales of the Indian past, like that of Iviahoca, unambiguously allude to events associated with the conquistadors of the island and the cacique Mabodamoca. In the case of this last story, the wife of a powerful cacique stands up to Becerrillo and manages to impress Ponce de Leon and Diego de Salazar. Through doing so, she frees herself and her son from the Spanish. The last tale with an Indian character, about Yuisa and Pedro Mexias uses the marriage of a mulatto and a cacica as a symbol for the Puerto Rican people. The two meet, fall in love, and, despite having to relinquish her power as cacica, Yuisa chooses to marry Pedro Mexias. Intriguingly, a council of bohiques is responsible for forcing Yuisa to abdicate her political office. Unfortunately, Carib raids eventually target the village and the two lovers die fighting to defend the island. The tale extolls the two for dying to defend the island and inspiring the governor of the island to attack the Caribs at Vieques. This is lovely and all, but seems to be a justification of the Spanish colony. Perhaps these stories reflect the morally ambivalent feelings of Puerto Rican society about its colonial origins. Moreover, some of these tales were passed on or inherited by others in colonial society who may have changed the tenor to fit their own interests. Nonetheless, it is interesting to note the frequent allusions to caves, cemis, and aspects of belief that mirror those of the Taino cosmovision.

Friday, May 26, 2023


A catchy song referencing our cacica, Anacaona. As a relatively recent Haitian song, it is an interesting example of Haitian popular culture remembering the indigenous cacica of Xaragua. It is also worth noting the inclusion of rara musical elements. If we were as absurd as Alexis, we could claim rara music was influenced by the Taino...Nonetheless, nice to see historic and picturesque parts of Jacmel in the music video. 

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

The Tainos of Hispaniola

Roberto Cassá's Los taínos de La Española is one of the important studies of the Taino past. Although somewhat dated as it was first published in 1974, Cassá's work is an interesting example of historical materialism applied to the precolonial past of our island. His work highlights the ways in which Taino societies were at a stage of "incipient" artisan class formation and other features of a society whose processes, in the final stage of Taino culture, was disrupted by the Spanish conquest. However, unlike Moscoso, Cassá seems more orthodox in his Marxism. According to the latter, the absence of private landownership prohibits the formation of social classes. Instead, the Tainos developed social "ranks" based on chiefs, or caciques (with nitainos and behiques as part of this group) and laborers. Nonetheless, the evidence cited by Cassá himself from the Spanish chronicles, documentary sources, and archaeological insights suggest the reality was perhaps closer to that described by Moscoso.

In other words, there are frequent contradictions in this seminal study of the Taino past. At times, the author provides numerous examples of social inequality and "incipient" class formation and state centralization yet he's insistent on seeing Taino society as one of simply chiefs and workers or laborers, with the behiques (Shamans) and nitainos as appendages of the chiefs. Yet he points out how the caciques had control over some of the labor of communities and received tribute. They and others also were buried with more prestige goods, used more luxury products and were supporting, to some extent, long-distance exchange and an "incipient artisan class" freed from agricultural labor. This would suggest something closer to Moscoso's model of tribal tributary production in which caciques wielded significant power. 

The development of sophisticated art (and artisans to produce them), long-distance systems of exchange, and control over tribute of various aldeas seems to affirm the idea of a society transitioning to one with more defined social classes and greater inequality. This obviously varied based on the region, as Cassá astutely notes. After all, some caciques were simply in control of a single community or area, while others appeared to, like Xaragua, wield significant authority over an extensive area. However, the sources of authority for paramount chiefs was likely built on various foundations, including kinship, marriage alliances, an exchange of cemis, and gifts. And this was already in a stage of "incipient despotism" that enhanced the authority of the cacique. Behiques, who may not have been a priestly class, may have become one had the Spanish not arrived in the Caribbean.

By being perhaps overly orthodox with his historical materialism, Cassá endeavors too hard to force Taino societies in stages that match the modes of production of classical Marxism. So, since the Taino lacked private ownership, their societies were said to have not reached a more advanced stage. However, this ignores the insightful analyses of other Marxist scholars. In the case of Africa, Bernard Magubane comes to mind. Magubane's analysis of exploitation in precolonial sub-Saharan Africa demonstrates quite clearly how societies without private land tenure could still feature political centralization and outright exploitation. The Taino of Hispaniola, in at least some cases, had caciques with similar political power and ability to exploit the labor of others, even without private land tenure. 

Moreover, at least some Taino societies had achieved a "higher stage" in religious beliefs with abstract deities and with obvious evidence of social inequality. Caciques, for instance, buttressed their authority with religion and also possessed more luxury goods, consumed higher quality alimentation, had more wives, and were often a subject of celebration in areitos. In order to produce exquisite duhos and other works of art and refinement for this ruling class or group, there must have been some increase in the population of skilled artisans and workers. Thus, even if the Taino maintained communal land tenure and continued to supplement their diet with hunting, fishing and gathering, despite their productive system of yuca mounds, they were likely heading towards a society with more social inequality and political centralization. The redistribution of part of the surplus through communal feasts and celebrations like areitos and batey may have also contributed to the prestige and authority of the cacique and assist with attracting or retaining dependents. 

Cassá also raises a number of interesting questions about Taino society in other respects. For instance, what was the total population of the island in 1492? He estimated somewhere between 225,000 to 275,000, which is perhaps too high by today's better estimates. Certainly some parts of the island, especially with montones and irrigation canals, could have supported substantial populations, like Xaragua. But our sources are too ambiguous or provide gross overestimates or underestimates. Without more information, it remains unclear. Moreover, what was the relationship between the sexes really like among our indigenous predecessors? Cassá presents evidence of a patriarchal society with ambilineal or bilineal rules of descent. 

Evidently, the importance of accumulating women as wives among the powerful and the laborious tasks expected of women with casabe preparation and domestic life suggest a more burdensome lot for women. Women were also suggested to be of lower status in some of the myths recorded in the chronicles. Yet what does one make of the possible female cacicas or chiefs then? And did Taino peoples include something akin to a third gender or two-spirit in their societies? Men, dressed as women, were mentioned by Oviedo and Las Casas as "sodomites" who likely adopted female roles. Was there a similar system in place for female-bodied persons to become men? And of the Taino legacy in the Dominican Republic of the colonial and independence eras, what can be found of the Taino legacy besides material culture adopted by Africans and Europeans?