Caribbean Beat Magazine

Tracking Anansi

Emily Zobel Marshall finds Anansi, the star of Caribbean folktales, among the Maroons of Jamaica

  • Captain Smith and Emily Zobel Marshall at the Captain’s home in Moore Town. Photograph by Emily Zobel Marshall
  • Mr Bernard, chief abeng player of the Windward Maroons, with his abeng. Photograph by Emily Zobel Marshall
  • One of the four Ambassabeth eco-cabins, run by Lynette Wilks, on the Cunha Cunha pass. Photograph by Emily Zobel Marshall
  • Illustration by Stuart Hahn
  • Shaggy looking back at Hayfield at the beginning of the Cunha Cunha pass. Photograph by Emily Zobel Marshall

“The Cunha Cunha pass? Man, you crazy if you think you can walk the Cunha Cunha pass today!” warned my landlady, as the skies glowered and the rain began to batter the dirty pavements of downtown Kingston. It had been raining for weeks; Hurricane Wilma had flooded the island, taking with her homes, cars and roads. But after a month stuck in a cramped Kingston bed-sit, I was ready for adventure.

I was there to research Jamaican Anansi folktales for my PhD thesis, recording interviews and collecting material. I wanted to know if Anansi was alive and well in Jamaica today, and what he meant to the people. I had a feeling that on this trip, back-a-bush in Maroon country, Brer Anansi might reveal his secrets.

I rattled along at a terrifying speed in a packed bus to Morant Bay. The driver swerved sharply to avoid potholes and landslides. As my fellow passengers broke into song I did my best to add my (notoriously tuneless) voice to the rousing chorus. In Morant Bay I met my friend and guide Shaggy, a Maroon from the tiny mountain village of Hayfield. “Girl, me thought the trip was off when me see the weather. But you want to go, I come.”

We took a taxi up to Shaggy’s village. I never realised the capabilities of a Toyota Corolla; after an hour of skidding up a steep rocky road, stopping to clear stones and debris, we finally made it. The colourful little houses looked defiantly cheery as they perched on the edge of the John Crow Mountains, cloaked in swirling mist and rain. We sheltered in Shaggy’s father’s home. The rain pelted the zinc roof, mingling with the notes of Mr Sutherland’s banjo. I asked him about Anansi.

He knocked back a shot of rum and replied, “Anansi, him full of tricks, you know. Like the Maroons—and Paul Bogle, too. He was the leader of rebellion in St Thomas. When he run from British, the horse him ride, him shoe it back way [backwards]. So anytime him gone through the hill, you think him gone back. That there is an Anansi technique!”

We set off along the trail into the deep forest as the rain subsided. All around us were tall bamboos, jack fruit, red flower, wild ginger, yam, bananas, cocoon vine (used by the Maroons for camouflage) and the beautiful blue mahoe trees, with their rich blue-green heart-shaped leaves. It was difficult to imagine the horrors that took place here along the Cunha Cunha pass. It had been first used 300 years ago by Maroons to travel between the parishes of Portland and St Thomas, and was the site of some of the bloodiest clashes with British colonialists. I was told that the trail used to end at a plantation which the Maroons couldn’t—or “Cunha Cunha”—pass.

I tried to imagine the experiences of the first African runaways. Having survived the journey to the West African coast and the horrors of the middle passage, they risked their lives to escape a brutal plantation regime. They then found themselves surrounded by an alien landscape, full of unrecognisable fauna and flora, pursued by armies of relentless militiamen. Shaggy and I discussed how, in these circumstances, the survival of the Jamaican Maroon communities throughout the entire period of Spanish and British colonialism was an incredible feat.

Anansi knew the secrets of Caribbean history; he had been there at every stage of the journey. For plantation rebels and runaways, Anansi stories had provided a form of mental training, illustrating tactics which could be implemented in the field; the arts of cunning and disguise, spying and surveillance, hiding and subterfuge. Perhaps he was watching me now, camouflaged in the undergrowth, laughing gleefully at my efforts to find him.

The Maroon story Tracking Anansi came to mind. In this tale Anansi, like the Maroons, lives in a high, hidden refuge from which he descends to steal provisions for his family. Bredder Tiger follows him home. He sees Anansi sing a sweet song to his wife, and then she lets down a rope for him. Bredder Tiger tries to make his voice sweet, like Anansi’s, and sings Anansi’s song:

“Mama, mama, sen’ down rope,
Sen’ down rope, Brer Nansi deh groun’ a!”
Anansi’s wife lets the rope down and Bredder Tiger starts to climb up. Bredder Anansi sees Bredder Tiger climbing up to the hideout and shouts: “Mama, cut de rope! Mama, cut de rope!

The wife cuts the rope and Bredder Tiger falls and breaks his neck. Bredder Anansi takes him and eats him for dinner with the whole family. “They couldn’t beat Bredder Nansi at all; him was the smartest one of all,” wrote Martha Beckwith in her Jamaica Anansi Stories of 1924.

That night we stayed in one of the four small Ambassabeth eco-cabins run by cultural and community activist Lynette Wilks. With no electricity, we sat illuminated by the crackling fire, old paraffin lamps and the fireflies, which transformed the landscape into a forest of glittering Christmas trees. We sat in a circle, listening to the roar of the Rio Grande river crashing in the valley below, and it seemed natural that the conversation should turn to Anansi.

Wilks saw Anansi as a symbol of survival; she said he must be placed in his historical context to be properly understood. There were negative tricksters in Jamaican society, but also “real Anansis, who are creative, who are thinkers and planners.” There was a danger that Jamaican people were losing touch with their cultural heritage, she explained, and Anansi was a key part of that heritage.

“You can pass down your family oral history through the tales. It is a form of wisdom. Everything that we have around us is from outside, the books, TV, films. But our music, our dance and our folklore is our greatest form of resistance because it retains tremendous elements of our African history.” She insisted, “We have go back to go forward.”

Our next visit was to the captain of the Windward Maroons in Moore Town, a community founded by the legendary Nanny. An obeahwoman and warrior, she is now celebrated as one of Jamaica’s seven national heroes.

I found Captain Smith sitting meditatively on his porch in his rocking chair. The road ran right past his house, and every passer-by hailed him with gusto: “Captain!” “All right, man!” he yelled back.

Like Wilks, the captain felt that a renewed appreciation of Jamaica’s history and culture, especially among young people, was essential in the fight against crime and corrupt attitudes. Storytelling brings the community together, he said. “When I was a boy an Anansi story was told after everybody cook and eat. We used to have pretty moonshines, so you can sit outside when the time is dry, on the veranda like here, and Grandma and Grandpa would take you up in an Anansi story. You would have children coming from other homes to listen, and that would last for late night.” The captain said the English nursery rhymes, stories and sayings he learned at school felt alien to him; they did not describe his world, unlike the Anansi tales. “Without a doubt, learning about Anansi, it’s an education. You can identify.”

Captain Smith suggested that I visit Mr Bernard, chief abeng [conch-shell horn] player of the Windward Maroons. Mr Bernard was sitting on the porch of his home in Comfort Castle, contemplating his incredible view of the mountains. He smiled wryly as I approached, and immediately adopted an Anansi-like persona, feigning naivety and dim-wittedness: “Why you want to come here and speak to a dunce like me? Captain Smith sent you? He said that about me? But I am but a dunce, man, I cannot read, I cannot write…”

Mr Bernard was Anansi personified—even the captain had described him as “tricky.” He took great pleasure in baffling me, breaking into long, complicated preacher-like speeches and his Maroon language, which could be traced back to a form of Asante Twi from Ghana. How had he learnt the language, I asked. “Your ancestors who are died and gone, they just pass that over,” he replied. “You are just born in it, a gift. And you learn the word by yourself. By the spirit.”

He said he had been watching me as I walked the Cunha Cunha Pass. I began to feel goosepimples forming on my arms. He described where I had stayed, what I had eaten. He said he knew I was coming: “Some of the time I invisible, you know. You see me, but you don’t know it’s me. And I see you.” Like Anansi, Bernard had been watching me from the sidelines, playfully mocking me.

The Maroon leader Nanny, Bernard informed me, was also like Anansi. She used her intelligence to overcome her opponents. “She was tricky. She used her brains. She use science. When them shoot her with the gun, she catch the balls in her behind and shoot them right back out. Science. She kill thousands of them.”

The stories of Anansi’s skill inspired Maroon survival tactics, explained Bernard. “That is a plan of the Maroon, you know. Is these tricks of the Anansi. Now, you coming for a little Anansi story. But you are gaining bigger than that. Because you wanted to know how Anansi started to talk his story. Through we Maroon. We get in de bush. And we ambush!”

I left Bernard as the sun started to set and began the long journey back to Kingston. He told me he would be watching me all the way, making sure I returned home safely.

Had I found Anansi, alive and well, in Maroon country? Shaggy, Mr Sutherland, Wilks, Captain Smith and Mr Bernard, as well as others I had met on my journey, all had a wonderful repertoire of Anansi tales, recounting them from memory with remarkable rapidity.

But more importantly, they felt passionately about Anansi. The popularity of the tales may be dwindling in Jamaica, as traditional forms of entertainment are replaced by television and video games, but they still saw Anansi, like Nanny, as emblematic of slave and Maroon bravery and intelligence.

Anansi and other resistance figures inspired slaves and runaways in their struggle for freedom. Through song, music, dance and folktales they preserved their humanity and their heritage, challenged the systems of their oppression and kept alive their belief that one day they could be free.

On a practical level, through these cultural forms they learnt how to fight back within the confines of the slave system. Stick-fighting dances trained them for combat, songs and drums communicated defiant secret messages and the Anansi folktales illustrated the tactics of survival in the face of oppression. Yes, the irrepressible Brer Anansi is alive and well in Jamaica, prowling the bush and reminding us all that “Cunning betta than strong.”