Towards the end of Book IV, Grainger turns to the subject of dances performed by the enslaved during what he calls their “festal days” or holidays (582). He also says that these dances were performed by the enslaved “when their work [was] done” (582). How much leisure the enslaved had is questionable, of course, since they were expected to cultivate provision grounds to provide for their own sustenance whenever they were not working on the plantation (see “Provision Grounds”). Holidays were also few in number: Christmas and New Year’s Day were usually designated as days off from work, but January signaled the commencement of the busiest season of the year: “crop time” or the period during which sugarcane was harvested. The holidays were therefore merely a brief moment of respite before grueling labor.
How accurate planters’ descriptions of the dances of the enslaved were is also an open question: they tended to emphasize the “wildness” of the performances they saw, perhaps as a way of differentiating themselves from the enslaved. Still, the repeated descriptions of dance, music, and movement in colonial accounts suggest that they served as important forms of expression for the enslaved. In addition to Grainger, Hans Sloane (1660-1753), a physician and naturalist who visited Jamaica in the seventeenth century, witnessed enslaved individuals dancing and included a transcription of some of the songs that he heard in his A voyage to the islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica. These songs can now be heard at Musical Passage, a site created by Laurent Dubois, David K. Garner, Mary Caton Lingold, and others. Although colonists may have understood the dances and music as entertainment, Dubois and others have argued that dance and music helped the enslaved create spaces of autonomy for themselves, as they recreated and innovated on performance traditions of Africa.
Interestingly, the stanzas of the poem in which Grainger describes dancing are followed by a stanza describing a different kind of autonomous movement: in lines 606 to 611, Grainger discusses the nighttime visits that enslaved individuals often made to other plantations. Planters were concerned about these visits because they believed they made the travelers tired and unfit for work. They also believed that nighttime travel fostered dangerous ideas of independence, since it happened beyond the surveillance of planters. As a matter of fact, dance, music, and movement were all associated with resistance and rebellion on the eighteenth-century plantation. For instance, several colonies in the Caribbean and North America outlawed the use of drums and horns by the enslaved (St. Kitts passed laws banning drum and horn use in 1711 and 1722). Colonists noted that both drums and horns had military uses in Africa, and they believed that drums could be used by rebels to communicate their plans.
How Grainger’s portrayal of dancing and movement shifts is therefore interesting to consider. Does his characterization and attitude towards it remain the same throughout? What does he imagine are the motives of the dancers? Is dance entertainment or something more? How does he paint the nighttime travels of the enslaved, as they moved under the cover of darkness?
Note: For more on early Caribbean music and dance, see not only Musical Passage but also Richard Rath’s “Drums and Power: Ways of Creolizing Music in Coastal South Carolina and Georgia, 1730-1790.” Also see Rath’s “African Music in Seventeenth-Century Jamaica: Cultural Transit and Transition.”
—Julie Chun Kim
Musical instruments played in Guiana, hand-colored etching and aquatint from Giuseppe Erba Odescalchi, Il costume antico e moderno, v. 2, Milan, 1821, following p. 428.
- ON festal days; or when their work is done;
- Permit thy slaves to lead the choral dance,
- To the wild banshaw’s melancholy sound.1
- Responsive to the sound, head feet and frame 
- Move aukwardly harmonious; hand in hand
- Now lock’d, the gay troop circularly wheels,
- And frisks and capers with intemperate joy.
- Halts the vast circle, all clap hands and sing;
- While those distinguish’d for their heels and air, 
- Bound in the center, and fantastic twine.
- Meanwhile some stripling, from the choral ring,
- Trips forth; and, not ungallantly, bestows
- On her who nimblest hath the greensward2 beat,
- And whose flush’d beauties have inthrall’d his soul, 
- A silver token of his fond applause.
VER. 584. banshaw] This is a sort of rude guitar, invented by the Negroes. It produces a wild pleasing melancholy sound.
- Anon they form in ranks; nor inexpert
- A thousand tuneful intricacies weave,
- Shaking their sable limbs; and oft a kiss
- Steal from their partners; who, with neck reclin’d, 
- And semblant scorn, resent the ravish’d bliss.
- But let not thou the drum their mirth inspire;
- Nor vinous spirits: else, to madness fir’d,
- (What will not bacchanalian frenzy dare?)
Fell acts of blood, and vengeance they pursue. 
- COMPEL by threats, or win by soothing arts,
- Thy slaves to wed their fellow slaves at home;
- So shall they not their vigorous prime destroy,
- By distant journeys, at untimely hours,
- When muffled midnight decks her raven-hair 
- With the white plumage of the prickly vine….3
VER. 611. prickly vine] This beautiful white rosaceous flower is as large as the crown of one’s hat, and only blows4 at midnight. The plant, which is prickly and attaches itself firmly to the sides of houses, trees, &c. produces a fruit, which some call Wythe Apple, and others with more propriety, Mountain strawberry. But though it resembles the large Chili-strawberry5 in looks and size; yet being inelegant of taste, it is seldom eaten. The botanical name is Cereus scandens minor. The rind of the fruit is here and there studded with tufts of small sharp prickles.
The banshaw is another name for the banjo, an instrument that originated in Africa and arrived with the enslaved in the Americas. There, it evolved, as did the music played on it, to become an integral part of Afro-Caribbean and African American musical cultures. ↩︎
Grass-covered ground, turf. ↩︎
Grainger refers here to the night-blooming cereus (Selenicereus grandiflorus), also sometimes known as the queen of the night because of the exquisite beauty and fragrant scent of its large, white flowers. These flowers only open after sunset. Because of this unusual property, the night-blooming cereus became a subject of much speculation and even fantasy on the part of European botanists and observers, who wondered if it could be compared to a nocturnal animal. Botanists today have realized that the flower blooms at night because the cactus’ pollinators, which include bats and moths, are nocturnal themselves. They also note the fact that the flower’s petals are opalescent and highly visible at night, especially in the moonlight, to attract these pollinators. For more on the night-blooming cereus, see a digital exhibit on “Poetic Botany” created by the New York Botanical Garden. The night-blooming cereus is native to the Bahamas, the Cayman Islands, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Haiti, Jamaica, Mexico, and Nicaragua. ↩︎
The Chilean strawberry (Fragaria chiloensis) is native to the Pacific Northwest but was probably spread by migratory birds to Hawaii and Chile, where indigenous peoples began cultivating it thousands of years ago. In the eighteenth century, the Chilean strawberry was brought to Europe, where it was crossed with the Virginia strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) to create today’s commercial strawberry (Fragaria x ananassa). ↩︎