Makonde People of East Africa – the Newport Connection

Newport Middle Passage Port Marker Project launches the exhibit, “Makonde: Art and Community” to highlight the stunning Blackwood carvings of the Makonde people of Northern Mozambique and southwest Tanzania.

Originally depicting wrestlers carrying a champion on their soldiers, "tree of life” later transformed to a family tree, headed by a female figure.
1. “Tree of Life” – Domoongo

Since the 1960’s, Makonde carvings have been highly sought after, decorating thousands of living rooms and dozens of museums across Europe and North America. The high demand in western countries for these works of art have even influenced the themes chosen by the carvers themselves, leading some to call it a “blending of African and Western culture”[1]. Nonetheless, deep traditional cultural roots underlie the artwork, which this exhibit reveals.

Makonde people of Mozambique living south of the Rovumba River and those living north, in Tanzania, occupy the high plateaus
2. Makonde Region – Mozambique and Tanzania

The Newport Middle Passage Port Marker Project opens this exhibit paying homage to Makonde art with its modern western influence, but at the same time, also acknowledges the much earlier and darker historic influence of the North American slave trade on the Makonde people, especially that of the Newport slave trade.

The Makonde people of Mozambique living south of the Rovumba River and those living north, in Tanzania, occupy the high plateaus. They lived in isolated, sparsely populated hinterland, often purposely to avoid slave traders, but nonetheless lost untold thousands to the holocaust of the 18th and 19th century slave trade. But generations later, their descendants carved these works of art from African blackwood[2]. While some of their ancestors may have sailed across the Atlantic to the Americas as captives, today these sculptures arrive in Newport as homages to Makonde family, community, and cultural regeneration.

Art

“Ujamaa” is the Swahili term for “family” or “unity”, and fittingly, is a frequent theme in the carvings. Also called “Dimoongo” (“tree of life”), it is but one among eight styles of Makonde carving, all of which deliver messages of familyhood, equality and continuity across the time and space separating East Africa and Newport.

The Dimoongo, or Ujamaa style (see image 1) was pioneered by Roberto Yakobo Sangwani, who, like many Mozambicans, migrated north to Tanzania in the 1950s. Originally depicting wrestlers carrying a champion on their soldiers, it later transformed to a family tree, headed by a female figure. Makonde traditionally are matrilineal, with kinship defined by the female.[3] Later, in the 1960s-70s, the art Tanzanian President Nyerere’s Ujamaa Party adopted it as a symbol of national political unity.

Shetani style appeared in the 1960s, as distorted or grotesque figures of humans and animal spirits of different forms.
3. Vintage body sculpture – Shetani

Shetani style (image 3) appeared in the 1960s, as distorted or grotesque figures of humans and animal spirits of different forms. Shetani means, “little devil” in Swahili, and these carvings occasionally depict scenes from old Makonde folktales, deeply rooted in Makonde oral tradition.[4]

Giligia is a style initiated by sculptor Chanuo Maundu, based on Makonde traditional beliefs. Deriving from the Makonde word, kuligia, meaning “to be startled”, giligia projects the fear experienced walking in the woods, often depicted by a protruding eye or teeth.[5]

Other styles common in Makonde art incorporate the common rituals of daily life, such as work, and fetching water in the dry climate of the Makonde Plateau. Family ties are deeply ingrained in some pieces, such as women carrying and nursing infants (image 4).

Other styles common in Makonde art incorporate the common rituals of daily life, such as work, and fetching water in the dry climate of the Makonde Plateau
4. Woman, baby with water jug on her head

There is a rich tradition of mask making, particularly amongst Mozambican Makonde, including mapiko head masks, breastplates and other traditional masks. One authority notes, “Mozambiquans use a variety of masks during their rituals and festivals; the Tanzanians use a facial mask during their famous stilt-dances but no others.”[6]

Commercial art is also common among Makonde pieces, evident in utilitarian objects such as chairs, jars, pots, and candlesticks.

History of the Makonde

The Makonde people trace their origins from the Bantu-speaking people of south central Africa. They speak variants of the Bantu language group: ChiMakonde in Tanzania, and Shimakonde in Mozambique, as well as Swahili and other languages.[7] The Rovumba River, which marks the border between the two countries, separates the community in two. They share a common history and ethnic origin, but both groups are distinct linguistically and culturally. They are traditionally matrilineal and matrilocal, that is, descent is traced through female lines, and husbands relocate to the wives’ clan when marrying. Women raised crops and made pottery, whereas men have traditionally created carvings.[8]  Largely isolated until the 20th century, Makonde resisted European colonialization and Christianity, and practiced traditional African religions, more so than Islam.

Makonde have in earlier times been famous for their stunning body piercing, tattoos and scarification
5. Makonde woman with labret piercing (ndona) and facial tattoos – circa 1960. (courtesy of Lars Krutak, Smithsonian Inst.).

While best known today for their modern art, they have in earlier times been famous for their stunning body piercing, tattoos and scarification. These practices have been associated with coming of age rituals for both boys and girls. However, after changes brought by decades of colonial struggle against the Portuguese, a war of independence and recent economic globalization, the traditional practices of matrilineality, piercing and tattooing have become less common.[9]

Newport Ties to Mozambique

The ties between Newport, Rhode Island and the Makonde Plateau of Mozambique are deep and harrowing. Between 1793 and 1806 at least twelve slave ships left Rhode Island for the 8,000-mile voyage to Mozambique, purchasing over 3,000 captives, delivering them to slavery in Uruguay, South America, and Cuba. Almost 500 died on the Atlantic voyage – most of disease, some during insurrections.[10] The familiar names adorning the streets, historic colonial homes, and memorials of Newport and Bristol today were the same names that financed the slave voyages to Mozambique: Caleb Gardner, William Vernon, Peleg Clarke, George deWolf, Jacob Smith and James Brattle.[11] On one voyage, Gardner and Vernon sold 214 slaves for $48,565, which had a value equivalent to $13.4 million today.[12]

On one voyage, Gardner and Vernon sold 214 slaves for $48,565, which had a value equivalent to $13.4 million today
6. “Account of Sales of the Ascensions Cargo of Slaves and Buenos Ayres for Account of Messrs. Vernon Gardner & Co.”, 1798, Courtesy of N.Y.H.S. (nyhs_sc_b-02_f-02_006-001).

The ravages of the East African slave trade put the Makonde people in the cross hairs of the commerce, being on the Rovumba River – a key link in the caravans of captives moving from Lake Malawi down to the coast of Mozambique for sale to Arabs and Europeans alike. Even more than American or Portuguese slavers, the French bought the captives for their plantations in nearby Mauritius and Reunion islands. Slave traders of the Nguni tribe caused the Makonde to scatter to lowly populated areas.[13] Over one million Mozambican captives were drained from the country in the 19th century to feed the slave trade. Ironically, the British closure of the West African slave trade supply in 1807 fueled much of the 19th-century explosion in Mozambique trade, as slavers sought out new supplies. Northern Mozambique, including the Makonde region, was especially impacted during the first half of the nineteenth century.”[14]

Fort of São Sebastião on the Island of Mozambique is the oldest complete fort still standing in sub-Saharan Africa.
7. Fort of São Sebastião on the Island of Mozambique, built in 1558, protected the slave ships, including that of Newport’s Wm. Vernon and Caleb Gardner in 1798.

Nonetheless, the Makonde people survived and eventually thrived. Today they continue their unique and striking cultural traditions through their carvings and other works of art, sharing it with the world.

[1] Tore Saetersdal, “Makonde carvings: Cultural and symbolic aspects”, in The Making of a Periphery: Economic Development and Cultural Encounters in Southern Tanzania, edited by Pekka Seppala and Bertha Koda (Stockholm: Nordic Africa Institute, 1998), 285.

[2] Harry G.West, “Villains, Victims, or Makonde in the Making? Reading the Explorer Henry O’Neill and Listening to the Headman Lishehe”, Ethnohistory, 51:1 (2004): 12.

[3] Kefa M. Otiso, Culture and Customs of Tanzania (Santa Barbara: Greenwood, 2013), 108.

[4] Saetersdal, 1998, 294.

[5] Prof. Elias Jengo, “Background of the Makonde sculpture”, http://www.tanzanian-art.de/service/the-makonde-by-prof-e-jengo.html, accessed 5-Aug-2017.

[6] Tore Saetersdal, “Symbols of Cultural Identity: A Case Study from Tanzania”, African Archaeological Review 16:2 (1999), 130.

[7] Peter Kraal, “Makonde”, in Coding Participant Marking: Construction Types in Twelve African Languages, Gerrit J. Dimmendaal, Ed. (Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing, 2009), 281.

[8] Saetersdal, Makonde, 291.

[9] Jorge Dias, Margot Dias, Manuel Viegas Guerreiro, Os Macondes de Moçambique (Comissao Nacional Para as Comemoracoes dos Descobrimentos Portugueses Instituto de Investigacao Cientifica Tropical, Lisboa), 21.

[10] David Eltis, “A Brief Overview of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade,” Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, http://www.slavevoyages.org/assessment/essay (accessed 7/29/2017).

[11] Eltis, op.cit. For Samuel Brown, merchant of Newport and Boston, see “Guide to the Samuel Brown letter, 1788”, Redwood Library, Nowport.RLC.Ms.570. For James Brattell, captain and shipowner, see Elizabeth Donnan, Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America: Volume III: New England and the Middle Colonies (Washington:Carnegie Institution,1932) , 338, and Volume IV, 523; and “Jonathan Gibbs House”, Newport Restoration Foundation, https://www.newportrestoration.org/preservation/historic_houses/details/49-jonathan_gibbs_house, accessed 7/28/2017; and “Deposition of Col. George Irish in the case of Samuel Freebody vs. James Brattle”, RIHS Manuscripts, Mss 9003, Vol.16, 102. For Jacob Smith, see George Champlin Mason, Annals of Trinity Church, Newport, Rhode Island, Volume 1 (Newport: Evans, 1890), 219, 247, 264, 332.

[12] Samuel Chace, “Account of Sales of the Ascensions Cargo of Slaves and Buenos Ayres for Account of Messrs. Vernon Gardner & Co.”, 1798, New York Historical Society, nyhs_sc_b-02_f-02_006-001. Dollar conversion from Samuel H. Williamson & Louis Cain, “Measuring Slavery in 2016 dollars,” MeasuringWorth, 2016, https://www.measuringworth.com/slavery.php  accessed 7-Aug-2017.

Newport Middle Passage Project Exhibits at URI Art Exhibit

Newport Middle Passage Committee exhibited manuscripts, photographs and primary source documents to a University of Rhode Island art exhibit on the history of black labor in Rhode Island. The exhibit opened at the URI Fine Arts Center in South Kingstown. Artist Deborah Baronas from Warren unveiled her “Invisible Bodies, Disposable Cloth” textile artwork, while Newport member Peter Fay researched and curated printed material and photos on 19th century textiles, whaling and service trades. Many Newport members participated in discussions and the reception.

View introductory remarks at the reception here:

Videos:

Contributing Scholar Peter Fay commentary on exhibit

Marcus Nevius commentary on exhibit

Clark-Pujara: Dark Work – The Business of Slavery

Dr. Christy Clark Pujara presented her research on the business of slavery in Rhode Island, published recently as “Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island” (NYU Press, 2016). Dr. Clark-Pujara is an Assistant Professor of History in the Afro-American Studies Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The Newport Middle Passage Port Marker committee sponsored her presentation with University of Rhode Island at a series of events titled, “Invisible Bodies, Disposable Cloth: Rhode Island and Slavery, 1783-1850’s“.

 

How important was Newport to the American slave trade?

While historians often note Rhode Island played an out sized role in the North American slave trade1, carrying over 110,000 enslaved Africans to the new world, one wonders just how large was Newport’s role compared to other Rhode Island ports in this deadly trade? The answer is striking.

 

 

RI Slave Voyages-1709-1809

Slave Voyages – Newport & Other R.I. Ports2

Newport Dominates R.I.

Newport dominated the Rhode Island slave trade for more than a century. Only at the end of the eighteenth century did other Rhode Island ports play a significant role. Further, Newport’s peak in slave traffic was in 1807, a full 20 years after Rhode Island law banned the slave trade in an 1787 Act (clearly with little effect), and 13 years after the federal government banned importation of slaves to the U.S. in the Slave Trade Act of 1794.3 None of this legislation4 appears to have deterred Newport slavers. When South Carolina reopened the importation of slaves in 1803, both Newport and Bristol exploded with more slaving than ever before, reaching their all-time peak in 1807.