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In 1670, the first British settlement was established in the coastal plain and swampland of the territory from North Carolina to Florida, known as the Sea Islands. The area's semi-tropical climate and abundant rainfall made it difficult for early colonists to find a crop that would produce sufficient revenue for England. By 1700, settlers discovered that the highly swampy land was appropriate for producing rice, an Asian import. However, they failed at their attempts to cultivate it because of the lack of knowledge among white planters.
It was later revealed that Africans from the traditional rice-growing region along the west coast of the continent were well skilled in performing the arduous work. Consequently, settlers acquired large numbers of captives from these areas for rice cultivation. This operation made South Carolina one of the wealthiest colonies in North America.
Year after year, thousands of African slaves were imported to the rice-growing lands of America. They mainly came from the Gola tribe of Sierra Leone, but also included natives of the Fula ethnic group, the Bassas, the Krus, the Malinkes, and the Mendes, forming an African group of about 20 tribes.
These different communities had to find a way to communicate between themselves; that is how they created a common language called Gullah. Some believe the term “Gullah” has originated from the Gola tribe, whose members were imported to grow rice in America. It is also said that “Gullah” came from the abbreviation for Angolans, who were also displaced to the same region.
The Gullah language started as a lingua franca using English as the base language with many loanwords from various African languages and a grammatical structure that mostly respects African norms. With time, Gullah became more than a bridge language and morphed into a full-fledged tribal group that blacks of the swampy lowcountry identified with.
The Gullah people made up an alternative African tribe formed in America yet greatly attached to cultures of the motherland. These enslaved Africans shared many parts of the languages, rituals and customs drawn from their ancestral communities in Africa. Many Gullah arts and crafts are indistinguishable from those found in West Africa. For example, Gullah artisans skillfully create wooden mortars and pestles, rice fanners, clay pots, and other pieces closely connected to Sierra Leone. Also, the Beautiful Gullah made baskets known as sweetgrass baskets, are identical to the Sierra Leonean shukublay.
To this day, the Gullah tribe exists. Although the language has lost a lot of its African influence, the Gullah people have succeeded in preserving most of their culture. This was made possible thanks to their geographical position and unique slave conditions. The climate of the Lowcountry, Georgia, and the surrounding Sea Islands aided not only rice cultivation but also the spread of various tropical diseases. Sicknesses such as malaria and yellow fever affected all inhabitants in that side of the country, including enslaved Africans. Whites were most vulnerable to them, and as a result, the white planters customarily vacated their farms and moved away from the rice fields during the humid seasons when diseases were rampant.
With their absence, plantations were generally run by a few white managers and trusted, enslaved Africans known as "drivers." The disease cycle kept the white population away from the place while more and more Africans were imported each year. By 1708, there was a black majority in the colony. The great influx of new Africans and the lack of English cultural influence upon their lives directly assisted the creation and preservation of a distinctly African set of traditions.
Gullah religious systems and beliefs, while derived from the Christianity practiced by their former white masters, are also evidence of a distinctly African tradition. While adhering to Christian doctrine, the Gullah practice a faith immersed in communal prayer, song, and dance. Many also continue to hold traditional African beliefs. Witchcraft, which they call wudu or juju, is one example that can be traced to the country of Angola. Some Gullah believe that witches can cast a spell by putting powerful herbs or roots under a person's pillow or at a place where he or she usually walks. There are also special individuals known as "Root Doctors" that serve to protect individuals from curses and witchcraft.
Today, Gullah is the last African tribe standing in America, as not only an important part of American history, but an important indicator of the survival of ancestral African cultures in the diaspora.
One of the most popular pieces of culture provided by the Gullah is probably the song “Kumbaya”. Kumbaya is said to have begun as the sincere plea of slaves for God’s intervention. A spiritual song, “Kumbaya” was created by the Gullah people. It has now become a well-known Christian song worldwide even back in Africa. Indeed, many protestant churches still sing the song knowingly or not of its roots.
The popular meaning of the word “Kumbaya” in the U.S. refers to being in harmony with one another and forget about any problem of the past.
On TV, the Gullah people are portrayed in The WGN hit series, Underground, which made its way to the heart of the Gullah nation for its second season, and delves into the history of Gullah culture. In the series, viewers are able to watch the rice-cultivation routines, many rituals and of course the art and craft of the Gullah people.
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