Laura Wright

Cambridge

Audio | Handout

Some Early Creole-like Data from Slave Speakers: The Island of St Helena, 1695-1711

One of the more unanswerable questions about language in the Southern states of America has to do with the language of the first African slaves who were imported into Virginia in the early 1600s. It is reasonable to assume that they originally spoke a variety of West African languages, but did they also learn to speak an English-lexifier creole, picked up either on board ship or in holding-places such as Fort Cormantin in Ghana, and/or did they speak the kind of non-Standard English spoken by their slavers? I do not have answers to these questions directly, but there is some data which sheds light on the seventeenth-century speech of slaves in one of the British East India Company’s possessions, that is the island of St Helena in the South Atlantic. The East India Company and the free planters who lived on St Helena from 1675 were slave-owners. The slaves came from Guinea, Angola, Java, India, Madagascar, Sumatra, Borneo and Malaya, amongst other places, and there is evidence in the Court Records (the St Helena Consultations, now kept in the British Library) that such slaves spoke three or four separate linguistic codes. In the late seventeenth century the slave community on St Helena seems to have been at least trilingual. They are presented in the Court Records as speaking:

1. the kind of non-Standard Southern English spoken by the free planters and the soldiers. This is the default language in which the slaves and everyone else is recorded as speaking before the Court. It is possible that the Court Recorder standardised the slaves’ English and that it is presented as more competent than it really was, but there is no evidence for this.

2. some slaves reported that they could not understand others who spoke in Portuguese, a language used deliberately by rebelling slaves so that non-rebelling slaves would not understand. This may have been contemporary Portuguese, or a Portuguese-lexifier creole.

3. Pidgin English. There is very little pidgin in the slaves’ testimonies but there is some, and as it is at such an early date it is important. It is compounded by the fact that some slaves are recorded as using Pidgin English to talk to each other as well as to the Governor and Court, and the speakers who use Pidgin English are also recorded as using English, and hence are codeswitchers, possibly for social and stylistic reasons.

5. there is mention that some slaves spoke to others in their ‘country language’; that is, presumably the language used in their country of origin.

Although St Helena is many thousands of miles from the United States of America, it was a regular stop on the slave-trade route, just as the plantations in the Caribbean and in Virginia were. Slavers had to sell their human cargo at any port that would give them a price, and slaves could be on board a ship that called at several ports before being sold. Hence, what is known about the situation of speakers on St Helena is of interest for studies of slave speech on any of the British-owned plantations.