Researchers working in North America have found several references to the banjo in runaway slave advertisements. A search through similar advertisements in Haiti turns up two mentions of the instrument there, both of which provide us with some tantalizing information.
These advertisements are all digitized in the Marronage In Saint-Domingue database, which chronicles runaway slave advertisements from colonial Saint-Domingue’s most important newspaper, Les Affiches Américaines. These records provide unique insight into the the lives of enslaved people because masters searching for runaways were compelled to include detailed information about the people they hoped to recapture. In a small number of cases, they describe the musical skills of the runaways. I have found two mentions of the “banza” among these Haitian sources. You can click on the link below to see the original advertisements.
The first of these is in the Affiches Américaines, 14 December 1772, an advertisement announced the escape of Pompée, describing him as: “étampé NGDP, âgé d’environ 30 ans, taille de 5 pieds 4 pouces, d’une assez jolie figure, ayant une cicatrice au haut du front, d’une grosse corpulence, se berçant un peu des hanches en marchant, est parti marron depuis un mois du bord d’un Passager au Fort-Dauphin; on l’a vu depuis à Ouanaminthe, & on croit qu’il pourroit bien se dire libre; le dit Nègre joue très-bien d’un instrument appelé Banza.“
The advertisement describes Pompée as “branded NGDP, approximately 30-years-old, 5 foot 4 inches tall, with a rather pretty face and a scar on top of his forehead, rather fat, who sways his hips a bit when he walks.” He marooned, the advertisement continues, a month earlier on by getting on a passenger ship in the town of Fort-Dauphin. He has been seen, since then, in the town of Ounamaninthe (near the border with Spanish Santo Domingo, and “it is believed he might be saying that he is free.” The final detail is, for our purposes, the most important: “the said Negro plays an instrument called the Banza very well.” The phrasing of this sentence is interesting, because it suggests that the term “Banza” was not sufficiently well known to go without some definition. That is a contrast with the advertisement below, from twelve years later, when the term is used in a way that suggests readers will simply know what it is. Does this suggest some broader cultural change? Perhaps, though it could simply be a random difference in phrasing.
The second advertisement appeared on December 15, 1784, when another banza player was listed in the runaway advertisements of the Affiches Américaines. His name was Cahouet, he lived in the economic capital of he colony, Le Cap, and worked as a coach-man: “âgé de 24 à 26 ans, taille de 5 pieds 1 pouce, la face grosse, trapu & cambré, grand joueur de bansa, chansonnier, & engoleur de Nègres, courant toutes les danses des habitations appartenant ci-devant à M. Roquefort.”
This one includes a bit more information about the precise kind of work the musician Cahouet did. And it seems clear that he was, essentially, a kind of professional musician — though his customers also seem to have largely been other slaves. His work as a coach-man could have facilitated this activity. The advertisements, after describing his physical characteristics — “between 24 and 26 years old, 5 foot 1 in., with a fat face, stocky and hunched” — goes on to describe his skills in striking terms. Cahouet is a “great bansa player, a songster and an engoleur of the Negroes.” That word is particularly intriguing, because it a neologism of sorts — an invented word perhaps attempting to describe the kind of musical performance Cahouet carried out. It’s root seems to be the word “engueler” — to shout — and can therefore be translated something like “a shouter of the Negroes.” We can imagine what that might have meant: that he led them in choruses or call and response, perhaps, perhaps that he was a story-teller or harangued and animated those who listened. His services seem to have been much in demand, since he “ran around to all the dances” of the plantations once owned by a particular plantation owner, M. Roquefort. That detail too is interesting: such plantations presumably had been sold from this original owner, perhaps to other whites. And yet there seems to have been a connection maintained between them by the slaves themselves — almost a cultural circuit which Cahouet followed playing music.
These tiny fragments are extremely valuable, for they give us rare — if fleeting — insight into the lives of musicians and those who listened to them.