La Wòz ek La Magwit’s Strange Saviours: Part One-What was the fuss about?

La Wòz ek La Magwit’s Strange Saviours: Part One-What was the fuss about?

(Questions about the  Origin and Substance)

In mid-1892 in Soufriere during the Corpus Christi celebrations, Abbé Rousseau by his own admission, “walked toward the banner of the Marguerite society(a society, as you knew well, condemned by the Church as also is that of the Roses, by several Archbishops of Port-of Spain) and in order to make it the better understood by those around that they ought not to expose this flag during a “fete’ so holy as Corpus Christi…struck it one blow with the head of (his) umbrella”(quoted in The Flower Festivals of St. Lucia). Despite the ambiguity created about the actual events of that day based on the various views presented in the news following the event, it was clear that there was initial disapproval by the Church as well as the many in the upper classes of St. Lucian society. In “The Flower festivals of St. Lucia” by Monsignor Patrick Anthony we are told that in 1860 Monsignor Ethelridge , the Apostolic Administrator with jurisdiction over St. Lucia had excommunicated both Societies(La Wòz and La Magwit). We read also of accusations in those early times directed at the societies as being responsible for the rise in the crime of larceny. Yet the “occasional good relations” and “alleged contributions made by the societies toward church buildings” suggests that at some point or points relations may have been altered. I have wondered what it was which could have caused the Abbé so much indignation and what changed over time to alter relations today and why. I do find it ironic that today we can read from Monsignor Anthony that it falls to the Catholic Church to “save” the traditions which have come to be known as the flower festivals.

Exactly what these societies were about, for now, seem to be very vague or at least to me sound like a mere shadow of what it may have been in its early days; both inspiring the indignation of the church and serving a significant cultural and perhaps spiritual role in the life of their members. This state of affairs could be for a number of reasons. First, it could be that those on the outside may have scant knowledge about the essence of what the societies are initially about and as such speak, though seemingly ‘authoritatively’, with some measure of ignorance. It may be also that over generations and a mixture of persecution by and integration into Roman Catholicism, much of the earlier deeper meanings and aspects of the tradition may have been suppressed, expunged and then lost even to some who practice it today. Further, it may not be seen as significant to many who promote and/or practice it today to connect it with any deeper origins than those espoused by the Church. Whatever the reasons, in my view, it had to be something different from what is commonly understood regarding these traditions today. I say this for a number of reasons, not least of all being the strong abhorrence by the church but also because what we are commonly told about the tradition today sounds all but ridiculous to me if there were nothing else to it.

Listening to some one of the panelists on discussing “The Way Forward” for the flower festivals on Saturday (May 26th, 2012) at the “National Consultation on the Flower Festivals of St. Lucia” sponsored by the Cultural Development Foundation this is a summary of the Flower Festivals to me:

A group of people who for no apparent reason form themselves into groups to sing and dance sending mépwi one group another, spending weeks rehearsing these songs which are  either in praise of a flower and their society or sending mépwi for the other group. They then round this up with a feast day when they sing and dance dressed up in outfits based on various positions in society while marching in a circle then onwards to continue their celebrations at their hall or pawlé.

So if this was all this was about? What was all the fuss, the banner tearing and excommunication about? If this does not sound like the whole outfit, and it does not sound like it to me, there are a lot of other loose ends which point to something more profound than a picong fest. Essentially I think there may be a lot more to be said about these traditions than is commonly known and a deeper and wider examinations of their parallels and origins may yield some answers and maybe more questions.

Flè ébyen Koulè(Flowers or Colours)?

Image

Marguerite, gophrena globosa, (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gomphrena)

Image

Cornflower or Bachelor’s Button

(Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bachelor%27s_button)

The first one I would like to look at is the apparent focus of the ‘flower’ festivals. We are told that they celebrate two flowers, namely the Rose and the Marguerite. According to “The Flower Festivals of St. Lucia”(Anthony 2009) it appears that other names have been associated with this and similar traditions both in St. Lucia and elsewhere in the Caribbean. For instance, we read of “the rivals, the Roses and the Daisies or Bachelor’s buttons” as we also read of the “Floridas and the Dahlias”(Anthony 2009 pg 5). The Rose is red or pink and the Gromphrena or Marguerite is purple. I am not clear on the colour of the Florida but the Dahlia is a pinkish flower. Bachelor’s button seems to be another name for the flower called Marguerite although there is also a flower indigenous to England by the name Bachelor’s button. Similar societies were reported in Trinidad in 1823 although under different names (Damas and Waterloos). As early as 1816, ‘Monk’ Lewis is reported to have given a ‘description of a parade between rival factions of “blues and Red”’ (Anthony 2009 pg 5) in Trinidad.

 Image

Dahlia (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dahlia)

If it is indeed the case that these various names and flowers were used with largely similar colour associations, may it be possible that the colours were of equal or deeper symbolic value than the actual flowers themselves. It would be reasonable to explore what these colours would have represented in the traditions which would have given rise to these festivals. The association of colours with spiritual traditions and ritual symbolism is something which exists from ancient times, surviving as well in the younger Judeo-Christian traditions such as Roman Catholicism itself.

 

Wa Dlo

One of the panelists, Mr. Frank Norville raised the point that La Magwit was also known as Wa Dlo(in English: King of the Water or Waters). I am yet to hear any song singing praises to either of the Saint Marguerites and I wonder to what extent the story and significance of these Saints were or are important to these societies. However anyone who has heard songs of La Magwit would have at one time or another heard of Wa Dlo.  But who is Wa Dlo? What is the King of the Waters doing in the middle of a so called ‘flower’ festival? I would like to explore a possibility which even if it may not be the actual root of this aspect of the tradition may point to common roots.

In Ayti(Haiti) there is a powerful lwa(God, Deity, Cosmic principle etc) known as Agoue who comes from the tradition of the Fon people. He is the Lwa of the Seas. He is the ruler of the sea and all within it, including all its endowments; everything on or in it. The symbolic colours of Agoue are blue and white. Flags, table cloths and other decorations for the banquet for Agoue also comply with this colour scheme. Among the lwas who attend the banquet of Agoue is his wife La Sirènn the sea aspect of Ezili according to Leslie Desmangles. [There is another tradition in St. Lucia known as the Maman Dlo which may well be the complement of Wad lo.]

In the absence of anything else with which to make sense out of the Wa Dlo I suggest this Fon lwa which survives in Haiti as one possible place to look for a better understanding of some of the origins of this society and festival.  The people of Fon/Ewe origin should not be a strange place to look given that, as Morgan Dalphinis tells us on page 45 of his book(Caribbean and African Languages) both during the period of enslavement and later with the Neg Ginen, among the origins of the Africans in question(particularly for the field labour) were the Fon/Ewe people of Benin. Some of the other Africans societies from which the enslaved Africans in St. Lucia came were areas now known as Senegal, Congo, Angola, Nigeria and elsewhere. The point here is that it may well be possible to make better sense of these traditions looking at the cultures of some of these varied peoples. While this may not have been as easy in the seventies and eighties, it must be a lot easier to get such understanding now.

Pawlé-a

While he was going on instructing the societies about their own tradition Frank Norville further asked how many of them knew that the hall where the celebrations were kept was also called the Pawlé. According Mr. Norville, pawlé there refers to palace. We also find this as palais within the Orisha tradition which continues to exist in Trinidad. In the book “He had the Power”(a memoir of the well not Orisha Priest Papa Neeza by Frances Henry) we are told that the palais was “where the major part of the ceremony”(pg 23) comprising much singing and drumming took place.

These are some of my questions concerning the “flower festivals”. I think a fuller understanding of these traditions may require a wider examinations both within St. Lucia, the wider African Diaspora where parallels exists and on the African continent itself where many of these traditions would have originated in large measure and where their deeper meanings may still be accessible. What survives within the La Wòz and La Magwit traditions may be part of a wider system whose elements may exist elsewhere in the cultures of St. Lucia sometimes under the term superstition. Parallels elsewhere in the diaspora and on the continent may also help fill out the puzzle.

In a later post I would like to deal with the part of the consultation in which I was present particularly ideas about the way forward.

Sources:

The Flower Festivals of St. Lucia by Hon Msgr Patrick A. B. Anthony, Phd SLC (2009) – Available through Folk Research Centre and Cultural Development Foundation,

The Faces of the Gods: Vodou and Roman Catholicism in Haiti by Leslie Desmangles (1992)

http://www.amazon.com/The-Faces-Gods-Vodou-Catholicism/dp/0807843938/ref=sr_1_sc_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1338137053&sr=8-1-spell

He had the Power: Pa Neezer, The Orisha King of Trinidad: A Personal Memoir by Dr. Frances Henry (2008) – http://www.yorku.ca/fhenry/hehadthepower.htm

Caribbean and African Languages: Social History, Language, Literature and Education by Morgan Dalphinis (1985) – http://www.amazon.com/Caribbean-African-languages-literature-education/dp/0946918074

Links

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gomphrena_globosa -Gomphrena globosa, Marguerite

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dahlia – Dahlia

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bachelor%27s_button -Bachelor’s Button

All Rights to Photos belong to the various sites linked.

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~ by iandiyanola on May 27, 2012.

10 Responses to “La Wòz ek La Magwit’s Strange Saviours: Part One-What was the fuss about?”

  1. You are the scientist and those like you will lead the charge in forging the link between the symblic or actual rituals as they were meant to be and what they have evolved to be diluted systems to fit the acceptance of the church and the wider society those like me here is our story
    We Afrikans have an obsession with death and unlike Europeans we dance and and celebrate it because for many of us is a movement from one life to another it is a move over we become ancestors http://www.deathreference.com › A-Bi. We beat drums and become ‘noisy’ now to the whites and especially the priest and other clergy remembering the ability of uneducated and uncivilised slaves /blacks to plan successful revolts using singing and drumming is by no means a pleasant experience to look forward to. And so every gathering that had even the slightest resemblance or inclination would be shun . Africans had to be kept in order the had no spirituality and the only god that would save them was the white mans God.Everything that came out of them was demonising and had to meet theological acceptance and approval at least that is what they told.Those of us who were from the scattered tribes put what ever pieces we had together and those of us who came strait from home brought whole elements and we put it together.We needed to communicate with our ancestors to plan the way forward and the church nor the society would not allow us and like Voodu we creatively developed a system that we could intelligently sell to the clergy we agreed to use their symbolism, colours and names the deeper meanings may have been lost down the centuries but the essense of us coming together to dance sing celebrate still exists.So those like me encourage us all to embrace what is here now own it so we can breathe back the spitituality that it once lived or add our own to it but we must first own it its ows not theirs all ours
    As to why the church that was so resentful of such a practice got a change of heart suggest to me that like all other situations we proved that we always know what to do in orde to survive that is our strength. We survived slavery and all that they threw at us this was yet another victory of course we had causualities along the way but the african spirit survived If you join in the ownership together you can begin the rediscovery of the original intent and I the perpetuation of an identity truely St.Lucian

  2. Flower Festivals to me:

    A group of people who for no apparent reason form themselves into groups to sing and dance sending mépwi one group another, spending weeks rehearsing these songs which are either in praise of a flower and their society or sending mépwi for the other group. They then round this up with a feast day when they sing and dance dressed up in outfits based on various positions in society while marching in a circle then onwards to continue their celebrations at their hall or pawlé.

    I guess what you mean by no apparent reason is the apparent lack of a visible and logical link like most other similar behaviors in other parts of the world. And maybe in this case its a good thing It shows the craft employed the intelligence of our ancestors to present a package so simple and yet so feared by the church.We are a fete people and La Rose comes three months after an official catholic feast La marguerite is one month later. We had to give so we could get so the church could let us be we were resilent and as far as I am concerned triumphed. We need to all agree on what it is and then we can find its deep and underlying purposes if in fact there were any.We could have been just making a mockery of the white folk or fantacising over living like white folk. After we own it we can do what we want with it and then celebrate

  3. Samora Machel (1978) argues that

    “colonialism is the greatest destroyer of culture that humanity has ever known. African society and its culture were crushed, and when they survived they were co-opted so that they could be more easily emptied of their content. This was done in two distinct ways. One was the utilization of institutions in order to support colonial exploitation…The other was the ‘folklorising’ of culture, its reduction to more or less picturesque habits and customs, to impose in their place the values of colonialism (p. 400).”
    Taken from: “Ethno-Mathematics: Challenging Eurocentrism in Mathematics Education

  4. I think there are a lot of things in that approach that are a bit narrow. First of all, there seems to be an underlying assumption that these were two distinct factions. Secondly, imperialist powers (including the church) were offended by the slightest display of independence by the enslaved and lower classes, so the striking down of the flag does not necessarily indicate or vindicate any suspicions of the esoteric etc. One is not disputing that this society would not have been something else previously…but the words ‘expunged’ and so on do not reflect cultural reality. What about other relationships between such factions: ‘espousal’, ‘appropriation’, ‘coopting’….? none of these were even considered. Esp. in light of the fact that it was the working people who were the pillars of the Catholic church during the prolonged period of Anglicization and Anglicanism in St. Lucia. The working people are who kept the church alive along with the French priests etc. We have merely the simple Destroyer and Destroyed relationship which, in my opinion, is very very simplistic. And if it does anything, is make the lower classes/folk/enslaved (descendants of the enslaved as well) seem quite powerless and un-human.

    A more interesting route would be to trace the antecedence of la woz etc, through its structure and the raison d’etre for its forming. A look at the Underground in various cultures and secret societies may prove more germane and fruitful. Raymond Ramcharitar conducted an interesting study in his PHD thesis showing how underground culture helped in shaping the ‘public world’ in trinidad.

    The questions are ‘Why did a group need to go underground’…that i think is already answered for us.

    But what did this underground-ness provide that the authorised norms of public society NOT provide:

    Status perhaps,
    An counter-economy
    A space for cultural expression

    And La Woz is still that to some extent. They raise funds. They probably do they susu ting. And of course there is the status within the groups, that we who are outside it may not be able to fully appreciate.

    Some good readings to begin such an approach would be Stanton Tefft, and Georg Simmel. Ramcharitar has an article which seems to be excerpted or appropriated from his thesis, published in the T & T Guardian. It was published recently on the advent of Indian Arrival day.

    These are people. not subjects. We can trace all we want the ethnic origins of certain behaviours. But that does little in brass tax for the group now. A study of why go underground and what is provided there may be more fruitful….and even more fruitful How the underground can and have influenced the ‘over-ground’. Bless

  5. Indeed this essay has a particular focus so there will be different aspects and approaches which will not be explored here. I had a number of aims in writing this. The degree to which I was successful will sort out itself. One aim was to question a narrative of these traditions and the extent to which it may be a truncated and distorted form of the wider story of it. I put these questions forward to open up the discourse on it at least for myself. I remember listening once on the radio when a CDF official was giving the history of these traditions and he started off with this St. Rose De Lima stuff which is to me obviously false. I take your point about the persons practicing these traditions not being mere subjects. I have no intention of suggesting to persons how they should interpret their tradition, how they should practice it etc. However for my understanding of it I give myself the widest latitude and particularly I choose to explore the possible connections which i felt not adequately explored in the research so far which may have been limited based on access to information, perspective etc. Practitioners and others may have no interest in exploring those and I am fine with that as well.
    Interestingly the sole book on the traditions was being offered to the practitioners of the tradition for sale at the consultation. I found there was a lot of irony all around this gathering/consultation on the festivals. Finally while I do not think this is the only important approach to these traditions I think it is relevant. But the feedback does help me better understand my understanding and fine tune my perspective.

  6. “In Ayti(Haiti) there is a powerful lwa(God, Deity, Cosmic principle etc) known as Agoue who comes from the tradition of the Fon people. He is the Lwa of the Seas. He is the ruler of the sea and all within it, including all its endowments; everything on or in it. The symbolic colours of Agoue are blue and white. Flags, table cloths and other decorations for the banquet for Agoue also comply with this colour scheme. Among the lwas who attend the banquet of Agoue is his wife La Sirènn the sea aspect of Ezili according to Leslie Desmangles. [There is another tradition in St. Lucia known as the Maman Dlo which may well be the complement of Wad lo.]” – iandiyanola.
    I find this fascinating. If you have indeed unearthed a deeper root of the Magwit festivals leading to implications for La Woz, that would help us to better understand the deeper beginnings of the festivals, taking us right back to Africa. I suppose if you are right, then syncretism (as in Cuba, Haiti) explains the evolution into what we know today. Very interesting.

  7. https://iandiyanola.wordpress.com/2012/06/17/la-woz-ek-la-magwit-strange-saviours-part-two-what-are-who-saving/ – Part Two

  8. […] “I and Iyanola”, Nkrumah Lucien completed a two-part blog post exploring the origins of Saint Lucia's flower festivals: “It is not that La Wòz and La […]

  9. Most interesting commentary, I do not find it strange that the Roman organization would over time adopt the traditions of the slave in a bid to themselves survive. The Roman organization is a survivor, and though its poison permeates the society, yet it has been able for centuries to change as necessary as its power wains. The sad part of this is the inability of those who partake in such festivals to see the pagan aspects of it, and their desire to retain traditions which mars their spiritual state and growth. I do not adhere to the traditions of Church or Culture if it inhibits my ability to reach true Spiritual heights. I was so disappointed when after reading this wonderful piece and the various comments, come to the conclusion that we are all being fed the Kool Aid of anti Christ. It sips slowly into our societies demanding that it be received as significant, when all that is significant is total surrender to the Christ of the HOLY BIBLE.

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