La Savane des Esclaves on the island of Martinique // © 2017 Steve Bennett/UncommonCaribbean.com
Feature image (above): Haiti’s Citadelle Laferriere was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982. // © 2017 Steve Bennett/UncommonCaribbean.com
It’s common to hear the term “English Caribbean” or “Spanish Caribbean,” but one you won’t hear is “African Caribbean.” That’s because the phrase would be redundant: The whole Caribbean region has been influenced by Africa. A variety of African countries have contributed immensely to the culture of the Caribbean region — especially its religion, cuisine and music — even while Africans suffered and survived through the slave days of the colonial period.
Visitors are in luck: There are a handful of sites and attractions throughout the Caribbean that are tremendously rewarding for clients in search of a greater understanding of Africa’s contribution to the region.
Citadelle Laferriere, Haiti
If African heritage in the Caribbean had its version of the Great Pyramid of Giza or the Eiffel Tower, it would be the Citadelle Laferriere, located on the northern coast of Haiti. In 1804, the slaves of Haiti successfully wrested their freedom from the French. In order to maintain their freedom, the independent black people of Haiti built a huge stone fort with 365 cannons atop a mountain overlooking the sea.
The Citadelle still stands; it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982. While it takes some real effort to reach the top of the fort’s battlements, those who do so are rewarded with sweeping sea views as well as the opportunity to imagine what it was like for newly freed slaves to command their own fortress.
Kura Hulanda Museum, Curacao
It’s understandable that the history of slavery in the Caribbean is a sad and volatile subject, and one that many islands would prefer to ignore. But Kura Hulanda Museum in Curacao has taken another route; it casts a light on this dark period in history. The museum’s exhibits are showcased in a cluster of 18th- and 19th-century buildings that include a former slave trading square. Kura Hulanda is easy to get to since it’s right in the middle of the island’s capital city of Willemstad. In addition to exhibits on slavery, the museum also focuses on African, Pre-Columbian and Mesopotamian history.
Samana, Dominican Republic
Some African sites in the Caribbean are more about history than the present. This is true of Samana, a less-visited part of the Dominican Republic on the country’s northeast coast. In 1824, thousands of slaves in Philadelphia were granted their freedom and chose to live in isolated Samana. These free Africans created their own insular culture; they also persisted in speaking English instead of Spanish, the common language of the Dominican Republic.
Today, there are approximately 85,000 descendants of these African Americans. But don’t go to Samana expecting to be embraced when looking for an experience of this piece of history. These people make up a community, not a tourist attraction, and it would take some patience and understanding before they begin speaking openly about their unique heritage.
La Savane des Esclaves, Martinique
La Savane des Esclaves on the island of Martinique is a re-creation of what it was like to live as an African slave. The open-air museum displays traditional huts, as well as art and sculpture inspired by the days of slavery. Your clients will also have a chance to enjoy guided tours of a garden where traditional healing herbs are grown, participate in cocoa-making workshops and try their hand at African Caribbean dancing.
Maroon’s Cultural Center, Jamaica
Not all runaway slaves were caught and returned to their owners. In colonial-era Jamaica, some slaves managed to remain free and began creating their own communities hidden deep in the mountains. These free Africans were known as Jamaican Maroons and soon earned a reputation as fierce fighters.
If travelers find themselves in Jamaica’s less-visited Port Antonio region, they can seek out Maroon’s Cultural Center, in Charles Town. Visitors can learn about the history of the Maroons, which includes the creation of jerk cooking; observe Maroon drumming and singing; and meet present-day Maroons.